Like many others who grew up reading history from joyless little tomes produced by doctrinaire historian hacks as part of our West Bengal board approved school syllabus, I had an uncritically simplistic view of Mahatma Gandh in my youth. The way it was told, Bapuji was the second Jesus who also brought us freedom, put on the cross by those to him he had given salvation, and this impression was reinforced by multiple mandatory watchings of Attenborough’s lavish hagiography.
Over the years, as I have read more, I have found Gandhi’s legacy to be deeply problematic, whether it be his use of the power imbalance in his favor to launch bizarre sex experiments in his ashram while fluffing it up as an “experiment in truth” to his asking Hindus, especially women, to embrace death and “dishonor” in order to shame the perpetrators into passivity, and his antediluvian ideas on industrialization.
While the halo on his infallible divinity has dimmed, I am still fascinated by his leadership style and, most of all his legacy to the world, an uniquely Indian notion of participatory democracy.
The India of Gandhi was one of hereditary monarchy, of elephants and palaces and ostentatious displays of wealth, greater the pomp, greater the perception of power. Using his poverty, his singular lack of possessions, the frailty of his physique, Gandhi turned that model of power on its head. It was his abnegation that gave him his absolute moral authority. Much is now made of how Gandhi was a democrat, he was hardly, in the Congress it was his will or nothing at all as Subhash Chandra Bose found out, and when he felt he was losing control, or a movement had gone to the extent that it was now becoming counter-productive, he would pull the plug, irrespective of what others thought, and if he could not get his way, he would launch a fast, and he knew that the political capital he had, there was no one who could say no after that. This is what made him such an effective leader, being the Platonic ideal of the philosopher king, an autocrat who is decisive and not swayed by the passions of the masses. Plato,in his book Republic (not to be confused with Arnab Goswami’s abomination), says that the ideal king, what he calls the philosopher king, must have no possessions, because only then will the nation-state accept his decisions, since no matter how unpopular his verdict, there is no question of that having been motivated by personal gain. It has been said that it cost a lot to keep Gandhi poor, and there is a good solid reason for that. Successive generations of Indian politicians have tried to follow this model, from Sonia Gandhi giving up the prime ministership but keeping the reigns of power to Arvind Kejriwal’s “main to samanya aadmi hoon”, but consistent and absolute abnegation is a tough path to walk, and only Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had the moral fiber to keep at it consistently and without fail.
Not surprising his song is “Ekla chalo re”.
But this is only a small part of the legend of the man.
Democracy, as it was in the 30s was quintessentially British, an adaptation of the Aristotealian ideal of government, of gentlemen in large halls taking decisions, of jolly gents and old chaps, away from the teeming masses, who were allowed to vote, but not to decide, their engagement with the government being to write a name on a piece of paper and then leave the work of governance to the privileged.
Gandhi broke that way of mold. He understood the notion of virality before social media was social media. He had a knack for symbolism, of capturing the perfect viral moment, for what is the greatest Instagram moment than him bending and picking up salt, one frail old man challenging in one black and white picture, the economic might of the greatest empire of its time. Gandhi was perhaps was one of the first persons in the world to effectively link identity to mass mobilization politics. He chose emotive religious causes–the Khilafat movement for one, and cow-protection on the other, in the process forever linking religious identity to democracy, the perils of which were articulated by the Congress leadership that was being sidelined by Gandhi, a leadership that included one Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a firm believer in the traditional concept of democracy whose aim was to act as a counterweight to rather than exacerbate the Greek notion of thumos or community-spiritedness. And such was Gandhi’s legacy that even Jinnah realized the folly of his ways, that winning debates in Parliament and forging countries are not the same thing, and what happened next, we all know.
And though Gandhi in his messaging always made non-violence a moral choice, it was also, in the long run, the most pragmatic. Gandhi understood the changing algebra of power better than his contemporaries and even those that came after him, that the world is changing, that physical violence and war and empire-building through razing of cities could no longer guarantee victory, that with the flow of information, the pressure of the masses and of public opinion would turn military victories into defeats, and the US would realize it soon enough, through Vietnam when a military victory in Asia became a political catastrophe at home, and then the war in Afghanistan by Russia and then America and the Iraq War, to the extent that the best minds in foreign policy have come to accept that embargoes and boycotts and sanctions work much better in bringing countries to their heels than sending in a volley of missiles.
So while it is true that I do not see Gandhi as a beacon of morality any more, nor do I find myself agreeing with much of what he did and preached, there is no doubt in my mind that he was pretty much one of the greatest political brains the world has ever produced.