Foreigners are often taken aback to see Hitler’s Mein Kampf sell so widely in India, sometimes even at red lights. Foreign journalists have written the usual stories about this: find and interview a Hitler fan, talk about the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its founders were influenced by early twentieth century European fascism, get a quote about the growing Hindu right in India.

Each time I see such an article, I wonder if something is amiss. Surely, nobody here wants Jews exterminated? Surely, they know how Hitler ended, what World War II did.

“Iconophilia,” an art historian friend explained. The love of images and icons. I don’t have evidence to prove this, but I bet most people who buy Mein Kampf in India don’t read it, because most books bought are not read anyway. Mein Kampf is for the bookshelves, for its iconophilic value. Hitler as a human figure fascinates the owner of the book, and they want a symbol of this fascination displayed in the drawing room.

Long live Che

Iconophilia explains why a prominent businessman in Delhi would name his son Che, after Che Guevara, a revolutionary who went around the world, even came to India, as an ambassador of Cuban socialism.

The flashy, Bentley-driving ponytailed businessman had an afterthought. While he saw no irony in him naming his son after a socialist revolutionary, he was worried about the violent connotations of the name, given Guevara’s participation in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950’s. So the businessman decided to give his son a middle name Kabir, the Bhakti saint who was half-Hindu and half-Muslim.

In these ways, great historical figures can be reduced to just their images. What they wrote, thought, stood for, can become immaterial. Their ideas could at best be taken in part, the inconvenient bits discarded. So it is that the RSS and the Hindu right in general have made Bhagat Singh their own ‒Bhagat Singh who was a communist, Bhagat Singh who wrote a pamphlet called “Why I am an atheist”, Bhagat Singh who was reading Lenin before he was hanged.

The Bhartiya Janta Party has similarly accepted and appropriated Bhim Rao Ambedkar, whose image it uses to mobilise Dalit voters. Ambedkar who renounced Hinduism, Ambedkar who led a mass conversion to Buddhism, Ambedkar who thought that the caste system and its brutal impact on Dalits cannot end within Hinduism. Despite this, his giant portrait hangs outside the BJP office in central Delhi on his birth and death anniversaries. The BJP misrepresents Ambedkar’s book on Partition to suggest that he viewed Indian Muslims in a negative light.

The Dalit movement needs to ask itself how a radical figure like Ambedkar is so easily appropriated by the Hindu right. In my view, they can do this because the Dalit movement has reduced Ambedkar to a mere image. The Dalit movement today does not stand up to oppose the Hindutva party’s appropriation of Ambedkar, but goes to any extreme to censor an old cartoon depicting Ambedkar, and wants upper-caste writers like Arundhati Roy to refrain from writing about Ambedkar. If the Dalit movement instead made upper-caste thinkers like Roy participants in thinking, reading and writing about Ambedkar, it would keep the great man’s radical edge alive.

Universal Gandhi

Gandhi, on the other hand, belongs to everyone, love him or hate him. Gandhians don’t seek to control the narrative on Gandhi. Perhaps they should, except that we don’t have many Gandhians left. The Congress party, drawing its authority from Nehru, completely discarded Gandhi. By the time Sonia Gandhi got Mahatma Gandhi’s name to attach to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, it was too little too late. Once again, it was iconophilia in action. The Congress thought merely naming a scheme after Gandhi would do the trick.

Even today, the Congress could use Gandhi to make a forceful case for Indian pluralism, but Nehruvian secularism is enough for it. Not that the Congress party pays more than photo-op lip service to Nehru either, because Nehru’s dynasty is still around in politics and demands that it be worshipped. As for the other great icon of Nehruvian secularism, Maulana Azad, who was he?

Remember when LK Advani went to Pakistan and praised Muhammad Ali Jinnah? The Congress’ enemy could only be my friend, Advani’s logic. Praising the founder of an Islamic Republic to contrast him with the Nehruvian Congress could only bolster the justification for the Hindu right’s idea of creating a Hindu republic. But the Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh didn’t get the nuance and rapped Advani in the knuckles.

Two years ago I was astonished to see top RSS leaders in attendance at a grand launch for a book on Gandhi at the Gandhi Smriti in Delhi. Trying to reinvent Gandhi for the ‘internet age,’ the book was authored by Advani’s friend Sudheendra Kulkarni. One thought the average Savarkarite hated Gandhi for trying to save Muslim lives during Partition. That Gandhi was now an RSS icon! The Hindu right points out that Gandhi was a Hindu who took Ram’s name when he was shot, conveniently forgetting that he also read the Holy Quran and the Bible? At least he wasn’t an atheist like Nehru. Never mind that Veer Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, was also an atheist.

Son of the soil

It is thus not surprising to see Modi appropriate Gandhi with such ease.

In an election speech in September last year, Modi said he was “made of that soil from which Sardar [Vallabhbhai] Patel and Mahatma Gandhi were forged.” He conveniently forgot that Jinnah was also forged from the same soil.

Modi has commissioned a giant statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel at the Narmada Dam, one that will cost over four times the price of India’s Mars mission. Sardar Patel must be given his due, goes the RSS agenda, and Modi feels strongly about this, forgetting that Patel as home minister had banned the RSS briefly after Gandhi’s death.

The latest is Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Jai Prakash Narayan. Everybody is ripe to be garlanded by Modi, never mind if his ideology may not match theirs. He needs to do so to project himself as the successor of great historical icons, and he can do it easily because in India we have the ability to reduce every great historical figure to a photograph or statue.