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THE OLD MAN ON THE FLAG
- Perhaps Modi and co. will be forced to recall Gandhi in an unexpected way

A few days ago I was in Gujarat making a radio documentary for the BBC. On the last day of my visit, I found myself interviewing Anandi Patel, the state minister for education, and someone reputed to be very close to Narendra Modi. During the interview, the minister said something that almost knocked me off my chair. As she began listing her achievements, the minister mentioned a recent function held by the Gujarat government in Porbandar: “Why Porbandar'” Smt Patel rhetorically asked, the righteous light shining in her eyes, “Because people are beginning to forget Gandhi. They are beginning to forget Gandhi!”

The reason I was shocked was simple. I was meeting Anandi Patel after having spent a week talking to victims of the 2002 killings, talking to activists from differing backgrounds, talking to friends trying to lead a normal existence in a mind-numbingly abnormal society. Forget the newspaper and TV reports, leave aside the findings of various commissions, what I had come face to face with for the first time was a complete, naked, planned and sustained anti-Gandhi-ism, and this not only from the government — which of course leads the project of decimation — but also from ordinary middle-class Gujarati Hindus. “Gandhi”, “Bapu”, “ahimsa” and “satyagraha”, were all now bad words that you avoided uttering in many circles of polite Ahmedabad society.

Given that Anandi Patel was a be-medalled general of the army carrying out this massacre of Gandhi’s legacy, the very least I expected was a polite dismissal of old MKG, something to the tune of “yes, yes, those ideas are unpractical in the face of Muslim terrorism”, or “yes, he was a great man of his time but that time has long passed”. What I did not expect was the sheer effrontery of a statement akin to: yes, we will butcher people, and then terrorize them with POTA, but we also reserve the right to put the old man on our flag and wave it around.

Naïve of me, of course. It’s not as though I haven’t noticed the Congress, even at its violent worst, clinging on to the round spectacles, the stick and the charkha, nor, to the best of my knowledge, has a single October 2 passed without the chief minister of this cadre-deploying Left Front putting a flowery noose around Gandhi’s statue, and nor have the many feudal satraps and small-time crooks leading segments of other parties left the old man alone. The difference this time, I imagined, was that finally an Indian political party had decided it could do without the fig-leaf of Gandhi’s dhoti. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The problem, of course, is that the brand is too strong, too ingrained in people’s minds, both nationally and internationally, to be jettisoned so easily. The world over the equation is Gandhi=non-violence and peace, but also Gandhi=Gujarat, therefore Gujarat=non-violence and peace. Now, when you are looking to sweep both the massive mismanagement of the post-earthquake situation as well as the huge, evil, execution of the post-Godhra massacres under the carpet, when you are looking to save your political neck by trying to induce large foreign investments into a troubled state economy, then you need to put out some reassuring icons. Nothing is better for this purpose than big newspaper ads sporting the familiar silhouette of MKG next to a selective list of “Gandhian ideals”, such as Vegetarianism and the support for Handicrafts, under the slogan: Gandhiji na pagey pagey (“In the footsteps of Gandhiji”). What gives it away, though, is the little, oval, portrait of a smiling Narendra “Aapdo Adolf” Modi in the top right corner of the spread.

Talking about Adolf, once you notice this inside-out conjurer’s trick, then you see it everywhere. Two days ago, it was Ashok Singhal’s advocate brother on TV accusing Mulayam Singh of “Hitlerian” tactics, never mind that the RSS-VHP have always loved and revered their Fuehrer. Before that it was Vajpayee being “Gandhian” in saying that we should all trust the VHP to maintain the peace in Ayodhya (Pray why, Atal-ji' Why should we trust these thugs, who’ve always run their chariot on wheels of violence and hatred, to maintain the peace') and then, to top it all off, you have George Bush bringing out of his mouth the same foreign word — peace — while speaking about Iraq.

With Bush we know that if he was woken up from sleep and asked to spell “peace” he would come up with a four-letter construction ending with a double “s”. But in the case of Anandi Patel I had no reason to suspect that her Gujarati wasn’t equal to spelling “sahishnuta” or “sadbhavna” or any other useful Gandhian word that could be used as a smoke-screen. Another word I am sure she can spell is “balatkar” — rape — and she took great exception to my using it while asking her about what had happened to Muslim women in Gujarat.

“I would thank you not to use that word in my presence!” she snapped at me.”But, Anandibehn, how can I not use it'” I asked, stunned yet again at the sheer gall. “Because there have been no rapes!”

“How can you say that'’ I managed to get out.

“Because,” said the lady, bringing her full authority to bear, “I am the minister for the welfare of women and children!”

Not being an Oriana Fallaci or a Jeremy Paxman, I was, at this point, more or less robbed of speech. The minister, however, continued: No rapes, none; And if some girl had indeed registered a case of rape then where was the proof' Had any doctor said she was raped' And it was nonsense that the police had not investigated properly; a canard spread by a massive conspiracy of the English media in the country; every single English-language newspaper and TV channel in cahoots to defame her honest government and her brave leader Narendra bhai.

I tried to point out to Smt Patel that never before, not even just after the Emergency, had the Indian English-language media been so completely of one voice about any issue. I tried to put to her that even pro-BJP journalists in Delhi were appalled by what had been carried out in Gujarat. I tried to suggest that if there had been even a sliver of doubt about the veracity of the testimonies of planned murders, rapes and precision-arson, someone, somewhere, in the national media would have gone to town about it, if only to be different, if only to increase circulation or viewership. But Smt Patel was having none of it: I am telling you it’s all a string of lies!

At the end of the interview I was left wondering whether it was sheer arrogance or complete head-in-the-sand panic that had been on display. Whatever the case, it was only later I realized that Anandi Patel’s model was not so much Joseph Goebbels as a more recent avatar. Remembering my encounter in Gandhinagar, I suddenly saw Donald Rumsfeld sitting there in a Gujarati-style sari, firing questions that he wanted to answer: did we protect the Muslims' Heck, you bet! Did Muslims start the violence in each and every riot in Gujarat since Independence' Too darn true, they did! Are the pending accusations against our MLAs and RSS-VHP members serious' Of course not, they’re irrelevant, what’s important is that we have arrested and jailed the perpetrators of the Godhra outrage! And so on and so forth. In this torrential question-plus-answer format, one of the things Anandi Patel threw at me with great vehemence was: why didn’t the English media say anything about the innocent dead in carriage S6' Because they were Hindus, of course!

The difference between Gandhi and many social activists working today is that, when faced with Himalayan odds, MKG could fall back upon his faith. Even as I returned to Delhi, still reeling from the interview, the news broke that relatives of the Godhra victims — those very Hindus that Smt Patel was so concerned about — now wanted the investigations carried out from outside Gujarat. I am not much given to prayer, and my own faith is something that fluctuates a fair bit, but reading this bit of news I couldn’t help imagining that some unexplainable power was beginning to get back to Anandibehn and her Fuehrer-bhai and that maybe they would be forced to remember Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in a way they hadn’t planned.

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