Masked Leadership & Gandhism!

salt march mahatma gandhi

Rich tributes paid to Mahatma Gandhi on his 74th death anniversary (January 30, 2022) are hardly suggestive of similar importance accorded to Gandhism. Undeniably, Gandhi is still remembered “ritualistically”, but little importance is accorded to Gandhism, particularly democratic values promoted by Mahatma in India as well as other democratic countries. Not surprisingly, key power holders are being literally lashed at (in words) for their failures, lapses and so forth in an almost aggressive manner, not just in India but also in USA and UK. Should this be hailed as a sign of democracy being still very much alive and active in these countries? At the same time, it cannot be ignored that negative attributes being loudly or silently talked about through various outlets of communication seem to have practically no impact on power holders. When those in power appear to slip on their own democratic turf leading to decline in their popularity among their populace, not much can be said about reins of power being in democratic hands –despite their having been democratically elected.

What is equally pathetic is the negligible attention being paid to opinion held about them. It seems symbolic of their preferring to confine their political moves to their respective Ivory Towers. No, impact of Covid-phase cannot be blamed for this move. But mishandling of Covid pandemic has virtually exposed the limited ability of most “respected” governments to tackle crises even when their own masses are hit. The gradual erosion of people’s faith in their leaders has perhaps been brought to fore because of Covid phase.

Till the fag end of 1990s, appeal and calls of leaders seemed to have a natural and almost impromptu appeal for people at large. Just a word about their rally or address in their area would have crowds rushing to catch a glimpse of them and hear them. It was pleasantly stunning for this scribe to witness such a scene in Madison, WI. The alacrity with which people left their work and almost ran to see and hear then Presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his running mate Al Gore from steps of Wisconsin State Capital Building (Oct 1, 1992) was amazing. So much so, the two leaders themselves were stunned to see such a large gathering and Al Gore began his address by saying, “What a crowd…” One was used to hear of and see such crowds in densely populated India but not in US.

All that seems history now. What appears missing is the once apparent “bond/linkage” between people and power holders resting on perhaps faith, understanding and/or some other appeal. This strength of people’s “democratic trust” in their leaders and also in their own selves appears to have been pushed practically to sidelines? To assume that it has been lost forever would be erroneous. The success of farmers’ protest in India is a major illustration of this democratic reality. A large number of farmers camped at primarily borders of India’s capital city for over 16 months (9th Aug 2020 to 11th Dec 2021) in protest against three anti-farm Bills passed by Parliament. Death of dozens from Covid, heat and cold did not weaken their protest. Rather, farmers from other other parts of India displayed their support for them on several occasions by joining them and/or protesting in their areas. Their protest would not have probably gained attention and hit national as well as international headlines if it had not lasted for a long period with thousands – cutting across ethnic barriers – participating in it. They stepped back only after government decided to withdraw those Bills.

No single person or group can claim leadership of farmers’ protest. The message is simple. The protest sprang from grassroots with strong support displayed for it by farmers most aggrieved by anti-farm bills. They refused to take this silently and united to protest against it. The chain binding people to protest together and/or support a leader may be viewed as symbolic of genuine democracy. History stands testimony to power displayed far more extensively and intensively by the democratic chain which led Indians to achieve freedom from colonialism.

Yes, described as “half-naked fakir” by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the frail-looking, bespectacled, dhoti-clad Mahatma Gandhi succeeded in uniting majority of Indians against colonial powers to achieve freedom of India. His strategy rested on people joining him in non-violent struggle for independence from colonialism. Yes, the crux of his movement drew strength from people and subsequently forced British government to acknowledge its power marked by India gaining freedom. Would it be fair to assume that the same struggle for freedom would have been easier in today’s era with numerous and much faster means of communication links spread across the world?

Gandhi moved with his walking stick with masses’ support marked by their walking along with him. It is difficult to imagine his accomplishing the same from any place by trying to reach out to people through mobile, virtual meetings and/or other outlets of communication available nowadays. Power and strength of his leadership was not marked by just a single or few persons addressing gatherings from stages but from thousands moving along with him.

Interestingly, Gandhi’s basic principle of communication rested on his identifying himself with the common Indian. With a law degree from London (1891) and roughly two decades’ experience in South Africa (1893-1914) as a lawyer and civil rights’ activist where he donned the western attire, he returned to India in 1915. As he joined politics and familiarized himself with Indian issues, back home, he opted for Indian dress, the then popular dhoti. He began using the loin cloth from 1921 to identify himself with poor Indians. Of course, apart from being a key part of his communication strategy, this was opted for probably to bridge any communication gap between him and poor Indians. Poverty primarily includes most afflicted people, whose ground of grievance against power-holders is strong and who are devoid of resources as well as means to redress their problems. Undeniably, Gandhi did not only identify himself with the majority but also reached out to them -as one of them- and won their support.

This was marked by their positive as well as overwhelming response to his calls for non-cooperating with British Government through Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience, Salt March and many others compelling colonial leaders to take him and Indian freedom struggle seriously. The essence of this movement lay in Indians displaying non-cooperation with British, boycott of foreign goods and so forth. He travelled extensively, particularly corners of rural India, reaching out to people through cultural symbols understood by them. On several occasions, he also faced imprisonment, including arrest on charges of sedition.

The basic seeds laid then of importance of people’s participation from grassroots compelling authorities to take note of their grievances still remain active of which Indian farmers’ struggle is an important example. Three anti-farm Bills, against which farmers protested, may also be viewed as stark illustration of the obvious apathy, lack of concern and perhaps ignorance of power holders about issues concerning farmers. If state elections in Punjab were not around the corner, the Indian government may not have withdrawn anti-farm bills. Farmers from Punjab were most strongly represented in their protest. There is an apprehension that after elections the central government may impose similar bills again. Not surprisingly, farmers have asserted that their fight is not over yet.

When democracy echoes through people’s protests and movements, chances of it leading to some impact prevail, of which Indian farmers’ protest is an example. Sadly, even elected leaders tend to notice these grievances primarily when they sense the need of electoral support of the aggrieved. Colonialism is over but now exercise of power appears more strongly guided by what “moneyed” desire, even if this spells economic crisis for majority. Besides, leaders appear more concerned about their “success” being marked by their own images spread around extensively on boards, posters, photographs, even their masks donned by others and so forth. Think simply, when leaders’ ego, personal interest, quest for their own prowess outweighs concern for people as well as their grievances, for how long are the latter expected to be “guided” (misguided/fooled) by the former? Yes, money can be and is used to even purchase needed political support. But when money strikes through inflation, etc., the aggrieved may be expected to give greater importance primarily to those united with them in their grievances. Here is where masked leadership bears little relevance against people’s voice!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).

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