Modi reinvents Gandhi as ‘cool’ 21st century icon
India knows Mahatma Gandhi primarily as a freedom fighter and the world recognises him as the apostle of non-violence. But Gandhi is much more than that. Indian Prime Minister Modi has resurrected Gandhi from the dreary pages of Indian history textbooks to the front pages of global relevance in a world searching desperately for leadership, vision and sustainability. And in doing so, given Indian soft power a global boost.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the Global Goalkeeper Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in New York last month, he dedicated it to the people of India who had transformed the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) into a mass movement to improve hygiene standards across the country.
“The success of the Swachh Bharat Mission is due to the people of India. They made this their own movement and ensured the desired results were attained,” he said after receiving the award, which, he said, was particularly significant as it came on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi for whom sanitation was one of the over-arching goals of his social reform movement.
Gandhi’s dream of a hygienic India fulfilled
“India is making remarkable progress in fulfilling Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a Swachh Bharat. In the last five years, a record of more than 11 crore (110 million) toilets was constructed. This mission has benefitted the poor and women of the country the most. In addition to improving sanitation and health, building of 11 crore (110 million) toilets has also boosted economic activity in villages,” he said.
Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhian philosophy were, arguably, the most respected but poorly marketed soft power symbols of India. Till Modi’s rise to power, the Indian state would pay ritual obeisance to the Mahatma on his birthday and on Independence Day and then forget about the man and his ideals for the rest of the year.
Reinventing a revered historical figure
It was Modi who first realised that Gandhi’s ideas contained the seeds of the New India he wanted to build. He also recognised that a world torn asunder by ethnic and terrorist violence, climate change and isolationist tendencies needed Gandhi’s healing touch and powerful message of sustainable living and universal brotherhood to give itself half a chance.
All it needed was a mass programme to bring Gandhi out of the archives, the history books and the speeches of important leaders into the lives of the common man. That mass programme was announced, ironically, by Modi in his first Independence Day speech as Prime Minister on 15 August 2014.
That was the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a mission to make India open defecation free – and, thus, eliminate diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases associated with lack of hygiene.
In India, Gandhi was known primarily as a freedom fighter; globally he was famous as an apostle of non-violence. With Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Modi and his government began the process of reinventing India’s most iconic global brand – as a modern icon whose personal example symbolised many solutions the world urgently needs for the problems it is facing.
If the Clean India Mission was primarily a domestic initiative, another major initiative, the International Solar Alliance (ISA), would follow – in the footsteps of the sustainable living model espoused by the Mahatma – this time as a major multilateral initiative.
Modi had made the much-revered Gandhi “cool” as well. The Mahatma was scoring above Bollywood, food and music as India’s most important soft power export.
The Swachh Bharat numbers
The government had set a goal of building 100 million toilets at a cost of $28 billion to make India open defecation free by 2 October 2019, the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary. The mission has achieved more than 99 per cent success on toilet coverage and cost and more than 95 per cent success in terms of behavioural change – unprecedented in the annals of human history.
“The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been instrumental in saving over 300,000 lives from protein-energy malnutrition and diarrhoea related deaths in the last five years. Unsafe sanitation was responsible for almost 200 million cases of diarrhoea every year before the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched in 2014. These have steadily decreased over the years and we are close to achieving full elimination with universal use of safe sanitation facilities. The movement has also been successful in avoiding over 14 million disability-adjusted life years over the last five years,” Rajesh Ranjan Singh, COO, Wadhwani Institute for Sustainable Healthcare, which aims to make healthcare accessible to everyone, told the media.
Any shortfalls in achieving the targeted numbers are expected to be made up over the coming year. Detailed studies recording the successes and failures of the scheme and the lessons from them will doubtless come up in the course of time.
Globally replicable model
The precise contours of the success of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the areas in which improvements are possible will be known only after a few years. But for now, the world has a workable template that can be replicated in other parts of the world that are grappling with the issue of open defecation and the healthcare and environmental fallouts that follow from this practice.
Open defecation was long recognised as one of India’s major sanitation concerns. However, previous governments made only token interventions to tackle this problem. It was only in 2014 that the Modi government initiated such a concerted effort to eliminate this issue, which had reached crisis proportions. Improvement in sanitation services, drinking water supply, waste management and personal hygiene have markedly reduced the incidence of both vector-borne and water-borne diseases in India.
At the ceremony to receive the Global Gatekeeper Award, Modi said India is ready to share its expertise in eliminating open defecation and improving sanitation coverage with other nations so that there is a collective effort to reduce and eliminate this problem from the face of the earth.
