Who would have thought that 110 years after his death Swami Vivekananda would become a political football? Strictly speaking he is a volleyball and a cricket bat. The Vivekananda volleyballs and cricket bats are going to help the youth of Gujarat "arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached". The goalpost, of course, shifts depending on which pundit you ask about Narendra Modi's ultimate aim.
In Kolkata Swami Vivekananda had become calendar art – a monk in an orange turban, his head raised towards the heavens, hanging listlessly on kitchen walls, bathed in the sickly pallor of the wan tubelight. Narendra Modi has rescued him from presiding over the sizzle of panchphoran in Bengali kitchens and turned him loose on the highways and bylanes of Gujarat in his Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra.
It’s brilliant because Vivekananda is exactly how Modi wants himself to be perceived – both Narendras, stout defenders of Hinduism out in the world and karmayogis at home. Shri Aurobindo called Vivekananda “a lion among men”. The lion of Gujarat clearly feels they belong to the same pride. In laying claim to Vivekananda, Modi proudly said that the swami had spent “maximum time” in Gujarat on his great Bharat darshan travels in the 1890s. That pretty much makes Vivekananda an honorary member of Modi’s favoured genus — Gujarati Asmita.
“(Vivekananda) proclaimed that a resurrected India would be the leader of the world,” Modi said. And just in case you didn’t get it he added for emphasis that “Vivekananda had visualised India’s pre-ordained destiny of taking on the mantle of the world’s leadership.”
And Modi who has been incessantly tweeting #Vivekananda150 to his 980,482 followers expects us to believe that he has no ambitions beyond being the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Vivekananda is perfect for Modi – muscularly and unapologetically Hindu but with a modern development agenda. As one BJP leader told the media, “This yatra ensures that Modi’s core belief in Hindutva is intact along with the motto of our government – appeasement for none, development for all.”
But if Narendra Modi is trying to rope Swami Vivekananda in as a campaign volunteer, Sonia Gandhi is clearly not ready to give him the man without a fight. So she hot-footed it to the Ramakrishna Mission in Rajkot to make it clear that Vivekananda was not Modi’s monopoly. There she prostrated herself before a statue of Vivekananda’s guru Ramakrishna and received blessings from the monk. The message was clear. If Narendra Modi could claim Vivekananda as his guru, Sonia Gandhi would move up the spiritual ladder and claims Vivekananda’s guru for herself. “I’ve deep faith,” she told the head of the mission according to India Ink.
Vivekananda is hugely attractive to secularists because his vision of Hinduism embraces the notion that all religions are different paths to the same goal. His view of religion is broad enough for everyone – “mother, father, teacher are manifestations of God.” He is the swami who has no compunctions writing “Had I lived in Palestine, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, I would have washed his feet, not with my tears, but with my heart’s blood!” I doubt Modi tweeted that Vivekanana-ism out to his followers as part of his Yuva Vikas Yatra.
That’s the problem when politicians jump on the bandwagon of someone like Swami Vivekananda says Ambarish Sen, who grew up in the Ramakrishna Mission run school for the blind in Narendrapur in West Bengal.
“The left, the right are all looking for this message of renaissance and they want to fit Vivekananda to their own ideology,” says Sen, now an assistant professor of English. “But he’s neither just a muscular Hindu, nor a secularist. He’s really a humanist who wanted to break down all kinds of narrowness. His message about reconstruction of India is for all the youth of India.”
Vivekananda said about his band of boys "Who would listen to a few boys with their crank notions? Nobody. At least in India, boys are nobodies." But for politicians, they are the youth vote and Vivekananda is a way to get at that. They try to box him into their narrow visions of ideology and religion and volleyballs and 14,000 sports centres across Gujarat. They talk about his stance on colonialism but don’t dwell too much on how he berated his countrymen for their own failings for “repeating undigested stray bits of European brainwork, and the whole soul bent upon getting a thirty rupee clerkship, or at best becoming a lawyer—the height of young India’s ambition.” (There were no MBAs at that time.)
Politicians don’t want to claim the complexity of Vivekananda. They just want to claim him, reduce him to a slogan on a cricket bat or the name of a bridge. "Vivekananda for us was indispensable but inside us," says Sen remembering his school days at Narendrapur. "We did not need banners." Politics is all about banners and external markers. If Modi makes him an honorary Gujarati, Mamata Banerjee is clear she has first dibs on him as a fellow Bengali. So Didi is planning a giant youth confab in January to mark his 150th birth anniversary. She told Hillary Clinton she wants Obama to come for that as a Chicagoan, remembering Vivekananda’s great speech in that city.
Mamata has already flagged off the Vivek Express train with two air-conditioned coaches with pictures and write-ups about Vivekananda. She’s given Rs 500,000 Vivek Puraskars to villages in Jangalmahal that have “shown the courage to resist Maoists.”
The appeal of Vivekananda for Mamata is obvious. He’s probably the last known Bengali man who actually extolled the virtues of hard work. Mamata, of course misses the irony of declaring a holiday on the birth anniversary of the ultimate karmayogi.
Rabindranath Tagore told Romain Rolland, “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative.” One hopes that still remains true once our politicians are done with their latest love affair with the man in orange. I think the man might have been safer on that kitchen calendar.