- - Wednesday, May 31, 2017

NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised a lot of eyebrows here recently when he decided it was a good idea to wrap the nation’s advances in plumbing together with a celebration of Mahatma Gandhi.

An audience of smitten followers and party faithful broke into applause as Mr. Modi marked the 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s first campaign against British rule in colonial India in May 1917, linking it to his own Swachhagraha — “Clean India” — campaign to boost economic performance by ending public human defecation and cleaning up the country’s notoriously polluted and dusty cities.

Ghandi pushed for an independent India via what he called satyagraha, or nonviolent civil disobedience. “The aim of satyagraha was independence, and the aim of Swachhagraha is to create a clean India,” Mr. Modi told the crowd. “A clean India helps the poor the most.”

For any other prime minister, honoring the man often called the Father of the Nation would be a natural part of the job. But, despite his popularity, Mr. Modi remains a polarizing figure, and critics say the prime minister’s attempt to appropriate Gandhi’s legacy to benefit his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his own cult of personality is political sacrilege.

Modi has reduced one of the most interesting and celebrated public lives of the 20th century to toilet paper to clean his image,” said Sopan Joshi, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Gandhi Peace Foundation.

Launched in 2014, the Clean India campaign has built nearly 40 million toilets, according to government figures.

Gandhi’s first satyagraha movement mobilized peasants growing indigo in the Champaran district of the northern state of Bihar against their landlords and the British colonial government in 1917. The strategy of passive resistance would set in motion a movement that would force the British out of India 30 years later.

Satyagraha is a Hindi term typically translated as “an insistence on truth.”

Mr. Modi’s government has linked the two efforts and embarked on an 18-month celebration of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement that is slated to culminate in a massive spectacle in October 2019 to honor the 150th anniversary of the revered leader’s birth.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party and Gandhi have many commonalities on core issues, like cultural nationalism,” said party spokesman Rakesh Sinha, referring to Mr. Modi’s rhetoric about India’s uniqueness and its history as a cradle of Hinduism.

But critics say the behavior of Mr. Modi’s supporters flies in the face of Gandhi’s philosophy of tolerance and nonviolence.

Mr. Modi was hailed as a mold-breaking figure when he was elected in 2014, a pro-business politician who would jump-start the sclerotic and regulation-ridden Indian economy. But he also came to office under a cloud stemming from accusations that he stood idle in 2002 as Hindus massacred more than 1,000 Muslims over the course of three days in Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time.

A special investigation team representing the Supreme Court found no evidence to support those charges in 2012. But even in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, Mr. Modi referred to relief camps for displaced Muslims as “breeding centers” and joked about the minority group’s reputation for bearing many children due to laws that allow Muslim men to have up to four wives.

Since he became prime minister in 2014, Hindu vigilantes have lynched Muslims for allegedly eating beef or transporting cows for slaughter, vandalized Christian churches and stepped up a campaign against romances between Muslim men and Hindu women — which right-wing Hindu groups call “love jihad.”

Favoring Hindus

Critics say Mr. Modi has not spoken out or acted swiftly enough against those vigilantes because he still adheres to the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva, which seeks to elevate Hinduism to a special place in technically secular India.

“Killings of Muslims for allegedly eating beef and vandalizing of churches would have repelled Gandhi but are at the core of the strategy of the Hindutva brigade,” said Raghav Gaiha, an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Manchester.

The partisan and sectarian clashes dominating New Delhi today stand in sharp contrast to the ideals that animated Gandhi’s movement. Committed to a diverse India, the Father of the Nation famously said he could never force anyone to stop slaughtering cows given that India is not a nation only of Hindus.

Gandhi helped spawn a political tradition that has long been at odds with Mr. Modi‘s, too.

The Hindu nationalist group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which later launched the BJP as its political wing, clashed with Gandhi when he was alive and reportedly celebrated his assassination by a former RSS member by distributing sweets, Mr. Joshi said.

Gandhi is not related to the familial Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that produced three prime ministers, as well as present Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But during the independence movement, he was its president from 1921 to 1928. Though BJP leaders say that was a different entity from the one that exists today, the modern Congress Party remains the BJP’s largest rival in Indian politics.

For Mr. Modi, embracing Gandhi is one way of rising above his critics’ accusations as he attempts to remake himself from the business-friendly reformer of the 2014 campaign to the champion of the masses now that he is the country’s leader, said commentator N. Chandra Mohan, a longtime editor at several of India’s top newspapers.

“It’s very essential for [the BJP and its supporters] to occupy the national space,” Mr. Mohan said. “They’re no longer just a majoritarian party. Modi is the ruler of India. They’ve never had this stature before.”

But where Gandhi and the Hindu nationalists converge — on cleanliness, love for Hindu culture, the idea of achieving self-reliance by manufacturing in India and conservative morality — Mr. Modi can wrap himself in the same loincloth, Mr. Mohan said.

It may well be working.

This year, on the 2017 calendar produced by the Khadi Village Industries Commission, which has long featured the famous image of Gandhi at the spinning wheel, Mr. Modi is now spinning the yarn. Gandhi advocated boycotting British-made cloth and wearing only khadi, or “homespun.”

In Mumbai, employees staged a silent “soul-cleansing ritual” in protest, praying before a statue of Gandhi with black cloth over their mouths in January. However, the protest failed to gain traction.

BJP spokesman Tarun Vijay said it was unfair to link the independence leader with the modern Congress party, and Gandhi’s ideas find many echoes among today’s Hindu nationalists.

Gandhi was not Congress, he was a freedom fighter,” Mr. Vijay said. “The Bharatiya Janata Party under Modi is the living embodiment of the Gandhian values.

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