One wonders whether it is a Munnabhai spinoff. But 46 per cent Indians view Mahatma Gandhi as the country's best brand ambassador — a good 23 percentage points ahead of superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Cricketing idol Sachin Tendulkar, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani trailed way behind in the Hindustan Times-Cfore survey among 1,067 persons with different backgrounds.
But faith in Mahatma's legacy is not reflected in the respondents' social preferences; the dichotomy showing in responses to pointed questions on matrimonial choices.
Those pitching for Gandhi are averse to marriages outside their caste or community, let alone to someone lower than the caste to which they belong.
Fifty three per cent of those surveyed opposed inter-caste marriages. Similarly, 57 per cent and 55 per cent rejected alliances with persons below their caste or outside their community. In fact, caste is as much a driving force for residents of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, as it is for those living in Chandigarh, Patna, Lucknow and Bhopal.
But the findings did not surprise Bandhua Mukti Morcha chief Swami Agnivesh and political analysts Pushpesh Pant and CP Bhambri.
Pant thinks Gandhi's choice as 21st century India's brand ambassador was odd and linked to the common man's perception of him as a saint.
"And saintly need not be there in ordinary mortals," he said, analyzing the reluctance of the respondents to practise what Gandhi preached.
For his part, Agnivesh believes Mahatma's legacy of non-violence and secularism are popularly seen as an alternative to violence and terrorism that haunt the contemporary world. The BMM leader actively promotes inter-caste marriages.
He said while the civil society campaigns on issues like human rights and environmental protection, the country is yet to see a formidable "jati todo" agitation. He agreed with Pant and Bhambri that policies like quotas in jobs and education perpetuated identity, not assimilation. "If a person benefits because of his caste, why should he marry outside it?" Pant asked.
Ironically, respondents clinging to caste identities took a dim view of the political class that is often accused of nurturing caste and community-based "votebanks." Fifty eight percent felt that politicians were corrupt and had criminal tendencies.
But while so asserting, the sampled population betrayed little interest in taking to politics to clean up the system. Still worse was their voting record in elections — only 39 per cent reporting regular exercise of franchise and 35 per cent saying they voted often, but not always. "The urban dweller sees a better option in buying political influence rather than actively participating in politics," explained Pant.
Bhambri endorsed this view: "It is wrong to conclude the burgeoning middle and upper middle classes have opted out of politics. They influence and manoeuvre politics while claiming to be out of it. The aam aadmi votes, the extraordinary rules. And ruling does not mean standing in a queue and voting or fighting an election." But people's desire for systemic change remains undiminished.