Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

Relevance of Gandhi’s Politics in Present India

Ram Chandra Pradhan

                                It is not revolutions and upheavals
                                That clear the road to a new and better days.
                                But revelations, lavishness and torments
                                Of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.
                                                                                                                   -Boris Pasternak

In the present paper, I propose to concentrate on a set of four questions concerning politics in India. They are: What is the present state of politics in India? What was Gandhi’s contribution to politics in India both in respect of its theory and praxis? Why such a big disconnect between the politics then and now? What could be done to restore some of the Gandhian values in political culture of today? For a proper understanding of the whole gamut of the issues involved in the process, I propose to delineate some of the dominant features of today’s politics and then proceed to contrast them with Gandhian view of politics. Towards the end of the paper, an attempt has been made to account for the value degradation in political culture as well as to suggest some steps towards the restoration of Gandhian ideas in today’s politics.

Any objective observer who even gives a cursory glance at the prevailing political culture in the country is bound to be struck by a number of disturbing developments. First and foremost is the draconian praxis of electoral politics which is primarily responsible for all-round degradation of moral values. Now it is being universally accepted that money power and muscle power are playing havoc with the basic democratic system behind popular elections. Besides, religion and caste are also being freely used contributing to its total vitiation. Thus our so called representative institutions could be hardly said to be based on popular will.

A second disturbing element in today’s politics is the kind of social fragmentation and segmentation that is being promoted, which is virtually tearing off our cohesive social fabric. It is going totally against the efforts of our leaders of yester years, who worked tirelessly towards social and political consolidation of the Indian society. It was through their concerted endeavour that a sound foundation for Indian nationhood was laid down. Today’s politics is nibbling at that very foundation and destroying it virtually brick by brick. It is posing a serious threat to the unity and integrity of our motherland.

A third disturbing development is the emergence of family based dynastic politics. It needs to be mentioned that what was earlier confined to Nehru family and the Congress party has become a universal phenomena affecting most of the regional politics. Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Chautala, Badals, Karunanidhi, Navin Patnayak are the living examples of family based dynastic politics. It is one of the greatest ironies of history that the followers of Rammanohar Lohia, who virtually spent his life in denouncing dynastic politics of Nehru family, have emerged as the leading figures of family based politics. What is more, most of these parties are being run as the private enterprise of pre-industrial age. Not only that, there is no internal democracy in these parties. They are also being handed over to the next succeeding generation as a part of their family inheritance.

In recent years the politics of India is marked by scams and corruption at a gigantic scale. It seems that the corrupt and the unscrupulous have virtually taken over the country. Black money has become the prime mover of Indian politics. What is more, no one is ashamed, if he is caught in the act. Even the social conscience seems to be numbed as corruption does not arouse the kind of anger or even anguish as it used to be in earlier times.

No less disturbing factor is the kind of competitive politics than is going on to build up and use the Muslim vote banks. Earlier the Congress party alone was being blamed for playing vote-bank politics in respect of the Indian Muslims. Now there is cut throat competition among all major political parties to get a lion’s share of the Muslim vote-bank. As recent events in Assam have shown, it is going to have a disastrous impact on the politics of India in coming decades and militate against the need to mainstream the Muslims and their politics.

Yet another pernicious feature that has emerged in recent years is the politics of khairat (doles). Instead of working and providing better infrastructural facilities in terms of health and education, precious and scarce resources are being thrown away for short term political gains. What is more, these systems of doles have become the den of corruption. They have brought corruption at the doorsteps of every panchayats and other local self governing institutions. The resources which could have been used to lay down a sound foundation for an inclusive growth are just being frittered away for short term electoral gains.

