Anna as Gandhi: Delusions of grandeur
Gandhi – who India still reveres deeply – floated up in public memory recently when the contemporary Indian press and some middle-class Indians had hallucinating glimpses of him in rural activist Anna Hazare, who launched a Gandhi-style protest against high-level corruption.
Since Gandhi himself faced intense public scrutiny, both from 20th-century Western critics and Marxists, so must people who seek to emulate him in the 21st century.
George Orwell opened his classic 1949 essay on Gandhi with a brilliantly provocative line: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.”
Tests Orwell applied in Gandhi’s case were ruthlessly reductionist in approach, down to the Mahatma’s “unregenerate” early life – for example Gandhi’s dancing lessons, his acts of stealing and two visits to a brothel. As Orwell writes: “…his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant”.
The questions Orwell asked were: “[t]o what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity – by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power – and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?”
Like Gandhi himself never admitted to being a great soul, Hazare has seldom made much of the press and urbanites seeing a hint of Gandhi in him. But the symbolism was not lost on anyone. As he sat on a belligerent fast until death, a toothless Gandhi smiled from behind the podium. The method and the means he adopted are popularly known as Gandhian – literally, in the manner of Gandhi – as those who joined him chanted “Gandhiji Amar Rahe, Anna Hazare Zindabad”.
Rarely has a living Indian’s name been taken in the same breath as Gandhi’s. This must be something.
Is Hazare a modern-India Gandhi? Or is he more Gandhi-like? In this context, several doubts naturally rear their heads: Hazare is certainly not a vulgarised charlatan, as some have alleged, but how far is he willing to impose sacrifices on himself?
Does achievement of an immediate goal through Gandhian methods represent clear proof of having passing that litmus test of whether there can be another Gandhi?
A far more serious question is: to what extent did the government capitulate to Hazare’s demands because of his personal moral authority that characterized many of Gandhi’s own victories? Did the government give in because of political expedience (elections in states, a battered image beset with scandals)?
Or did the capitulation come from repentance of immoral rulers who could see their ugly side in an utterly moral mirror held up by Hazare? Is Hazare’s achievement a result of personal aggrandisement?
Halfway between his human appearance and para-human existence, Gandhi has no peer in history. He walked through fiery streets in Noakhali as riots broke out, not looking left or right. Stray stone missiles hit him but not betraying any sign of physical pain, he moved on. His trance-like walk appeared almost scary, as the blood-thirsty men were spooked into falling quiet. Why did the rioters capitulate and stop the violence? Because Gandhi was in their midst.
To what extent is Hazare prepared to clean modern-day India of its ills or is he moved by corruption alone? What level of abstinence has he demonstrated and, more importantly, what are his views on many of India’s pressing issues?
Hazare’s biggest achievement is that of turning around his native village into an ecological and economical model, ridding the drought-prone hamlet of its alcoholics and making its men and women self-sufficient. This is, strictly speaking, a Gandhian accomplishment. But it is no more than one man heeding Gandhi’s call, like million others who did.
It was not in achieving the sole political objective of ending the British Raj peacefully that Gandhi spent his entire life. Hazare has not shown inclinations yet of tackling Hindu-Muslim disharmony, of putting forward a doctrine of how India should deal with dissent or handle resurgent Hindutva and militant Muslims. Nor has he grappled with the issue minority rights, women’s oppression and the indignity with which class-less, cashless Indians are addressed. It is in the backdrop of these contemporary issues that he could be called to greatness.
Even if he were to take them up, whether he would succeed is unknown. To be another Gandhi would simply require a man voluntarily combining all of Gandhi’s traits, and yet involuntarily going at least one step further.