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Gandhi and politics

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Punjab Police personnel throw flower petals on a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, as they pay tribute during a ceremony to mark the 73rd anniversary of his assassination, in Amritsar on January 30 this year. AFP

Gandhi and politics

On July 18, 1914, Mahatma Gandhi sailed for England, leaving South Africa for the last time, and finally reached India (Bombay) on December 19, 1914. At the time of his return to India, he was a mature man of 45 who had done his essential thinking on morals and politics in South Africa between 1913 and 1914.

All his important concepts – satya, ahimsa, satyagraha, sarvodaya, even swaraj and swadeshi – had been formulated in his mind and in his writings before he embarked upon the political activities which brought him into the limelight. He did not see the goal of political action as the immediate capture of office.

According to Gandhi, the basic condition of political action was the elimination of violence, because violence was a sign of the failure of a legitimate political power. The chief task which he set before himself was the collective organisation of the working people in terms of non-violence, keeping in mind that “a non-violent revolution is not a programme of ‘seizure of power’ but a programme of transformation of relationships”.

Of course, Gandhi also added to this a few ancillary aims like the political independence of India, the removal of untouchability and the like.

For the accomplishment of these objectives, Gandhi tried to work through a suitable organisation. His first choice seems to have fallen upon the Servants of India Society in Poona. But eventually he withdrew his application for membership following a sharp division of opinion with the existing members and joined the short-lived organisation named All India Home Rule League, founded by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant, and became its president.

Nearly a year passed by. In the meanwhile, he had succeeded in changing the creed as well as the name of the organisation. The Indian National Congress (INC) was then the single most popular party, and the party’s aims and methods of operation had also been ‘constitutional’ since its inception in 1885. Gandhi soon became a member of the INC, and then to know India he embarked on a countrywide journey under the command and wish of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his political mentor.

However, in 1920, the All-India Home Rule League merged with the INC which elected Gandhi as its president. Indeed, Gandhi joined one organisation after another with the objective to put his ideas into practice. At the same time, the primary objective was also to organise the masses for satyagraha in an uninterrupted manner in India. Actually, South Africa provided the laboratory for Gandhi’s experiments and now India was a clean slate to him for writing and also to try out almost any methods he chose.

Gandhi’s central contribution to modern politics was the invention of Satyagraha. Tolstoian non-resistance and Thoreau’s civil disobedience inspired his ambition to make satyagraha a universal political method. But Gandhi’s greatest innovation was to turn satyagraha into a new kind of mass politics. As a tool of resistance, its power was most unyielding when enacted on a large scale. Its mass quality was also important for how it was practiced, and by whom. The weapon was universal in a second sense; it could be taken by anyone – women, men, children, peasants.

Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Nancy Stephan, in “When Civil Resistance Works”, argued that this inclusiveness had given non-violent movements a ‘participation advantage’ over armed movements, making them twice as likely to succeed in overthrowing authoritarian regimes.

The theory and practice of satyagraha exemplified another general truth about politics that Gandhi underlined – this was the importance of means. He followed the maxim that in politics ‘means are after all everything’. He never subscribed to the principle that the end justified the means. He compared the means to a seed and the end to a tree, and emphatically said: “There is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree”.

Gandhi, like Hobbes and Machiavelli, recognised that the pursuit of power is a basic human characteristic. All political institutions are merely instruments for the pursuit of power, whether directly or by the indirect manner in which they maintain and foster the ownership of property and provide the psychological incentives that they are connected with power.

Gandhi used the term ‘politics’ in two ways. According to him, there is a distinction between ‘Sattvic’ (derived from the Sanskrit term sattva which means “Truth”, “Goodness” “purity”) politics and “so-called politics” centred on power. He regarded politics as a moral effect on the part of the individual to establish justice in social relations rather than as a drive for power. It is borne out by the fact that he wanted every non-violent worker to take five vows of truth, Brahmacharya, non-violence, poverty and non-possession. He told his followers of the freedom movement: “Ours is not a drive for power, but merely a non-violent fight for India’s Independence.”

A few days before his assassination, Gandhi said at a prayer meeting: “I wonder if we can remain free from the fever of power politics or the bid for power, which afflicts the political world in the East and the West.” The day before his assassination, in one of the many unsuccessful attempts of his last days to keep the leaders of the Congress on the straight and narrow path, he advised the disbandment of the Congress and its conversion into a Lok Sevak Sangh for which he also drafted the constitution the same evening.

Only a few minutes before the shots were fired, he was engaged in a discussion with Sardar Patel regarding the latter’s differences with Nehru; Nehru and Azad had an appointment with him after the prayer meeting regarding the same issue. Gandhi’s last fight was thus against power politics.

Gandhi was not a system builder in the academic sense. He was also not a political philosopher. For all his sayings were pouring from his deep feelings and sincere realisation of truth. In his book “Hind Swaraj”, or “Indian Home Rule” (1909), Gandhi expressed systematically his views on Swaraj, modern civilisation, mechanisation etc. His indictment of modern civilisation represents a moral and spiritual standpoint that is witnessed more clearly in his attitude to politics.

Gandhi always resisted power politics and realised that politics today encircles us like the coils of a snake from which one can hardly get out. According to him, the only way of wrestling with the snake is to introduce religion into politics.

As early as 1915, the year of his return from South Africa, Gandhi declared his aim ‘to spiritualise’ political life and political Institutions. In the following year he told a Missionary Conference at Madras: “I do not believe that religion has nothing to do with politics. The latter divorced from religion is like a corpse only fit to be buried.”

He also emphatically wrote in his Autobiography: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” The presentation of his social and political thought is saturated with religious spirit and frequently punctuated with the assertion that politics is inextricably linked with religion.

It is also argued that both true religion and true politics have to concern themselves with human life and action, and both must have a common basis in a common morality determined by a common set of values. In the preface to his autobiography, Gandhi declared that his devotion to truth had drawn him into politics, that his power in the political was derived from his spiritual experiments with himself, and those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.

In 1947, while answering the criticism that he was utilising his prayer meetings for the propagation of his political views, Gandhi admitted that this was true, and added that he never had any feeling of guilt on this account. Human life being an undivided whole, no line could be drawn between its different compartments, nor between ethics and politics. It was impossible to separate the everyday life of man, he emphasised, from his spiritual being.

The Gandhian appeal to the ethical part in politics was not only a way to seek Truth, but also of coming to know oneself in ever greater depth. Gandhi considered politics as a work of the heart and not merely of reason. This recalls French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said: “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know.”

In the same manner, Gandhi believed that the heart, and not reason, is the seat of morality. His morality was not denial of politics. He wrote: “I feel that political work must be looked upon in terms of social and moral progress.”

Jaydev Jana



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