As A Brand Gandhi Lives On


By Rahul Sharma

Quartz

Djibouti is not a usual tourist destination.

It is a small country on the Horn of Africa with a population of less than a million. Surrounded by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, it lies next to Africa’s badlands. The biggest advantage it has is its access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which makes it a busy refuelling and transshipment centre.

So why am I talking of Djibouti?
Visuals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute at a statue of Mahatma Gandhi during his recent visit to the United States reminded me of my trip to the Horn of Africa a few years ago. And to my surprise I found that just as he stands tall outside the Indian embassy in Washington, the Mahatma lives in Djibouti too.
Armed soldiers manned the dusty roundabout where his bust stood when I visited. Stray dogs lazed under military vehicles and bored soldiers hung around, nervously playing with their automatic weapons.

The surroundings were at odds with a man who preached peace and non-violence, but there he was as he is in several countries—bald, round spectacles sitting on his nose, looking at a world where his teachings are still relevant and another that has left him behind.

What was Gandhi doing there, I wondered aloud. Oh, he is everywhere, responded an Indian diplomat who was part of a group visiting Djibouti for the inauguration of a new Dubai-funded port.

Brand Gandhi

Indeed, the Mahatma is omnipresent in afterlife. He is the most famous brand India has produced. The boost to the country’s soft power through his statues and busts that dot public spaces across continents is not only huge, but also enduring. He has now lived in the hearts and mind of billions for nearly 80 years since his assassination. And by the looks of it, he isn’t fading away soon.

The “half-naked fakir”, as Winston Churchill famously called him, is a face probably better recognized than those of most Bollywood actors. In fact, probably better known than that of Churchill, the man who hated the Mahatma and whose rivalry brought the British Empire down.
Gandhi, like Churchill, died a broken man. Politically irrelevant after he guided India to independence, Gandhi’s legacy at home has been constantly debated. However, his contribution to India’s global image is unparalleled.
As British India broke into two and millions of people perished in pre- and post-partition violence, Gandhi, shunned by his disciples, virtually retired, bitterly complaining that nobody listened to him anymore. His murder, by a religious fanatic, however, changed the course of events. In his death he achieved what he couldn’t when he lived—bring a turbulent nation together and stop the gory dance of violence that had enveloped the infant republic.

His martyrdom eventually put him on history’s high pedestal and made him acceptable globally as an apostle of peace, ensuring his brand of politics remained relevant. In India, politicians, convulsing against his political thought, consigned him to school text books—bringing him alive on his death and birth anniversaries for formal ceremonies that involved the twice annual ritual of cleaning bird droppings from his statues and naming public schemes after him.

A different path

Frank Moraes, the editor of The Times of India, recounted a conversation with HSL Polak—one of Gandhi’s close associates in South Africa—in an article he wrote for the Foreign Affairs journal to mark the Mahatma’s 10th death anniversary in 1958. He asked Polak how much of Gandhi’s teaching he thought survived in India. “Ostensibly a great deal… In reality, very little,” said Polak.

Indeed, neither India nor the Congress Party ever accepted Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence as creed. “The Congress Party, including Nehru and other prominent leaders such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, accepted non-violence but only as a method. With them it was an instrument of political practice, not an article of faith,” wrote Moraes.
In the 56 years since his article, the situation has only worsened. Very little of the Mahatma’s politics has survived in India; we could, however, despite our reluctance, take pride in our ability to export an enduring brand. It is perhaps more relevant to the world than to India, mostly because we have chosen to take a path different from his.

That probably was a good reason why Richard Attenborough’s film on the man many Britons hated won the Oscar for best film. That probably was also the reason for the U.S. Congress to pass a special legislation allowing the Mahatma’s statute in Washington to be installed on government land.

While we, as a nation, use him on occasions of political exigencies, the world only wants more of Gandhi for his political thought.

Myriad Mahatmas

Indeed, the metallic Mahatma is much in demand. Under a well-structured programme run jointly by India’s overseas missions, which work out the modalities of the placement of statues and busts, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) that pays the sculptors who make the statutes, replicas of the bespectacled apostle of peace are regularly shipped to the world.

Between 2001 and 2010, nearly 70 busts and statues of the Mahatma were sent to dozens of countries by the ICCR. That’s an average of seven a year. The bust I saw in Djibouti was sent in 2003 for installation on a street named after the Mahatma. The cigar chewing Mr. Churchill, who never regretted his long-time rival’s death, hasn’t had it so good!
The Mahatma’s statue is due to be unveiled at the Parliament Square in London next year alongside those of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela—the man who was so influenced by Gandhi as he led his people to an apartheid-free South Africa. Churchill’s statue is one of the 10 already erected at this place.

Owning Gandhi

Here, at home, he still has an occasional use. The stamp of moral authority that he has left on this nation means the Mahatma—though a Congress man—can be greedily adopted by other political parties when required. Modi’s effort to make him the face of his “Clean India” campaign is just another example of Gandhi’s use for political convenience.

