Although there have been many biographical accounts of Mahatma Gandhi, much of the literature on him is hagiographic. Keeping clear of the twin pitfalls of hagiography and hyper-criticism, this book seeks to throw new light on Gandhi by looking simultaneously at his legend and career. The Gandhian legend is analysed through the corpus of texts and images which helped spread it—through India and in the West. The gradual creation of Gandhi as an icon is shown to be the result of Indian nationalistic selectivity and Western Christian impoverishments of the range and depth of representations of the Mahatma. Markovits suggest that the growth of a legend on the saint as politician, through these iconic transformations, has obscured the facts of Gandhi's specific public career in history.
Gandhi's actual professional role in the public sphere, says Markovits, was marked by his long and critical phase of maturation in South Africa, a phase often glossed over, in laudatory accounts, as a preparation for his famous work in India. This later Indian career, Markovits points out, was really the consequence of Gandhi having to radically reinvent himself, even as he worked his way through political ground realities to create what we now know as the quintessence of Gandhian politics. The attempt made here is thus to revaluate some crucial points within Gandhi's career and sometimes ambivalent ideological positions. Markovits argues that the disjunctions between the early and later Gandhi cannot be wished away or elided: they need to be squarely examined. Rather than seeing Gandhi as an upholder of traditional Indian values, Markovits stresses the paradoxical modernity of Gandhi's anti-modernism.What comes out strongly, in the end, is Gandhi as a polysemi figure, open to different, even contradictory, interpretations, whose peculiar modernity and susceptibility to varying appropriations makes him of enduring contemporary value.