Where Narendra Modi’s Gandhian 'Tapasya' Falls Short

Unlike Modi, Gandhi spoke honestly of his failings and encouraged everyone to express their dissenting views.

In an email, a horrified friend referred to a suggestion, in an article she had just read, that Narendra Modi’s mention – in the context of lockdown-induced hardships – of tyag (sacrifice) and tapasya (penance) could be likened to Gandhi’s calls, generations ago, for satyagraha.

She is “simply appalled”, the friend said. Should she be scandalised? After all, why shouldn’t Modi try to demonstrate that anything Gandhi could do, he can do better?

In 1922, when, in Chauri Chaura near Gorakhpur, pro-freedom demonstrators hacked to death 22 Indian policemen working for the Raj, Gandhi’s immediate response was to pen this comment for his journal, Navajivan :

“I am certainly the one most responsible for the crime of the people of Gorakhpur district, but every genuine non-cooperator is also responsible for it. All of us should be in mourning for it. But the matter can be further discussed only when we have more details. May God save the honour of India and of non-cooperators.”

As the initiator of the non-cooperation campaign, Gandhi saw himself as the “one most responsible” for the tragedy of Chauri Chaura. As the person who had announced, on the night of March 24, a nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was certainly the one most responsible for triggering a harsh exodus from India’s cities, which, equally certainly, hurt India’s honour.

Modi had the option to go before the cameras and acknowledge that fact. The outcome would have been a nationwide reflection, mitigating, and possibly preventing, the harrowing explosion of sad trudges we continue to witness.

Eighteen years earlier, too, in 2002, chief minister Modi, as he then was, could have become a Gandhi pupil had he owned up to what the world saw – the carnage in Gujarat under his watch. Fourteen years thereafter, in 2016, Prime Minister Modi could have acknowledged the suffering caused to millions by demonetisation which he had abruptly promulgated and asked for the nation’s forgiveness. That would have sparked off a Gandhi recall.

Also read: If Only People Listened to Modi, They’d Understand Him Better

Does it really matter if some or many are tricked into imagining that Modi enters Gandhi’s league when he extolls the involuntary tyag and tapasya into which his abrupt proclamations have forced helpless women, men and children?

What matters is how our people are faring.

In the end, in any case, the truth becomes known. True, Gandhi died a long time ago, and a young Indian today may know little about him other than his charkha, his bald head and his Swachh Bharat spectacles.

In Narendra Modi’s case, however, perhaps we may assume that he has read Gandhi’s autobiography and noticed the many places in it where Gandhi speaks honestly of his failings.

Including his apology, as a boy, to his father for stealing. Including his honest retelling of the cruel remarks he made about twelve years later to Kasturba, when she was slow to carry out her husband’s wishes for social reform in their home in Durban in South Africa.

“I was wrong. I seek forgiveness.” When we hear those magical words from Modi, we may take a little interest in his supposed ‘tapasya‘.

Even if Modi does not know, others are aware of another key to Gandhi’s effectiveness: his joy in the independence of everyone on his team.

This team was large. It contained outstanding people, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, C. Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, J. B. Kripalani, Vinoba Bhave, Sarojini Naidu, J. C. Kumarappa, Jayaprakash Narayan, Mira Behn, Thakkar Bapa, Bibi Amtus Salaam, Mahadev Desai, Kaka Kalelkar, Pyarelal, Kishorelal Mashruwala, and many more, from every state and corner of the land.

Privately and publicly, Gandhi treated those on his wonderful team as equals. When anyone from the team said something, it was as good, often, as Gandhi speaking. Sometimes it was better than Gandhi speaking.

File picture of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Often, moreover, persons on Gandhi’s team differed publicly from him. And when Gandhi had sharp differences with figures like Subhas Bose and Ambedkar, he aired these differences with courtesy.

Who are the men and women on Modi’s team? We don’t know. We are told of bureaucrats in the PMO whom he trusts, but we know very little about them. Not even, at times, their names.

Also read: Modi, Shah Have Been Lying About Gandhi. Here’s What He Really Said About Minorities.

What about his cabinet, where he is supposed to be primus inter pares? Yes, there is Amit Shah who at times gets a platform of his own.

What about the other ministers? Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman represents no political constituency. Foreign minister S. Jaishankar is a promoted bureaucrat. They may be fine and hardworking human beings, but when last did the public hear of any expression of dissent by any of Modi’s cabinet colleagues?

In Gandhi’s case, persons like Nehru, Bose, Rajaji, Azad, and J.P. differed publicly and frequently from his positions, while the Patels on the team were content to be candid in private. All of India knew that there was free give-and-take.

Everyone is familiar with that wonderful photograph of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. It radiates mutual warmth, frankness, equality. Do Modi and his teammates convey anything remotely similar?

At times a smile may be seen in Modi photographs. But we never see him laughing – or crying – at his own mistakes.

Times are tough for everyone everywhere. There is no simple way of knowing how to make the right decision. Gandhi’s response, given in Kolkata in August 1947 – the month of our independence – is well-known:

“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.”

Whose faces will Narendra Modi recall before he makes his next proclamation?

Rajmohan Gandhi is a journalist and writer.