NEW DELHI It is an irony of history that Mahatma Gandhi, who led India
to independence from British colonial rule in 1947, is now in a popularity contest
with Veer Savarkar,
arrested for the assassination of the "Apostle of Peace" but acquitted
for lack of corroborative evidence.
Gandhi was shot dead at a prayer meeting on Jun 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse,
who like most Hindu chauvinists to this day, blame him and his philosophy of
non-violence for the partition of the subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and
Hindu majority India immediately before independence.
In fact, it was Savarkar who was a staunch proponent of the idea that India
consisted of two "nations" Hindu and Muslim. Gandhi, on the
other hand, agreed to the partition only because he saw the futility of resisting
and was keen on avoiding bloodshed.
During its six years in power that ended with the surprise electoral defeat
in May, the pro-Hindu, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did its best to rehabilitate
Veer Savarkar. The BJP even unveiled his portrait in Parliament House at a ceremony
boycotted by the Congress and other parties that were then part of the national
Savarkar is considered a staunch patriot, especially in his native Maharashtra
state, but his critics accuse him apart from conspiring to assassinate Gandhi
of winning his way out of a British jail set up in a penal colony on the Andaman
Islands jail by swearing fealty to the British Crown.
On a recent visit to the Andaman Islands, senior Congress Party leader and
cabinet minister Mani Shankar Aiyar ordered the removal of a plaque inscribed
with the sayings of Savarkar, set up during BJP rule, and replaced it with another
bearing quotes from Gandhi.
With Maharashtra set to elect a new assembly next month, in the first major
trial of strength after the April/May general elections, the BJP has discovered
in the "insult" to Savarkar a convenient election issue in a state
where he has iconic status rivaling that of Gandhi.
In fact, BJP members did their best to use the plaque issue to stall the just
concluded budget session of Parliament and the important finance bill which
brought in sweeping social changes. The bill was then passed without the participation
of the BJP-led opposition.
Sensing danger to its prospects in Maharashtra , the Congress Party quickly
distanced itself from Aiyar's opinions of Savarkar with Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh himself saying at a weekend press conference to mark the 100 days in office
of his Congress-led government that he considered Savarkar to be a "patriot
and a freedom fighter."
Despite the partition, India continues to have the second largest Muslim population
in the world after Indonesia.
Winning the Maharashtra elections could give the BJP the morale booster it
badly needs after its shock defeat in the general elections, which many of its
own hardline leaders said came about because it had abandoned its core ideology
of "Hindutva" (or Hinduness).
On the other hand, the Congress Party and its allies in the ruling United Progressive
Alliance (UPA) attribute their victory to their championship of the essentially
secular character of the Indian republic which the party has been relentlessly
In practical terms, that boils down to the Congress championing the ideals
of Gandhi and the BJP doing its best to deify Savarkar and present him as an
alternative at least for the Maharashtra campaign.
In the latest episode of this war of icons, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(RSS), which provides men and muscle to the BJP, filed a defamation suit against
Union Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh for accusing the organization
of involvement in the Gandhi assassination.
Arjun Singh reacted by saying that he stood by the charges he made at a national
convention earlier this month where he said the country could expect little
from an organization (the RSS) whose "biggest achievement was the killing
of Mahatma Gandhi."
The ties that Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse maintained with the RSS were
sufficiently close for a ban to be slapped on the organization for more than
a year afterwards by the post-independence Indian government.
The RSS has consistently denied having anything to do with a murder that caused
the United Nations to declare a period of mourning.
One reason that the BJP is falling back to historical figures and "national"
issues is that its allies in the ousted National Democratic Allies (NDA) have
warned that they would quit the coalition if the BJP persisted with its communal
Many of the BJP's allies, notably the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in southern
Andhra Pradesh, have blamed the electoral debacle suffered by the NDA on the
2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in western Gujarat that continues to be ruled by the
BJP as are also the major states of central Madhya Pradesh and western
Clearly, the BJP's pro-Hindu stance is suffering from the law of diminishing
A "Mood of the Nation" opinion poll commissioned by the pro-BJP India
Today newsmagazine and released on Sunday showed the Congress-led United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) rapidly gaining in popularity over the NDA that was
favored to win handsomely in the April/May elections on a supposed "feel-good
The BJP is far from anything like reviving the wave of pro-Hindu sentiment
it generated in 1992 around the emotive issue of building a temple to the warrior
deity Rama on the site of the Babri Mosque which BJP supporters demolished
in northern Uttar Pradesh's northern Ayodhya town.
Yet, the Congress Party-led, communist-backed United Progressive Alliance (UPA)
government is treading warily on issues that could give its arch rival an emotive
edge and regain the political initiative.
Manmohan Singh's government has left it to the Supreme Court to sort out issues
arising from the worst legacy of the BJP rule the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom
in western Gujarat that left more than 2,000 people dead and tens of thousands
of others homeless in the state where Mahatma Gandhi was born and spent much
of his life.