January 28, 2023

The Gandhian in PM Modi

An Analysis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s use of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliamentary Discourse
Keywords: Mahatma Gandhi | Narendra Modi | Indian Parliament | Deliberative Democracy | Public Policy | Gandhian Ideals | Political Rhetoric
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An acknowledged orator, known for his rhetorical flamboyance and charisma, Prime Minister Modi realizes the power of persuasion that comes from using Gandhi and his ideas, especially in the Parliament. A constellation of Gandhian ideas have been used by PM Modi in order to largely achieve three broad purposes—first, to aggressively push and gain legitimacy for his governmental policies; second, to politically attack the Opposition, in particular, the Indian National Congress; and third, to shape the psyche of the common people and encourage them to act for the greater social good.Over the past six years, PM Narendra Modi’s has proved that his use of Gandhian discourse is not just for rhetorical, but also for genuine conceptual purposes. 

Figure 1. Narendra Modi speeches word cloud. Representation of the words most used by the PM in his Parliamentary Speeches. (Small font with a broader set of words)

Prime Minister Modi’s Gandhi rhetoric on public policy issues can be well understood through his much-touted policy— the Swachh Bharat mission, one of the most widely promoted programmes of the Modi-led NDA government. The scheme was initiated on 2 October 2014 to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The following is an excerpt from a speech that the Prime Minister delivered on 8 February 2017 while responding to criticisms and mockeries of the Clean India Mission by the Opposition:

Mahatma Gandhi was its [cleanliness] proponent. I am afraid if Mahatma Gandhi was alive today and propagated cleanliness, would we have used the same language as this? Isn’t it our responsibility? Shouldn’t we take positive steps to bring a transformation in society? Why should we protest against everything? I am delighted that sanitation coverage which was 42 per cent has now increased to 60 per cent after this movement. You can imagine the pain of the women in the villages and slum areas of the cities. They cannot go to relieve themselves till it is dark. This pain should be felt. This is not a matter of argument but it pains a lot when it is being mocked at. It cannot be the subject of a joke. (Modi “Reply to debate on Motion of Thanks”)

In the above extract, Prime Minister Modi makes his point through an impressive combination of Gandhi’s legacy on sanitation and by making explicit the appalling conditions in which women suffer due to lack of access to toilets. He heightens the argument vicariously while anecdotally sharing the ‘pain felt’ by women when they ‘relieve themselves’ waiting ‘till it is dark’. Interestingly, he also amplifies his argument by expanding on the Opposition’s purposes — they were ‘mocking’ and making this policy ‘a subject of joke’. By expanding the scope of the Opposition’s criticism and employing the anecdote of a suffering woman, Prime Minister Modi goes beyond the general notion of an argument; he uses a discursive form of deliberative discourse called ‘narrative’. Here, the Prime Minister’s narrative embodies all the reasons a Member of Parliament would need to support the Clean India Mission.

A constellation of Gandhian ideas have been used by PM Modi in order to largely achieve three broad purposes—first, to aggressively push and gain legitimacy for his governmental policies; second, to politically attack the Opposition, in particular, the Indian National Congress; and third, to shape the psyche of the common people and encourage them to act for the greater social good.

Further, the Prime Minister, as the head of the government, establishes his credence not just for himself as a speaker, but also for the policies mooted by his government. Indeed, Prime Minister evokes Gandhi as an epideicticrhetorical tool.

The Gandhian ‘values’ are highly lauded not just in the Indian Parliament, but across the world, including the British Parliament, a common manifestation of which is a Gandhi statue overlooking the respective Parliaments. Prime Minister Modi, cognisant of this value system of the Parliament, evokes Gandhi to amplify his epideictic rhetorical appeal. In aggressively defending his governmental policies, he attempts to shield the policies from future attacks. The Prime Minister himself says that: 

Let us all view the sanitation programme as a significant issue in the interest of our country. Why can’t this be the responsibility of all of us to fulfil the vision of Mahatma Gandhi by 2019? My honourable members! This responsibility is not just of this government or that government, but this is the responsibility of all of us (Modi, “On Motion of Thanks”). 

The Prime Minister, as the head of the government, establishes his credence not just for himself as a speaker, but also for the policies mooted by his government. Indeed, Prime Minister evokes Gandhi as an epideictic rhetorical tool.

Prime Minister Modi has time and again used Gandhi to attack the Indian National Congress, the principal Opposition to the ruling dispensation. In a speech delivered on 7 February 2018 he went on to say:

Mahatma Gandhi also talked about young India. Even when our former President was in office, he also spoke about the concept of new India. So I do not know what the problem is. We [Congress] do not want New India. We [Congress] want our India, we [Congress] need old India I think we need a Gandhi-like India. I want a Gandhi-like India too (Modi, “On Motion of Thanks”).

