On Mahatma Gandhi’s 149th birth anniversary this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tributes to the father of the nation. He had an op-ed in the morning papers singing praises to the Mahatma.

On Twitter, Modi follows many Hindu nationalists who praise Nathuram Godse for assassinating Gandhi on January 30, 1948. The ideological roots of Modi and his Bhartiya Janata Party lie in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing organization that seeks to make India a Hindu state. In the past, Modi’s own party colleagues have publicly praised Godse. One such is Amit Malviya, now the man in charge of social media for the BJP.

While the RSS denies having a hand in Gandhi’s assassination, it was well known to oppose the Mahatma’s ideal of uniting Hindus and Muslims. The RSS seeks to establish Hindu supremacy, whereas Gandhi wanted equality between the community, and communal harmony at large.

It is not surprising that Narendra Modi has felt the need to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi. Hindu nationalists often need to present a moderate version of themselves when they are in power. What is surprising is the ease with which Modi has been able to appropriate the Mahatma.

How does an icon of Hindu-Muslim equality come to be venerated by ideologues of Hindu nationalism?

Iconophilia

Part of the answer lies in a public culture that has reduced Gandhi to an icon devoid of meaning. He’s just the father of the nation, you can love him or hate him. He’s there on the currency notes, he’s there in images and statues and representations, wrapped in a loincloth, wearing round eyeglasses, holding a stick, and a charkha (spinning-wheel spindle) to weave cloth. Like Che Guevara or Adolf Hitler, Gandhi is an object of fascination.

Iconophilia, or the love of images, is a global phenomenon. But India is particularly given to it. Foreigners are surprised to see Mein Kampf selling on India’s streets. But people who buy Hitler’s autobiography aren’t anti-Semitic. They don’t necessarily approve of what Hitler did. They’re not going actually to read a book that’s not going to help them take a test. It’s just an object of fascination for the bookshelf.

The same people might also buy Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. If you ask an educated Indian to tell you what Gandhi said in the book, you’re likely to get a blank. Beyond some keywords people learned in school, there’s little they’d know about what Gandhi meant. These days, even the ritual of showing children Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi (1982) has died.

Drain inspector

The separation of Gandhi from his ideas is what allows Modi to appropriate the father of the nation. Gandhi said and did many things in his illustrious life. Just one of many things Gandhi cared about was sanitation and cleanliness. Narendra Modi has cleverly picked that one out, and made Gandhi’s round glasses a symbol of the cleanliness drive.

The Swachh Bharat or Clean India drive was launched by Modi on October 2, 2014, soon after he became prime minister. On Tuesday, Modi had United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres over to speak at the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention.

So Gandhi is now just a drain inspector. Meanwhile, the BJP is trying to make Sardar Patel a bigger icon than Gandhi. Patel, India’s first home minister, was often in disagreement with Gandhi and with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. On October 31, Modi will inaugurate a statue of Sardar Patel that will be twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.

Like Gandhi, other icons are also being hollowed out of their ideas and reduced to their images, making them ripe for appropriation. This includes Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Indian leader and Dalit icon who was chairman of the drafting committee of India’s constitution. Ambedkar argued that the problem of caste was one of the Hindu religion. He converted to Buddhism and urged other Dalits (people who face untouchability and caste discrimination) to do so.

Again, Modi and the BJP pay homage to Ambedkar on his birth and death anniversaries. The supporters of Ambedkar and the votaries of Gandhi should know how to make their icons strong enough to prevent appropriation. The answer lies in privileging ideas over images, books over statues, and films over rituals.