THE DEATH OF GANDHISM
By Sanjay Jha
At 5.15 pm on January 30th 1948 Mahatma Gandhi was shot thrice by Nathuram Godse at point-blank range. In the years that have followed his tragic assassination, the Father of the Nation as he is appropriately called , has influenced the world at an unprecedented magnitude making Gandhism a philosophy of life. Non-violence, peaceful protest, silent resolution, indomitable resolve to stand for truth in any circumstance , all practiced with noticeable humility capture the Mahatma’s quintessential credo. Even Hollywood was inspired to make a biopic that was to sweep the Oscar awards and make Ben Kingsley an iconic global face of peace. Back at home, Munnabhai became the most charming rogue character, a benign, benevolent, buffoon with a heart of gold. Gandhigiri became the latest buzzword in town. Over the past few months in general, and in the last two weeks in particular, the Mahatma’s name and legacy has circulated with extravagant abandon, revealing both a flawed comprehension of history, and more worryingly, a distorted assessment of its future.
One of the most memorable reminiscences of Gandhi is at the time of the Kolkata communal riots of 1947 which had reached disturbing levels of incendiary madness. Raging flames towered into the twilight sky, a reminder of the horrific debris of human flesh incinerated below. Gandhi went on a fast, his most formidable weapon of remonstrance. His body was fragile, frail and vulnerable to exacting pressures . But within days the bloody carnage had come to a dramatic halt, the conflagration had ceased. The leaders of different communities assured Gandhi that they would not just halt the brutal slaughter , but would do their best to ensure it does not recur. Gandhi’s moral unflagging determination had become a binder. Once again.
When I saw the two young children from the Dalit and Muslim community offering coconut water and honey to Anna Hazare to break his fast , to be honest, I cringed . To borrow from Salman Rushdie, it was the “chutnification” of the carnival. An overwhelming sense of repugnance and indignation engulfed me. It was a craftily manufactured TV moment , meant to manipulate India’s vulnerable sensibilities. It was insufferably crass, a synthetic attempt to mollify two communities that have felt frightened of Ram Lila’s evident stridencies. India was being reduced to the ultimate farce, the symbolic gestures were straight out of a Bollywood script from the 1980s; when a patriotic song played in the background and Rajesh Khanna ( in Apna Desh) would help a blind Muslim man cross the road, a poor beggar and her child would get coconut juice, he would stop a Sikh and a Christian from fighting next to their religious abodes even as he stopped a safari-suited businessman from pawing lasciviously at a young girl. These were stock-in-trade formula winners. Poverty, communal harmony, social conduct , petty crime were all addressed in one three-minute Kishore Kumar number. The events at Ram Lila over 12 days of relentless media coverage was akin to an extended shoot on raw stock from the 1980s.
The orchestrated imagery; a tiny man pitted against the formidable State, juxtaposed against a giant-sized Gandhi image in the backdrop was assiduously created. Of course, the anti-corruption bandwagon will attract serpentine queues. It is a legitimate, justified cause but the expectation that the Jan Lok Pal Bill itself ought to pass by August 30th was preposterous. Frankly, the entire country is universally committed to creating a viable enduring anti-corruption institutional framework. Of course, the devil is in the details, ergo, it requires careful scrutiny, not cursory approbation. And therefore time. The ramifications of a flawed Lok Pal bill can seriously obstruct functioning of our democratic institutions. Thus, there was something immoral about the whole charade; its planned media strategy manifested its intrinsic character; manipulate the urban middle-class audience which adores interminable conflicts like in the soap-operas. Thus, provocative speeches implored the resurrection of our hidden moral fibers while insinuating that the entire political class were treacherous. What seemed initially like a genuine attempt to hasten a watershed legislation , was now reduced to petty one-upmanship accentuated by questionable political overtones. Interestingly, Team Anna maintained an eloquent silence on the perfidious ways of Big Business and private funding of NGO’s.
Microphones changed hands with monotonous regularity, and the sound bytes were meticulously worded . There was a rather arrogant assumption behind the entire jamboree; the public of India will gleefully consume the drama with unalloyed exhilaration given the emotive context. It is this presumptuousness that India should be worried about. Rest assured, Team Anna will find it difficult to survive even relative anonymity any longer, consumed by the vicissitudes of narcissism. Expect more road-shows.
There are many who say Anna Hazare was mischievously exploited behind what quickly transformed into a political ploy, with the Sangh Parivaar playing back-street boys. But honest to God, I think we are being naïve here. Hazare did eulogize Narendra Modi, despite the much-delayed Lok Ayukta and Genocide 2002. To believe that Hazare was an innocent bystander to the nefarious goings-on around him is to devalue his political cunning. His repeated humiliation of the government and the Prime Minister was in poor taste, but we treated it as the petulant ranting of a crabby man on an empty stomach , but should we? Wasn’t the fast a calculated act of egotistical strength- showing? The pre-recorded messages, the well-timed public speeches, the gloating You Tube Tihar jail video et al smacked of over-desperation; clearly Anna Hazare knew what he was doing. Or he was being ingeniously influenced by his close comrades. Or both.
There are many who will argue that it is perfectly legitimate to exploit the whole multi-media ( TV, print, internet, social media, radio, website, events) networked world to popularize your cause, that maybe even Gandhi would have done that. But Gandhi never let the cause be overtaken ;in fact, the people of India were his medium, message and his messengers. His central doctrine dictated events, but in the case of Team Anna, including Hazare himself, the message was subsidiary, the perfect timing of events took precedence. Thus, the self-proclaimed “second independence struggle’ the Gandhi topi now rebranded as I Am Anna, were marketing tactics that would appeal to business schools desperate for easy research material . Hazare’s message blurred by the end, and the calibrated anti-establishment hostility seemed tiresome. In fact, by the time Anna called the government the “ black British” one suspected the end of the fast was near. But because it all came from this “ Gandhian” instead of getting roundly rebuked for petty utterances , Hazare received tumultuous applause. Perhaps it helped that the Mahatma is hardly known by today’s demographic dividend. Thus, there was no moral consternation when some branded Hazare as the modern Mahatma. I thought India will strongly repudiate that. Arundhati Roy was not off the point when she said that the one and only original would have gone to a public hospital instead of a private one after his fast.
Gandhi died 22 minutes after he was shot at 5.37 pm, 63 years ago. So did Gandhism.
( The author is Co-Founder, HamaraCongress.com. He can be reached at Sanjay_ Jha @DaleCarnegie.com )