Friday, October 2, 2009

The pen is mightier than Gandhi's legacy but not his ideas

A piece that is headed for the Guardian but you read it here first

The rebadging of the ascetic apostle of peace, Mohandas K Gandhi, as a salesman for haute couture fountain pen, costing more than £15,000, in India is a triumph of celebrity over his legacy but not over his ideas.

Gandhi, who spurned both luxury and foreign made goods during his lifetime, was not averse to wealth. Although he shunned ostentatious displays of riches, his campaign to rid India of British rule was backed by both industrialists and the poor masses. It took a lot of Indian millionaires to keep Gandhi in poverty was a quip that resonated because it was true.

However there is little that links the Indian independence movement to the sale of expensive writing instruments. This has not stopped Germany’s Montblanc which has begun selling commemorative fountain pens bearing the Indian leader’s signature inlaid with a saffron-colored opal. The price is £15,500.

Each pen comes with an 8-metre golden thread designed to invoke the cotton Gandhi spun and wove as part of his drive to promote Indian cottage industry. To drive home the penmaker’s marketing message, only 241 pens will ever be made – one for every mile that Gandhi walked during his 1930 "salt march", a protest that called for the abolition of British taxes levied on the making of salt.

By boiling seawater in western India, Gandhi said he was “shaking the foundations of the British Empire”. What he did not think he was doing was the laying the foundation for a marketing campaign for such Gilded Age accoutrements as a rhodium-plated, jewel encrusted fountain pen.

Montblanc must have been aware of the potential blowback by appropriating Gandhi’s image – especially today on the 140th anniversary of his birth, which is a national holiday in India.

To blunt the accurate charges that it was profiting from Indian leader’s name, the company handed over a cheque for £91,000 to Gandhi's great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, for a charity he runs to improve child nutrition and education. The great man’s younger relation, who has previously blasted auction houses for selling Gandhi’s items, coyly admitted the Indian leader “would not have used such an expensive pen." Without irony Montblanc said it was considering a more “accessible” range of Gandhi pens too. Montblanc rollerballs retail at £2,000.

What this sorry tale tells us about is the power of personality in modern-day India. In short Gandhi sells. Although he is still referred to as India’s Bapu or father, the country Gandhi fathered is far from what he idealised.

Gandhi believed in abstinence over gluttony, rural simplicity over urban complexity and economic self-sufficiency over free trade. All are notable in modern India today only for their absence.

Gandhi's India, or at least his influence on economics, has all but disappeared in the past decade. Until the country opened up to the world in the nineties, its leaders backed Gandhi-ite ideas and championed equality and social stability over wealth creation. After 1991, that all changed. Notions of speed and efficiency were stamped on to a civilisation that traditionally took a slower, more relaxed view of life. The message was similar to that of China during the 90s, in the phrase attributed to Deng Xiaoping: "To get rich is glorious."

This sentiment appears dwarfed by India’s teeming millions of poor people. The awful reality is despite India’s rise, the rate of malnutrition in children under five is a shamefully high 45%. The talk of making poverty history sounds hollow in India, a land which is home to a third of the world's poor and where some 300 million people live on less than $1 a day.

Yet another world is growing up, fuelled by the immense wealth that is being amassed by India's new monied classes. Their appetite for goods has seen a new money culture - how to make it and how to spend it. India's masses were, under the more equal state-run economy, denied shopping choices. The country is today undergoing a consumer boom. For some, this is proof enough that, in opening up, India has gained from globalisation - allowing Dior, Bulgari, Rolls-Royce and Montblanc into the country. Consumption in this India is nothing if not conspicuous.

It is not therefore surprising to see that the ruthless exploitation of the Mahatma (great soul) is not limited to penmakers. When Apple urged people to “Think Different”, it used an iconic image of the loinclothed Indian leader. Even Google, which proclaims “Don’t’ be Evil”, has today plastered Gandhi’s image on its search engine.

That Gandhi could become a face for consumer goods and services is a triumph for an economic model he railed against. In accepting this defeat, we should not lose Gandhi’s real message to the world. This was his attachment to his conscience. He thirsted for righteousness in defiance of gods and men. His strategy for non-violence change revolutionised the way we protest today – through non co-operation, peaceful mass dissent and the quiet subversion of the economy.

Because he practised what he preached, he could rally the masses behind him both for the liberation of the country and their “souls”. As a shrewd political operator Gandhi would have been pleased that the modern world has venerated his disciples such as Mandela and Martin Luther King. He was no ideologue, as Mandela pointed out, he even conceded the armed struggle was necessary when the choice was between “cowardice and violence”.

Undoubtedly Gandhi’s image will, like other titans of the twentieth century, become used to sell ever more improbable items. It is in the nature of the modern age to co-opt greatness to peddle the mundane for exorbitant prices. But Gandhi’s advice to be “the change you want to see in the world” is the moral slogan of everyone who seeks to alter the globe for the better – not least for President Obama who has publicly acknowledged his debt to the Mahatma. Find yourself facing a £15,000 luxury pen bearing Gandhi’s signature and the answer is simple: don’t ban his face. Just don’t buy the pen or into the culture that allows it to be sold.

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