Last week, we celebrated Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. This year was extra special. It was the 99th anniversary of Gandhi’s return from South Africa in 1915. Guess its significance may have been missed in the general celebrations on the birthday of the Father of the Nation.

Randomly musing I wondered what the Mahatma would have experienced if he were to actually return or be around to see India in 2014. Let us begin from Thursday.

On that day, Bollywood released a new movie, Bang Bang. The tag line in the promo for the film would have intrigued the Mahatma: “On the day of peace, bullets will fly." Not only was the idea of non-violence not in vogue any more, culturally, his country, for whose independence he sacrificed so much, was mocking him in ways that even the British could not.

Then he would discover that his name had just cost his party, the Congress, the 16th general election. I am not sure how he would react to that, actually, it is the progeny of his closest associate, Jawaharlal Nehru, that had brought about this political humiliation.

Moving on, newspaper headlines of the previous week would have drawn his attention to unsavoury incidents in Gujarat, his home state. Communal riots had broken out in Vadodara. They were certainly not of the scale he had witnessed in his final years, but, nonetheless, the fact that Indians continue to kill each other in the name of religion would have devastated the Mahatma.

Worse, news headlines would also draw his attention to the fact that caste prejudice was very much around. Social disenfranchisement, though a crime, was being practised with impunity in several parts of the country; manual scavenging, by those at the bottom of the caste pyramid, was banned only recently but is still prevalent.

If the Mahatma had to scroll over headlines over the last couple of years, he would have noticed the high incidence of rapes and violence against women. Yes, there are more literate women today than ever in India, but their social oppression continues. He would be shocked to learn that the business of female foeticide is a multi-crore industry that has led to a systemic decline in the female sex ratio.

And, of course, he would find that the Khadi garment (the original Make in India) that he popularized can only be afforded by politicians (for whom it is a token symbol of connect to the grassroots) and the rich (who wanted to make a fashion statement). The poor have taken to synthetics that are not only more affordable but also durable.

And, of course, the Mahatma would be most intrigued by the fact that more than six decades after Independence, one-third of the populace is defined as living below the poverty line. Fighting poverty has not only become an industry but the mainstay of some political parties to stay in power, even while the fate of those for whom the battle is being fought continues to suffer.

By now the Mahatma must be wondering if anything had really changed. Globally, yes; his cause against social prejudices in South Africa had found some fruition. He would be heartened to note that the blacks in South Africa have wrested back their social rights and the US, which till the 1960s did not allow black people to vote, had elected a man of colour, not once, but twice as its President. (But it has not changed the fact that the US continues to wage wars the world over.)

In India, too, materially, the people are much better off. The latest Census showed that there was a marked improvement in the material well-being of the people. But this could not mask the fact that economic inequality has worsened as the improved prospects have been shared unequally.

The biggest takeaway would be that India had stayed independent and had fostered a democracy. Nobody in the world gave India a chance to survive in 1947. Near total illiteracy, an economy devastated by a century of colonial bleeding and an insecure twin in Pakistan, the odds were clearly stacked against India’s survival. Not only has the sovereign stayed intact, it has now emerged as the world’s largest democracy and is among the top 10 economies in the world in terms of economic size.

He would take heart from the fact (just as he would be equally disappointed at the tardy progress) that his idea of cleanliness (Swachh Bharat) is once again centre stage. A modest initiative, but with far reaching benefits—yet, again, something that has found only verbal political backing.

In the final analysis, the Mahatma would probably have mixed thoughts about the Indian Republic. Presumably, he would take heart from the fact that the idea of India was very much alive, though the ideas of Mahatma had lost so much currency.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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