Marketing the Mahatma

Print edition : March 02, 2002

A U.S.-based company's bid to capitalise on the name of Mahatma Gandhi with the aid of his grandson is scuttled.

'MARKET forces' will not leave even the Mahatma in peace. A U.S.-based licensing company, CMG Worldwide, announced recently that it had a new big ticket client - Mahatma Gandhi. Its website listed Gandhiji among its six new clients. Other personalities rubbing shoulders with India's apostle of non-violence were Hollywood actress and dancer Ginger Rogers, Formula One racing champion Emerson Fittipaldi and wrestler Andre the Giant. CMG Worldwide is in the business of "representing the families and estates of deceased celebrities" and "acts as a business and marketing agent for its clients". The move to commercialise an icon of austerity stirred up a hornet's nest as soon as the Indian media got wind of it.

A statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The Father of the Nation faces the prospect of being turned into a commercial icon.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

Tushar Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma who negotiated the deal with CMG Worldwide, had several explanations to offer in support of his move. But finally he withdrew from any further dealings with CMG Worldwide. Thereafter, Gandhi's name vanished from the company's website.

After giving his provisional clearance for the advertisement, Tushar Gandhi told CMG Worldwide that he would grant his approval only after watching the final product.

Tushar Gandhi with some children.-

Meanwhile, CMG Worldwide put forward another business proposal. It wanted to be the sole agent for the commercial use of the Mahatma's name. "I considered this proposal seriously because I thought it would be a good opportunity to police the use of Bapuji's image and prevent any misrepresentation. The company was to refer every commercial project to me for approval," says Tushar Gandhi. He recalls his failed attempt to prosecute the producers of the Nikki Bedi show, when one of the guests on the TV programme insulted Mahatma Gandhi. "No action could be taken against them because Nikki Bedi as well as Rupert Murdoch, the Star TV owner, were foreigners. I felt that CMG Worldwide would be able to tackle such cases better since they are abroad," he says.

According to Tushar Gandhi, although no agreement had been reached, CMG Worldwide announced Mahatma Gandhi as one of its new clients. (CMG Worldwide did not respond to queries sent to it by this correspondent.) "If nobody in India understands why I was getting into this deal, it wasn't worth my while to continue with it. I broke all ties with CMG Worldwide, and returned two cheques they had sent for the advertisement. However, I still feel that we relinquished a good opportunity to protect Bapuji's image and get some funds for restoration," Tushar Gandhi explains.

WHILE people in general were relieved that the Mahatma's name was spared from being commercialised by a foreign company, many still question Tushar Gandhi's moral and legal right in the first place to enter into such a contract. Says Nagindas Sanghvi, Gandhian and writer: "Gandhiji has no legal heirs. He disowned his family in 1914. He was the Father of the Nation. How can one man decide how he should be represented? Tushar is just one of 54 Gandhi family members. What about the rest? And what about his intellectual heirs who are as much his sons and daughters?" Usha Gokani, the Mahatma's granddaughter and a trustee of Mani Bhavan, agrees with him. "They should have gone about this deal in a Gandhian way - more open and transparent. To vest power in only one person is not right. There should be consultation within a group of people. It would not have been difficult for the company to trace other prominent members of the Gandhi family or other Gandhians. Bapuji is as much my grandfather as the father of all other Indians," she says.

However, Tushar Gandhi justifies his stand. "He is still my great grandfather. You cannot deny that. In that capacity I still have the right to grant such permission. All 54 Gandhi family members have that right. They probably approached me since I am more in the public eye." Tushar Gandhi is also a politician. He was earlier in the Samajwadi Party but has now shifted to the Congress(I).

Former High Court judge C.S. Dharmadhikari disagrees with Tushar Gandhi's view. He says, "In a sense, he has bound the other family members by signing a no-objection certificate. All the others have to be consulted."

Many are also offended because the commercialisation of Gandhi's name goes against the very principles he stood for. "As a nation, we have a right to protest against the commercialisation of the Father of the Nation. You cannot equate Gandhi with personal property. He is not a marketable commodity. He belongs to humanity," says Justice Dharmadhikari.

However, Tushar Gandhi points out that Gandhi's image has been used in several advertisements, including one for an expensive textile brand, one that contradicts his principle of spinning and using khadi. A product called Dandi Salt is also being advertised now. "Gandhi himself used to raise money for the Harijan fund by giving his signature and photographs," he says.

"Gandhiji doesn't need Tushar to defend his name. His memory is best preserved by people who still follow his ideals and are doing constructive work at the grassroots level in villages; people like Baba Amte," says Himmat Jhaveri, a freedom fighter. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the Mahatma's grandson and now the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, adds, "Anybody who seeks to misuse the Mahatma's name or image is not likely to succeed (in it) for too long." According to T.K. Somaiya, "The fact that people want to cash in on Gandhi's name proves that he is popular and relevant even today."

In 1997, V. Kalyanam, who was a member of the Mahatma's staff, tried to pass on a set of Gandhiji's personal papers that was in his possession to a cult organisation in the U.S. called the Saiva Siddhanta Church. The cult offered it for sale to Phillips International Auctioneers and Valuers, a firm in London. The Navjeevan Trust filed a case against all three parties in the Madras High Court in 1996 (Frontline, November 29, 1996). Finally, the papers were returned and are now with the Navjeevan Trust (Frontline, December 13, 1996).

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