What would Gandhi do?

What would Gandhi do?
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First Published: Fri, Jan 30 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Art by Jagannath Panda. An untitled work of acrylic and fabric on canvas by the Gurgaon-based artist. Gandhi is projected as a figure on the margins of the skyscraper-filled modern city--and a place f
Art by Jagannath Panda. An untitled work of acrylic and fabric on canvas by the Gurgaon-based artist. Gandhi is projected as a figure on the margins of the skyscraper-filled modern city--and a place f
Updated: Fri, Jan 30 2009. 05 18 PM IST
I received an interesting Internet petition from a gentleman I have never met. To mark the Mahatma’s 61st death anniversary, he wanted us to switch off our cellphones and BlackBerrys for one whole day to send a message to Messrs Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal that we Indians would not tolerate “fascists as future prime ministers”. The politician in question is, of course, Narendra Modi, who has recently been proposed and endorsed (by the two corporate chieftains) for the post.
Art by Jagannath Panda. An untitled work of acrylic and fabric on canvas by the Gurgaon-based artist. Gandhi is projected as a figure on the margins of the skyscraper-filled modern city--and a place for sparrows to perch on. At Saffronart Gallery, Mumbai, till 15 February
Every now and then, and nowadays with increasing frequency, I mull the question: What would Gandhi have done? How would he have reacted to Modi’s actions? Is the measure of a leader economic growth or human rights? Why not both, you will ask. Yes, but if this particular neta’s tenure has been marked by extremes in both these areas, which one will count towards eligibility for higher office?
Modi is lauded by businesspeople throughout India for making his state an economic powerhouse. By deregulating entire sectors and establishing an accessible, business-friendly bureaucracy, Modi has attracted foreign direct investment (FDI) worth millions of dollars into his state. Yet, he is a tainted politician who has been accused of standing by, Nero-like, during the 2002 post-Godhra riots. And that, some say, is the charitable description, hinting at complicity. Modi’s own party, the BJP, called the riots a “stain upon the country’s history”. The US revoked Modi’s tourist visa, stating that any foreign government official who “was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” was ineligible.
At what price growth? While it is true that Modi has raised the standard of living in Gujarat, it is also true that the state’s Muslims feel marginalized like never before. Today, Gujarat is basking in the afterglow of having touched a 15% average industrial growth rate. Much of its growth is attributed to Modi. Does that make him a credible candidate for higher office? What would Gandhi have done if he were Modi?
The easy answer is that Gandhi would never have let the post-Godhra riots happen. Put that aside for a moment. If Gandhi were Modi now, with aspirations to national office while still fighting off character allegations, what would he do? I believe that Gandhi would find a way to take ownership of the massacre.
Similarly, Modi must find a way to acknowledge his role as a leader during that time. He must find a way to apologize to his state for failing in his role of maintaining law and order at a critical moment. And he must figure out a way to recompense the victims. There are many precedents that Modi can look to. Somehow I doubt that he will choose the Nuremberg trials model as a way of bringing the perpetrators to justice. But he could use South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that focused on the victims of apartheid as a way of righting past evils. Or, he could simply look at Gandhi.
The Mahatma had flaws—he was a cruel husband and a mostly absent, if intensely anxious, father—but his moral compass was as unwavering as it was right. How else could a frail man sway a nation and chase out a powerful empire through ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha? Gandhi conducted peculiar experiments with young women—sleeping and bathing nude together to strengthen his chastity—but he didn’t suffer from the moral ambivalence that plagues much of Indian industry today. Ever the champion of human rights, he even put it ahead of nation-building. When Patel, Nehru, Azad and Jinnah were pondering the semantics and logistics of independence, Gandhi was in the largely Muslim areas of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and Bihar, trying to stop communal violence.
Gandhi was an expert at reconciling irreconcilables, something that every politician must do. He married the sublime and the mundane—talking national politics while spinning the charkha (spinning wheel) and singing bhajans. He was a keen strategist who placed his cards on the table but also played them well. He collected friends and nurtured political alliances with the opposition—such as the one with Jinnah. But there is one overarching principle that defined Gandhi and permeated everything he did.
Unlike Modi, Gandhi didn’t look at the world through “we-they” eyes. He never viewed people as Hindu or Muslim, Brahmin or untouchable, British or Indian, rich or poor. Even though he was fighting the British, he refused to think of them as the enemy. As Rajmohan Gandhi says in his excellent book, Mohandas: “For many Indians, Gandhi’s position—‘I cannot and will not hate Englishmen; nor will I bear their yoke’—was hard to comprehend. For them fighting and hating went together.”
If Modi does a Gandhi, he may well suffer a loss. But as Narayana Murthy said in a television interview, sticking to your principles usually involves a loss of some kind. If Modi finds a way to address the carnage, either through an apology or some sort of reconciliation commission, it may end his chances for higher office. For now. But it will prove to the nation that this able administrator also has the makings of a statesman. Modi’s mea culpa will allow him to rise above the “we-they” elements of his party.
Can a 15% industrial growth rate make up for the loss of 1,000 lives? In its answer lies Modi’s legacy. And his future. 
Shoba Narayan plans to write a series titled “What would Gandhi do?” Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 30 2009. 12 30 AM IST