You know the barrel of ideas is at its bottom-scraping emptiest when you start hearing the hollow comparisons to M K Gandhi. Revile him as a coward when convenient, reduce his legacy to a caricature -- but when you need to rally public support, there remain few better ways, even today, than to invoke his name.
Then again, maybe that's the caricature, right there. Maybe it lies in the use of Gandhi to lend legitimacy to anything at all, even by people who ordinarily have contempt for him. And yet, when they do it, they blithely give themselves away: they have nothing to offer, no argument to make, no way to persuade us of their virtues. Therefore, they make the Gandhi comparison.
As now, when a man's application for a US visa is turned down. No, this does not cause him to reflect on the horrible perversion of justice that led to this rejection. No, it does not persuade his supporters that the best way to ensure he does get a visa next time -- if he really wants one, as he seems to -- is to speedily restore justice to a land starved of it.
Callous US, guilty Bush
No, all we see is the man doing what he does so efficiently when criticised, as after the violence in his state three years ago. He paints that criticism as an assault on eye-catching ideas like 'asmita' and 'swabhimaan.' Your asmita, my asmita. Your swabhimaan, my swabhimaan. Why these are under attack because he is criticised, we must not ask. We must simply feel it, that's all. Because he knows that if we do, we'll get riled by the attack, and rally behind him.
Or perhaps that's the caricature, right there. In the way a yearning for justice after indiscriminate slaughter is dismissed as an insult.
So it's no surprise to hear that his rejected visa is an attack on the Indian Constitution, on India, on our Indian-ness itself. You and I are supposed to be insulted, our swabhimaan torn to shreds.
'It's an issue of swabhimaan': Modi
And just in case that seems like a bit of a stretch to you -- it does to me -- he has that man Gandhi ready to be trotted out. 'A man from Gujarat was thrown out of a train in South Africa!' he intones from the stage of a 'swabhimaan' rally, reminding us of the incident that was seared into a nation's psyche. Suggesting to us that his rejection is made of the same stuff. Suggesting to us, too, that maybe he himself is made of the same stuff as that man.
Or is that the caricature?
But of course, it isn't the same stuff. Because Gandhi would have known, and made his opinion known unequivocally -- the killing in his state three years ago was not just a great crime. It was also injustice greater by far than when he was pushed onto that platform in Pietermaritzburg. And a rejected visa doesn't compare to either.
We know this. The visa-deprived man knows it. Yet as chief minister, he will do nothing to apply justice to those killings: a dereliction of Constitutional duty that, anywhere else, at a minimum, would have cost him his job. He knows that too. Which is why his defence is the bluster that he has not been convicted by any court, and he won an election.
Well, true. But then that's our stellar Indian history. Massacres like we saw in Gujarat are never punished. Not a single Indian politician embroiled in legal cases has been convicted. And plenty of them have won elections nevertheless. This one is no different.
So where does all this leave him? In a place where he has to fall back on that hero from a generation gone by, still hero to millions. Gandhi.
And in doing that, he finds more caricature. He urges us to take inspiration from that man in a way that is so absurd it is funny. 'Let us pledge to work for such a day,' he announced at the same 'swabhimaan' rally, 'when an American will have to stand in line for entry into Gujarat.'
This is now what makes up our swabhimaan, our self-respect: the stuff, whatever it is, that will make us make others stand in line. Make us 'work for such a day.' Make us, in fact, 'pledge to work for such a day.' As caricatures go, that's a riot.
Enough caricature. Let me spend a few final paragraphs addressing these things, self-respect and nationhood. How do you build them, really?
To begin with, by knowing what doesn't build them.
You don't build self-respect by making other people stand in line.
You don't build it by finding insult in a rejected visa.
You don't build it by pretending mass murder never happened, or it isn't that big a deal, or that some of it was merely retaliation so it's OK.
These are the things that destroy self-respect. They chip away at any idea of a nation.
On the other hand, one measure does build self-respect and pride: justice, firmly and swiftly applied. Nothing less. Stripped to its essence, this was that man Gandhi's message. This was his vision for India.
Especially at a time when so many people presume to tell you what is or isn't an insult to you, even what is or isn't anti-national, it does a power of good to remember that vision. Gandhi knew that a country that fulfilled the promise of justice to all its citizens would stand tall on its own.
And such a country would find no offence in a rejected visa. But it would certainly find offence in crime, more so in crime left unpunished.
And that's no caricature.
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