Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Return to Gandhi

Gandhi is fashionable again.

For all purposes and intent, the Independent India discarded Gandhi. He did not matter - in fact, he became almost disruptive - in the politics of new India. He did not agree to the partition, which was the only way to get things going. He almost offered Indian leadership to Jinnah, and blamed Dr Rajendra Prasad for the violence against Muslims in Bihar. He stayed away from the celebrations of Indian independence. He was in Kolkata on the 15th of August 1947, doing his usual prayers, and did not even unfurl the Indian flag. He, the father of the nation, was a disaffected, irritable, retired father.

He did not do himself any favours even afterwards. He kept preaching peace with Pakistan. He insisted that Indian government pays its due money to Pakistani government, even when the new breakaway republic already started showing its colours. When things turned worse, he started fasting, creating embarrassment for the Congress Government, and proposed, what horror, that he will do a peace march from Delhi to Karachi. The government officials tried to dissuade him, but they knew that once he made up his mind, he can not be stopped. The only thing that could stop him, and eventually did stop him, was an assassin's bullet.

This was a great tragedy, a heinous act, but Nathuram Godse did a service, however perversely, to modern India. He almost preserved our nation state, its sense of being and its progress. Gandhi was better dead, it almost seemed. He could then be deified and frozen in statues, without the power to propagate his dangerous ideas. We became not brothers to Pakistan, as he would have wished, but a competing nation state, forever in conflict, as our British Masters envisaged.

Besides, what about Gandhi's plans for Congress, which he wanted to disband, and the ideas of village republics? That was plain disruptive, to our vision of a strong, centrally managed republic, a bureaucracy driven administration, a carefully planned soviet style industrialisation, which one day, would make us dream of being a global superpower. Gandhi's Cultural Revolution would have been a disaster for modern India, we reasoned, and would have set us back for many many years. It would have led us to meekly give up territory to Pakistan - did he not advice British to offer non-violent resistance to Hitler and let him take their land - and become a backward jumble of village societies, devoid of the capability to produce steel, power, heavy industries, modern cities, all the things we did after his death.

That was then.

Today, as India is realizing some of those dreams which the founding members of the Republic dreamt, we are suddenly becoming aware of some of the gaps we left for ourselves.

Take, for example, our cities. However we modernize them, they are becoming unsustainable because of the villages around them are too abjectly poor, and we can not, as a democratic society, stop the flow of migrants. They are becoming environmentally unsustainable squatter cities. We have started talking about clustered communities outside the cities.

Or, our society. However much we progress, we are deeply affected by our disregard for manual, shall we say front line, work. Our embedded caste system tells us everything that we do with hand, figuratively, is dishonourable. That way, selling is dishonourable, but being a sales manager, less so. On the whole, this leads us to create a society of the managers and the excluded, hollow in the middle; a society of talkers, not doers, as Narayana Murthy says. Gandhi's irritating habit of trying to menial things by himself suddenly appears less of a madness, and assumes a symbolic significance.

Or, our villages. We phoo-phooed Gandhi's idea of giving primacy to villages, that Utopian Gram Swaraj idea, and thought a strong bureaucracy driven central administration will ensure that development 'trickles down', hand outs reach the needy in time. This made us create one of the world's most corrupt societies, where the efficacy of development spending is one of the lowest in the world, and allowed us to create an army of the disaffected, which today takes the form of Maoist violence and affects of 20 of our 27 states. India is arriving, indeed, but in Arundhati Roy's telling metaphor, one India has taken the bus leaving the other India in eternal darkness.

Or, Pakistan. Our political correctness suggests that we should have a standing, mobilized army on the borders of Pakistan, costing taxpayers billions of Rupees, ready to strike at a moment's notice. If we don't do that, and we can not do that because it is not practical, then bombs will keep going off here and there, and we shall live with a permanent fear. We keep saying that we shall overrun Pakistan, not admitting that it is a nuclear state and overrunning it is no longer possible. We laugh as Pakistan falls apart, and the Government loses control; but do not accept the Pakistani government's explanation that they have lost control of their country and can do little if an independent terrorist organization strikes India. When your brother stays in the adjacent house, you don't laugh when his house burns; you reach out for a bucket of water. Suddenly, Gandhi and all his peace marches look more practical than our current posturing.

Today, Gandhi appears to be a practical, even clever, man.

As he always was. If we go beyond his mummified image, he was a common man, with a deep understanding of India and a commitment to certain principles. He chose to wear a peculiar dress to emphasize the contrast of his Indianness with the anglicized Congress leadership, and the British civil servants. Though viewed as madness, and nakedness as Churchill commented, at the time, his dressing up was a brilliant act of political symbolism. But he was not perfect. He wrote about his 'experiments' with truth. He joked that he attempts to be, but can not become, a Gandhian. But he created a deeply practical vision of modern India, which most of us missed from the ivory tower of English education and city life.

But, then, today, our bus will stop if we refuse to look at the road and take our compatriots along in the journey. We are at a time of reinvention again, and first time in many years, we must ask ourselves where we are going. And, suddenly the father of the nation, who should now be elevated to a grandfatherly position, looks more relevant than what our forefathers thought about him.

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