Appealing to a younger generation
Talking about improving global sanitation coverage, Modi said that India is ready to share its expertise and experiences with other nations so that there can be a collective effort to increase sanitation coverage. He also spoke about another theme that was dear to Gandhi – fostering healthy and fit humans with the help of preventive healthcare. In this context, he spoke of the Fit India Movement, a campaign to encourage people to include sports and physical activity in their everyday lives.
“Fitness is zero per cent investment with infinite returns,” he had said at the launch of the event on 29 August this year, adding that exercise is necessary as technology had made life sedentary for most people.
This stress on health, sanitation, exercise and fitness is likely to draw younger adherents to the Gandhian fold, hitherto filled mainly with older people.
Moral compass in a rudderless world
While in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Modi hosted a special commemorative event titled “Leadership Matters: Relevance of Gandhi in the Contemporary World” to mark the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary. At the event, attended by UN chief Antonio Guterres, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Modi said Gandhi’s principles provide a moral compass for world grappling with challenges of terrorism, climate change and corruption.
Inaugurating the Gandhi Solar Park and the Gandhi Peace Garden at the UN headquarters, Modi underlined the Mahatma’s emphasis on Sarvodaya (welfare for all), as well as his focus on Antyodaya (welfare of the downtrodden) and his concern for the environment. He said Gandhi’s faith in the shared destiny of mankind, his uncompromising stance on morality and his belief in people’s movements remain relevant even today.
Gandhi’s campaign for environmental sustainability to Modi’s ISA initiative
Soon after being elected Prime Minister of India in 2014, Modi announced an ambitious target of achieving a capacity of 175 GW of renewable energy (solar, wind and biomass power) to reduce India’s dependence on fossil fuels and meet India’s commitments towards a more sustainable future for all mankind.
This, too, was inspired by Gandhi’s idea of environmental sustainability. In fact, Modi and India played a major role in salvaging the Paris climate talks after US President Donald Trump unilaterally walked out of it denying that climate change was even a valid concern.
And along with French President Emanuel Macron, Modi took the initiative to launch the International Solar Alliance (ISA), a treaty-based multilateral organisation comprising of 122 countries that lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The goal: expand the efficient use of solar energy around the world with the aim of reducing dependence on fossil fuels in order to reduce global warming and arrest and reverse the impact of climate change.
This initiative was first proposed by Modi in a speech in November 2015 at London’s Wembley Stadium in which he referred to the so-called sunshine countries as Suryaputra (“Sons of the Sun”). The ISA is the largest grouping of states in any organisation apart from the United Nations.
In fact, Modi was the first leader in Asia to establish a ministry dedicated to tackling climate change when he was chief minister of Gujarat. His bold initiative and green leadership stand out in a bleak global scenario marked by climate change denial in some important countries.
Modi’s action, inspired in part by Gandhi’s vision, is a rare instance of a global leader showing the political will to take a decisive decision on climate change.
Pragmatic and cool leadership
Gandhi’s leadership mantra stood out because it was both pragmatic and practical and also resonated with the masses. He also always kept his communication channels open with every section of society as well as those he opposed.
Paying tributes to his leadership, Guterres said: “Gandhiji’s vision and philosophy are pillars of the work of the United Nations. Part of his genius lay in his ability to see the inter-connectedness and the unity between all things. His political achievements included leading the movement that ended colonial rule in India, using peace, love and integrity to prevail. But his vision went far beyond politics to encompass human rights and sustainable development… Gandhi looked at the world from the point of view of the lowliest and the most humble – but is acknowledged as one of the greatest leaders of all time. His values truly transcend borders… We have issued our own United Nations stamp to commemorate this occasion, but we are in the company of more than 100 countries that have issued or are planning to issue stamps to honour this global leader.”
Unfair criticism at home
Modi has been criticised at home by his political rivals for allegedly trying to “appropriate” Gandhi despite his party and its predecessors being opposed to the Congress, of which Gandhi was the uncrowned leader during his lifetime.
This is palpably unfair both to Gandhi and to Modi. For one, Indian governments, since Independence, have done little to foster Gandhian values or perpetuate his memory – apart from ritually garlanding his statues on his birth anniversaries.
Then, reducing Gandhi’s legacy to the property of one political party only is to dishonour the man. Gandhi belongs to every Indian and, indeed, to every citizen of this world.
Future generations will thank Modi for resurrecting Gandhi from the dreary pages of Indian history textbooks to the front pages of global relevance in a world searching desperately for leadership, vision and sustainability.