In the light of the above disturbing developments, one is tempted to give a fresh look at Gandhi’s major contributions to political culture in India. The contrast between the politics of Gandhian era and today’s politics is too striking to be ignored. It also prompts us to look for factors for such a marked change in the political culture of the country. But first let us have an over-view of Gandhi’s contribution to Indian politics. One could study Gandhi’s contributions to politics in India under the following sub headings:

Gandhi’s Vision of Politics:

Primarily, politics is taken as a game of power politics particularly in the liberal tradition. Such a power pursuit is made possible by making the State and related institutions the fulcrum of secular activities and as the final arbiter of all conflicting interests. In the Marxist perspective, politics is considered to be part of the superstructure and as such a handmaid of the ruling classes. Gandhi rejected such commonly accepted concept of power politics. As a votary of the state of ‘enlightened anarchy’, he could have been hardly enamoured of the idea of the centrality of State in human affairs. He was primarily committed to the idea of strengthening the sinews of civil society through various kinds of constructive programmes. But as a practical visionary he was aware that every walk of social life is dominated by politics. Hence, it would be suicidal for any thinker to run away from the arena of politics. In fact, he was persuaded to believe that in context of the modern times, politics provides a social activist with an opportunity to work for the common weal. But he widens the concept of politics in several ways. In the first place, he asserted that politics was much more than mere engagement with the institution of the State and its adjuncts. For him politics comprise all those activities, social, political and economic, which could lead to regeneration and resurgence of our national life. In fact, for him real politics was to restore all those powers to the civil society which the State has usurped in recent times. In the process, Gandhi widened the concept of politics making it a multidimensional activity.

Secondly, he established a close linkage between political activities and spiritual seeking. In fact, he went to the extent of saying that all spiritual seekers would have to participate in political activities. As he put it: ‘if our sadhus, rishis, munis, maulivis and priests realised the truth of this (political action), the political system which has become odious would reform itself’. He was so much convinced of the political work of his conception that he went to the extent of saying that it might become a medium of moksha (salvation), the highest goal of human existence. Not only that, he defined morality in political terms, which went a long way to bridge the gap between religion and politics.

He had also invented a new style of non-violent mass struggle and to a great extent successfully used it in South Africa. He used his rich experience of mass politics of South Africa in struggles like Champaran, Kheda and Ahmedabad and even in Rowlatt Satyagraha. Subsequently, he used the technique of mass politics during Khilafat, Non-cooperation, Salt Satyagraha, Civil Disobedience movement and finally in the Quit India struggle. It was on the basis of his leadership of mass politics that he dominated Indian political scene from 1920 to 1947, finally leading India to Independence.

It needs to be emphasized that it was his newly found weapon of national struggle viz., Satyagraha, which stood him in good stead during all these movements. It was primarily the nature of non-violent but militant struggle which brought the masses in the main stream of Indian politics. The underlying idea behind the idea of Satyagraha was that while resisting all kinds of injustices it neither leaves much of the trail of bitterness nor does it give the opponent an opportunity for any fierce counter attack. What is more, it leads to the moral and spiritual uplift of both the parties involved in a dispute. It goes without saying that the Gandhian Satyagraha in the form of popular movements have greatly contributed towards the independence of India and now it is being used all over the world even for regime change.

Secular Foundation of Indian Nationhood

The Indian National Congress, from its very inception was committed to lay down a secular foundation for Indian nationhood. Gandhiji took secularism to new heights. He had impeccable secular credentials since his South African days even though he always asserted that he was a Sanatani Hindu. In fact, his religious world-view was that if one is rooted in his own religion, it provides a good base for respecting others’ religion. After coming to India he virtually made Hindu-Muslim unity as one of the basic principles of his belief system.

He remained a firm believer the principle of secularism. However, Gandhi rejected the basic formulation of the European secularism that religion and politics must be separated. But in the process, he gave out his own vision of both religion and politics. He had an ethical and moral vision of religion and was not much enamoured with their theological and liturgical forms. Similarly, he rejected the concept of power politics. For him pure politics alone gives one an opportunity to serve the people. Since in his vision both religion and politics are means to serve the people, there is no need to work for their separation. Rather both should be informed by the spirit of service and morality. For him real secularism did not lie in separation of religion and politics. Pluralism could be tackled in the spirit of sarvadharma samabhava.

