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Gandhi and modern political thought

Satyagraha was tied to action and meant for politics in the street, the maidan and the village
Satyagraha was universal, disciplined, creative, and prioritised means.(Getty images)
Published on Oct 01, 2019 11:34 PM IST
ByKaruna Mantena

Critics often characterise Gandhi’s political thought as a mix of Hinduism, anti-industrialism, moral puritanism, and social service. When tied to his charisma, it may have proved powerful in attracting supporters but could not cohere into an ideology. With the partial exception of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi also never penned a grand philosophical treatise. When asked why this was so, Gandhi replied that he was “not made for academic writing, action is my domain”.

Gandhi was both a man of action and a philosopher. The originality and depth of his political thought was closely connected to action. He was not just adept at translating ideas into action. In trying to make satyagraha effective, he grasped some elemental truths about the nature of politics. This was not a philosophy of and for the cave-dweller, but for popular politics in the street, the maidan, and the village.

Gandhi’s central contribution to modern politics was the invention of satyagraha. Tolstoyan 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 practised, and by whom.


Satyagraha was universal in a second sense; it could be taken up by anyone. At various times, Gandhi thought of children, women, and peasants as ideal satyagrahis. Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Nancy Stephan, in When Civil Resistance Works, argue that this inclusiveness has given non-violent movements a “participation advantage” over armed movements, making them twice as likely to succeed in overthrowing authoritarian regimes.

But the inclusion of diverse classes was also essential to satyagraha’s constructive purpose. Through the practice of satyagraha, the elite would unlearn privilege, and actively identify with the poor — most famously through the labour of spinning and village seva (service). In overcoming fear of authority, the poor and vulnerable would likewise realise dignity and freedom through action.

Something about the way we remember Gandhian non-violence today has made it seem prosaic. We have become inured to its novelty in terms of what it demanded of its practitioners and what it conveyed to the public. Protest politics have also become repetitive, with a scripted unruliness, making it hard to see how they can genuinely provoke and reshape opinion. For Gandhi, to realise its power to transform, disruptive mass protest had to be creative and disciplined. Discipline allows the dignity of the protesters, and the message they present, to be conveyed with intense clarity and sincerity.

One of Gandhi’s keen insights into the nature of politics underlying his advocacy of satyagraha was his awareness of the role played by egoistic attachments and negative emotions like resentment, contempt, and indignation in politics. Our identities are closely bound with our political beliefs and interests. We naturally resent and dismiss those who challenge them, as regularly occurs in competitive politics. Satyagraha engages these passions and dispositions. Its creativity and discipline lessen and disorient them enough that a shift in commitments might become possible.

This is what Gandhi meant when he argued that to get important things done in politics, you had to go beyond reason and mind. You had to reach out to and move the “heart” of those who resist and resent you. In all his campaigns, satyagraha was means for generating opportunities for persuasion and realignment rather than retrenchment and polarisation.

The theory and practice of satyagraha exemplified another general truth about politics that Gandhi underlined — this was the importance of means. Gandhi followed the maxim that in politics “means are after all everything”. Given the sway of negative passions in politics, and the ever-present potential for violence and reaction, the how of politics was given priority over end goals. To Nehru, Gandhi explained, “You have emphasised the necessity of a clear statement of the goal, but having once determined it, I have never attached importance to the repetition. The clearest possible definition of the goal and its appreciation would fail to take us there if we do not know and utilise the means of achieving it. I have, therefore, concerned myself principally with the conservation of the means and their progressive use.”

This was for Gandhi the first, and hardest, question of politics: How to shake people out of their existing rationales and motivate them to transform themselves and their political worlds. Typically, political leaders and activists try to motivate people to act in one of two ways. One is to rely on words over deeds. In Gandhi’s terms, they try to persuade by petitioning, condemning, speechifying, and sloganeering. But slogans not backed by deeds were signs of weakness and powerlessness. The opposite side depends on brute force. Politics is defined by exploiting fear and threatening coercion. Protest politics in this vein relies on the strength of numbers and replays in the street the politics of intimidation. In the language of Hind Swaraj, this is the kind of politics that “assumed that we can get men to do things by force and, therefore, we use force”.

Both were mistaken. For Gandhi, “real strength lies in the absence of fear not in the quantity of flesh and muscle we have on our bodies”. Satyagraha was his way of building strength through deeds and action. It was a form of creative action that could initiate new attachments and alliances. Its greatest legacy was to demonstrate that effective power need not be equivalent to coercive force.

Karuna Mantena is Columbia University academic, and a political theorist. She is working on a book, tentatively titled Gandhi’s Realism: Means and Ends in Politics

The views expressed are personal

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