Today is the 137th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A Bollywood film featuring him has taken India by storm, proving his enduring appeal to Indians. He is as relevant as ever in India today.
Anyone who thinks he was backward-looking because he favoured rural development to urbanisation and industrialisation should think again.
Six out of 10 Indians still scratch a living from the soil and agriculture-related industries. Agriculture may account for only 22 per cent of India’s GDP, but it still provides a livelihood for the bulk of the people who cannot be accommodated in the cities and high-tech industries.
Gandhi was a realist in recognising the need for rural development. Urbanisation and industrialisation can never be the solution for a country as vast and populous as India. Even America and France try to support their farmers who make up only a minority of their population. India cannot ignore its rural majority.
Gandhi might have been popular even in the West today, among people disenchanted with globalisation. His attempts to preserve local communities would have appealed to jobless people in dying industrial towns where factories have been forced to close down because of foreign competition.
Gandhi was not only a visionary; he was also a great communicator. He dressed like an Indian peasant because he identified with them. It was a political master stroke. Churchill ridiculed him, calling him a half-naked fakir. He could have easily been a Brown Sahib, an anglicised Indian, trained as a lawyer in England. But then he would have never been able to lead the masses in the freedom struggle.
He understood the importance of dress and communications — a half-naked fakir who brought out his own paper.
He would have taken to the Internet like a duck to water. He thought movies harmful, I learnt from The Times of India. After all, he was a Victorian, born in 1869. The entertainment industry was suspect and immoral in the eyes of many earnest Victorians. But Gandhi also understood the importance of publicity. Had he been alive today, he might have posted his own videos on the Internet to spread his message of tolerance and non-violence.
Gandhi preached religious tolerance. He paid with his life for protecting the Muslims when he was shot dead at the age of 78 by a Hindu fanatic in the middle of a prayer session in January 1948, only five months after India’s independence. His appeal for religious tolerance might not have moved the terrorists today, but the Muslims would have known they had a powerful friend.
India is also fighting a Maoist rebellion today. The rebels are active in the poorest, least developed rural areas. Would they have gained strength had there been rural development? One can only wonder. Gandhi is as relevant as ever in India today.