Mani-Talk: Gandhi Had Warned of "The Insolence of Power"

Published: October 01, 2014 12:50 IST
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

As Mahatma Gandhi's 145th birth anniversary comes up, the question returns: is Gandhi relevant to the 21st century? Niranjan Ramakrishnan, of Tamil origin but based now in Portland, Oregon, the cutting edge of 21st century technology in the US, seeks to give an answer in his Reading Gandhi in the 21st Century (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2013; book is going to be launched in India shortly). The most appropriate way of celebrating Gandhi Jayanti, it seems to me, would be to distribute the book free to all 12th class children and undergraduates (where required in translation, 138 pages) for each of the next generation to try to find the answer for themselves.

Ramakrishnan juxtaposes two contradictory predictions about Gandhi's continuing influence in the post-Gandhi future, one by Bertrand Lord Russell in 1952 and the other by a distraught Nehru in the immediate wake of Gandhiji's assassination. Russell believed that "while (Gandhi's) memory deserves to be revered, it would be a mistake to hope that India will continue to have the outlook that to him seemed best. India, like other nations, has to find its place in the modern world, not in the dreams of a bygone age. His work is done and if India is to prosper, it must be along other roads than his."

Nehru, haunted by the assassination of a few hours earlier, proclaimed, on the other hand, that, "The light that has illumined this country for many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it..."

Who was right? "Both" would be Ramakrishnan's answer. For the fact is that India, from Nehru to Modi, and particularly in the Manmohan Singh era, has got so wedded to measuring progress in terms of GDP that much of what Gandhi had to say has begun to be seen as eccentric, outmoded, and perhaps even reactionary, the fantasies of a man who wanted to keep India poor. It would have been a charge to which Gandhi would have pleaded guilty. For while he certainly foresaw the prospect of economic growth, and even welcomed it to the point where "it would meet every man's need", he was also repelled by the inevitable concomitants of the worship of Mammon: the aggravation of obscene inequalities, pervasive malfeasance and widespread damage to the environment. If it was growth that benefitted a few at the expense of the many, demeaned the freedom of the individual, and was in violation of Nature, that appalled Gandhi and led him to seek an alternative in restraining wants:

"Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication of wants but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants. Therefore, the ideal of meeting an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare"

Ramakrishan points out that an India in which the predatory Empire is replaced by a corrupt and domineering politico-industrial elite was not Gandhi's ideal. Apprehending the worst, Gandhi warned, "Every palace that one sees in India is a demonstration, not of her riches, but of the insolence of power that riches give to the few, who owe them to the miserably requited labours of the millions of the paupers of India." The palaces then were of the feudal Maharajahs and Nawabs. Now they are those of the denizens of Dalal Street and Nariman Point.

Gandhi also foresaw that it was the successful Indian who would be the biggest roadblock in the way of the unsuccessful. Ramakrishnan reminds us of the answer that Gandhi gave an American missionary who asked Gandhi what he most despaired of in India. Gandhiji replied, "The hard-heartedness of the educated Indian". The number of educated Indians has increased manifold. So, has the "hard-heartedness" of the burgeoning middle-class. Where, as Ramakrishnan remarks, "The genius of Gandhi lay in making urban India confront its conscience, and establishing the connection in the urban mind that India would make no viable progress while rural India was being bled white", in 21st century India indifference to the poor is combined with concentration on the better-off succeeding ever-more spectacularly. Gandhiji warned, "For India to run after the Golden Fleece is to court certain death ?" Is a Utopia predicated on unending material fulfillment even possible, leaving aside its desirability.

That is why he preferred a model of development in which all would participate - Panchayat Raj - even if it meant that the overall level of economic performance would be modest, for such an India would be an India of equality and dignity for all where the worth of the individual would be recognized as paramount and hence his freedom ensured, not an India of a few succeeding astoundingly while the rest wallow in misery at the bottom of the heap. He was always wary of the selfishness of the successful. His measure was not how high the successful Indian had reached but how high the poor had been pulled up and the more successful restricted their consumption to come level with the rest. It is a lesson the India of neo-liberal economics has not only forgotten but mocks. Ramakrishnan reminds us that Gandhiji cautioned us to remember, "How heavy is the toll of sins and wrongs that wealth, power and prestige exact from man". And hence too his favourite hymn, Vaishana jana to tene hi kahiye, peerha parayi jane je : "Call them alone the people of God who take the woes of others as their own."   That should be the Battle Hymn of our Republic.

