Sanjaya Baru | The Mahatma Brand: From Nehru to Prashant Kishor

The Asian Age.  | Sanjaya Baru

Opinion, Columnists

The Indian National Congress was the first political party, inspired by the Mahatma, to successfully launch itself as a party of government

Political strategist Prashant Kishor.(DC file photo)

Mahatma Gandhi remains the most enduring global political icon of the past century. From Vladimir Lenin to Che Guevara, from Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, many national leaders have acquired global prominence and a following to match. Each of them remains a true and genuine “Vishwa Guru”, continuing to inspire millions of idealistic and patriotic people around the world. However, while the global appeal of some may have waxed and waned, the power of Mahatma Gandhi’s brand endures and continues to acquire traction around the world.

Gandhiji’s appeal to his fellow Indians is such that even political parties critical of him, like the Communist parties and the BJP, have had to come to terms with his iconic status. It is, therefore, not surprising that the latest entrant to the Indian political stage, Prashant Kishor, has also sought to launch himself and his new political project in the name of the Mahatma on his birth anniversary later this year.

Prashant Kishor not only chose a Gandhian quote as his motto — “the best politics is right action” — but also chose a Gandhian location, Champaran in Bihar, to launch his padayatra preceding the launch of a political party, making the announcement with Gandhiji’s visual presence.

The Indian National Congress was the first political party, inspired by the Mahatma, to successfully launch itself as a party of government. It’s first major challenger, the Janata Party of 1977, was led by a Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan, and also launched itself in the presence of the Mahatma’s visible symbols. On being elected to Parliament in March 1977, members belonging to the Janata Party gathered around Gandhiji’s samadhi at Rajghat in New Delhi and swore to adhere by his ideals.

Over time, however, Gandhiji has come to be remembered only on his birth and death anniversaries, or when the Opposition political parties decide to stage a demonstration outside Parliament House in the shadow of the Mahatma’s inspiring statue.

It would be interesting to see if Prashant Kishor adopted the Mahatma as his political icon and inspiration because the data that he gathered shows a countrywide urge to return to the roots of the national movement that united a divided India? Is an India that is once again being divided along communal, caste, linguistic and regional lines yearning for a leader that will bring them all together?

Aware of the power of brand in politics, has Mr Kishor encountered a hunger for secular patriotism among a growing number of young people across the country?

Gandhiji ignited patriotism by uniting Indians cutting across their many divides. He also projected India’s unique personality on the world stage. At a time when India is internally divided and its external image is dented, a new Gandhian narrative could restore domestic peace and harmony and enhance external prestige. Gandhiji’s message of non-violence and social equality are as relevant to India today as they were in his time.

Most political parties have increasingly come to draw inspiration from sectional or provincial leaders representing narrow political platforms. The Congress Party, now morphed into the Sonia Congress, promotes itself as the inheritor of a political dynasty from Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Sonia to Rahul Gandhi. The Left parties continue to seek ideological inspiration from Marx and Lenin, but at the party political level count on the legacy of an EMS, a Sundarayya, an Achutanandan and a Jyoti Basu.

The BJP, especially in recent years, has tried hard to overcome the historic legacy of its deep ideological differences with Gandhiji but has so far been unable to ignore the widespread national and international affection and respect for the Mahatma. One problem for the BJP has been its inability to elevate any of the pre-Independence leaders of the Sangh Parivar to Gandhiji’s status. They have instead had to borrow Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel from the Congress.

While the Congress has over time subtly replaced Gandhiji with Nehru and Indira as its principal icons, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP is not yet comfortable elevating Atal Behari Vajpayee to that kind of iconic status. Even though there is still a wellspring of affection for him within the Sangh Parivar, Hindutva hardliners resent the softer, liberal face of Hinduism that Vajpayee came to represent. On the other hand, Narendra Modi loyalists are working hard to elevate the Prime Minister to iconic status, most recently demonstrated by the manner in which a book marking his two decades in political office has been launched.

For the sectional and regional political parties, their founders are their icons. Thus, a Chaudhary Charan Singh remains the icon for those who remain loyal to his legacy just as Kanshi Ram and Mayawati inspire their supporters. Regional political leaders have appealed more to sectional loyalties rather than a larger ideology, though some have been more nationally inspiring than others.

Annadurai was the inheritor and preserver of a Dravidian identity while Charan Singh represented farmers’ interests. N.T. Rama Rao focused on Telugu pride but also ended up mobilising the wider national sentiment against the authoritarianism of a dominant political force. When the party he created reduced itself into just another regional outfit, it lost the elan that NTR imparted to it.

It remains to be seen what ideology or platform Prashant Kishor will come to represent, given his eclectic record as a political consultant. Arvind Kejriwal initially built his brand around good governance and the fight against corruption, but has settled down to being just another politician.

However, just as Mr Kejriwal has earned his credentials with victories in Delhi and Punjab, Mr Kishor will have to first prove his mettle in his home state of Bihar before he can be taken seriously elsewhere.

Mr Kishor would know that politics is not just about numbers but also about tapping identifiable and quantifiable loyalties. Both are important in the age of information warfare and symbolic campaigning. Has Mr Kishor discovered through his political data mining a new reverence for the apostle of non-violence in a country increasingly riven by violence in the pursuit of sectional interests and naked power? How he translates Gandhian idealism into a political and economic policy platform remains to be seen.