Swadeshi Bapu, Videshi Fame

Maverick: Swadeshi Bapu, Videshi Fame
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, April 3, 2007

Burn all your currency notes that have the image of the Mahatma on them if you do not want to insult him and what he stood for. Money, we are told, was never on his mind.

Every few months we are witness to the imagined persecution of Gandhi. The latest is an advertisement for a credit card firm in South Africa where the Mahatma’s lips are shown moving to convey that he is speaking on behalf of the brand.

The ad agency, getting all defensive, has come up with a ridiculous excuse: “Gandhi is featured alongside other icons who stood for fighting against injustice and for the rights of the man in the street.”

What does the possession of a credit card have to do with justice? How many men in the street use plastic money?

Predictably there have been protests, and these are even more ludicrous. One of those omnipresent spokesmen said, “Mahatma Gandhi did not stand for the promotion of business interests. Mahatma Gandhi was a simple man, and money matters were not part of his criteria. He left all his assets behind when he left the country. He was not a commercial man, but a well-respected politician and spiritualist.”

Cult figures cause vision impairment. The simple Gandhi had in fact stated, “I do not regard capital to be enemy of labour.”

He commercialised deprivation. Oriental exotica was given a new face when the land of maharajahs became the land of the half-naked fakir. By spiritualising the suffering of millions he only consolidated the old fatalistic view of life.

There is no doubt he was “a well-respected politician”. Isn’t that why the Birlas played host to him? The concept of swadeshi is a canny business idea. If life gives you a neembu make neembu-pani; the added proviso is: don’t say boo to orange juice. Or in the precious words of Gandhi, “India must protect her primary industries even as a mother protects her children against the whole world without being hostile to it.”

We blame the west for dumping their waste on us. It is a perfectly valid accusation. But, how ethical is our intent? Suddenly, western brands became affordable to the huge middle-class; worse, the ‘honorary’ foreign goods from China, Thailand and Korea could keep even a lower middle-class person happy. The elitists panicked. This was when swadeshi came to their rescue and gave them the grand exclusive Indian dream of cavorting in the Hauz Khas ruins.

We have earned our stars and stripes, not to speak of call centres, based entirely on this smart strategy. Today, everyone – from fashion designers who truss up urchin-bodied models in khadi couture to ayurveda spas detoxifying you with forest twigs to authentic cuisine and indigenous literature – is a major player in hawking the halo of traditionalism.

Parodying poverty by going around unshod when he owns shoes that cost Rs. 5 lakhs, M. F. Husain further mastered the Gandhian prototype when he depicted Mother Teresa in an expensive Paithani sari. He quite succeeded in converting her into a native goddess untainted by Vatican canonisation.

Indian enterprise has become pusillanimous, willing to decimate anything that comes in its way. Leftists may hold on steadfastly to their glasses of Old Monk and Che Guevara T-shirts, but Singur was the real McCoy as far as swadeshi goes and we have seen what happens.

On the strength of milking gau-mata, Laloo Prasad Yadav gets to feed management techniques to the New Jersey cash cows. He goes to Harvard and Wharton. Everyone is charmed. Here is the son of the soil. What more can one ask? I’ll tell you what. How many Indians can afford to attend these institutions? Even the IIMs have further increased their fees. The pay packets they earn will be several times more than what those working in the railways or the dabbawallas they invite to lecture them make in several years.

However, Laloo is in no danger of becoming a Gandhi because his demeanour does not lend itself to a neat line drawing. He is not chic so he cannot be a special attraction, the kind Deepa Mehta has added to her Oscar-nominated film Water. Although the uplift of widows was the work of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Bapu resonates throughout the movie. The Gandhian son of a debauched zamindar falls in love with a Caucasian-looking beauty at the ashram. She commits suicide. He does not stay back to fight for the rest. He escapes in a train. As it gathers momentum, an older inmate hands over a child widow to him; he carries her like a trophy. One more groupie joins the Mahatma bandwagon.

If we do not want to make Gandhi into a commercial enterprise we will have to insist that no industrial house or financial institution puts in ads during his birth and death anniversaries; no political party uses his name to get votes, because votes mean power, power means money; no plays are staged on the subject or films made that will result in profit. Did anyone object to the box-office hit Lage Raho Munnabhai?

You want to get self-righteous? Then go all the way. Unless, of course, your moksha is moolah.

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