A signor from Rome

The Financial Express

Marco Pannella is hardly known in India, and the odds are that his name evokes no particular recognition even among India’s normally hyperactive community of social scientists or journalists. Which is a pity, because he is one of the most dedicated and intellectually respected flagbearers of Gandhian political philosophy in the western world.
He is the founder-leader of the Italian Radical Party, a small political outfit that commands a unique, and loyal, space among the Italian intellectual community. This party carries the image of the Mahatama as its logo, uses the word “satyagraha” in all its literature, and practices innovative methods of peaceful protests and disobedience to push its social agenda.
The Italian Radicals are one of the most unorthodox political entities anywhere, defying simple categorisation. On one hand, they are strong supporters of free markets, private enterprises, limited government and an overall pro-American foreign policy approach. On the other hand they remain social liberals, espousing causes like legalised drugs and common-law marriages. They have helped modernise Italian social laws by successfully campaigning for divorce and legalised abortions in one of the most Catholic countries in Europe.
They are strong advocates of human rights and liberty globally, including in Iraq where Pannella, along with others, had campaigned in early 2003 for the international community to send Saddam Hussein into exile as a means to prevent an US invasion.
It is in large part due to ceaseless campaigning by leaders of the Italian Radicals that the UN Court for Crimes Committed in the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court were both founded. So odd is the Radical Party that it usually considered Leftist by Italian right-wingers and as Rightist by left-wingers.
During Christmas of 1995, Pannella dressed up as Father Christmas and publicly distributed small quantities of hashish in the streets of Rome in the presence of police officers. That of course led to his arrest and a 2-year prison sentence, a verdict that was later commuted to a monetary fine and eventually entirely overthrown by Rome’s Court of Appeals, which ruled that an act of civil disobedience could not be considered a crime.
And was even arrested in Bulgaria in 1968 when he went there to demonstrate against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is perhaps the only instance of a major Gandhian hunger strike against the might of the Soviet empire.
Pannella was in India recently on a purely private visit, and an Italian journalist friend introduced me to him. As I was to find out, this was also his very first trip to India, which was rather amazing considering his intimate association with and scholarship on Gandhi’s political and spiritual teachings. But his take on my surprise to this was as simple and straightforward as it can get. “Gandhi is alive through the eloquence of his work and life,” he said. “Inspiring figures like Gandhi live on beyond their time and geography, and their legacy is more important than their persona.”
It is difficult not feel slightly awed by his vast canvas of thoughts and concerns on the human condition, or touched by his romantic belief in ideals that are, for one reason or another, rather dimmed in their land of birth. But his faith in the essential goodness of humanity, or in the power of democratic and peaceful discourse, is certainly touching. As he said, at one point, he is “perhaps the real new Gandhian.”