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.

Modi Leads The Charge For Now


By Rahul Sharma

PRMoment

More than two years ago a taxi driver in Kerala told me that he would vote for Narendra Modi if he ever got an opportunity. A year later – and this was before Modi won the Gujarat state elections for the third time – a hotel doorman in Chennai said the same thing. And earlier this year a young engineer working with a technology company in Bangalore echoed similar sentiments.

In the two years since the Kerala cabbie voiced his support for Modi, the perception that the Gujarat chief minister (and yes, he continues to be in that role) is a strong administrator, decisive, incorruptible and a man who keeps his promises has only strengthened. In New Delhi, in Kolkata, in Lucknow, Bhopal, Jaipur and Mumbai, Modi looks down upon us from posters and billboards – half smiling, half mocking, challenging everybody – especially the Congress that seems to merely follow his political agenda.

Never has an Indian politician been “branded” as Modi has been. We have NaMo phones, we have NaMo tea stalls, there are already two biographies out in the book stores and a biopic is underway. We also have a NaMo kurta, and probably many other products to come as the election temperatures rise.

Pitched as Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) potential prime ministerial candidate after the 2014 elections, Modi is setting himself up against a much younger, yet non-branded, Rahul Gandhi – the scion of a political family that has either ruled or helped rule India for a very long time. A perception battle between the two – amplified by the media – is probably the most top-of-the-mind dinner table discussion these days and one that Modi seems to be winning, at least for now.

As Modi launches his political blitzkrieg, mowing miles with his first-mover advantage, it is amply clear that he is working to a sharply targeted multimedia strategy put together by a war room that is propping him as a leader who can change India. The early start bodes well as it will give Modi and his team enough time to convert the fence sitters and break away those charmed by the Congress.

The media is helping by headlining every word Modi utters and television panel discussions are only cementing his position as a man who matters. Slowly, but surely, Modi’s image of a steely leader is getting entrenched into the political and social frequency of an election that is still some months away.

On the other hand, Gandhi seems weak, indecisive, and battling his own party, as he tells people his mother was upset with his choice of words when he interrupted a party press conference to oppose a proposed ordinance allowing convicted parliamentarians to keep their seats that was cleared by the prime minister and his cabinet.

Set up against a wily politician and an orator who can transfix the crowds, Gandhi’s image of a reluctant inheritor only gets a fresh shine every time he speaks.

The battle is between a man who thinks on his feet and seemingly wants to lead this large and diverse country, and another who still doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about whether he wants the job. In the public relations battle, Modi has won the first set. He’s still got to win the match though.

The shift in perception since the days when the national media called Modi a “murderer” after the deadly 2002 religious riots in Gujarat has been slow but huge.

No longer is Modi the pariah he once was. No longer is he hated or reviled as he was. No longer is he a political embarrassment (to many) as he was. No longer is he in the headlines for the “wrong” reasons as he was. Feted by the industry, the youth seeking jobs and a middle class frustrated with the Congress government over poor governance, dynastic politics and inflation, Modi seems to have grabbed people’s imagination and emotions.

Gandhi is sincere, but he lacks the power to hold the crowds and veer them to see his point of view. That’s because while Modi is all over, Gandhi pops in and out with statements that only raise more questions. New Delhi’s political citizenry is widely convinced that the young man wants Congress to lose badly so that he could then clean up the grand old party’s corrupt, wobbly script.

I remember watching Modi make the crowds dance during his election rallies in his home state back in 2007. Thousands of people wearing the “Modi Mask” followed the slow wave of the man’s hand from left to right – hypnotized by the sheer power of his oratory and stage theatrics. It scared many a political pundit. Gandhi is no match. In fact, the entire Congress party is made of weak speakers who sound unconvincing even when they mean business.

But let’s remember that a few months is a long time in politics and a lot could happen between now and the elections due by May next year. Winning a public relations and a perception skirmish is only part of the larger battle that Modi has to fight to help the BJP return to power after a decade in the wilderness. Voters might love Modi, but they might still choose not to cast their ballot for his party.

Eventually, Modi will have to make people believe that he is not as divisive as many believe him to be if he wants the top job. That’s easier said than done. The posters and potshots are fine for now. The winner in the public relations battle between Modi and Gandhi will only be announced next year – the day the votes are counted. Until then, watch the political theatre and enjoy.