The Gandhi Method

As I wrote the earlier post declaring my intent to study Gandhi's life and death, contending that it is indeed a very 'Indian' life and death, I presumed that Gandhi mattered. It may seem too obvious a statement, but it is not the 'Father of the Nation' stature that we need to be talking about. In fact, this, and the vast cottage industry that sprung up on Gandhi iconography, can be seen in direct contrast to what the man stood for and what he wanted to achieve. We may celebrate Independent India as the great achievement of Gandhi, but there are reasons to consider this to be his great failure, though his legacy lived on. 

It was a great mystery to everyone how India became democratic from the start. Most people were dismissive about Nehru's plans to offer everyone a vote even before that happened in the United States, and predicted chaos. Political Scientists, accustomed to the vaunted correlation between per capita income and democracy, could never fit it into their theories, and commentators, from time to time, predicted immediate collapse of the state. Over the years though, as the Indian Republic survived and become stronger, the pundits swung to the other extreme opinion - taking Indian democracy for granted and claiming it to be irreversible! Even the rise of a Hindu Nationalist party, which the Founders always saw as the gravest danger for the Republic, is not seen with alarm, as the diversity itself - which an earlier generation of commentators thought to be the greatest hurdle to democracy - is now seen as a bulwark for plurality and openness.

This has no precedence, anywhere in the world. A poor, illiterate country, going through the democratic elections year after year, and going strong after 68 years. In the meantime, it has gone through everything imaginable - several wars, acts of terrorism, economic chaos, separatist movements, religious strife - and yet, the only short-lived experimentation with authoritarianism, played out in the authoritarian-friendly days of the middle-70s, were immediately, severely, but peacefully, crushed. One could now come up with a theory of Indians having a democratic genetic structure (some might already have), or the less charitable may see its roots in the quarrelsome nature of the Indians. However, this democratic tradition can only be explained by the way India achieved its independence, which is different from most other countries and in direct contrast with many European political theories, and can be attributed to The Gandhi Method.

One has to remember that Gandhi did not start the Indian Nationalist movement, but joined it in the middle of the Great War. He came with some track record - success of his non-violent methods in South Africa was known by then - but his impact was immediate. Nehrus poetic phrase - And then Gandhi came - seemed almost real in terms of the impact he had on Indian polity almost immediately after his arrived.

To understand this impact and the lingering legacy of Gandhi, it may be worth summarising the Nationalist politics of India at the time of Gandhi's arrival. With some generalisation, but not distortion of truth, one could say that the mainstream politics of nationalism in India, in the years preceding and during the Great War, revolved around the debates of two groups of leaders, one group seeking equal opportunities in jobs for Indians and the other group trying to go slightly further and arguing for greater home rule within the British Commonwealth. Outside the mainstream, however, there were regional activism, a revolutionary undercurrent in Bengal, various peasant and labour agitations, which confronted the English rulers and their agents in India, more violently than even the radical Nationalist leaders would like.

Gandhi, in many a ways, emerged as a radical politician who engaged in dialogues when there was an opportunity, a man of the people who brought the grievances of the street to the meeting rooms of the rich. He flung open the gates of Indian politics to those peasants and labourers following whom he dressed and spoke. His politics, not dependent on a Citizen Elite but everyone, changed the dynamic of political action of the country. This is a crucial departure from any theory of political action - the man on the street is unlikely to be politically disciplined and focused - but Gandhi made this work in India. His boycott of English goods, not a new one, was brought to bear upon the Commercial interests because of the massive participation. His identification of common man's causes, like salt, changed the focus of political action. The impact of this strategy, despite a large body of Gandhi literature, is insufficiently studied. In the immediate context of his politics, unleashing the political action of the Indian villages, numerous, largely outside British control and hitherto outside political movements, Gandhi changed the political equation of the country. That the English had to pack up and leave eventually may have various reasons, but this had created a different model of political action in India - and its legacy would live on in Indian democracy.

The other crucial aspect of Gandhi's method is non-violence, which is indeed famous. But the point of non-violence is not lack of violence itself, which requires great courage, but the rejection of the method of the powerful. Gandhi, indeed, famously said that if India had swords, he would have advocated lifting it. But the deeper message of non-violence is that the oppressed must not mimic the methods and ideas of the oppressor, but create a new way and meet him at a different ground. These methods would not work without the multitude, but Gandhi had them. However, on the other hand, the politics of violence can only work with a Citizen Elite in the lead, like in so many other countries. This had implications in the Indian Freedom movement, where various extremist factions and Communist Party largely viewed Gandhi as a collaborator, but this - employment of a tool-kit of the oppressed - became an inextricable part of the Indian political fabric.

So, my argument goes, Gandhi was not just fighting for independence, he was laying the ground, may be unknowingly, for democracy and republicanism. Political theorists may fail to see how a state that had to be led by a Citizen Elite can remain democratic without being rich. But, Gandhi already created a freedom movement with broad participation and leadership, using methods which anyone can use (violence needs weapons, and therefore, money). Structurally, India was already a Republic before it became independent.

This does not mean that Indias democracy would have happened without the actions of its post-independence leaders and of succeeding generations, or it should be taken for granted now. One of the key problems of post-independence India was its overt dependence on Citizen Elite, a class of leaders that will run the country, something that Nehru, above all, learned from the Soviet experience. But, many of the issues India faces today, lack of broad-based prosperity, bureaucracy and corruption at all levels, come from the dependence on this narrow elite. In this, Gandhi was a success and a failure at the same time, as the battles he launched, one of creating an India of the People, still rages on many years after his death.



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