Obama Invokes Gandhi, Whose Ideal Eludes Modern India
By JIM YARDLEY
The postcard was a trinket of public diplomacy, a souvenir of the new president’s affinity for
“He is a hero not just to
Yet if paying homage to Gandhi is expected of visiting dignitaries, Mr. Obama’s more personal identification with the Gandhian legacy — the president once named him the person he would most like to dine with — places him on complicated terrain.
Gandhi remains India’s patriarch, the founding father whose face is printed on the currency, but modern India is hardly a Gandhian nation, if it ever was one. His vision of a village-dominated economy was shunted aside during his lifetime as rural romanticism, and his call for a national ethos of personal austerity and nonviolence has proved antithetical to the goals of an aspiring economic and military power.
Gandhi is still revered here, and credited with shaping
Mr. Obama, too, has experienced the clash of those lofty expectations with political realities. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, even as he was conducting two wars, he described himself as “living testimony to the moral force” of the nonviolent movement embodied by Dr. King and Gandhi.
“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation,” he continued, “I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”
That paradox was on vivid display on Saturday when Mr. Obama arrived in Mumbai, an event carried live on national television, celebrating Gandhi’s legacy but also selling military transport planes and bringing along 200 American business leaders.
India’s political establishment, if thrilled by the visit, is also withholding judgment. Mr. Obama was faulted in New Delhi for some early missteps, including his comment that
Mr. Obama’s visit is intended to dispel those doubts and deepen a partnership rooted in shared democratic values. Since taking office, he has already met several times with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as well as with other delegations of Indian officials. On several occasions, he has cited his deep admiration for Gandhi, perhaps as evidence of his fondness for
“The impression on the Indian side is every time you meet him, he talks about Gandhi,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, a leading English-language newspaper, adding that the repeated references struck some officials as platitudinous.
In praising Gandhi, Mr. Obama has often cited the influence of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns on the civil rights movement in the
“The trip for King was very much about laying claim to the Gandhian legacy,” said Nico Slate, a historian at
Unlike Mr. Obama, Dr. King and Gandhi had the advantage of never having to govern. And even Dr. King learned the limits of Gandhi’s influence in an
“It was very Gandhian, but in many ways very unrealistic, at least from the vantage point of the Indian establishment,” Mr. Slate said. “Even King came to realize that
Dr. King also visited Gandhi’s home in Mumbai and, like Mr. Obama, signed the guest book. “Pretty cool,” Mr. Obama said Saturday when a museum administrator showed him Dr. King’s entry. “Nineteen-fifty-nine. What a great book.”
On Sunday, Mr. Obama will fly to
Ramachandra Guha, a Gandhi biographer, said Indian officials approached him three months ago seeking suggestions for Gandhi-related sites for Mr. Obama’s visit. Mr. Guha recommended an ashram in rural central
To Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a grandson of Gandhi, the fact that his grandfather inspired the American president demonstrated the continued vibrancy of Gandhi’s message. If he bemoaned the corruption and money contaminating Indian politics, he said Gandhi’s spirit could still be found among the Indian civil society groups helping the poor and protecting the environment.
“Today, the need for a practical idealism is recognized throughout the world,” he said.
The word practical seemed especially relevant.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs