A Godfather makes sure his will is done. He rams his decisions down the line and others better lump it or cough up blood. On the other hand, a Mahatma sets in place structures that make civilised decision-making possible. Gandhi in that sense was a true Mahatma. He never quite succeeded in getting his will to work. Even those who were close to him dismissed many of Gandhi’s dearest beliefs as fads, obsessions or utopian fantasies. From ahimsa to celibacy, with trusteeship, cottage industries and village republic en route, Gandhi failed on each score to make his will be done.
And yet, without Gandhi, independent India would be a very different one. Take away Gandhi, and India would not have been a democratic republic. India may have become independent, but democratic? Hardly.
Many countries with less effort and without a charismatic leader anywhere in sight have also managed to become independent. The trick is not just to wriggle out of colonial domination but to set up an independent and democratic State that can last the wash for six straight decades and be good for many more. Tinpot dictators and clientelist rulers are handily found among post-colonial regimes. India stands out in contrast. It is not the enervating weather or our Vedic notions of Maya, but Gandhi who made the difference.
India had everything stacked against it. It had the worst forms of social stratification known in contemporary history. Deep class divisions have persuaded experts to talk of two Indias living cheek by jowl, one in riches and the other with a begging bowl. Some of the best political analysts, such as John Rawls, have admitted in a confessional mode that liberal democracy works only in a situation of mild scarcity. India has then clearly defied all the odds against it and has remained a vibrant democracy — poor but pure. How did this miracle happen?
Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence is not simply about turning the other cheek and applying mud packs when it really hurts. Non-violence reaches out to a high intellectual plane, for it presumes that only when one loses in a rational argument does violence becomes a tempting option. This is the bedrock of the democratic temperament that Gandhi helped firm up. His consistent exhortation of non-violence sedimented a solid reef that protected our national movement from anarchist, dictatorial and fascist surges.
Before Gandhi appeared on the national stage, independence was all-important, but not democracy. Gandhi’s non-violence and his ability to reach out to a multi-class alliance built democracy into the DNA of the nationalist movement. From then on to the Constituent Assembly debates and the formation of a democratic republic was but a short step, for the hard work had already been done.
Gandhi’s influence can be seen in almost every page of the Constitution. From the abolition of untouchability, to the protection of minorities, to granting a place to religion in a secular polity, all bear the imprimatur of the Mahatma. Without the freedom to practice one’s faith, or the unbending equality in the eyes of the law, or the fundamental right to express one’s views freely and without fear, no democracy can hope for political longevity. All these foundational structures of our polity owe everything to Gandhi and to his insistence on non-violence.
Non-violence was not just an internal value, or an ideal to be practised solo with ants and all kinds of tubers. Gandhi’s non-violence was a public ethic: it was about political conduct. By keeping guns and other blunt instruments out of purview, Gandhi privileged rational debate to win a point. No other Indian leader before and after him has hammered away at this basic political modality with as much unwavering commitment as Gandhi did. Indeed, before him, nobody even talked about such things. It was independence and a kind of cultural nationalism that was uppermost in their minds. This is where Gandhi made all the difference. If we are a democratic Nation-State, let us give the Mahatma his due.
Even Mahatmas can have feet of clay and on occasion, strive to have their will be done. This was true of Gandhi as well, especially in the way he marginalised Subhas Chandra Bose. Gandhi’s finest hour, however, was when he called off the movement following Chauri Chaura. Sure, the violence in that faraway village enthused the zeal for independence. But it would not have favoured democracy. Had he not halted the agitation in its tracks right then, India may perhaps have become independent sooner, but would have failed as a democracy.
Mahatmas do not do the thinking for us. That is what godfathers are good at. Instead of suspending our thinking faculties, Mahatmas help us think. Gandhi began his political career in distant South Africa, urging his partisans to change from within and not be afraid to think independently. He may have had his pet policies and peeves. But those do not really matter at the end of the day. Gandhi’s enemy was never really people, as it is with godfathers or Munnabhais, but the political system. In a very real sense, Gandhi was the masterboard without which democratic processing of diverse political viewpoints would not have been possible in India.
Gandhi’s non-violence allowed the public discussion of issues that were vexing Indians on a national scale. They were hitherto taboo subjects and whispered behind closed doors for fear of ridicule. By donning the visage of the traditional mendicant, Gandhi became a popular vehicle for thinking out thoughts that were taboo, but which needed urgent resolution.
In that sense, Gandhi performed the function of a myth. Like a myth whose actual action-consequences are not as important as its ability to help us think through some of the most enduring puzzles of human existence, Gandhi provided us with a forum to air social concerns that were deeply worrying. It is through the medium of Gandhi that Indians could publicly discuss the relationship between classes, between castes and between communities, the place of women in public life and the interface between faiths. It is not as if a consensus was arrived at on any of these. But the fact that we could now talk about them helped us frame the basic rules of our Nation-State.
Today, the most fanatical communalist, the most rabid elitist, the most obnoxious casteist cannot but submit publicly to a secular credo. This is not simply political fluff, but actually limits the damage that such people can cause to our public life. Imagine an open advocacy of ethnic cleansing against a shame-faced one, and the breaks that Gandhi imposed on such political monsters will become immediately apparent.
In fact, on an everyday basis, these unsocial godfathers are held in check by the Mahatma — not by his ghost but by his real presence in the nuts and bolts that hold the building blocks of our political structure together.
It is facile to dismiss Gandhi because we have forsaken his loin cloth for blue jeans or dumped his spinning wheel for the mighty computer. Think a little harder. Gandhi helped us think as citizens and that is what democracy is all about.
Dipankar Gupta is a Professor of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.