Gandhi without blinkers: Follow the Mahatma - but which one?

It may be long before the law of love will be recognized in international affairs. The machineries of government stand between and hide the hearts of one people from those of another.
' Mahatma Gandhi
This year Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary is being celebrated with unusual warmth. Suddenly, after decades, Gandhi is again fashionable. A World Peace Satyagraha movement has been launched in Europe. On June 24 Italy's Radical Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, distributed the manifesto of this movement in the capitals of Europe. Dozens of Nobel laureates and celebrities have already endorsed it. The manifesto gives top priority to saving the greatest possible number of people from death through starvation. In India too there has been a sudden resurgence of Gandhi. TheMunnabhai film ignited it. In aid of 'Gandhigiri', the new pop term from the film to attract the callow young generation, citizens have enacted mock demonstrations on the streets.

In a terrorism-infected world Gandhi is relevant as never before. And if people abroad are turning to Gandhi in search of answers, surely India, his birthplace, bears a special responsibility to further the cause. But before launching on such effort, it is necessary to ask which Gandhi we should follow -- the political leader or the visionary? The first failed in his mission. The second anticipated history as few have ever done.

One inexplicable trait in India has been to deliberately distort the legacies of Nehru and Gandhi. Both leaders made very serious errors of judgment. Both paid for their errors at the end of their days. After failure, both revised their views and strategies in attempts to undo the failure. But Indians steadfastly ignore the final, post-failure wisdom of both leaders. They cling to the earlier assessments which brought them failure.

In his last days Nehru was crushed by the setback to his China policy. After the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 till his death in 1964 he drastically revised his priorities. He sought a deep defence arrangement with America that included continued arms supply. But before an agreement could be finalized it was aborted by President Kennedy's death. The renewed effort to clinch it was aborted by Nehru's own death. Former US Ambassador Chester Bowles recounted this in a book. Nehru also sought to reverse his policy towards Pakistan. In 1959 he summarily rejected President Ayub Khan's proposal for joint defence between India and Pakistan. But in 1964 Nehru sent Sheikh Abdullah to Pakistan to explore a settlement of the Kashmir dispute in the context of a confederal arrangement between both nations. Abdullah himself wanted to make Kashmir the bridge between India and Pakistan. Nehru's death ended that mission. Abdullah was in Pakistan when Nehru died.

Gandhi's attempt at policy reversal during his last days was even more drastic than Nehru's. Gandhi weakly and against his better judgment acquiesced in the Partition of India, undoing his life's work. Later, marginalized by the Congress government, he resolved to undo the error. He communicated with Jinnah and obtained his consent to encamp in Lahore to undo the spirit of the Partition. With fifty Punjabi refugee families he finalized plans to march to Lahore starting February 14, 1948. He was assassinated on January 30th. Did he have a premonition of his assassination? He wrote his last will and testament one day before his death. He decreed in his will that the Congress party should be dissolved. He wanted Congressmen to form a Lok Sewak Sangh instead, devoted to non-government service to the people. Had Gandhi lived he would have destroyed the Congress. Sitting in Lahore he would have sought to undo the spirit of the Partition for which Congress was no less responsible than the Muslim League. Gandhi dead became the Congress party's international brand to be flaunted all over the world.

Despite his personal greatness Gandhi the political leader was, then, a failure. He did not prevent the Partition. He could not preserve the Congress of his vision. Congress abandoned Gandhi's most cherished values to embark on the heady road to state power. In the process, it has degenerated today into a corrupt caricature of what it was. It is a party which believes that the return of the Gandhi cap signifies a return to Gandhian thought!

But there was also another Gandhi, now recalled rarely: the sage whose intuitive insights identified issues that make him so relevant today. Several pet projects of Gandhi deserve special attention. There was his unflinching commitment to non-violence. There was his commitment to create self-sufficient village republics. Gandhi also had a vision of creating partyless democracy. He proposed the idea of trusteeship in industry to reform capitalism. Had the government actually followed these ideas, there might have emerged a genuine alternative to the present global trends.

Non-violence now is not a moral ideal. In a terrorist-stricken world ' 
where a nuclear bomb can be manufactured in a garage and carried in a suitcase ' it has become a survival imperative. Non-violence does not preclude legitimate force by governments pursuing a just cause. That is why Gandhi condoned use of the army when the Pakistan raiders attacked Kashmir. But non-violence does imply the government's readiness to engage in dialogue without preconditions with any group espousing any cause if it abjures violence. Few governments are prepared to actually do this.

India can promote Gandhian values even in the nuclear debate. President Ahmadinejad said Iran would renounce enrichment of uranium if India and Pakistan gave up their nuclear weapons. India should respond by accepting the proposal provided China too gave up its nuclear weapons, to make Asia a nuclear-free continent.

Gandhi's dream of making every village self-sufficient implied extreme devolution of power. Self-rule is the foundation of genuine democracy. That comes from well-demarcated division of power among the different levels of a federal system. If the Government wants to achieve this goal it should transfer appropriate law and order powers to local panchayats. As Laski pointed out, authority is ultimately derived from the coercive power of the state.

Gandhi's concept of partyless democracy was later enlarged by Jayaprakash Narain. Some might consider it too drastic, given our Constitution. But distortions are very much present in the system's working today. Is not, then, a serious reappraisal overdue of the system as it works? Should not all parties seek a consensual solution and remedy?

Gandhi's trusteeship idea could revolutionize industry. Inspired by this idea, the concept of a Workers' Sector to compete with the public and private sectors was mooted. Given the newfound rapacity of big business, might this not lead to a future remedy?

If the government is serious about reviving Gandhian values in our public life, these are but a few ideas that might be considered. Enacting the Dandi March, or insistence on khadi, reduces Gandhian values to farce.        


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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