Earlier this week, in one of his speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted a verse of the Gujarati poet Narsinh Mehta: “Vaach kaachh man nishchal raakhe, pardhan nav jhaale haath re” (a true Vaishnav keeps his words, thoughts, and deeds pure; s/he never covets someone else’s property). The official prime ministerial handle on Twitter broadcast the quote.
It is a fine verse, except that Modi mixed up Mehta’s verses. The actual verse is “Vaach kaachh man nishchal raakhe, dhan dhan janani teni re” (the latter part of the verse meaning—the Vaishnav’s mother is blessed). The part that he substituted in the verse actually belongs to the couplet that follows. That couplet ends—“jihva thaki asatya na bole, pardhan nav jhaale haath re” (even if his tongue gets tired, the true Vaishnav won’t lie, nor covet someone else’s property). Modi is not a scholar of Gujarati literature, but you don’t have to be one to know Vaishnav Jan. Virtually any Gujarati (and Modi is one) of a certain age is likely to know what was Mohandas Gandhi’s favourite bhajan.
The benign explanation is that it was a memory lapse on Modi’s part, and there was hardly any outrage. Now imagine a similar mistake by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her son and the party leader Rahul Gandhi, or Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Critics would have pounced on them, heaping ridicule on Sonia Gandhi because she was born in Italy; on Rahul Gandhi, because he supposedly knows no better; and on Kejriwal, because he is allegedly an usurper. But Modi’s gaffe got the benefit of doubt.
This isn’t the first time, however. He called the Gujarati lawyer Shyamji Krishna Varma Shyama Prasad Mookerjee once; he quoted a 19th century poet who had wrongly attributed Alexander’s last defeat in Bihar; he placed Chandragupta in the Gupta dynasty, and not Maurya (unless he meant Chandragupta II); and at an election rally, he talked about one Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi. None of that seems to matter; the reign of error continues.
More instructive is Modi’s desire to appropriate aspects of Mohandas Gandhi. When he was in South Africa, Modi relived the train journey from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg, getting himself photographed in fine, high-contrast black-and-white imagery. Brooding and pensive, he looked towards the window, the light from outside shining on his face, the photograph conveying the seriousness and depth with which he was contemplating the circumstances in which Gandhi’s politicization began. Then again, the 2017 calendar of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission showed Modi spinning the charkha, replacing Gandhi’s image. Charkha was synonymous with Gandhi; I remember my mother recalling the Gujarati song she used to sing during the freedom movement, which went, “Sutar ne tantane laishu swaraj ame sutar ne tantane laishu” (we shall gain freedom through the threads of cotton we weave).
The line separating imitation from appropriation is thin.
Modi never belonged to the Congress; he was born after independence, and his party played no distinguished role during the freedom movement. Why would he want to embrace Mohandas Gandhi? It isn’t as if there are no leaders within the Hindutva pantheon, and many Hindutva adherents do revere them—M.S. Golwalkar, K.B. Hedgewar, and for some, arguably, even Nathuram Godse. But the fact is that for the vast majority of Indians, these individuals are not heroes. They have decisively rejected their politics in election after election, except in 2014. The parliamentary majority the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured that year against a splintered opposition when slightly fewer than a third of Indians who voted pressed the BJP button, is for the BJP an opportunity to reshape its identity, and Modi wants to make the party’s foundation firmer, to make it more acceptable and broaden its appeal. And since the BJP can’t project its past as glorious, there is this ardent desire to appropriate aspects of Mohandas Gandhi they can accept (his conservatism, his religiosity, or his campaign for cleanliness), of Subhas Chandra Bose (his militant nationalism), of Vallabhbhai Patel (his role in rebuilding the Somnath temple and bringing about the merger of princely states with the Indian union), of Bhagat Singh (his choice of violence), or B.R. Ambedkar (his opposition to Gandhi), while ignoring the inconvenient aspects of their politics—secular, egalitarian, inclusive, and progressive.
And that’s where Mehta’s verse becomes important—for Vaishnav Jan was no ordinary verse; it was sung almost daily at Mohandas Gandhi’s prayer meetings, and generations of Indians grew up remembering those words by heart. To be sure, few who remember it live by that code. It enunciates the qualities of an ideal man—truthfulness, honesty, compassion, sacrifice, humility, respect for women and for others’ dignity, unwillingness to speak ill of others, and devotion. Besides, the verse is in Gujarati, Modi’s mother tongue.
Vaishnav Jan is not India’s national bhajan for a good reason—matters of faith and the republic must remain separate, and India doesn’t need a national prayer. But mixing up its verses, posing as Gandhi on a calendar, getting oneself photographed on a train in South Africa, and misremembering Gandhi’s first name—all suggest a sense of discomfort, perhaps even deep-rooted insecurity because it seems so insincere. Hence the lip-service and the slip-ups, because what you can’t emulate, you imitate