When the most popular ‘historical brand’ of India is Mahatma Gandhi, does it not make good strategic sense to own the brand even as you change what it conveys in the new, changing ecosystem?
With Modi sarkar 2.0 firmly in place and the BJP set to dominate India’s politics for the foreseeable future, the question of history comes up often. The history of a nation is a living document, not as much a record of the past as it is a record of how we see the past. It has never been otherwise.
In fact, this is a very concrete and universally accepted concept. When we reach into our past and say for instance that Adi Shankara was an Indian, we must apply our understanding of the identity of the Indian nation. Because Adi Shankara lived over 1000 years before the modern Republic of India was established.
As the Indian people have redefined themselves through the elections of 2014 and 2019, it is only fair to infuse our history with our new sense of identity. And because so much of what we perceive as history is about famous personalities, much of this comes down to how we think about them.
I will mostly talk about Mahatma Gandhi but only as an example and because he is arguably the most famous of all.
So let us talk about the Mahatma. It is no secret that much of the modern Hindu right wing, be it online or in private discussions, can be sharply critical of Gandhi.
This brings me to my core thesis: one must realize that when a right winger criticizes Gandhi, they are not criticizing a person, but someone more like a movie character. This character is loosely based on the life of one Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who lived from 1869 to 1948 but the movie has been scripted by the Nehruvian establishment of old.
Let’s call this character “Congress Gandhi”. What are the attributes of Congress Gandhi? Well, for one, Congress Gandhi was all about Swadeshi and did not like modern industry. Congress Gandhi was always bending over backwards to appease the “minorities”. And most importantly, Congress Gandhi’s single most important belief in life was that Jawaharlal Nehru could do no wrong.
As you can see, these were exactly the priorities of the Nehruvian establishment in the pre-1991 era.
It is not like Congress Gandhi was purely made up. Like every other human being, the real Mahatma Gandhi was a mosaic of characteristics. His views on economic matters, such as the idea of the rich being “trustees” of the wealth of the poor, are best described as naive. His views on modern medicine are misleading and dangerous. His views on rape and “purity” of women are impossible to agree with. As recent protests in Ghana have shown, his views on race were also extremely disturbing.
But which aspect of Gandhi’s life and ideas were played up depended on the story that the establishment wanted to tell.
This is not to denigrate the Mahatma in any way. Not at all. Rather it is to say that now is the time to tell a new story about him, to build a “BJP Gandhi” if you will. The new Gandhi is an icon of cleanliness, of unity among Hindu castes. He advocates against cow slaughter and for Ram Rajya. His greatest love is not for Nehru, but for the Bhagavad Gita.
Again, all of these things are facts. It is about which facts we want to put in when we write the new story of Gandhi. As a practical matter, the old story of Gandhi was selective and so will the new story be.
My personal belief is that this important point of strategy is well understood at the highest levels of the BJP leadership. But perhaps not so well appreciated lower down the ranks. When Hindu right wingers online speak against Gandhi, they are in fact validating the Nehruvian legend of Congress Gandhi. He was just a story. It is time to write a new one.
And when the establishment changes and a new story is written, one must use — as much as possible — the brand value created by the old.
How many people in India know, for instance, that Cadbury’s no longer exists as a separate company? It has been 9 years since the iconic British company was bought over by the American Kraft Foods, which has been further renamed as Mondelez International. But when Kraft took over Cadbury’s, they did not replace the royal blue packaging of Dairy Milk chocolate with American themed stars and stripes. Because the brand had immense value. It would make no sense to tamper with it.
The Mahatma in India is perhaps the greatest historical brand of all. Every town, village and city in India has a road named after him. Every child’s history book has a picture of him on the cover. Every currency note has a picture of him. The Congress created this brand and infused him with the qualities that the Nehruvian establishment would have liked. For the new establishment, it would make sense to continue using this brand, but as a vehicle for promoting its own message.
Perhaps a section of the right wing base, which may be somewhat taken by surprise at the continued primacy of the Mahatma’s image in the new political era, needs to understand this concept. It is not the face that matters, but what is said in its name.
Now, this kind of thinking could well be perceived as cynical. Even immoral, with no regard for objective truth. Why not just tell the truth and nothing but the truth? That would be great, if objective history was a real thing. What we generally end up with is a superstition of objectivity created by those who intend to deliberately mislead us.
Remember how the media in the old days insisted that it was always being objective? This was before every journalist had a Twitter account and everyone could see how biased and incompetent they were. The superstition that objective history and objective media can exist has only done harm to the public.
All these decades, the establishment has done just that: taken historical figures and made them figureheads who speak for what Nehru would have liked them to say.
It is time to change: not the faces but what they say.
It is the only way if we hope to go toe-to-toe with the old establishment and beat them at their game. Notice how cannily the missionary mafia and the Communists — who never agree on anything else — have managed to strike up an issue-based alliance in India’s tribal heartland. Why do they do it? Because they understand the importance of a story that is told cleverly. They don’t so much care about the form and each other’s intentions as long as the message being delivered as an end result is the same.
In contrast, the right wing does not stand a chance if it insists on form rather than end results. A couple of months ago, the online right wing went through a storm in a teacup when some people pulled out isolated quotes and testimonies to say that Bengali icon Raja Rammohan Roy was some kind of an “agent” of Christian missionaries. The arguments and counter arguments raged for days.
The question of what would be achieved through the debate did not appear to have come up. Bengal is going through a great political transition. The only question that mattered was whether dissing a great Bengali icon at that juncture would have brought any gains for the Hindu right wing. Probably not.
In my opinion, this crucial fact was lost in the chaos. And by indulging in this pointless argument, the Hindu right likely ended up giving a handle to its critics.
This is my final and most humble submission to the right, especially the online right. Let us pick our battles wisely. Let us identify the weak points in the opposite narrative and hammer them. There are plenty and we would be spoiled for choice.
At places where the opposing narrative is the strongest, it’s better to go around, choose a different target and fight them where they are weakest. And wherever possible, to co-opt. The objective is to breach the defenses and control as much ground as possible, putting the other side into a position of surrender.
There are no prizes for fighting valiantly. There are only prizes for winning. The last 1000 years should have taught us that lesson.
History is the dirtiest battle ever fought. We have to play the game by its rules.