The Congress in a New Avatar

Gandhiji was aware that a re-organised and re-vitalised Congress was a precondition for launching the Non-Cooperation Movement on the national scale. He knew that the Congress since its inception had been, what one of prominent leaders had called, a three-day tamasha. As such it had hardly any organisation at the grass roots level and hence its capacity to mobilise the people for any struggle was limited. On the initiative of Gandhiji, the Nagpur Congress made major changes in the structure and the nature of the Congress organisation. Some of these changes were as follows:

(i) The provincial Congress committees were to be organised on a linguistic basis and not on the basis of British-made Provinces, which more often than not, were conglomeration of a number of linguistic groups.

(ii) The total strength of membership of the All India Congress Committee was increased but a ceiling of 350 memberships was also imposed.

(iii) For a better deliberation of the issues, it was decided to hold the Subject Committee meeting two or three days before the general session. That would contribute towards a better decision­ making process in the general session.

(iv) A Working Committee comprising 15 members including the president, secretary and treasurer was to be constituted, which would carry on the day-to-day work of the Congress. Besides, it would also ensure continuity of work.

(v) The Congress was to be organised from the grass roots level to the national level with regular active membership. To enable even the poorest of the poor to apply for the membership of the Congress, only a nominal fee of four ‘annas’ (a quarter of a rupee) was introduced.

Constructive Work : A New Dimension of Revolution

Gandhiji was skeptical of the institution of the state. For him, the state as by its very nature smacks of authoritarian violence posing a serious threat to the liberty of individuals. In fact, he stood for a weak state and strong civil Society. In keeping with his basic principled stand, he assigned a big revolutionary role to the constructive programmes. He came out with a string of constructive programmes like Khadi, development of village industries, national education, the removal of untouchability and Hindu-Muslim unity and others. Subsequently, he set up a single purpose organisations like All India Spinners Association, Adimjati Sevak Sangh and Harijan Sevak Sangh and a host of other organisations. He also encouraged and helped in setting up of thousands of Ashrams largely manned by constructive workers. Gandhian constructive programmes played a crucial role in the national movement in several ways. In the first place, the string of constructive programmes extended support and succour to the thousands of freedom fighters, particularly when the national struggle was at its low ebb. In fact, during the pause, they were resting, recuperating and gathering strengths as well as establishing live contacts with the people through various programmes. Thus, constructive programmes were of great help in consolidating as well as expanding the national movement. Second, they provided hardcore cadres at the time of the national struggle. Mahatma Gandhi, through his constructive work-related institutions and Ashrams, not only succeeded in raising a big army of workers but also trained them and made them real vanguards of the movement. Third, constructive programmes significantly contributed to the uplift of the weaker sections of the society. In the process they strengthened the social fabric of civil society, while making solid contributions to social revolution.

The Dream for a New India

In the pre-Gandhian era, there was not much clarity about the kind of India our people would like to build in the post-independence era. One of the major contributions of Mahatma Gandhi was that he had a vision and dream for a ‘new’ India. For him a radical social transformation leading to a revolutionary change in the status and living conditions of the Daridranarayan was to be a real touchstone for the India of his dream. He was firmly of the opinion that in such an India there would be no distinction of the rich and the poor, and the high and the low. Besides, there would be no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion, region and sex. It would be a society totally free from exploitation of man by man. He was so much committed to the principle of equality among men that he was totally opposed to any distinction between mental and physical work. In fact, he propounded his theory of bread labour which, in plain language meant that everybody, whatever may be his educational and professional qualifications, would have to put in some amount of physical labour to earn his bread. He stood for a self-sufficient village republic, looking after its needs to the maximum extent. Being a philosophical anarchist, he favoured the concept of minimal state so that it did not infringe upon the liberty of the individual, He did not favour total abolition of the institution of private property, and, in fact, favoured a system of trusteeship in which the rich would retain their property but would look upon themselves as the trustees rather than the owners of these properties. He did not favour big machines, though he was not opposed to machines per se. In a word, India of Gandhiji’s dream would be what he called Ram Rajya. As such, he stood for a millennial change. It is a different matter that independent India took a different road to development. But now sensible people all over the world are rediscovering him and finding some of his ideas rather more relevant for the twenty-first century.

The Dream of a New Civilisation

In his Hind Swaraj and even in his subsequent writings Gandhiji was critical of the Western civilisation which he called ‘Satanic’. For him vices like violence, exploitation, materialism, capitalism, inequality, ecological imbalances, racialism, consumerism and imperialism were inherent in the very nature of the Western civilisation.

