Anna Hazare under the Gandhi portrait at Ramlila Maidan
The way the Americans glamourise the president to satisfy a subliminal craving for monarchy is well-known. As a commentator observed recently, “The First Family is treated like elected royalty.”
Such tendencies are noticeable also in parts of India where memories of princely rule are still alive, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic less than six months after he had led the country to freedom, evokes more political nostalgia than anyone else.
Gandhi had received a hero’s welcome when he returned home in 1915 after providing inspiring leadership to Indian immigrants in South Africa in their struggle for a fair deal. His work there was already known to many in the cities through the press. Hailed as a Mahatma (Great Soul), he soon took control of the Indian National Congress and turned that body of the small English educated community into a mass organisation and the main vehicle of the freedom movement.
He became a role model for Congress leaders in the provinces and several Gandhis arose in the provinces. The best known of them was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of the North-West Frontier Province (now part of Pakistan) who was affectionately called Frontier Gandhi.
Jawaharlal Nehru, whom the Mahatma had anointed as his political heir and became the first prime minister, was not a leader in the Gandhi mould. The fortuitous circumstance of Nehru’s daughter, Indira, marrying a Gandhi who was no relative of the Mahatma, led to the Nehru family spawning a Gandhi dynasty but it did not produce another Mahatma.
Nelson Mandela in Africa and Martin Luther King Jr in America invoked the Gandhi magic in their heroic struggles with telling effect. However, Gandhi did not reincarnate in his homeland.
Nearly 30 years after the Mahatma’s assassination, a new generation yearning for a Gandhi was fulfilled partially when Jayaprakash Narayan, hero of the Quit India agitation of 1942, the last major campaign of the freedom struggle, re-emerged on the political scene to lead the popular movements against corruption that had erupted separately in Bihar and Gujarat. Indira Gandhi threw him in jail.
After the people voted out her Emergency regime, he helped the opposition parties which came together in the Janata Party to provide a non-Congress government for the first time.
Last week as Anna Hazare, who emerged from comparative obscurity to head the current national campaign against growing corruption, took on the might of the state, yet another generation appeared to have found its own Gandhi.
The events that followed Hazare’s arrest in New Delhi ahead of an announced indefinite fast to force the Centre to accept an anti-corruption bill he had drafted were reminiscent of the Mahatma’s first agitation in India. He was on his way to Champaran in Bihar to study the problems of indigo growers, when he was served with a magistrate’s order prohibiting him from entering the district. He defied the order and was arrested. A large crowd of slogan-shouting villagers gathered outside the court where he was taken for trial. Frightened by the mass upsurge, the authorities freed him.
However, Hazare’s subsequent conduct was un-Gandhi-like. Before leaving the prison, where he spent three days making those who had jailed him look like an inept lot, he agreed to limit his fast to 15 days and move to hospital if his health deteriorated. On reaching the Ramlila grounds, where the government allowed him to fast, he said he would not leave until the government conceded his demand.
A former army truck driver, Hazare, who is 74, earned his Gandhian credentials through decades of constructive work in villages in his state of Maharashtra. He reinforced his Gandhian image with two nationally televised visits to Rajghat, the Mahatma’s last resting place, one before the arrest and other before settling down beneath a large Gandhi portrait at the venue of the fast.
Critics are talking of the new Gandhi as a media creation. They contrast the attention the electronic media has showered on him with its neglect of Irom Sharmila of Manipur. She has been fasting for more than 10 years demanding withdrawal of a resurrected colonial law that gives the armed forces impunity and is kept alive by forced nasal feeding under police custody in a hospital.
Hazare’s credentials have only limited relevance now. He has succeeded in bringing the issue of corruption to the top of the national agenda. His demand that the government withdraw its anti-corruption bill and accept makes nonsense of constitutional practice. But the government is in a highly vulnerable position as it stands thoroughly discredited as a result of its failure to act against any tainted politician. --Gulf Today, August 22, 2011.