Shobhaa De | Does India still need the magic of the Mahatma?

The 154th Gandhi Jayanti is over. Long live Gandhiji… That is, if the Mahatma still matters. The Father of the Nation has been downgraded from a global icon to a notion. Soon… very, very soon… he will be forgotten. Phased out systematically. Like much else that doesn’t sit well with those who want to appropriate all that India stands for -- including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s invaluable legacy of non-violence. This year, a good 75 years after he was assassinated, we marked his 154th birth anniversary in a token manner that can only be called callous. Nobody cared. Everyone cribbed about the public holiday that inconvenienced citizens. A bank holiday on a Monday, clubbed with an unscheduled holiday on Friday, for an Id that nobody was familiar with, and what did we achieve -- several wasted work hours, with schools, colleges, offices, shops and banks shut. Throw in the mandatory dry days, and there was little to say “Cheers” to -- just a faded memory of our beloved Bapu.

Forgotten by most, poor Gandhiji is off the radar, especially for the young and restless, who only see him as a frail, bald and toothless man, clad in a dhoti, walking with the support of a stick. His face on currency notes will soon be replaced -- one shudders to think whose face will be printed next. But the sad truth remains that the Mahatma has lost his brand positioning. He needs a drastic image makeover, if youngsters are expected to instantly recognise the individual who propagated ahimsa to the world, and continues to inspire millions. Except us, his own people. The ones who live in a free country thanks largely to this one, solitary figure who restored our faith in ourselves. And paid for that with his life.

One wonders -- could it be jealousy that is making some netas recoil at the mention of his name? Is Gandhiji’s unassailable position in the country so threatening? Are netas really this insecure, that they’d prefer to demolish a towering figure, in order that their pygmy selves appear taller? Greater? While school textbooks can be rejigged and rewritten, there is something more powerful that real nationhood is built on -- memories. We are still too close to the mythology surrounding the Mahatma to dismantle the structure overnight. Yes, statues can be pulled down, currency notes reprinted, stamps discontinued, museums rearranged… but the charkha will continue to spin on. And the collective imagination surrounding the humble charkha cannot be dismissed or devalued. The charkha today has acquired a cult status worldwide. It does more than spin khadi for emporiums. It represents so many varied qualities -- humility and pride, being just two. Similarly, the word “satyagraha” generates instant feelings of standing up against tyrants. Infinite possibilities surface when it comes to protest. Resistance is empowering, but passive resistance as a political strategy to counter bullies has a sweet appeal of its own. Not every citizen can be an angry activist ready to fight street battles. But every citizen can observe his or her version of “satyagraha” when denied justice. In Gandhiji’s lucid words, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world….”

Since we are a few crucial months away from the Battle Royale (the 2024 general election), one wonders why the wishy-washy loosely strung Opposition which grandly calls itself “INDIA” has not appropriated Gandhiji as the face of its campaign. The BJP already has its own mahatma -- there’s no room for the OG (original). The country is not big enough to accommodate two mahatmas. One has got to go. We know which one is at the exit door. If those disunited, disorganised others were to rally around the OG and create their campaign around his principles, it just might work! Well… at the moment nothing they are saying or doing is making any sense. Why not go all the way back to the beginning and borrow from Gandhiji?

That’s the thing about icons -- they refuse to vanish. Their strength comes from their core beliefs, their teachings, their examples, their sacrifices. Those are hard to camouflage. India’s experiments with truth will find many takers, if packaged correctly. Gandhiji himself was a master tactician, an ace strategist. He walked the walk… and talk. Literally. As political protests go, the Dandi March has few equivalents in the world. And what did it involve? Certainly not big money or insurmountable logistics. The same story can be duplicated with ease today, but with a relevant context. Forget salt. Think water.

Gandhiji’s greatest triumph was his ability to unite people. Inclusivity, that much bandied around word these days, was very much a part of his lexicon and philosophy. Hindu-Muslim unity, in particular, was a deeply cherished ideal, which eventually cost him his life. Perhaps, his willingness to admit mistakes and discuss his own failings, was seen as an avoidable trait by his enemies, but to the rest, this is what humanised the Mahatma. He had his fault lines, confusions and anxieties just like you and me. He was flawed and troubled. Unsure and vulnerable. It takes courage to publicly acknowledge one’s weaknesses. The Mahatma did not hesitate to do so. Can you think of even one prominent neta today who will admit that he/she has ever been wrong?

Personally speaking, I am not an uncritical, diehard Gandhiji fan girl. I have argued and got into scraps with those who blindly believed in the Mahatma’s greatness. My love-hate feelings towards Gandhiji remain the same, and yet, there is no question in my mind that our country is a mirror image of the man who gave us the most precious gift of all -- our freedom. To deny him his rightful place in the history of India/Bharat will only reveal the pettiness of those who lack vision and cannot rise beyond their own egos. Amazing India, Assertive India. Awesome India. Affluent India. Aggressive India. Flourishing India -- all true. Accurate. But would there have been India at all had it not been for the one man who resolutely stood by his dream of a free, secular, democratic nation where every single citizen would enjoy the same rights and freedoms, no matter what the price?

Gandhiji would have been proud of his country’s achievements today. India’s golden period is beckoning. His dream is our dream. Gandhiji cannot be wished away -- we need him now more than ever.

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