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BUSINESSLINE INTERVIEW WITH SHASHI THAROOR
INTRO: “Inclusivity and acceptance were fundamental to the powerful ideas that (Mahatma) Gandhi introduced to the world. Sadly, it is clear that the BJP has proven itself to be far removed from that legacy of Gandhi,” says Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. In conversation with BusinessLine’s Richa Mishra from the US, Tharoor shares his thoughts on the continuing relevance of Gandhi’s core philosophy. Excerpts:
Q: The BJP appears to have appropriated Gandhi, but has it overlooked his core message of inclusivity?
Shashi Tharoor: There is undoubtedly a stark contradiction in the attitude of the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its professed veneration of Mahatma Gandhi. For instance, Prime Minister Modi was schooled, like other RSS pracharaks, in an intense dislike of Mahatma Gandhi, whose message of tolerance and pluralism was emphatically rejected as minority appeasement by the Sangh Parivar, and whose credo of non-violence, or ahimsa, was seen as an admission of weakness unworthy of manly Hindus. Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar, whom Modi has described as one of his heroes, had expressed contempt for Gandhiji’s ‘perverse doctrine of non-violence and truth’ and claimed it ‘was bound to destroy the power of the country’.
And yet, at the same time, the Prime Minister, for all his Hindutva mindset, his admiration of Savarkar and his lifetime affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, has embraced Gandhiji, hailing the Mahatma and even using his glasses as a symbol of the Swachh Bharat campaign, linking it to a call to revive Gandhiji’s idea of seva through the recent ‘Swachchta Hi Seva’ Campaign.
This may, or may not, represent a sincere conversion to Gandhism. PM Modi is hardly unaware of the tremendous worldwide reputation that Mahatma Gandhi enjoys, and is too savvy a marketing genius not to recognise the soft-power opportunity evoking Gandhiji provides, not to mention the global public relations disaster that would ensue if he were to denounce an Indian so universally admired. There may, therefore, be an element of insincerity to his newfound love for the Mahatma, as well as a shrewd domestic political calculation.
But the ambivalence speaks volumes: when many members of Modi’s BJP call for replacing Gandhiji’s statues across the country with those of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, the PM seeks to lay claim to the mantle of his fellow Gujarati for his own political benefit. At the same time, there is also a tangible dissonance between the official governmental embrace of Gandhiji and the unofficial ideological distaste for this icon, that is privately promoted by members and supporters of the present ruling dispensation, some of whose members have not hidden their view that his assassination was, in their eyes, a patriotic act.
Inclusivity and acceptance were fundamental to the powerful ideas that Gandhi introduced to the world. Sadly, it is clear that BJP has proven itself to be far removed from that legacy of Gandhi. While admittedly this is not necessarily a recent development, the gulf has become particularly evident since 2014.
Q: Has Gandhi’s core philosophy – emphasising Integrity, Respect for all, Simplicity & Humility – been lost over the years?
SHASHI THAROOR: In many ways some of these aspects continue to remain relevant in today’s world. A number of world leaders that have consciously strived to incorporate his teachings and lessons in their own countries, and it is striking that the legacy of Gandhi has found admirers and supporters in far-flung corners of the world, even as his own message continues to get further diluted in the country where he originally introduced these ideas.
But sadly, we must also recognise that other aspects of Gandhism have had less success. Take his unwavering belief in non-violence. The power of Gandhian non-violence rests in being able to say, “to show you that you are wrong, I punish myself”; But that has little effect on those who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you for your disagreements with them. For them, your willingness to undergo punishment is the most convenient means of victory. Non-violence is a powerful idea but it works best against oppressors capable of being shamed and respectful of public opinion. Too many leaders today would be impervious to the moral effect of Gandhian ahimsa.
Q: Gandhi’s model of economic and social development visualises the village as a self-sufficient unit. How well has that message been adopted by the government?
SHASHI THAROOR: As I said, there is a contradiction in the government’s frequent invocation of Gandhi and its conscious dissonance with the spirit of the key ideas that he believed in. It is true that there have been efforts made by the present government to improve the quality of life in our villages — from the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign; the efforts to develop open defecation-free free villages; getting access to electricity, drinking water and gas connections… But there are two points worth noting. While one can rightly praise the government for these initiatives, on which there is little to disagree with, characteristically between the claims associated with these initiatives and the reality of their implementation, there is much that is left wanting. For instance, yes, the government has worked to build toilets in our villages, but 60 per cent of them don’t have running water. Similarly, the government has strived to provide poor rural women gas cylinders, but over 92 per cent of them can’t afford refills, which belies the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of such measures.
