Mahatma Gandhi (Kanu Gandhi/Wikimedia Commons)
  • Gandhi’s greatest achievement was to be able to mobilise vast masses of people for non-violent struggle, but what really is his legacy? And how does it impact our current political scenario?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's political legacy is more preserved in worship than in practice. He has been deified, put on the currency notes (wherewithal for black money deals) and largely ignored but for two days of the year—October 2, his birthday, and January 30, the day of his demise.

Gandhi's legacy is hard to separate from his living presence. He was able to do many things by the sheer force of his personality. For 20 years, between 1920 and 1940, he led the Congress with an iron hand. Grown-up men and women agreed to suspend their judgment and critical faculties and followed him, believing that he will deliver independence. In the final phase, 1940 to 1948, his influence began to wane. When independence came, Congress leaders agreed to the Partition against his best wishes. He had to fast against the new Congress government to get justice for Pakistan. Unlike when the British ruled, there was no longer universal sympathy for this gesture. He was killed by a fellow Hindu.

Gandhi's greatest achievement was to be able to mobilise vast masses of people around a message of non-violent struggle. These struggles were unarmed, but they were never as non-violent as he wanted them to be. This was to lead to shifts in his tactics over the years. In a timorous people, he planted the idea of political action by way of non-violent protest even at the personal risk of physical injury from police violence and jail.

He used the language of religion to widen his appeal, knowing what people would grasp easily. But his own conduct was his principal weapon. His fasts, his marches, his call for hartal, his defiance of the Law in his own peculiarly law-abiding way, his own stay in jail were central to his appeal. This worked best in the first struggle that he launched in 1920. It scared the British and after that they never underestimated him. But he unilaterally called off the movement even though it had not delivered Swaraj within the one year that he had promised. The calling off made no sense and puzzled his followers. The Congress lost the Muslims after that as they did not buy the semi-mystical Hindu religious approach to politics.

Gandhi never again launched a mass satyagraha. In the case of the Dandi March in 1930, he chose around 80 people to walk with him. But he knew that there would be a multiplier effect, and there was. But Dandi failed because the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in the talks that he carried on with Gandhi in the wake of the march, did not grant any of Gandhi's demands. Ten years later, Gandhi resumed the tactic of individual satyagraha with Vinoba Bhave, but the movement failed. He launched the Quit India movement in August 1942 only for the entire Congress leadership to end up in jail. The multiplier this time was semi-armed clandestine struggle by younger Congress volunteers such as Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), Aruna Asaf Ali and others, but it was soon contained. In the final four years after he came out of jail, his principal focus was on Noakhali (in East Bengal, where there was violence against Hindus) while his erstwhile followers negotiated independence. He did not fast or launch satyagraha against Partition. He knew he had lost.

The key to understanding Gandhi's power lies in looking at Irom Sharmila's recent decision to give up fasting after a decade and half. Fasting against the British had legitimacy and moral force. Fasting against a legitimately elected government cannot command the same authority.

This has been one of the problems about using Gandhian techniques. Mass mobilisation against injustice may yet be his sole legacy, as Martin Luther King showed. Faced with superior and constitutionally legitimate violence of the State, unarmed struggle may be the only option. King did not use the trappings of brahmacharya, vegetarianism or abstinence like Gandhi enjoined the satyagrahi to do. King's success was partial. It helped speed up civil rights legislation in the United States and raised awareness of the injustice of racism. But not universally so, which is why he got murdered by a fellow American.

The alternative is to launch a civil war. This is what the African National Congress did in South Africa and succeeded, thanks to international support. Unlike King, Nelson Mandela did not practise non-violence or any of the personal abstinence that Gandhi enjoined. Gandhi knew that, at the bottom, the British were unwilling to use unlimited violence in India as they had a free press and non-conformist political movements back home. South Africa was different, as Gandhi found out, which is why he had little to show as political achievement though his tactics invited attention. Mandela knew not to attempt what Gandhi did only to fail.

The only successful example of the use of Gandhian tactics in independent India was JP's campaign against Indira Gandhi's refusal to obey the injunction of the court to resign, in the mid-1970s. It provoked the Emergency, which is an odd sign of success though it did expose the moral bankruptcy of Indira Gandhi.

Gandhism as the much stricter and personal code of behaviour which he imposed on the inmates of his ashram was also sustained only by his own example. After his death, the Gandhians shrivelled away into irrelevance. Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan movement came to nothing despite much publicity.

It is in his utopian vision of decentralised government at the village level that Gandhi probably has lasting appeal. As B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru pointed out, Gandhi's idea of rural India was a romantic fiction. But the idea that power should be distributed as widely as possible has appeal. There was a time when it was thought that the nature of industrial technology favoured large centralised political units with central planning and/or vertically integrated industrial corporations. Gigantism was thought to be the future. But the course of micro and nano technology has made dispersed economic activity more feasible. We are just at the beginning of this transformation.

The other idea is of frugal living and rejecting materialism. Gandhi did not wish to cure poverty so much as to make it widely shared and tolerable. His own lifestyle in his ashram mimicked the life of a poor Indian, but as Sarojini Naidu pointed out, it cost others a lot. But modern environmental activists find inspiration in his ideas. The trouble is that people want decent and rising levels of material comfort. The challenge then is to make them environmentally affordable while sharing the burden of resource saving. This requires new technology. Gandhi's virulent rejection of modern technology—railways, hospitals, modern medicine, doctors, lawyers—which he expresses in Hind Swaraj is hard to take seriously. If Gandhi is for a Green life with subsistence standards, he has little to offer.

Gandhi's ideas about the economy, with its emphasis on handicraft and rejection of modern machinery, survive in the attempts by successive governments to promote khadi and village industries. But this can only be a temporary solution. The need is not only to find work, but work where labour productivity would grow sufficiently rapidly to afford decent and rising standards of living. Gandhi did not believe that living standards should rise. In this, his ideas represented both an idealisation of poverty and a pessimism that the living standards of the poorest could be raised across the world. Antyodaya was not a rising sun but a sinking one.

Gandhi was a man of the moment. His ideas, his political tactics and his shrewdness in leading masses as well as elites played a role in striking the first and most powerful blow against imperialism. His was not the only way, but it worked for the first country to gain independence. He did this by removing fear from the minds of people about the power of the State. He showed this by his example. People bought his ideas to gain independence. But the various associated ideas on personal behaviour or modern technology were rejected.

Yet, mention must be made of Gandhi's biggest political mistake. He misused his personal status to thwart Ambedkar in his victory of winning the concession of separate electorates for the untouchables (Dalits, as they are called today). The Poona Pact which Ambedkar was forced into signing when Gandhi went on a fast unto death was the greatest disservice Gandhi did to the cause of achieving social equality. His fast was a political tactic to keep the Hindu vote united. It succeeded, but postponed the achievement of social equality by the untouchables by a century. That may be the one legacy we will have to live with.

Image credits: Kanu Gandhi/Wikimedia Commons

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