After rejecting the modem civilisation he attempted to present an outline of a counter-culture, which he called Ram Rajya. Ram Rajya is self-rule of an individual. For that, man has to reduce his needs to the bare minimum. Many people have not fully grasped the deeper meaning of Ram Rajya as conceived and conceptualised by Gandhiji. For him, Ram Rajya was not the rule of any king. In fact, it has nothing to do with the state. For Gandhiji, Ram Rajya meant rule of Dharma, rule of justice. And above all it meant self-rule by an individual upon himself. For that man has to reduce his needs to the bare minimum. In fact, he never talked of Ram as an individual; for him Ram is a metaphor and an abstract concept, which stood for justice, equity, self-sacrifice, concern for others, etc. He always maintained that in every human heart both Ram and Ravana live. Ravana stands for selfishness, subjugation of others, naked show of strength, grabbing worldly things to the maximum extent. On the other hand, Ram stands for sacrifice, self-denial, self-rule and a deep sense of justice. In spite of the clear enunciation of the secular nature of the concept of Ram Rajya by Gandhiji, it always remained an anathema, nay even. a red-rag, to the Muslim communalists. They deliberately gave it a Hindu connotation to beat Gandhiji with a communal stick. Even the fact of immense popularity of the Ramayana story among the Muslim masses of Indonesia did not deter them from imputing to it a communal tinge. For Gandhiji it was nothing but a mythical symbol of good, just, and equitable rule. In other words, it was a real people’s rule with the promise of justice for everybody.

A New Vision of Swaraj and Swadeshi

Two chapters of Hind Swaraj (chapters IV and XIV) are specifically devoted to: (a) conceptualising swaraj, and (b) how it could be achieved for the Indians. A close perusal of these chapters reveals that Gandhi is not out to offer a hackneyed definition of swaraj. In the chapter on ‘What is Swaraj’, he offers a critique of the prevailing notions of swaraj propagated by the revolutionaries and the extremists. He rejects the revolutionary’s view that only physical expulsion of the British could suffice to serve the purpose of swaraj. Nor does he accept the Extremists’ view of swaraj, as they wanted the British to go but not to banish institutions created by them lock, stock and barrel. He raises a question mark against the liberal view of swaraj in terms of ‘self-government’ patterned on the British colonies like Canada and others. Rounding up the discussion, he rejects one and all the prevailing notions of swaraj when he says ‘you want English rule without the Englishman; you want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English, and when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan. This is not swaraj that I want’. (Parel, 1997). In Chapter XIV of the Hind Suiaraj, he moves a bit further in defining the swaraj of his conception. The primary unit of that swaraj would be the individual man who has to experience that swaraj first within his own being". As he comments: If we (the individuals) become free, India is free …. " It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. However, he was equally insistent about national independence as he strongly believed that ‘every nation is to be fit to manage its own affairs, no matter how badly. But it was this dialectical process of’ self-government’, freedom from strong external control and self-rule, the freedom from baser passions at the individual level which he sought to integrate in his concept of swaraj.

Not only that, his concept of swaraj was closely linked-up with his concept of swadeshi. Swadeshi stood for empirical demonstration of what swaraj tried to conceptualise at the ideational level. Explaining the empirical side of swadeshi, Gandhi commented that ‘Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote’.

