Getting back to Gandhi

Gandhi is this incredible historical figure who is at once so inspiring and so absurd. He is a towering Jesus-like figure, who lives on in the street names and statues in his native India and memes on Internet. But he is also absurd, distant from realities and possibilities, saintly and irrelevant. In summary, we have learnt to live with Gandhi the saint, who has an alluring other-worldly appeal and absolutely nothing to do with modern political life. 

This is what it perhaps ought to be. Notwithstanding the fact that Gandhi was very much a practical political man leading an independence movement, the country that he helped create deified him and cast himself outside its political life. His legacy was to be the moral source of the Republic and he was to be designated to be the Father of the nation, but he was to be treated, more like an adorable old man from a different generation, with token legislation, garlands and gabble. His surname adorned an Indian political family by design (it was Ghendi before it was changed), a brilliant semiotic move matching an obscure Mr Drumpf's settling for an anglicised Trump for a new life in America. Gandhi, the original Mohandas, therefore, became all symbols and no substance, much like busy commercial roads of pubs and malls in every Indian city which are called, obligingly, Mahatma Gandhi Road.

But troubled times call for desperate measures. Indian politics has entered a decisive post-Congress phase when the allure of the Gandhi name, in its post-independence incarnation, is running thin, and the high idealism of the Republic is all but a spent force. The crisis call of India's global elite - they project the political shift as a part of global crisis of liberalism - seeks to resurrect the lost love for Gandhi, whereas the new Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, bearing the political heritage of those who assassinated the old man, is busy presenting a grassroots Gujrati image, extracting however little political mileage that could be extracted of his legacy. Symbols still supersede substance in talks about Gandhi, but in this season of bonfire of the founding, there is an opportunity to look back to see Gandhi has any contemporary meaning at all.

I shall argue there are three key aspects of Gandhi's contemporary relevance that we should pay attention to.

First, at the centre of Gandhi's political universe is the individual and the question of personal morality. It is easy to lose one's view of this in the maze of Gandhi's various 'experiments', but the politics of personal morality needs a more careful consideration than it has done so far. Politics in the Twentieth century was one of mass organisation and great Utopian theoretical leaps, where the individual was usually sacrificed in the altar of big ideas and greater good. Gandhi's proposed path, of defining an individual path and courageously sticking to it, appeared less exciting and more arduous - not the staff that makes good prime time content! But, when, in the Twentieth Century, all those grand ideas of better world has failed, and yet another grand idea of technology-led Nirvana has taken over political imagination (like in Brexit, where all the solutions that politicians don't have answers to, would be magically solved by technology), the politics of personal morality needs a reconsideration. The current battles, which is being played out between big media and big business, may be represented as one of 'liberalism' versus something else, but it's really one between individuals having politics and groups having one. The group politics have forgotten the individual, particularly the little ones without money to sponsor electoral activities, and a new personal politics of rage has emerged. This is an empty space, where group's politics have no answer but Gandhi's politics of personal morality may offer a clear alternative.

Second, even if the individual is to have a politics, one may think this would be an ineffectual one. Aren't world's challenges too big to be addressed by an individual? And, besides, such personal politics would only weaken the collectivist politics and all possibilities of resistance would be effectively ruled out. This is why, one would argue, Gandhi has no answers for big political problems: Did he not suggest unarmed resistance to Hitler? But there is another way to think about an individual's political options. The individual has two inalienable powers: One of withdrawing one's labour, and of limiting one's desires. One can go as far with each of these as one likes, but these two powers have more consequence than it appears. In fact, the need for greater participation in the labour force, particularly in the instruments of state power (police, military, officials), has been the central object of the modern politics; creating and maintaining a class of consumers is the point of modern economics. As for resistance to Hitler, we now know that his murderous regime was not one of a madman leading everyone else to abyss, but rather a mechanism of co-opting ordinary Germans, sustained by willing cooperation of big business, big media and while it lasted, big international powers (including Britain and Soviet Union). The whole thing was made possible by labours and desires of many participants, who kept the personal moral questions aside mostly in the search of economic gratification and sometimes in the quest of a racial utopia.

Third, the point of this politics of personal morality, one based on realisation of the inalienable nature of one's labours and one's desires, presupposes politics as an arrangement of moral persuasion. This is indeed at odds with the opinion poll crazy, tokenist modern politics, where demagoguery rules the day. But are we not back in the era of ideology? The smooth-vowel politics of special interest is definitely on the retreat and empty political correctness is giving way to unbridled nastiness.  On the political world's road to Damascus, the historical lessons of moral persuasion, that of Gandhi but also of Suffragettes or American Civil Rights movement, need a serious reconsideration.

It is a good sign then that Gandhi is being debated again. The muscular Hindu nationalists mock his non-violence, indeed because they have no answer to the message of personal morality. The sensitive Left abhors his being an Hindu, indeed because he was not a reed-in-the-wind politician and remained true to his inner compass. There is much indeed in the details, and all his various turns, experiments and mistakes deserve to be scrutinized over and over again - but one must not lose sight of his big messages. Because, for a man with as large a legacy as him, we should be able to understand him through the ideas, the big, bold ones that made him stand above the forces of history.


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