Saga of Mahatma memorial shows spiritual father has no place in people's hearts

Mohandas Gandhi is invariably described as the father of the Indian nation. Only the reckless take his name in vain: when a campaigner for homosexual rights described him on a television chat show here two years ago as a "bastard grocer", or words to that effect, the show was axed, the executives of Rupert Murdoch's Star television channel made to apologise, parliament went into special session and the outspoken fellow was sued by one of Gandhi's grandsons.

Gandhi's spectral voice was heard in the Central Hall of Delhi's parliament building last night as India celebrated its Golden Jubilee by replaying recordings from the days of the freedom struggle. But the man they call the Mahatma, "Great Soul", was in other ways absent.

After nearly 30 years of bickering, the government still cannot agree on a place in the capital for his statue. And a recent opinion poll in a weekly magazine confirmed what most Indians readily admit: that they no longer have a place for him in their hearts. Of the more than 12,000 people polled, only 14 per cent named Gandhi as a national leader who has inspired them.

Born in 1869 the child of merchants in Gujarat (hence the "grocer" slur), Gandhi broke with caste tradition and sailed to England to become a lawyer. Back in India he was too nervous to speak in court and eked a living as a clerk before sailing to South Africa, where he stayed for more than 20 years. It was there on behalf of the Indian community that he developed the techniques of peaceful protest that he was to employ with such devastating effect against the British in India.

Gandhi was an abstemious character: not only a vegetarian (obeying a promise made to his mother) and a teetotaller, but after 1908 a celibate. He was also obsessively interested in excrement. ("Have you had a good bowel movement this morning sisters?" was his usual greeting to his female devotees.) But the fad which came to define him above all concerned his appearance.

More than any other figure in 20th-century politics except perhaps Mao Zedong (with his jacket and cap), Gandhi used clothing as a weapon in the struggle. In a new book serialised recently in the Asian Age entitled "Clothing Matters: Gandhi and the Recreation of Indian Dress", Emma Tarlo describes the evolution of his ideas on the subject: from the top hat and frock coat he affected in London, to shorts and shirts made from sacks, the shapeless robes of a peasant, and finally to the ultimate simplicity and affront of a homespun loincloth.

Gandhi's adoption of clothing alien to his own class and caste served several purposes. Arriving in Britain for the first time wearing white flannels, he was upset to find himself odd man out. But from then on he turned the embarrassment of inappropriate dress against the Empire. Dressed like a villager, he caused the colonial authorities acute awkwardness, while evoking huge support from the poorest Indians by so vividly declaring solidarity with them.

From his dramatic adoption of the khadi - homespun loincloth - in 1921, in protest at Britain's refusal to grant home rule, Gandhi's obsession deepened and broadened. Everyone should wear khadi, he declared. Wearing khadi could transform people morally.

Conversely, as Tarlo puts it, "foreign cloth was so intrinsically vile that contact with it was physically and mentally defiling".

Filthy, untouchable and "our greatest outward pollution" was how Gandhi described the wearing of foreign clothes. In so doing he brought back the notion of untouchability he had fought against so hard on questions of caste, and alienated many of his supporters among the intelligentsia.

Gandhi's crankiness about clothes was matched by the eccentricity of his political and economic ideas. His bible was Ruskin's Unto This Last, a defining work of the late-Victorian reaction against the Industrial Revolution and a plea for the restoration of agrarian values. Gandhi read the book in South Africa and claimed it instantly transformed his life. Ever after, he argued vehemently against Westernisation and modernisation. In his book Hind Swaraj (1909) he denounced even such benign imports as railways and doctors. In the process he instilled a deep mistrust of modernity and economic growth which has hogtied the nation's development ever since.

Today, as politicians mull over where to put his statue, Gandhi's legacy is in tatters. The rural hamlet of Sevagram in Madhya was where Gandhi tried to realise his ideal of swadesh - self-sufficiency - and khadi and some other Gandhian products are still made there. But workers employed by Gandhi's disciples are poorly paid, the alcohol prohibition the community insists on has given nearby bootleggers a roaring trade; while the community's opposition to a steel project planned for the area has consigned the hamlet to backwardness.

"I blame Gandhi," one local graduate told a reporter. "His anti-machinery theory has proved wrong. We have good educational facilities, but no way of generating jobs." Ruskin's prescriptions have proved disastrous in a country as poor as this.

Gandhi failed; but his failure was predictable as early as the Twenties when the mass of Indians failed to adopt his beloved homespun as their dress. Instead of converting to his ideas, they made him a sort of mascot - an image of saintliness they could revere without having to follow. Whether he willed it or not, a sort of Christ-like aura came to surround Gandhi, culminating in his murder in 1948 by a fellow Hindu.

Yesterday, while long queues waited to tour the handsome and well-appointed museum devoted to Indira Gandhi, the sad and shabby Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Museum was practically deserted. And now in Delhi, though birds have nests and foxes have holes, the father of India has no place to raise his image.