Getting back to Gandhi

Gandhi is this incredible historical figure who is inspiring and absurd at the same time.

He is a towering Jesus-like figure, who lives on in the street names and statues in his native India and memes on the Internet, exhorting us to be the change we want to see in the world. But he is also this absurd, saintly and irrelevant figure, distant from everyday realities and offering no concrete possibilities of confronting our disappointments.

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 perhaps what it ought to be. Though Gandhi was very much a practical political man leading a mass movement, the nation he helped to create deified him. His legacy was cast aside as spiritual and moral rather than practical and political;  he was celebrated as the Father of the nation, one who exited conveniently early in the life of the Republic. He was designated to be treated, more like an adorable old man from a different generation, with token garlands and gabble. His surname adorned an Indian political family by design (it was Ghendi before it was changed, a brilliant semiotic move that can now be compared with the obscure Mr Drumpf's settling for anglicised Trump for a new life in America).

Gandhi, the original Mohandas, therefore, became all symbols and no substance, much like the busy commercial roads adorned with pubs and shopping malls at the heart of every major 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. The high idealism of the Republic is all but a spent force. At this time, India's traditional elite, in crisis as they are challenged by the nuevo-rich middle classes and ambitious inner-city men, seeks to resurrect the lost love for Gandhi, as a desperate ploy to lay claim on the moral force of the Independence movement; on the other hand, the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, bearing the political heritage of those who assassinated the old man, busily presenting a grassroots Gujrati image, extracting however little political mileage that could be extracted from the old man's legacy. Symbols still supersede substance in our engagement with Gandhi; but, at the same time, this very bonfire of the founding, we may find an opportunity to look back to see Gandhi's contemporary meaning.

For this, I shall argue that, for once, we need to look beyond the details and Gandhi the historical man and rather try to understand him through his ideas, partcularly the big, bold one that made him stand above his own particular circumstance to offer an answer to our current predicament.

Gandhi's political universe, unlike the great twentieth century systems of organising the society, is built around 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. Politics in the Twentieth century was one of mass organisation and great Utopian theoretical leaps, in which the individual was usually sacrificed in the altar of big ideas and the greater good. Gandhi's alternative to this, of defining an individual politics and courageously sticking to it, appeared less exciting and more arduous - not the staff that makes good prime time content! However, in the twenty-first century, as all those grand ideas of building a better world have faltered and failed, the politics of personal morality needs a reconsideration. 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.

There arises, out of the idea of individuals having politics, a problem: It may be an ineffectual one: Aren't world's challenges too big to be addressed by an individual? Such personal politics would only weaken the collective endeavours and all possibilities of resistance would be effectively ruled out. This is why, it may be suggested, that Gandhi has no answers for big political problems and his message was essentially a moral one, like his suggestion of offering unarmed resistance to Hitler. However, by making the individual a conscious political agent, Gandhi forces us to think about an individual's political options, and in particular, of  the individual's two inalienable political weapons: First, that of withdrawing his or her labour, and, second, that of limiting their desire. With the two, the individual can indeed stand up to the fearsome power of modern state: The need for greater participation in the labour force, particularly in the instruments of state power (police, military, officials), is the central object of the modern politics; creating and maintaining a class of consumers is the point of modern economics. Seen this way, even the Gandhian resistance to Hitler may appear less crazy:  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 and the local elite in occupied territories, sustained by willing cooperation of big business, big media and while it suited them, other international powers (including Britain and the Soviet Union). The whole project 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.

This Gandhian politics of personal morality, one based on a 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 trumps all else. But are we not experiencing the great failure of modern politics at this very time and sliding back, inadvertently perhaps, into a new 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, may represent the only hope of political salvation of democracy. Without it, the contemporary contest between technocracy and democracy may be settled too early and prematurely, with the technology-enabled Nirvaana that we are hoping for doing too little for too few.

It is a good sign then that Gandhi is being debated again. The muscular Hindu nationalists mock his non-violence, but really because they have no answer to the message of personal morality. The sensitive Left abhors his being an Hindu, but really because he was not a reed-in-the-wind politician and remained true to his inner compass. There is much to be found in the details; all his various turns, experiments and mistakes deserve to be scrutinized over and over again, but one must not lose sight of his one big message: That we, as individuals, hold inalienable political powers, and we can change the world exercising the same.


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