In the above extract, the Prime Minister begins by associating the idea of “Young India” with Mahatma Gandhi, and with the late ex-president of India, Pranab Mukherjee (who had only recently demitted the office of the President). Interestingly, he invokes two eminent personalities, both of whom are ‘Congressmen’ and whose legacies have been widely claimed by the Congress party. By saying “we (Congress) do not want new India”, he does an ironic mimicry of the Congress party. He continued to say: 

Because Gandhi had said that freedom has come, now there is no need for the Congress [party]. Congress should be disbanded. Congress-free India is not the idea of Modi, it was Gandhi’s. We are trying to follow those footprints. Now you need that [old] India. The India in which the Jeep Scam of the Army, the India with Submarine Scam, the India with Bofors Scam, and Helicopter Scandal, you need that India? You do not want New India. Do you want that India to be an emergency, emergency, to make the country prisoner? (Modi, “On Motion of Thanks”) 

After stating ironically that he too “agrees” with the Opposition in wanting a ‘Gandhi-like India’, he quickly turns that into a political attack and says even Gandhi wanted ‘Congress-free India’.

Figure 2. Narendra Modi speeches word cloud. Representation of the words most used by the PM in his Parliamentary Speeches. (Bigger font with a smaller set of words)

In the above extract, the Prime Minister begins by associating the idea of “Young India” with Mahatma Gandhi, and with the late ex-president of India, Pranab Mukherjee (who had only recently demitted the office of the President). Interestingly, he invokes two eminent personalities, both of whom are ‘Congressmen’ and whose legacies have been widely claimed by the Congress party. By saying “we (Congress) do not want new India”, he does an ironic mimicry of the Congress party.

Prime Minister Modi also uses Gandhi to shape the psyche of the common people. Issues like anti-corruption campaigns, ending the practice of untouchability, and poverty—all of which need multilevel participation from the citizenry are often picked up by the Prime Minister and buttressed by Gandhian ideals. The following excerpt is a case in point: 

Mahatma Gandhi used to never compromise… Only one aspect of the constitution has mostly emerged. And the country is revolving around an individual’s rights alone. I request the house on this holy occasion, how much we emphasize on our rights, we must also give impetus to our duties equally. The country functions with a mixed sense of rights and duties, else country cannot function. And what happens when you ask our government officers regarding some work, then the first question that comes from them. Good, but what is my interest? From there, starts the narrative ‘what is my interest, what is my benefit?’ And if the answer is negative from the individual to what is my interest, then the narrative changes. That if my interest is nothing then I do not care, go to hell. This system…is not good for the country. There is a need to ignite the spirit of duty. Mahatma Gandhi had told a very big thing, which I guess is a point to be remembered by us and the country which I want to convey here (Modi, Lok Sabha).

The above extract is rather a poignant one. Prime Minister Modi here is clearly addressing the citizens watching this speech, reminding all citizens of their duties, which he believes is central to a healthy democracy. Starting with epideictic praise of Mahatma Gandhi, the Prime Minister is benchmarking a citizen’s social conduct. He is indeed attempting to motivate the citizens through his arguments. Precisely, the anecdote of ‘I do not care’ is used in his argument to induce guilt in the obstinate citizens and Gandhi is used as a source of moral authority through which this guilt is reinforced. On multiple occasions like this, Modi uses Gandhi in order to gain public support for his policies. 

PM Modi uses Gandhi to elevate the arguments in the Parliament to a higher plane of deliberative discourse and to enhance the persuasiveness of his message—something that merits serious engagement with his ideas instead of simply slotting him into simple binaries—as is a growing trend in our social media-driven times.

With rhetorical brilliance, PM Modi uses Gandhi to shape the consciousness and psyche of citizens to elicit popular support for their participation in combating deep-rooted societal evils. He does so in order to both elevate the arguments in the Parliament to a higher plane of deliberative discourse and to enhance the persuasiveness of his message—something that merits serious engagement with his ideas instead of simply slotting him into simple binaries—as is a growing trend in our social media-driven times.

(An extended version of the article was published as a Research Paper in Ashoka University’s publication, Final Draft.)

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Kishen Kudur Shastry

Kishen Shastry KS is currently pursuing research in economics at the Jesus College, University of Cambridge. He has previously been a part of The Graduate Institute Geneva and Young India Fellowship, Ashoka University.

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