Khadi: A Political Weapon, A Business Opportunity

Gandhi wielded homespun cloth as a means of enchanting the masses. Khadi's popularity makes it good business even today.

Nearly one hundred years ago, in 1918, Gandhi began a relief programme for millions of India’s poor. Sitting cross-legged beside a spinning wheel called ‘Charkha’, he spun cotton by hand. 

It was a political act – with socioeconomic dimensions. In a bid to break the monopoly of British mills over Indian textiles, Gandhi encouraged villagers to grow their own cotton, and spin their own yarn. The product was Khadi – a homemade, handspun cloth that launched the ‘Swadeshi’ movement. Foreign goods and imported cloth were burned and Indian cloth was embraced.

Khadi, the homespun cloth, was an ideological weapon against the machine-made cloth imported from Britain. The device to make it, the charkha, caught Gandhi’s attention – and he wanted to scale its adoption so the Indian village could regain its lost arts.

The spinning wheel represents to me the hope of the masses. The masses lost their freedom, such as it was, with the loss of the Charkha. The Charkha supplemented the agriculture of the villagers and gave it dignity. It was the friend and the solace of the widow. It kept the villagers from idleness.

Video of Gandhi spinning cloth on his Charkha:

It captured the imagination of millions. No freedom fighter was to be seen without it. India’s politicians have since continued to use Khadi as a symbol of nationalism. It had, over time, evolved as a fabric of the nation, adorned by India’s political, academic and intellectual elite. Across political parties, politicians (from Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi to L K Advani and Narendra Modi) have adorned Khadi to present themselves as politicians. Almost all the politicians in the Indian Parliament and state legislative assemblies continue to wear Khadi. It has come to represent power dressing among India’s political circles.

From handspun to power looms

Gandhi recognized that villagers spinning cloth would also dye and weave it, thus, making the Charkha the first wheel in a village-led manufacturing revolution. “The Charkha enabled the seven hundred thousand villages to become self-contained.”

But if Gandhi created a political movement against the colonizers, he could not halt industrialization. The British left, but the machines remained. The power loom became the driving force behind the Indian textile revolution – and by 2006, India had more machines making cloth than anywhere in the world, making machine-made cloth one of India’s largest exports today. But within the textile industry that contributes 15 percent of India’s GDP, a silent revolution has spun into play – Khadi has become one of the country’s hottest exports.

The Khadi & Village Industries Commission (KVIC), set up in 1956 to promote Khadi and village industries saw sales cross 50,000 crores ($7.8 billion) in 2016 for the first time. This figure includes other village-made products, such a soaps, honey and dyes, but Khadi itself has shown remarkable growth.

In 2016-17, Khadi sales were Rs. 2,005 crore ($311.31 million), a 33 percent rate of growth. The target is Rs. 5000 crores ($ 776.33 million) for 2018-19, according to the KVIC.

India has endeavoured to export Khadi as India’s soft power export; the plan is to make Khadi the next yoga. But, the Khadi of the 2000s is radically different from the Khadi of Gandhi. For one, the emphasis on handspun cloth has decreased. Many companies employ mechanized charkhas to spin the cotton. There is also the compromise of the semi-mechanized ‘Amber’ charkha – which nonetheless, produces cloth of a lesser quality than that by hand.

The rise of private companies has also led to a tussle over branding ‘khadi’ – which the government seems to believe it owns. FabIndia and KVIC are engaged in a brand war over whether the former can call their products ‘khadi’. 

With sales on the uptick and demand increasing, the market has found creative ways to sell khadi. Khadi is no longer limited to its traditional image of the attire of politicians. Denim-Khadi jeans are now in the market to get the youth hooked onto Khadi. 

A political marketing tool

Gandhi’s genius turned Khadi spinning into an extraordinary political marketing tool. The iconic TIME magazine photo of a thin, frail, Gandhi by his wheel is one that needs no mention. Gandhi also helped develop a ‘foldable’ spinning-wheel – popularly known as the ‘book charkha‘.

However, Gandhi’s association with Khadi is under threat. India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a member of the RSS (an organisation linked with assassinating Gandhi), seems to be appropriating Gandhi’s image to make it his own image. Controversy was generated this year when a calendar created by a public sector institution, Khadi Gramodyog, featured Modi’s image instead of Gandhi.

Political controversies are inevitable for a fabric that is symbolic of power and politics. But few in the political class today are willing to make Khadi. Much of the homespun Khadi comes from rural India. The government hopes to win the rural Khadi making artisans with a charkha that generates electricity. The new tool, ‘E-Charkha‘, generates enough electricity on spinning to power a 1W lamp and a small transistor. Whether the villages will buy into it remains to be seen.

Khadi’s fortunes have come full circle since the 1980s. When socialist ministers started wearing Khadi-polyester blends, India’s polyester revolution saw the textile industry grow by leaps and bounds. Machines started rolling out tonnes of Khadi polyester. 

However today, with automation making in-roads into textile manufacturing, there is a real threat of millions of jobs being lost to the robots. Khadi’s original allure as a handmade symbol of self-reliance might be needed again to give an impetus against robot-driven unemployment.

Khadi saw a resurgence in India as an effective political marketing tool – before and after India’s Independence. Adorned by the political and intellectual elite, it continued to grow as a symbol of power dressing, capturing the imagination of millions of Indians. It has consistently proved itself to be an effective branding tool for an image makeover. As Khadi is poised to become India’s hottest new export, its demand is bound to increase further. What remains to be seen is how much of its production will now be taken over by artificially intelligent robots, as it grows as a multi-billion dollar industry.

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