Narendra Modi’s many foreign tours have become the stuff of legend. To different people, they have come to mean different things. To his fans and supporters, they symbolise ‘the resurgence of a new India’, but to his detractors and critics, they epitomise wastefulness, extravagance and a failed foreign policy.
Over the last 4.5 years, the prime minister has visited 83 countries, but the small South American country of Uruguay has not been one of them. Had Modi visited Uruguay during the first year or so of his tenure, he might have had the opportunity to meet its former president, Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica, a man who many have called “South America’s Gandhian president.”
It would have been an interesting meeting – a South American president who espouses Gandhian values and an Indian prime minister who is the product of an organisation that despises them. In fact, it would be safe to say that one would have been hard-pressed to find two more disparate heads of state in the same place.
For example, unlike the Indian prime minister who is known for his expensive sartorial tastes and who lives in a lush, 12-acre property in the heart of New Delhi, (occasionally even posting ‘workout videos’ of himself in his garden), Pepe Mujica has vehemently eschewed the trappings of power. The Uruguayan President refused to move into the presidential palace after getting elected. Instead, he insisted on continuing to live in his one room cottage on the outskirts of Montevideo, with his wife and dog. He also refused a presidential motorcade and chose instead to drive to work and back daily in his 30-year-old blue Volkswagen Beetle.
Narendra Modi calls himself a fakir; Jose Mujica actually lives like one.
Mujica, incidentally, also gave away 90% of his monthly salary as president to the poor. His net worth was estimated at $1,800 (approximately Rs 1.26 lakhs), thus earning him the title of “the world’s poorest president.” Mujica, however, does not think he is poor. “My definition of poor,” he says, “are those who need too much, because those who need too much are never satisfied. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle and always want more and more.”
He does, however, take pains to point out that he is not pro-poverty. “I am not advocating poverty,” he says, “I am advocating sobriety. If you don’t have many possessions, then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.”
In an era where GDP is considered the great measure of all growth (so much so that the current government in India has even come up with a whole new way of showing that GDP is much higher in Modi’s reign that was in Manmohan Singh’s), Mujica has a markedly different take on what constitutes progress and growth. He says:
“Since we have created a consumer society, the economy of course, has to grow. If it fails to grow, it’s looked upon as a big tragedy! We have invented a mountain of superfluous needs – shopping for new, discarding the old. That is a waste of our lives! When you buy something, you’re not paying money for it. You’re paying with the hours of life you had to spend earning that money … I believe we have a crisis of values in our civilization. This stage of capitalism does not generate goodness; it generates corruption. We can’t confuse consumption with happiness. We can’t separate the economy from ethics, philosophy and dreams. The wealth we need to create is in the people, not the money. Not everything is a product. Not everything can be bought and sold.”
One might have brushed off Mujica’s words as empty, idealistic rhetoric, but the fact remains that Uruguay stands out in Latin America for being an egalitarian society with high per capita income, low levels of inequality and almost complete absence of extreme poverty. In fact, The Economist chose “modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving” Uruguay as its country of the year for 2013.
Mujica began life as a farmer but went on to join a rebel political movement called the ‘Tupamaros’. His activism landed him in prison for 14 years. Mujica says it was his time in prison – especially the ten years he spent in solitary confinement with absolutely nothing, not even his books – that shaped his thinking, worldview and lifestyle profoundly.
The essence of his political and social worldview can be found in this excerpt of an interview he gave to Human in 2015, In it Mujica says:
“Instead of buying a presidential jet, we decided instead to buy a very expensive rescue helicopter from France that will help accident victims. Where’s the dilemma? A presidential jet or a rescue chopper? It’s an easy choice. It’s a question of sobriety.
What I’d recommend is that we stop wasting resources on useless things, on luxurious houses that take six servants to maintain. What good is all that? None of that is necessary. We can live much more modestly. We can spend our resources on things that are really important for everyone. That’s the real meaning of democracy, the meaning that politicians have lost.”
For the Indian government that has spent the equivalent of one billion dollars on its prime minister’s international tours and its own advertising, not to mention thousands of crores of rupees on things like outsize statues, President Mujica’s words, life, policies and philosophy serve as a standing rebuke.
One wonders what Mujica and Modi might have talked about had the latter ever visited Uruguay. Who knows what effect a president who lives Gandhi’s message would have had one on a prime minister who largely only pays him lip service? Take for example, Gandhi’s famous talisman:
“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”
Modi, it can be safely argued, will not be remembered for putting Gandhi’s talisman into practice. Mujica, on the other hand, will.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.