For another, the government’s complete disregard for the moral convictions of Gandhi, particularly his firm belief in non-violence and inclusivity, are amply evident as well. You can’t speak admiringly of Gandhi and appropriate him as an icon of social justice and equality on one hand – and then remain silent as a culture of fear and hatred is institutionalised in the country, when institutions of checks and balances are undermined and subverted, and when the very instruments that by design are in place to empower and protect constitutionally guaranteed freedoms for the people of the country are flagrantly disregarded. Ultimately, Gandhism without moral authority is like Marxism without a proletariat and sadly the government’s version of Gandhism is exactly a watered-down distortion that lacks the moral force or convictions that were so central to the ideas that Gandhi introduced to the world.
Q: In your book Why I Am a Hindu, you look at myriad manifestations of political Hinduism in the modern era. However, you also say that it is because Hindus form the majority that India has survived as a plural, secular democracy. Is the religion we talk about today identical to how Gandhi saw it?
SHASHI THAROOR: Gandhiji embodied the central approach of Advaita Vedanta, which preached an inclusive universal religion. Gandhiji saw Hinduism as a faith that respected and embraced all other faiths. He was profoundly influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause. He was a synthesiser of cultural belief systems: his signature bhajan, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, had the second line Ishwara Allah Tero Naam. This practice emerged from his Vedantic belief in the oneness of all human beings, who share the same atman and, therefore, should be treated equally.
Such behaviour did not endear him to every Hindu. In his treatise on ‘Gandhi’s Hinduism and Savarkar’s Hindutva’ the social scientist Rudolf Heredia places his two protagonists within an ongoing debate between heterogeneity versus homogeneity in the Hindu faith, pointing out that while Gandhi’s response is inclusive and ethical, Savarkar politicises Hinduism as a majoritarian creed.
But Gandhiji’s own understanding of religion, in Heredia’s words, “transcended religiosity, Hindu as well as that of any other tradition. It is essentially a spiritual quest for moksha but one rooted in the reality of service to the last and least in the world”. Unlike Savarkar, who believed in conformity, Gandhiji was a synthesiser like no other who took care to include Indians of other faiths in his capacious and agglomerative understanding of religion. He took inspiration from not just Advaita Vedanta, but also the Jain concept of ‘Anekantavada’ – the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently by different people from their own different points of view, and that, therefore, no single perception can constitute the complete truth. This led him to once declare that ‘I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi, a Jew’.
Hinduism and Hindutva, as I have argued in Why I Am a Hindu, represent two very distinct and contrasting ideas, with vitally different implications for nationalism and the role of the Hindu faith. The principles Gandhiji stood for and the way in which he asserted them are easier to admire than to follow. But they represented an ideal that is betrayed every day by those who distort Hinduism to promote a narrow, exclusionary bigotry.
Q: How must Gandhi be defined for today’s generation?
SHASHI THAROOR: Today, in the ‘post-truth’ era, it is fair to ask how much that old spirit survives. Gandhiji was influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause. And yet, the sad truth today is that the staying-power of organised violence is almost always greater than that of non-violence. Some twenty million lives have been lost in wars and insurrections since Gandhiji’s passing. In a dismaying number of countries including his own, governments spend more for military purposes than for education and health care combined. The current stockpile of nuclear weapons represents over a million times the explosive power of the atom bomb whose destruction of Hiroshima so grieved him. As the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11 demonstrated, India faces the threat of cross-border terrorism; the Mahatma’s only answer to that – a fast in protest – would have left its perpetrators unmoved.
None of this dilutes Gandhi’s greatness, or the extraordinary resonance of his life and his message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence and war, the Mahatma taught the virtues of truth, non-violence and peace. And he set and attained personal standards of conviction and courage which few will ever match. He was that rare kind of leader who was not confined by the inadequacies of his followers. Yet Gandhi’s Truth was essentially his own. He formulated its unique content and determined its application in a specific historical context.
Inevitably, few in today’s world can measure up to his greatness or aspire to his credo. The originality of his thought and the example of his life inspires people around the world today. –The Hindu BusinessLine. (Republished in public interest).==IHN-NN