No matter how much the right wing abhors Gandhi but history will time and again prove that he knew India in profound ways. Modi’s carefully orchestrated spectacles aimed to unite the country in times of Corona pandemic are actually built on the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. There is a reason why the burning of lamps reverberates with Indians of different classes and regions. One of the problems that Gandhi saw India needed to develop a solution for was the electrification of Indian Villages. Gandhi understood that since many of the villages were far away from the cities and even the railway stations, it was pretty difficult to bring electricity of the modern kind which the Indian cities had been enjoying. Additionally, Gandhi’s swadeshi outlook was clearly against what he called the wonders of western modernity, so he searched for an effective strategy.
Gandhi at the same time was pioneering multiple possibilities offered by the local village materials. B. R Nanda writes in his book “In Search of Gandhi” 2002 “Gandhi was also against the use of fossil fuels for village lightening and had a hurricane lamp “magan-deep” devised that dispensed with kerosene and could be lit with non-edible vegetable oil. Then there was a magan choolah, an inexpensive locally made oven, designed to conserve greater heat than the conventional choolah.”
Gandhi also wanted to engineer a freedom that originated from the confidence of handling the known sources of socio-cultural life. Hence, Gandhi feared that western lightening, would simply uproot a certain cultural specificity alongside being highly impractical from a purely economic point of view, as it didn’t seem desirable when cheaper and effective alternatives could be arranged within his idea of swadeshi.
Hence, in Hindi Swaraj when Gandhi was asked:
“You have spoken above machine-made clothes, but there are innumerable machine made things. We have either to import them or introduce machinery into our country.”
Gandhi’s answers involve an alternate history of lighting revolution combined with a dose of his brand of swadeshi nationalism. By rejecting western lighting devices, Gandhi combined the idea of lighting villages with local available sources and gave it a nationalist turn. He writes
“The tinsel splendour of glassware we will have nothing to do with, and we will make wicks as of old, with home grown cotton and use handmade earthen saucers for lamps.”
Today, one can imagine when Narendra Modi is appealing to light the lamp; he is indeed reaching into those interiors of our cultural memories that are furrowed with Gandhian swadeshi nationalism. Given the massive challenge posed by the need to electrify such a big country when the economy post-independence was severely damaged, it is not hard to imagine that most of today’s Indian population lives with memories of lighting wick lamps during their childhood or adulthood if they are a bit older.
It is this middle class nostalgia mixed with a culturally rooted swadeshi nationalist pride that echoes and reverberates through the Public as Modi makes such spectacles. Modi is infact deriving a vessel prepared by Gandhi. One should also not forget that approximately 31 million people still live in India without electricity which is far more than the total population of many countries across the globe.
But one of the most interesting matters is that the Right-wing ideal V.D Savarkar ridiculed Gandhi on his suggestion of wick-lamps by saying that “under the light of the wick lamps only ignorance and poverty would flourish.” Many would, similarly, today call Narendra Modi’s tactics to bring togther people as responsible for bolstering stupidity and ignorance. It is only a great irony that Modi is forced to adopt the ways of Gandhi to hold the Indian public together and those criticising Modi much to their surprise have come to play Savarkar on the stage set by the dramatic history of our country.