Religion and Politics: An Intimate Relationship

In fact, Gandhi was firmly of the opinion that there was an intimate relationship between religion and politics. And it is such a perception that has put him in the realm of politics. He makes it clear that for him religion is nothing but a firm belief in a ‘well ordered moral government of the universe’. In the above perspective, politics bereft of religion would be nothing but ‘dirt’, the naked pursuit of power. He advanced a number of arguments in support of his contention. Firstly, he asserted that the separation of religion and politics is based on a wrong perception that ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ could really be separated and divided, each being assigned a distinct arena of action and distinct set of institutional framework. But in actual life, there is no watertight division between the two, as they act and react on each other. In the process, they influence each other. Secondly, he argues that in modern times, politics has come up as a ‘coil of snake’ from which one could hardly come out without being scathed. Thirdly, any attempt to run away from the humdrum of worldly life in the name of religion and spirituality would ultimately end in a life-denying and world denying process. Therefore, he rejected the basic premise of the liberal thinking that religion and politics could be separated. Fourthly, he was fully aware that politics opens a new and vast vista of power, dominance and self­ aggrandisement. Hence, the real challenge was to transform the nature of political actions and political institutions so that they could become real instruments of service to the people. But such a moral transformation could not be achieved, unless a true religious spirit, with all its emphasis on moral and ethical behavour, is introduced in the realm of politics. But it could not be done by those spiritual seekers who lead an isolated life of contemplation. Nor could it be achieved by those who are in the job of power politics. Both action and contemplation are needed in actual life.


As we have seen in the preceding pages, Mahatma Gandhi made a number of contributions to the politics in India. But there was no dearth of his critics even during his life time. Though Hindu-Muslim unity ever remained as a basic article of his faith, yet he had his critics from both the sides of the line. According to Jinnah and the Muslim League he was an ardent Hindu who wanted to dominate and subjugate the Indian Muslims. On the other hand, some Hindu attacked him for being pro-Muslim and primarily responsible for promoting Muslim communalism in India They even held him responsible for the partition of the country.

A second line of attack comes from the Marxists. The nitty-gritty of their criticism has been that Gandhiji had a class-bias in favour of the rich and propertied classes. They further argued that his theory of trusteeship is nothing but a clever ploy to help the propertied classes. They also accuse him of being soft on British imperialism, always ready to compromise, including the last one for the independence of the country. They also attack some of his basic ideas like self-sufficient­ village, minimal state, theory of trusteeship, his concept of bread labour, etc., either as too idealistic or too backward-looking. The Marxists including the Communist Party of Soviet Union and the Comintern revised their own assessments of Gandhiji several times. Not only that, the Communist Party of India at times came to the fold of the national movement and at other times it drifted away from it. At times, they even openly opposed it, as in the case of the Quit India Movement These inconsistent stands and their changing assessments of the Gandhiji-led national movement took away much of the sting from their criticisms.

Even Tilak took a very dim view of Gandhi’s high principles and their applications in the realm of politics. In’ a letter to Gandhi, Tilak made his position very clear:

‘Politics is a game of worldly people and not of sadhus, and instead of the maxim akkhodenjine khhodham (conquer anger by non-anger) as preached by Buddha, I prefer to rely on the maxim of-Shri-Krishna, ye yadha mam parapadyamthe thaam masthatthiwiva bhajaamyanam’ (in whatever way men resort to me even so do I render to them) Both methods are equally honest and righteous but one is more suited to this world than the other’. (quoted by Iyer, in his Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 50.).

In replying to ‘I’ilak, Gandhi put forward his own views with equal clarity:

For me there is no conflict between the two texts. The Buddhist text lays down an eternal principle. The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the principle of conquering hatred by love, untruth by truth, can and must be applied. If it be true that God metes out the same measure to us that we mete out to other, it follows that, if we would escape condign punishment, we may not return anger for anger. And this is law not for unworldly but essentially for the worldly. The epitome of religion is to promote purushartha, and purushartha is nothing but a desperate attempt to become a sadhu, i.e. to become a gentleman in every sense of the term. (ibid, p.51)

It is clear from the above that what Tilak was objecting to was not high moral and religious principles but their practicality in the arena of politics. Gandhi insisted their applicability in politics also.


