Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has been a totem for half a century and more. His ideas, even when he was alive, were seen by his peers and protégés as impractical pieties. It is appropriate that the tokenism that surrounds his legacy was taken to its absurd conclusion last week when the Khadi and Village Industries Commission published a calendar that featured a photograph of Narendra Modi sitting at a charkha. The picture provoked hysteria among liberals who read it as an act of insolent appropriation. They were right, but it’s more interesting than that.
Like all successful politicians, Modi tries to control and manage the way in which he is pictorially represented. His formally posed portraits come in two main flavours: Piercing Gravitas and Smiling Visage. Piercing Gravitas comes naturally to him: Delhi was papered with huge, pharaonic portraits of the unsmiling Leader in the run up to the Delhi elections. It’s hard to know whether the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rout in Delhi has anything to do with it, but since then we’ve seen more pictures of Modi smiling, more retail politician than Ramesses II. The trouble with the smiling pictures is that the prime minister can do impassive, combative and triumphal superbly, but kindliness and benevolence hardly at all. There is a portrait of him with his shoulders slightly turned in an orange kurta and brown Nehru jacket, grinning; it leaves the viewer with the uneasy feeling that the Leader has the goods on him.
To return to the calendar picture, it’s worth noticing that there is a double-appropriation afoot. Modi isn’t just standing in for Gandhi, the Nehru jacket reminds us that he is also the BJP’s sartorial answer to Jawaharlal. The basic elements of their wardrobes are similar: kurta, waistcoat and churidar pyjamas. The difference lies in the gorgeous colourfulness that Modi brings to his clothes that transforms them into coordinated outfits. Nehru’s khadi waistcoats are a generic off-white or beige; Modi’s are all the colours of the rainbow.
There is a sharp fit and finish to Modi – the neat cuffs on his kurtas, the snugness of those pastel waistcoats – that leaves Nehru looking almost plain. Also there is a fullness to the present prime minister’s aspect, which helps his tailors achieve that bespoke upholstered look that Nehru wholly lacks. The one obvious difference is that Nehru used to wear achkans and Modi doesn’t. Even the achkans were monochromatic; Nehru’s tailor, P.K. Vaish, told the Wall Street Journal that he wore them only in black, white, cream and grey. The one touch of colour used to be supplied by the red rose in his buttonhole. In an interesting inversion, Modi sports a black-and-white plastic lotus in election season.
It isn’t hard to find online photographs of Nehru at a charkha. There’s one of him in Life magazine, spinning alone in a room on one of those flat portable charkhas that used to be fairly common in middle-class homes in the early decades of Independence. There’s another picture, taken by the great photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla, which has him cross-legged at the charkha in full formal rig – topi, achkan, churidar – drawing out the thread and looking, like Modi, entirely unpersuaded by what he was doing. It’s fair to say that this was as much a photo-op as the picture that graces the KVIC’s calendar.
There are amusing differences, though. Modi isn’t sitting cross-legged. He’s sitting on a white block and the charkha is perched on another white block in front of him. It’s hard to tell in the published picture because of the front-on angle. In Vyarawalla’s photograph, Nehru is pictured surrounded by people less than an arm’s length from him. Modi sits in the centre of a large room, on a raised platform, with the women spinners to whom he has donated charkhas sitting at a respectful distance on the carpeted floor. It isn’t as if Modi can’t sit cross-legged; he is famously the prime minister who led the nation through a yoga class. The reason he isn’t cross-legged is that he is there as a patron, as the benign leader bearing gifts, and the dignity of his office demands elevation.
There is a self-consciousness to Modi that is actorly in its intensity. There is a video of the event in Ludhiana where the KVIC photograph was taken, from which it’s evident that the camera doesn’t just happen to be there; the whole event is staged for the camera. There are grateful women spinning in the background and there are framed photographs of the prime minister on the wall behind them looking benignly at the real Mr Modi in the foreground, working the charkha and dignifying the whole business of khadi with his presence.
Modi, like Nehru, photographs well. But they are very different subjects. Here is Vyarawalla on Nehru: “Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) was very photogenic. He had different moods and was very active, so that made it possible to get good pictures of him. He always pretended as if no photographers were around. He didn’t mind if he was taking a nap and you took his picture. He would wake up and give you a smile. There were others who would flare up and ask for the film. He was not like that…”
I think it’s fair to say that Modi is unlikely to be caught off-guard with a photographer around.
Was the replacement of Gandhi by Modi the thin end of the wedge, one step in the BJP’s tireless bid to rewrite the history of Indian nationalism? More likely it was the sangh parivar seeing what it could get away with, in much the same way as it tried in the first year of Modi’s government to replace Christmas Day with Good Governance Day, where the nativity of Jesus Christ was overwritten by the momentous birthdays of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Ever since Modi took office in 2014, the BJP’s gut feelings on a whole range of issues have been sub-contracted to party functionaries and junior ministers who give voice to opinions that might sound unseemly in the mouths of the BJP’s senior leadership.
On the matter of the KVIC photograph, Haryana’s health minister, Anil Vij, took guard and hit the ball out of the park. Modi, he declared, was a much bigger “brand” than Gandhi. Gandhi’s association with khadi had drowned the khadi industry. In much the same way, Gandhi’s portrait on rupee notes had led to the devolution of the currency. Asked why the BJP government persisted with Gandhi’s image on currency notes, he assured the reporter that “gradually, he will be removed from the notes”.
Ignore the pro forma protests and disavowals issued by BJP spokespersons as also Vij’s contrition. Gandhi is an albatross that the BJP has to wear around its neck for expedient reasons. But it doesn’t have to like it. Vij declared that his views on Gandhi were his personal opinions. He’s right; contempt for Gandhi is the personal opinion of most members of the sangh parivar. How could it not be: the man went on and on about ahimsa? It isn’t hard to foretell a future when the BJP feels confident enough for this mass of personal opinions to morph into a party position and then Gandhi might well disappear from our currency notes.
I notice that the new notes issued post-demonetization have Gandhi’s image on one side and Gandhi’s spectacles, now the emblem of Modi’s Clean India campaign, on the other. In Milan Kundera’s great satirical novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a communist apparatchik gives his boss his hat to keep his head warm just before a group photograph is taken. Afterwards the apparatchik falls out of favour and is disappeared both from real life and, via airbrushing, from the group photograph. The only thing that remains of him is the hat on his boss’s head. If things go well for Modi and his party, there will come a time when all that remains of the Mahatma on our folding money are his spectacles.
:: Mukul Kesavan’s column for the Telegraph