Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Waiting for the Mahatma

While I read RK Narayan's "Waiting for the Mahatma", for a lot of folks, their wait for their "Mahatma" finally came to an end at the stroke of noon. History was made, as Barack Hussein Obama was finally sworn in as President. The expectations are high, a sense of hope pervades the current economic nadir, and Obama has been clear that he is going to take on whatever comes his way head-on. Hindsight (which is always 20:20) twenty years down the line will tell us if the euphoria was really worth it!

There's something about Obama (with due apologies to Mary). It takes a lot to get ordinary people (who have absolutely no say in the American political process) excited over your speeches, hopes and plans. The way the man has energized people here can only evoke comparisons with the Mahatma himself. People might object to my putting Obama ahead of the Rev. Martin Luther King, but one has to remember that MLK's reach was limited. But that aside, today, a little more than forty years after his (senseless) death his torch has been carried into the White House by Obama. The Reverend and the Mahatma must be smiling, wherever they are.

Gandhiji focused a floundering freedom effort and finally freed us from British shackles. He did it 'his way' (the non-violent one), and it ultimately paid dividends. As we all know, we are a passive society, and it was but natural that the non-violent struggle of Gandhi and his followers trumped the violent one espoused by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his INA. At the same time, I wonder what might have happened had the majority of Indians followed Netaji and taken to the INA. All said and done, he was much more charismatic than the 'half naked Indian fakir' (as Churchill once referred to the Mahatma).

And so today, 60 odd years after Independence, the legacy of Gandhi is sealed and celebrated. He is uniformly hailed as one of the greatest to have walked the face of this earth. But at the same time, the legacy of India as a nation remains blurry. Although Nehru did a lot for the development of a fledgling nation, his greed and arrogance are probably to blame for most of India's ills. Coveting the PM's post was debatably the primary folly (I am not sure what life might have been like had we had Mr. Jinnah as our first PM), and secondary one was his over-indulgence of Krishna Menon's shenanigans which ultimately led to our defeat in the '62 war with China and left Nehru a broken man (so wrote Dr. Ramachandra Guha in his masterpiece on Independent India). In our usual passivity (and the warmth of the whole Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai glow propagated by Nehru) we let the Chinese army overrun our territories. We still remain a passive nation, rarely taking decisive action - the chalta hai attitude pervades.

But still, Chacha-ji is celebrated as a great orator and a fine gentleman, occupying his deserved place in the pantheon of Indian greats. So all said and done, even if Obama is counted as a 'failure' four/eight years down the line, he would unarguably have been one of the greatest orators to have walked this earth. The legacy of his predecessor might look grey right now, but only time will tell!

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