Can India have a liberal mass hero ever again?

By Shivam Vij for ThePrint, 14 August 2018

File photo of Mahatma Gandhi | Central Press/Getty Images

In Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, there is a scene in which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi addresses a session of the Congress party after having recently returned from South Africa. He says:

Here, we make speeches for each other, and those English liberal magazines that may grant us a few lines.

But the people of India are untouched. Their politics are confined to bread and salt. Illiterate they may be, but they’re not blind. They see no reason to give their loyalty to rich and powerful men who simply want to take over the role of the British in the name of “freedom”.

This Congress tells the world it represents India. My brothers, India is 700,000 villages, not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay.

Until we stand in the fields with the millions that toil each day under the hot sun, we will not represent India – nor will we ever be able to challenge the British as one nation.

The Congress party today has begun to look like the one Gandhi found it in 1915 – and changed.

The Congress party won nearly 11 crore votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Almost every fifth voter voted for the party. And yet, it has been shrinking, slowly but steadily, losing election after election, state after state.

Liberalism is dying in India because Indians have turned right-wing and Hindutvawaadi, goes the thinking among many of those who are opposed to the BJP, such as Muslims, Congress leaders and the liberal intelligentsia.

Waiting for a messiah

But perhaps, liberalism is failing because India has no liberal mass hero today. Indian liberalism needs a mass leader who can go and “stand in the fields with the millions that toil each day under the hot sun”.

Narendra Modi is arguably the only pan-India mass leader today. The ideology of Hindutva nationalism has gained, thanks to this mass leader who has sold the masses a dream. Under Modi, the BJP as a party has expanded into states, regions, cities and villages where it earlier did not exist.

In a much bigger way, that is also what Gandhi did. He turned the Congress party from a Bombay club to a mass organisation. He did so, first and foremost, by going to the people and becoming a mass leader.

Gandhi sold people a dream and, in doing so, he made them follow his ideology. Urging the farmers of Gorakhpur to shun the path of violent revolt, he said in 1921: “I want to tell you, if you follow my programme – I want to assure [you] if you do as I tell you, we shall get swaraj by the end of September”.

Historian Shahid Amin, in a famous essay from the 1980s, described how big Mahatma Gandhi had become by 1921. The title of Amin’s essay is instructive: Gandhi as Mahatma. People would stop trains carrying Gandhi just to have his darshan, pay him respect, and give donations. There were rumours about Gandhi’s miraculous powers.

During the Champaran Satyagraha, for instance, as Gandhi went around recording the exploitation of farmers by European indigo planters, such were the rumours, according to scholar Jacques Pouchepadass:

Those rumours… reported that Gandhi had been sent into Champaran by the Viceroy, or even the King, to redress all the grievances of the raiyats, and that his mandate overruled all the local officials and the courts. He was said to be about to abolish all the unpopular obligations which the planters imposed on their raiyats, so that there was no need to obey the word of any planter any more. A rumour was also in the air that the administration of Champaran was going to be made over to the Indians themselves, and that the British would be cleared out of the district within a few months.

Gandhi was not only called Mahatma, but also Mahatmaji. When people ran out of words to describe him, they made him a god and treated him like an avatar of Lord Krishna. Gandhi had to himself issue statements, denying that he was an avatar of any god! But people wouldn’t listen, replacing religious cries like “Bam Bam Mahadeo!” with “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!”

Amin quotes Swadesh, a nationalist newspaper, on the impact that Gandhi left on Gorakhpur with just one brief visit:

It had not occurred to us in our wildest dreams that the same Gorakhpur which was politically dormant would suddenly wake up like this… It can probably be said that this is the biggest crowd that has ever gathered for the darshan of the Mahatma… But let no one think that this vast multitude came like sheep, inspired by blind faith (andhbhakti) and went back empty handed. Those with eyes can see that the darshan of ‘Gandhi Mahatam’ (this is the phrase used in villages) has not been in vain. The janta came with devotion (bhakti) in their hearts and returned with feelings and ideas (bhav). The name of Guru-Gandhi has now spread in all four corners of the district… .

People want a messiah. Gandhi made himself that messiah. He would go to a troubled spot and show people a way out. He wouldn’t go there for a photo-op and then somewhere else for another photo-op and then to Europe to recover from the stress of a photo-op life.

Gandhi and the Gandhis

Can India ever have another liberal mass leader? Will someone come from South Africa and sell people a new dream, a new path, by standing with them in the heat and dust?

There’s no reason why someone can’t do it. If a liberal leader goes to the masses and shows them a dream like Gandhi did, s/he can be a mass hero – perhaps even replacing Modi in due course.

It is, however, unlikely that such a mass leader can emerge from or through the Congress party. Unlike Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one can’t just join the Congress party and become the country’s biggest mass leader. That would threaten the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family and they won’t allow that.

The Nehru-Gandhi family itself has lost the ability to connect with the masses. Rahul Gandhi has been unable to establish himself as a national mass leader – he needs the Samajwadi Party’s support to win his own Amethi seat.

What comes in the way of India having a liberal mass leader, then, is the Congress party. If and when India gets a liberal mass hero, it will have to be from outside the Congress party. That is a difficult task, not the least because no party other than the BJP and the Congress has a pan-India presence.

A new liberal mass hero, a 21st century Mahatma, will, therefore, have to come through a new party that replaces the Nehru-Gandhi family business.

A new Gandhi will have to take herself and a new party to the masses, just like Gandhi took the Congress to the masses and became Mahatma.

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