It's a journalistic curiosity, the fervour with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi posits Mahatma Gandhi as relevant to the ills and issues of modern day India, from filth in public spaces to cow vigilantism. Modi comes from the RSS stable, an organization that faced a ban for its alleged complicity in the Mahatma's assassination. That Gandhi laid the seeds of Muslim appeasement with Khilafat, and winked at partition of Akhand Bharat, is a long held RSS narrative.
Yet, from unveiling Gandhi statues in London, Brisbane, and Washington, to taking the train ride to Pietermaritzburg station where Gandhi began his road to becoming the Mahatma, Modi has sought to own the father of the nation like no other Indian politician in recent public memory.
A poster at the 2015 Vibrant Gujarat summit (presented here) had at least seven schemes of the Modi government, from Make-In-India to Skill-India and Swach Bharat Mission, with logos that use Gandhi symbols like his charkha and spectacles.
Bhagyesh Jha, a one time Information Secretary in the then CMO, tells me that as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi once asked in a meeting where was Gandhi in Gandhinagar, the State capital. That began the road to what is now a Rs 250 crores, world class convention centre Mahatma Mandir, where Modi would hold his now famous trendsetting investor summits. Attached to the centre is Dandi Kutir, a hi-tech state-of-the-art museum, dedicated to Mahatma's life. Complete with 3D holography – a technology Modi used in his 2012 election – the museum is as much about the Prime Minister's mind as about the life of Gandhi.
One of the pickings of Modi on becoming PM was VK Saxena to head the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). On the face of it the appointment was little odd as Saxena comes from a corporate background, and had no Gandhi connection before this assignment. “PM spoke with clear thought when he told me that pick Khadi from where it was left in the heydays of freedom struggle and bring its glory back,” says Saxena. Working on PM's intent with his corporate touch, Saxena has almost doubled KVIC turnover with an average annual growth of 34 per cent in last two years alone. The body has increased man hours of work given from 3 hours to an average of 8 hours per day and generated new employment of 4,69,000 under PM's employment generation program.
There are two ways of looking at this Gandhi fixation. One – possibly provocative – that Modi actually believes in Gandhian thought. Modi's upbringing in north Gujarat where Gandhi's autobiography is part of daily morning prayers in most government schools, perhaps ingrained in him an understanding of the Mahatma that guides him in his heart. The influence of Dr. Vasant Parikh, a Gandhian from Modi's village Vadnagar, on his political evolution has been documented during the 2014 campaign.
Second, a more hard nosed understanding is that despite the RSS baggage, Modi could think out of the box on Gandhi. Accepting Gandhi was his astute way of mainstreaming himself, something RSS failed to do since independence. If in the bargain, Congress' proprietorship over Gandhi stands challenged, it can but naturally be expected from a disruptor, 24/7 politician, like Narendra Modi.
(Abhishek Kapoor is the Executive Editor of Republic TV. He writes regularly on political issues in his blog -- “Get Me Right”)