Once a year, the sleepy village of Sevagram shudders into wakefulness. On 2nd October. Gandhi Jayanti. When hundreds of politicians and their minions extract their white kurta-pyjamas from their cupboards, shake the dust off their Gandhi topis and descend on its pious soil. We, the residents of this historical hamlet, are quite used to this kind of annual tamasha. The only reason why we look forward to it, is because it is a surefire excuse to get the potholes (which each monsoon brings) on our streets patched up.
But today Sevagram witnessed a mini earthquake— with two political parties seeking to usurp the political legacy of the Mahatma as their own. After all it was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s 150th birthday. So dear old Bapu who was happy wearing his dhoti and standing with his walking stick on a pedestal in every city of his country had to be garlanded and lauded to the skies. He who gathered dust (and sometimes pigeon droppings) all year was suddenly spruced up all over. It was election year after all.
First there was the battle of the banners. One day ahead, the local BJP MLA went for it, plastering his mugshot on all the electric poles on the dividers, early at dawn—ensuring that its rival party had no space for any banners. To do one better, the Congress stuck tricolour flags all through the remaining space on the dividers. Serene Sevagram now resembled an over-festooned birthday party. Huge hoardings followed proclaiming that they were marching in the footsteps of the Mahatma. Thick hose pipes were brought into action, and the roads received a mandatory wash. Fresh yellow and black paint appeared on the dividers. White stripes were finally visible on the speed-breakers near the hospital entrance. Helicopters hovered over our homes doing the last minute recces. Work on roads which were under construction for the last one year was suddenly completed overnight.
On Gandhi Jayanti, khaki clad policemen and police women blew loud whistles and yelled at gawkers, telling them not to gather beside the road sides. Bandobast duty was tough— you understood the excitement of the crowd, but had to follow the instructions being barked at you on the wireless. Finally around 11, the helicopters could be seen and the cavalcade proceeded to Bapu Kuti with blaring police sirens. Representing the Congress were Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and a number of other leaders. After an all-religion prayer and a visit to Bapu Kuti, they had lunch at the ashram. The venue for the Congress Working Committee meeting was 100 m from where we stay, at the Sarva Seva Sangh. Faculty living in adjacent quarters and their children all waited eagerly to scream “I love you Rahul” but had to console themselves with selfies with P Chidambaram. Later there was a padyatra and public rally in Wardha.
Photo courtesy Rahul Gandhi’s Facebook page
Photo courtesy Rahul Gandhi’s Facebook page
Not to be outdone, the BJP had another high-profile ceremony where they unveiled the world’s largest wooden charkha. It is located near an upcoming convention centre. The art installation has been created by the artists of JJ School of Arts. It is said to be 18.6 feet high and weighs 5 tons. There is a section of the ashramites who question the need for constructing this structure. And another which feels that it will draw tourists to this heritage site.
In the evening as I visited the hospital for some work, I saw tired policemen and women gathered near a chai tapri. Couldn’t help feeling sorry for them. They had spent the whole day standing in the sun, trying to keep people off the road. As dusk draws close, the vehicles adorned with flags, all drive off towards Nagpur raising dust in their path, causing the goats to run amok.
The game of one-upmanship continues. Which of these parties deserves Gandhi’s legacy? The one which enforced the Emergency? Or the one which still supports his assassin openly and leaves no stone unturned to flame communal passions? Gandhi doesn’t need followers from the present political firmament. He walked with his head held high, without any official designation, merely with his ability to convince people about his beliefs. And he didn’t care if you didn’t agree with him. He was willing to listen to his opponents, and still respond with respect and affection. That is one quality which none of the present leaders have. They have no right to even a fraction of his legacy.
Tomorrow will be a new day for us in Sevagram. Quieter. Calmer. Routine. Only the remnants of the banners, festoons and flags will remind us of a dust storm which came and went. Until the 2nd of October next year.