Watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last month, as he began to carve out an image for himself beyond India’s borders, one might have gotten the impression that Mohandas K. Gandhi was his ideological progenitor, or his running mate.
Gandhi is everywhere in Delhi these days. A stylized drawing of his steel-rimmed, circular glasses is the logo of Mr. Modi’s new cleanliness drive, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, introduced with great fanfare on the anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. He is posed with a broom and basket on the cover of Organiser, the magazine of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing Hindu organization connected to Mr. Modi’s party. When the president of China, Xi Jinping, visited, Mr. Modi received him at Gandhi’s ashram. Then Mr. Modi visited President Obama in the United States and presented him with a copy of Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita.
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Gandhi, of course, is an unlikely avatar for the ascendant right wing in India. For most of the last century, Gandhi has been the symbolic leader of the Indian National Congress party, which Mr. Modi drove from power this year. Gandhi’s economic vision was fundamentally anticapitalist: He extolled rural over urban life and called industrialization “a curse for mankind.” During his lifetime, Gandhi was excoriated by right-wing activists — including the man who assassinated him — for acquiescing to the creation of Pakistan and advocating the rights of India’s Muslim minority.
Though Mr. Modi has always spoken of Gandhi with respect, he has echoed the criticism that Congress leaders gave preferential treatment to India’s minorities. Mr. Modi’s reputation as a Hindu hard-liner was defined in 2002, when bloody sectarian riots broke out under his watch as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. No Indian court has found him responsible for the riots, which left more than 1,200 dead, most of them Muslims.