There was a time when Mahatma Gandhi was going out of vogue with Indian intellectuals. This was not as much due to the majoritarian extremists who revile him, but because of the Gandhi versus Ambedkar debate. The father of the Dalit movement, BR Ambedkar, was at loggerheads with Gandhi on the caste question.
The Gandhi-Ambedkar debate was somewhat put behind us when the peaceful agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 saw protesters use images of Gandhi and Ambedkar together. Clearly, we need them both.
In the last few years, Mahatma Gandhi has started turning up in political conversations much more than he used to. For one, it is clear that Gandhi as an icon is so powerful that majoritarian extremists are not able to undermine him yet. An odd comment or hashtag celebrating his assassin is condemned, ignored or disowned. Gandhi cannot be easily undermined and discredited with propaganda in the way Nehru has been.
In other words, Gandhi remains the moral centre of India today.
The more interreligious conflict we see, the more we wonder about Gandhi’s means and ends. But that is not the only reason to recall Gandhi. It is also Gandhi’s unique ways of speaking truth to power that make people wonder about his relevance today.
How did someone who abhorred violence bring a mighty Empire to its knees? In a world full of ‘strong’ nationalists it may be useful to study Gandhi’s ideas of power.
Here are four of Gandhi’s many ideas that are relevant today.
1. Courage. It is not appreciated often enough how much courage it took to be Gandhi. He believed in regularly defying an Empire that didn’t exactly believe in ‘right to life’. But Gandhi’s courage gave him a big stature with the public, which meant that acting against Gandhi could worsen public resentment against the British Indian government.
And yet, in South Africa and India put together, he spent more than 2300 days in jail. We find today that many opposition leaders don’t have the courage to take the political action they are needed to take. They could learn from Gandhi: courage takes you places.
2. Go to the masses, solve their problems: Today’s politicians are becoming so aloof from the masses that the weekly ‘Janta Darbar’ where people could meet the leader and present their problems, has become a thing of nostalgia.
It used to be that the politician would lock himself up in his ivory tower when he was in power, but would be with the masses when in opposition. Today we see even opposition leaders make themselves distant from the people, holidaying in Europe and spending long hours in Delhi drawing rooms.
Gandhi took the Indian National Congress to the masses, changing the nature of the party from a club of Bombay lawyers to a mass movement. People wanted their problems solved. Gandhi asked them what are your problems? Exploitation by British Indigo planters? By mill owners? By upper castes? By British traders ruining Indian industries? By British taxes on making salt?
He took on these problems and turned them into mass agitations to delegitimise British colonial rule bit by bit. “The Champaran struggle was a proof of the fact that disinterested service of the people in any sphere ultimately helps the country politically,” he wrote in his autobiography. In other words, the local makes the national.
3. Give time to campaigns: Gandhi was the greatest political campaigner ever born. His campaigns are remembered even a hundred years later. In today’s context it is important to note that Gandhi gave time to his campaigns. He didn’t do a hurried one day event just to show he’s doing something.
He went to Champaran in Bihar saying he would spend only 2 days there, but left only after 6 months, when his campaign had managed to make the Indigo planters flee the place altogether. He would go to a place, set up an ashram, give the British advance notice about the injustice he was going to agitate against.
While Gandhi gave the Champaran Satyagraha 6 months, we see opposition leaders today start worrying about state elections only 2-3 months before polling day. Critically, Gandhi had clear insight not just when to start a campaign but also when to end it: at the peak of its momentum.
This created the sense of a high as opposed to the sense that this is fizzling out. “The end of a Satyagraha campaign can be described as worthy, only when it leaves the Satyagraghis stronger and more spirited than they are in the beginning,” he wrote.
Once led by Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian National Congress today does about one national campaign in 5 years. It was against Rafale in 2018-19, and now they are saying they will do a ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ for 150 days this winter. Regional opposition parties like the Samajwadi Party or the Rashtriya Janata Dal don’t do any campaigns whatsoever, just wait for the next election to do the ‘needful’.
4. Be your own media. If Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, he would be the most avid user of social media. Since Gandhi believed in the power of the masses, he edited and published newspapers. He didn’t just sit in his ashram, wring his hands and say, ‘The British-owned media is against us’. He wrote about one of his journals: “The tone of ‘Indian Opinion’ compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen. Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without ‘Indian Opinion’.”
Social media today makes it so easy to bypass the mainstream media. In fact, social media today shapes the newsroom’s sense of what’s important. India’s opposition parties do a rather bad job of reaching the public through social media. You can blame the mainstream media for being biased against you but how is that stopping you from expanding your network of Whatsapp groups or YouTube influencers?