Among the few relevant quotations that Ramakrishnan does not cite, I would highlight the reply Gandhiji gave to a correspondent who asked what his "dream" was for independent India. Gandhi replied, "I shall work for an India (note: not "dream", but "work") in which the poorest shall feel it is their country (note: the stress on a sense of "ownership" of programmes meant for their welfare and "belonging" to a larger cause - the nation) in whose making (note: the individual as "nation-builder") they have an effective voice (note: not just a voice, as "the poorest" have when they cast their vote, but an "effective" voice - a decisive say - in the building of their own future and that of the nation".  Where Gandhi's final disappointment was the Constitution drafting committee's refusal to countenance village democracy as the basic building block of our democracy, we now have, thanks to Rajiv Gandhi, Parts IX and IXA of the Constitution that enshrine democratic decentralization in both rural and urban India. The failure to effectively implement these critical provisions of the Constitution, while concentrating on an economic model that consolidates the concentration of wealth and income in a relatively few, thus "privatizing segments of our electoral process", as Ramakrishnan puts it, is to jeopardize both our democracy and our development. We need an India that Gandhi desired "in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land".

In a wide sweep, besides the defining 21st century features of neo-liberal privatization and globalization of the world economy, Ramakrishnan takes in global terrorism, global multiculturalism, and  global environment questions, to ask whether Gandhi had anything of relevance to say on these matters which had not even entered the global vocabulary 66 years ago when Gandhiji was shot. His answers are both surprising and educative.

On terrorism, Gandhi recognized that, at bottom, the terrorist succeeds when he spreads general panic among the populace at large, and pushes Governments into becoming more and more authoritarian, less and less liberal in protecting hard-won individual freedoms, and imitative of terrorist methods in responding to terrorism.  The "fundamentalist" Gandhian response was to refuse to be terrorized by terrorism, but to confront it with "fearlessness", not by "seeking justice through murder... (for) our people will become victims of our atrocities." How could Gandhi have so presciently foreseen Batla House? He wanted us instead to confront terrorism by being "gentle, truthful, humble, knowing, willful yet loving, never criminal and hateful". It is a lesson the 21st century needs to learn all the way from Barak Obama to the constable on the beat.

On multiculturalism, another 21st century global imperative, Ramakrishnan points out that "To Gandhi, there was no clever artifice around divides other than transcending them...The path of stoking hatreds against some third group or power was anathema." The only hope, as Gandhi saw it, lay in his refusal to let his "house be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any". It is a lesson for all, not just Indians, to learn as the world, particularly the developed world, adjusts to the greatest migrations from the global South to the global North ever known to humankind. To India, as to the world, Gandhi said, "I do not expect the India of my dreams to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant."

And on the environment, Ramakrishnan has Gandhi remind us: "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million (now 1 billion 300 million) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts." The world is being stripped bare by big business locusts. Climate change is not, for our generation, a challenge for the future but a here-and-now matter. The Gandhian warning that "trading in soil fertility for the sake of quick returns would prove to be a disastrous, short-sighted policy" has been proved to be true. Citing the MIT's Limits to Growth report, Ramakrishnan points to their prediction that "a global economic collapse as a direct consequence of galloping consumption resulting in the exhaustion of natural resources" to underline Gandhiji's insistence on self-restraint as the only sure way of preventing a global environmental holocaust.

The 21st century is not all that far from Gandhi. He died more than half a century before the onset of the new millennium, but for us to consider Gandhi to be Jurassic Park would be to do ourselves the greatest disservice.  Our grateful thanks are due to Niranjan Ramakrishnan for reminding us of this.

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