October 13, 2014


[Though Mr. Modi has always spoken of Gandhi with respect, he has echoed the criticism that Congress leaders gave preferential treatment to India’s minorities. Mr. Modi’s reputation as a Hindu hard-liner was defined in 2002, when bloody sectarian riots broke out under his watch as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. No Indian court has found him responsible for the riots, which left more than 1,200 dead, most of them Muslims.]


Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India at a statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi in front 
of the Indian Embassy during a visit to Washington late last month. 
Credit Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
NEW DELHI — Watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last month, as he began to carve out an image for himself beyond India’s borders, one might have gotten the impression that Mohandas K. Gandhiwas his ideological progenitor, or his running mate.
Gandhi is everywhere in Delhi these days. A stylized drawing of his steel-rimmed, circular glasses is the logo of Mr. Modi’s new cleanliness drive, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, introduced with great fanfare on the anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. He is posed with a broom and basket on the cover of Organiser, the magazine of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing Hindu organization connected to Mr. Modi’s party. When the president of China, Xi Jinping, visited, Mr. Modi received him at Gandhi’s ashram. Then Mr. Modi visited President Obama in the United States and presented him with a copy of Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita.


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Gandhi, of course, is an unlikely avatar for the ascendant right wing in India. For most of the last century, Gandhi has been the symbolic leader of the Indian National Congress party, which Mr. Modi drove from power this year. Gandhi’s economic vision was fundamentally anticapitalist: He extolled rural over urban life and called industrialization “a curse for mankind.” During his lifetime, Gandhi was excoriated by right-wing activists — including the man who assassinated him — for acquiescing to the creation of Pakistan and advocating the rights of India’s Muslim minority.

Though Mr. Modi has always spoken of Gandhi with respect, he has echoed the criticism that Congress leaders gave preferential treatment to India’s minorities. Mr. Modi’s reputation as a Hindu hard-liner was defined in 2002, when bloody sectarian riots broke out under his watch as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. No Indian court has found him responsible for the riots, which left more than 1,200 dead, most of them Muslims.
So the Gandhi now embraced by Mr. Modi is an edited version. First and foremost, he is a preacher of cleanliness — a fair depiction, since he was passionate on the subject, known for seizing brooms and for insisting that even highborn followers, like his wife, empty their own chamber pots.
Mr. Modi has endorsed some elements of Gandhi’s economic thinking, urging consumers to buy homespun cloth instead of imported products. But his Gandhi hardly believes that “the future of India lies in its villages.” To a prosperous crowd of mainly Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden in New York last month, Mr. Modi described Gandhi as a character remarkably like them, a man who “went abroad, became a barrister, had opportunities,” but “came back to serve the nation.”
Tushar A. Gandhi, the great-grandson of the independence leader, has watched this process from his home in Mumbai with curiosity and, at times, satisfaction.
He noted, however, that during his 12 years as a state leader, Mr. Modi had never invoked Gandhi with such enthusiasm.
“In this short period of 100 days that he has been the prime minister of India, it seems everything he does is guided by Bapu,” he said, using an affectionate term meaning father. “It is a bit of a surprise. The only thing I can say at the moment is, I hope it is sincere.”
While preparing to seek the post of prime minister, Mr. Modi set out to create political space for himself outside the Hindu right wing, in part by laying claim to beloved figures associated with the Congress party.
The most obvious was the independence fighter Sardar Patel, known as “the Iron Man of India,” whom Mr. Modi so admires that he has begun a project to build a 597-foot Patel monument, tall enough for recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records. There is little mystery in why Mr. Modi identifies with Mr. Patel. He was a rival to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and unlike the secular, Anglophile Mr. Nehru, Mr. Patel was an ascetic Hindu, far less sympathetic to the demands of India’s Muslims and more to the right on economic matters.
Outside India, however, Mr. Patel’s name provokes only a dive for an encyclopedia, whereas Gandhi’s prompts hushed reverence. More surprising, perhaps, is Mr. Modi’s effort to associate himself with Mr. Nehru, a leader whom he has publicly criticized in the past as weak. Last week, Mr. Modi called him “Chacha Nehru,” or “Uncle Nehru,” and proposed that his Nov. 14 birthday become a nationwide celebration of — you guessed it — hygiene and cleanliness.
With the adoption of Mr. Nehru, Mr. Modi has “got the whole packet” of Congress’s heroes, said Shiv Visvanathan, a social scientist and self-described liberal. “Congress is left with very little,” he said. “It’s literally a stealing of intellectual property.”
Tushar Gandhi declared last week that Mr. Modi’s rollout of the cleanliness campaign, which required top officials to go out and clean neighborhoods, was the only celebration in decades “which would have gotten Bapu’s seal of approval.”
Whether it represents an ideological shift toward the center is still unclear. Mr. Modi has a knack, unique among recent Indian leaders, for broadcasting political signals in all directions at once. Prabhu Chawla, editorial director of The New Indian Express, ticked off a long list of gestures aimed at proving Mr. Modi’s credentials as a Hindu nationalist. When he visited Nepal on a two-day trip, he stopped to make an offering at a famous Hindu temple. At the White House, he stuck to a religious fast and refused to eat or drink anything except hot water.
“His idea of India is Hindi Hindu — people who speak Hindi and those who are Hindu,” Mr. Chawla said. “He is wearing his Hinduism on his sleeve, and saying, ‘You take it or leave it.’ ”
Mr. Modi’s invocations of Gandhi may simply be an acknowledgment that one cannot rule India without allegiance to him. More than two decades have passed since Atal Vajpayee, the last prime minister to rise out of India’s right wing, began to praise Gandhi in public, opening the door for the Bharatiya Janata Party to interlace his name and image with Hindu nationalism, said Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University.
Elements of Gandhi’s thinking fell by the wayside, he said, such as the love he professed for India’s Muslims and his vision of a “feminized,” less aggressive Hinduism. Professor Varshney added that there was nothing unusual in that.
“No one in India, not even Congress, has fully embraced Gandhi,” he said. “Gandhi is the father of the nation, no doubt. But Gandhi is also a difficult father.”
Cleanliness, in any case, is a proposition that no one can dispute.
Rajmohan Gandhi, the independence leader’s grandson, certainly could not, though he called it “an incomplete representation of Gandhian thought.” Asked whether the prime minister was moving in that direction, Rajmohan Gandhi said he was skeptical.
“Time will tell,” he said. “Gandhi is available to all to use or misuse. My complaining will make no difference. But Gandhi may spring back and create problems for those who misuse him.”
@ The New York Times