Does the appearance of Narendra Modi’s photograph on the calendar of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission instead of that of MK Gandhi represent the sullying of an Indian pacifist tradition? Or, the incorporation of a small-is-beautiful tradition into the machinations of global capitalism? Perhaps an attempt to re-write the truth of principled historical experience as the falsehood of the contemporary consumerist ego?

Not really. Or, at least, certainly not suddenly.

Will the episode be harmful to the way we live and think and believe? We are unlikely to know as we refuse to engage with it in any serious manner.

There are, however, particular reasons why we think that Modi-Khadi represents a massive break from the past and a shattering of all that was ethical, moral and pure in our lives as a community. But before we get to that, we need to think about why it isn’t such a major event. Let’s go to the Akshardham temple in Delhi.

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Temple as metaphor

A very large number of my friends refuse to visit the Akshardham temple complex that is located on the banks of the Yamuna river in Delhi. They think this is inauthentic Indian culture at best and insidious promotion of Hindutva ideology at worst. But if you want to understand the seeming extraordinariness of Narendra Modi as the new mascot of khadi – the apparent usurpation of Mahatma Gandhi’s place in the national imagination – then Akshardham temple is a good place to start with. It tells us a great deal about the banality of the seemingly audacious. You don’t have to be a Modi supporter – by any means – to say that the Modi-Khadi episode is not a scandal.

The temple complex was constructed by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, one of the major sub-sects within the Swaminarayan movement. The Swaminarayan movement is located within the Bhakti tradition, and its founder, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, was born into a Brahmin family in 1781 in a small village near Ayodhya in present-day Uttar Pradesh. One enters the complex via a large lobby that has the feel of a luxury hotel and the rest of the arena is divided into different sections. Some of these attract an entry fee. The ticketed attractions include the Hall of Values, also known as Sahajanand Darshan, consisting of an “audio animatrix show” (depicting various scenes from Swamimarayan’s life), Neelkanth Darshan (an IMAX theatre), and Sanskruti Vihar (a boat ride through “10,000 years of Indian history”, based on an attraction at Hollywood’s Universal Studios). An area with a musical fountain and a 27 ft. high bronze statue of Neelkanth (the young Swaminarayan) attracts an additional entry fee. A “Garden of Values”, and the temple itself, surrounded by a moat, make up the remaining key features.

What is most striking about the temple complex – a space of mass visitations and hence an entry into the life-worlds of substantial sections of the population – is the easy relationship between seemingly disparate realms. Here all ideologies have collapsed: spirituality mixes with consumerism, nationalism frolics with globalism, the ascetic is intertwined with the voluptuous, and the inside (of intimate family life) is at one with the outside (of the spectacle). It is not Gandhian reflections on the world that give us an entry into contemporary life-worlds in India. For that, we should visit Akshardham.

Pure and impure

The temple complex tells us a great deal about what is happening in India and why it is that the Modi-Khadi episode is the norm rather than an exception. It may also tell us something important about the need to search for a future progressive politics based on what is actually happening in India. For that, at least figuratively, we need to visit Akshardham. Modi has been there and knows that his actions of collapsing the “pure” and “impure” only seems like that to a very small minority. The fact of the current situation is that there are no realms of ideological purity and impurity.

Gandhi has not been a part of the mass national consciousness for a very long time. His ideas have been kept in circulation through a life-support system jointly sponsored by the state and well-meaning sections of the intelligentsia. Gandhi has been fashionable only when he has become part of consumer culture and even then his own ideas carry no weight. Do we really think that the vast majority of Indians subscribe to the idea of self-denial as a means of achieving a higher consciousness? This is the wishful fantasy of those who have managed to have Gandhi as well as eat cake.

Modi knows this. Akshardham tells him that there will be no mass outrage if he – representing consumerist excess, say – becomes the mascot of khadi. He knows that these combinations do not raise alarm. He knows that these processes have been in train for a very long time. The Munnabhai films already told us that the only fate of an ascetic ideology is consumer culture. Akshardham tells us that we cry too much over spilt milk.

It is a mistake to think of the Modi-Khadi episode as a scandal. This only convinces us that there is a purer place elsewhere. There isn’t. It also reinforces Gandhism as the most admirable ideological position as well as suitable politics for our times. It isn’t. This last point gets to the heart of why we continue to think of reinvention of the Charkha-man as a scandal. It has to do with the lack of desire to think of a politics of our times.

How should we think of an ethical life through actually existing conditions of life, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist? There is an old Marxist dictum that if you can’t swim and jump into a river shouting “there is no water!”, it doesn’t mean you will be saved from drowning. If you want to feel the river, go to Akshardham. The Gandhi Peace Foundation is no place for getting a handle on how to navigate the waters and the Gandhian world-view is inadequate to a politics of the possible for our times.

This politics cannot be based on nostalgia for a present that does not exist.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist and author of Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon.