From Gandhi to Nehru, Modi has adopted them all

Indian PM is invoking rival Congress' beloved figures to serve public policy goals

This article was first published on Oct 14, 2014

NEW DELHI - Watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the past month, as he began to carve out an image for himself beyond India's borders, one might have had the impression that Mohandas Gandhi was his ideological progenitor, or his running mate.

Gandhi is everywhere in Delhi these days. A stylised drawing of the independence leader's steel- rimmed, circular glasses is the logo of Mr Modi's new cleanliness drive.

When the President of China, Mr Xi Jinping, visited, Mr Modi received him at Gandhi's ashram.

Then Mr Modi visited President Barack Obama in the United States and presented him with a copy of Gandhi's translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

Gandhi, of course, is an unlikely avatar for the ascendant right wing in India.

For most of the last century, Gandhi has been the symbolic leader of the Indian National Congress party, which Mr Modi drove from power this year.

Gandhi's economic vision was fundamentally anti-capitalist: He extolled rural over urban life and called industrialisation "a curse for mankind".

During his lifetime, Gandhi was excoriated by right-wing activists - including the man who assassinated him - for acquiescing to the creation of Pakistan and advocating for the rights of India's Muslim minority.

Though Mr Modi has always spoken of Gandhi with respect, he has echoed the criticism that Congress leaders gave preferential treatment to India's minorities.

Mr Modi's reputation as a Hindu hardliner was defined in 2002, when bloody sectarian riots broke out under his watch as chief minister of the state of Gujarat.

So the Gandhi now embraced by Mr Modi is an edited version. First and foremost, he is a preacher of cleanliness - a fair depiction, since he was passionate on the subject, known for seizing brooms and for insisting that even high-born followers, like his wife, empty their own chamber pots.

Mr Modi has endorsed some elements of Gandhi's economic thinking, urging consumers to buy homespun cloth instead of imported products. But his Gandhi hardly believes that "the future of India lies in its villages".

To a crowd of mainly Indian-Americans in New York last month, Mr Modi described Gandhi as remarkably like them, a man who "went abroad, became a barrister, had opportunities", but "came back to serve the nation".

Mr Tushar A. Gandhi, the great-grandson of the independence leader, has watched this process with curiosity and, at times, satisfaction.

But he noted that during his 12 years as a state leader, Mr Modi had never invoked Gandhi with such enthusiasm. "In this short period of 100 days that he has been the Prime Minister of India, it seems everything he does is guided by Bapu," he said, using an affectionate term meaning father.

While seeking the post of prime minister, Mr Modi set out to create political space outside the Hindu right wing, in part by laying claim to beloved figures associated with the Congress party.

The most obvious was the independence fighter Sardar Patel, known as "the Iron Man of India", whom Mr Modi so admires that he has begun a project to build a 182m Patel monument.

There is little mystery in why Mr Modi identifies with Patel. He was a rival to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and far less sympathetic to the demands of India's Muslims and more to the right on economic matters.

More surprising, perhaps, is Mr Modi's effort to also associate himself with Nehru, a leader whom he has publicly criticised in the past as weak. Last week, Mr Modi called him "Chacha Nehru", or "Uncle Nehru", and proposed that his birthday become a nationwide celebration of - you guessed it - hygiene and cleanliness.

With the adoption of Nehru, Mr Modi has "got the whole packet" of Congress' heroes, said Mr Shiv Visvanathan, a social scientist and self-described liberal.

"It's literally a stealing of intellectual property."

Mr Tushar Gandhi declared last week that Mr Modi's rollout of the cleanliness campaign, which required top officials to go out and clean neighbourhoods, was the only celebration in decades "which would have got Bapu's seal of approval".

Mr Modi has a knack for broadcasting political signals in all directions at once.

Mr Prabhu Chawla, editorial director of The New Indian Express, ticked off a long list of gestures aimed at proving Mr Modi's credentials as a Hindu nationalist.

"His idea of India is Hindi Hindu - people who speak Hindi and those who are Hindu," Mr Chawla said.

Mr Modi's invocations of Gandhi may simply be an acknowledgment that one cannot rule India without allegiance to him.

"No one in India, not even Congress, has fully embraced Gandhi," said Professor Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University.