This is a guest post by Rita Banerji
The news of President Obama’s admiration for Gandhi preceded his visit to India. How Gandhi has inspired his life, and how a portrait of his hangs in his Senate office. He told the Indian Parliament that he owes his own Presidency to Gandhi. So how closely does Obama follow in his mentor’s footsteps?
To sum up Gandhi’s ideologies, they included the rejection of all of the following: war and weaponry, capitalism, large-scale industries, and science and technology. On the eve before his departure President Obama assured an economically depressed U.S., “I’m going to be leaving tomorrow for India, and the primary purpose is to take a bunch of US companies and open up markets so that we can sell in Asia and some of the fastest-growing markets in the world.” And he did exactly that by striking some hard, billion dollars sales deals with India on the purchase of weapons, warfare systems and Boeing aircraft.
Though it might seem like Obama is contradicting Gandhi’s ideologies, he isn’t doing anything that Gandhi himself didn’t.
Funds for Gandhi’s campaigns came from India’s largest and wealthiest businesses, like the Birlas. He vehemently opposed science and technology, as “evil” and said mass transportation, like the railways spread diseases and encouraged communal violence by bringing diverse communities in contact. Still, he regularly used the railways for getting around. He advised the illiterate masses to reject modern medicine. Who knows how many followed his suggested home-remedy of wrapping small-pox patients in wet blankets! But during Gandhi’s famous fasts there was always a medical doctor in attendance making announcements on his declining blood-pressure. As for weapons and warfare, Gandhi had said of the 1878 Arms Act, imposed by the British, which banned Indian citizens from possessing weapons, “History will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want [this] Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the [Indian] middle-classes render voluntary help to the [British] government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear.” The help that Gandhi was asking of Indians was to volunteer to fight for the British in WWI. Upon his urging thousands of Indians fought for the British. There is a more detailed analysis of these conflicts in Gandhi’s ideologies in my book, which was also cited in this Guardian article.
My personal issue with this is that when I look at India’s political landscape from a historical perspective, I see Gandhi as the pre-cursor to the wily, opportunistic, politicians who infest Indian politics today. Their modus operandi is the same. They each have a public persona that is pious and professes to fight for the oppressed (whether it’s on basis of caste or religion or economics), which gets them a devoted voter-following that keeps them in power, no matter how corrupt they are. So we have the Laloo Prasads and Mayawatis, and prime ministers who sit in the mountains writing poetry while there is a carnage going on in Gujrat, and the people of India nod and say, “But our PM is a saint!”
And yet, coming back to President Obama and his mentor, there is one respect in which he surpasses Gandhi! His approach to politics, as of yet, has been refreshingly direct, transparent and earnest. He hasn’t demonstrated another Gandhian trait – one that his predecessors (Clinton and Bush) certainly have – and that is outright denial and defensiveness when confronted on ambiguous issues, and a refusal to be accountable for their own judgements.
Gandhi was obsessive about sexual abstinence. It was not just a personal goal – but one he championed as a global one. He had rules for married couples in his ashram. They were not to even sleep together in the same room unless they wanted to conceive a child. He insanely experimented with food, to weed out the ones that stimulated the libido. However, he also liked to sleep naked with underage girls in his ashram, apparently as a means to control the libido. One of these girls was his great-niece. When a reporter once asked him, if that was Freudian, that he was doing the very things he was professing not to, this great learned man, a practising barrister, said he knew nothing of Freud!
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Filed in: History,India,South Asia,United States