Despite promising to build a towering statue of Patel in the run up to the general elections that swept him to power, Modi now wants his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to own “Brand Gandhi” and take over the events that mark the death and birth anniversaries of the Mahatma. Up until now, these ceremonies were the responsibility of a special committee constituted by an Act of parliament.
The Mahatma’s adoption by the BJP—the political face of an organization whose members celebrated the Mahatma’s death—is ironic, but then that’s the strength of a brand that has endured the rough and tumble of time.

Is Chinese Money Good?


By Rahul Sharma

BusinessWorld

In the larger scheme of things there are today two countries that have the capability and the capacity to funnel substantial investments into foreign markets. One is the United States – the traditional home of large multinational companies with global footprint. The other is China, which is looked at with suspicion not only in India, but in the United States as well.

At a time when India needs to attract higher foreign investments – not only to bridge its gaping current account deficit, but to also create millions of new jobs – there is a need to look at Chinese companies differently than we have in the past. And we can learn lessons from the Americans, who worry about China’s rise as much as we do.

The first lesson is to be pragmatic. The second is to find a right balance between politics and business despite the usual noise that tends to drown reason to accommodate the interests of both sides.

Last year, two Chinese technology companies – Huawei and ZTE – were hauled over the coal by the intelligence committee of the U.S. House of Representatives after concerns over national security threats. “Chinese telecommunications companies provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to tamper with the United States telecommunications supply chain,” the committee’s investigation report said.

It recommended that the United States should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the US telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturers and private companies should consider the long-term security risks associated with doing business with these Chinese companies. Of course, the two companies protested loudly as anybody would, but the report is now a permanent marker in US-China relations.

However, Americans turned out to be eventually pragmatic. They have not only allowed Chinese companies to invest in the key energy sector, last month the largest acquisition of an American company by a Chinese firms went through without serious hiccups.

There was cause of celebrations when shareholders of the US Smithfield Foods Inc. agreed to sell their company to China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd for $4.7 billion. The deal went through despite initial concerns over national security.

Let’s return to India. The same telecommunications companies that got hammered in the United States have also been under the government microscope for some time. Every Chinese company looking to invest in India quickly becomes a victim of a 50-year-old narrative when India and China went to war over a border issue. Since the issue remains unresolved, the mindset demands that everything China and Chinese needs to be looked at suspiciously.

If for a moment we do agree that Chinese companies have sinister plans to destabilize India, we need to look West – towards Europe, Africa and both North and South America where cash-flushed Chinese state-owned and private firms have been on a business buying spree for some years now. While the big focus was energy earlier, the trend has changed as different businesses (going cheap everywhere post the 2008 financial crisis) are being eyed and bought.

Given that most American companies have virtually given up on India and are keener to invest in their domestic economy that is beginning to finally expand, the only source of investment that India could possibly look at is China. However, it has to be pragmatic and balanced in attracting the kind of investments it wants and in sectors where the threat factor is low. Let’s not forget that the eventual plan of the two countries is to raise bilateral trade to $100 billion in the next few years, and that opens up several possibilities for Chinese investments in sectors that are safer from a “national security” point of view.

While geopolitics will always continue to play a strong role in India-China relations, let’s also understand and appreciate that the two need each other – for different reasons of course. While it is in India’s interest to bridge its trade deficit with China, it is also in China’s interest to get a toehold in the Indian market at a time when its exports to the West are shrinking and its overall economy beginning to slow down.

Similarly, it is in the interest of Chinese companies to overtake Japanese and South Korean brands that have made India a strong home in the last two-odd decades. For India, which is now talking of allowing Chinese companies to set up shop in special economic zones (than let them run around freely in the countryside), the focus should be on getting the best deal for the government and the people.

National security, like everything else, is relative to the situation on ground at a certain period in time. India needs to handle matters with China confidently and keeping its interests in mind.

Let’s go back to the Americans again. Back in 1971, President Richard Nixon and his right hand man Henry Kissinger set the ball rolling to bring China into the global economic mainstream. The reason was geopolitical, For three decades after that American companies poured in billions of dollars into that country, bringing it to a point that now Americans themselves have started looking at China as an emerging global power that could overtake the United States in the near future.

The threat of China to the superpower is as real as it to a regional power such as India, which also happens to share a troublesome border issue with the large neighbor. Good business always makes for good politics and, therefore, it is in the interest of bother India and China to ramp up investments.

India doesn’t have to entirely follow the American way, but it can surely learn how to deal better with the Chinese by letting them in in a manner that helps New Delhi resolve its economic troubles.

(The columnist, a former newspaper editor, is President, Public Affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller and co-founder of Public Affairs Forum of India. He has a keen interest in China and Southeast Asia. Views are personal