It is clear from the above that the contrast between the nature and structure of today’s politics and that of Gandhian era is quite striking. The real moot question is why the nature of Indian politics has changed so drastically in the post-independent India particularly since the seventies of the last century. One could offer several explanations for it. In the first place, one could take shelter in Hindu view of the life and the world that they move in a cyclic order – something which goes up is bound to come down. Things cannot remain static at a single point. As the peoples’ consciousness reached its zenith during the freedom struggle, it is quite natural that it would reach its nadir in the post-independence era. Some people have been arguing that in the world history, one would find many instances wherein some exceptionally gifted individuals like the prophets of the old times raised the moral height of their peoples’ consciousness by the sheer strength of their personalities. But it could not be kept up at that high altitude forever. Thus a period marked by yoga is bound to be followed by that of bhoga. Hence it is not surprising that the post-independent India saw a sharp decline in the political culture. A third explanation has been that on account of expanding activities of the state, huge resources come at its disposal. Hence, it was quite natural for the people running the state machinery to be tempted for siphoning off huge funds. It is this unrestrained temptation which ultimately leads to all kinds of corrupt practices which in turn adversely afflict the moral fiber of the society. Perhaps all these factors have a cumulative impact on the political culture of our society leading to its sharp decline.

Be as it may, does the Gandhian path of politics offer an opportunity to elevate and inject a sense of morality in our political culture. If not, are our people doomed for ever to suffer at the hands of the political elite which is virtually going beyond all redemption. To our mind, some of the elements in the Gandhian politics have the potentialities to revive and rejuvenate the moral fiber of our political life. As seen earlier, the demands of the electoral politics is primarily responsible for the sharp prevailing corruption in our political life. All attempts of its reforms have come to a naught. Hence the only remedy seems to be the kind of polity which Gandhi suggested.In other words the foundation layer of political power structure, that is village panchayat, should be directly elected based on the system of universal franchise. The rest of the higher structures at taluka, district, state and central levels should be based on indirect elections. Each higher level of political structure would be elected by the constituent members of its preceding lower structure. Such an election system would have several advantages over the existing one. In the first place, the entire system would be much less expensive as it would involve a very less number of people involved in the process. Secondly, the real power would go to the people at the grassroots levels leading to the kind of Gram Swaraj as conceived by Gandhi. Thirdly, in the process, bureaucracy could be really cut to size and the bulk of the leakage of national resources could be saved. Constructive programme is another idea which sounds to be very relevant in the present context. It must be emphasized that the Gandhian Constructive Programme is entirely different from the kind of the work done by the NGOs. Gandhi conceived it as a system based on committed social workers deeply rooted in the community and not like present system which is basically becoming career oriented.

A third Gandhian principle which also seems to be relevant is that of ekadash vrata (eleven vows) which Gandhi propagated during our freedom struggle. It is important to note that in earlier days most of these vows were taken to be meant only for the religious people engaged in the task of seeking their personal salvation. Gandhi brought them to the secular field. Not only that, out of eleven vows only five yama were included from the old system and the rest six like fearlessness, dignity of physical labour, equal respect for all religions, swadeshi and others were based on Gandhi’s own experiences from the field. These vows were taken as a means to internalise the high moral values without which it was almost impossible to sustain them on the social and individual levels. In brief, they were meant to bridge the real gulf between thought (kathani) and practice (karani). In view of the present degeneration of our political culture, these vows appear more relevant today than even during the days of our freedom struggle.

Finally, it goes without saying that Gandhian idea of Satyagraha remains as relevant as ever. In fact, the recent events in the Islamic and Communist world have proved that Satyagraha or non-violent resistance is the only effective means for social and political change even in the areas of hard-boiled dictatorship.

India stands at the most critical juncture of her life. Today the very idea of India is under attack. Besides, political arena has reached its nadir as it has become nothing more than an instrument of self-aggrandizement. The moot question is whether they could be put on the national agenda today. If so, who could do it? Certainly, the organized political parties could not be expected to commit political hara-kiri by adopting and implementing some of these ideas. Where does the hope lie then? One could see several silver linings amidst the present encircling gloom. Of course, the greatest hope lies in the capacity of the Indian people to act in a resolute and determined manner at this critical stage of our national life. The people who threw away the British imperial rule and the emergency rule of Indira Gandhi could not be expected to lie low in slumber for all time to come. Besides, they are bound to be spurred by recent happenings in the world where the authoritarian governments have been thrown out. In India the movements of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have raised the basic issues, though they may not have all the trappings of Gandhian movements. When the things go beyond certain points, the people do act. That is the real hope which has never been belied in history. There is no reason why this land of Gandhi would be an exception to such a universal rule. There lies the hope for future action.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati