Was Gandhi a successful politician; what did he do right; what did he get wrong? N E Sudheer speak to historian Manu S Pillai on the Gandhi the strategist and politician. Excerpts from an interview:
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, do you think he still matters to us?
Most certainly, because there is much to learn from him. On one hand, there is the romantic grand narrative of Mahatma Gandhi—how, for example, he marched to the beach in Dandi and made salt. It is often presented as a sudden spark of genius and a moral act when in fact it was also excellent communication and brilliant, carefully designed strategy.
From the late 19th century onwards unjust salt laws were on the agenda of the Congress, but why is it that in 1930 it created a sensation? It was because of how it was orchestrated, how the press’ attention was marshalled and how Gandhi walked for weeks, building momentum, before he broke the law. It was, in that sense, political theatre, amplified by cameras.
In a country divided by caste, religion, region, language and so much more, the kind of media interest this event generated captured not just national but global attention—Gandhi was featured as “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine. His point was never merely to break the law; it was to use it as a means to highlight how unjust British rule was even in terms of something as basic as salt, not to speak of giving publicity to his cause.
It is remarkable that without great media penetration, in a largely illiterate country, Gandhi managed to rouse millions using the available press effectively. Present-day Opposition parties could learn from him.
Gandhi in that sense can serve as a guidebook for political communication. He matters not just as a romantic symbol, but also as the most effective, shrewd, even controversial Indian politician of the 20th century. I like to think of him not as a saint, but as a sharp mind who knew the benefits of being perceived as a saint.
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Gandhi has been reduced to a mere symbol in India, where everybody is pleased to talk about him. He even doesn’t have an opponent in the current Indian politics. Whereas legacies of all other national icons of his period are questioned recently. Even those who are associated with his murder is also behind his legacy. Do you think it is an irony?
This happens often to great men and women. So with Gandhi too, we like him on banknotes, we like taking foreign VIPs to his ashram and samadhi, and we like to pepper speeches with his quotes. But not even his immediate successors, including Nehru, nor those today in power actually showed any keenness to follow his ideas.
Gandhi, by the end of his career, was seen in his own party as more of a moral figure—as power and instruments of power came into hand, Indians preferred to forget him. To be clear, many of his ideas were theoretically and practically unsound and inconsistent, so perhaps it was wise not to take them literally. But still, I have this nagging suspicion that if Gandhi knew of the kind of people paying homage to him today in front of press cameras while doing reprehensible things in front of mobile cameras, he would have been horrified.
In my essay “What if Gandhi had Lived” in my new book, I speculate that if he had lived beyond 1948 he would probably have been disappointed with the nation he helped mould and bring together. And that this state may well have placed him under house arrest and otherwise treated him poorly, as the British had before them. The very fact that we did not dismantle the most undemocratic British laws after Independence is a sign that once the white ruling class left, the new brown ruling class took up the same instruments of power. Gandhi would not have approved.
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As a young historian of the 21st century, what is Gandhi’s lasting contribution?
For all his flaws, he was a tremendous cementing force. As I said earlier, in a time when communication was poor, national integration was non-existent, when people lived localised lives in localised cultures, he commanded moral influence married to a well-oiled organisational system and roused millions of individuals.
Gandhi’s lasting contribution is that his memory helps us separate the wheat from the chaff; from those who use pious words in speeches, and those who actually mean it. He may never have intended it, but he has become a mirror that shows the true form of people who stand before it. For all his weaknesses, Gandhi is a reminder of the moral imperative of truth in an age of untruth.
Many of his favourite topics are facing threat in India today — like democracy, pluralism, secularism, equality, non-violence etc.
I remain an optimist: India is a large country, and if there are flames in one corner, there is another corner that will be tranquil. On the one hand, Dalits are burned alive for marrying upper-caste women and men, while on the other, young people can embrace their LGBT+ identity more openly now and fight the attendant battles.
We have a liberal Constitution, but in a country that remains illiberal, we may continue to remain a democracy insofar as elections are concerned, but whether we will be a liberal democracy that values individual rights is in question.
I don’t think there is a need to lose heart or to become pessimistic; everyday one reads of heroes and heroines fighting to preserve spaces of liberty, through art, writing, on social media, and through their work. Kerala is an excellent example. There is vociferous debate, some of the finest intellectuals in the country work here, and civil society is not easily beaten into submission.
What could make a difference, however, is strategy. Those who value the liberal order are put too often on the defensive: every day some controversy is manufactured, and we respond in despair. In some respects that seems to be a deliberate formula from the other side—keep people bogged down in various controversies, draining away both hope and energy. Instead, perhaps like Gandhi, we need to find a way to become more proactive and strategic in resistance to any attempts to trespass on individual rights and constitutional freedoms.
In today’s world, battles are also of narrative: it is narrative that has to be won back, and it is through narrative that people will be persuaded to believe in a liberal democracy. It is all easier said than done, of course, but answers, I feel, will come. After all, lies are unsustainable and while they may gain ascendance for some time, in the end they will sink under the weight of their own contradictions. What is tragic is the damage it does in the meantime, but we must not succumb to a sense of hopelessness.
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If anything is to be learned from Gandhi, what is most relevant in contemporary India?
I think it is his capacity to be proactive. Opposition parties—if they are truly wedded to the values they claim loudly to support—must be innovative, unusual, and sharp. A lot of mass media may be against them, deliberately kowtowing to those in power, but we live in the age of social media. Here there are no gatekeepers, and you have access to every young man and woman with a smartphone if you make an effort.
Distil your ideology and give it clarity; communicate it effectively; acknowledge the mistakes you yourself have made in the past (instead of defending it). After all, democracy and politics are always about the long fight.
Gandhi spent decades trying to achieve what he wanted—circumstances were against him sometimes, and sometimes with him; his own mind flip-flopped a great deal. But in the end patience, commitment, and untiring efforts delivered results. We as a generation are impatient, but I think one thing that will really come in handy is Gandhian patience. Think, reflect, calculate, and then act. Don’t dance to someone else’s tunes: change the tune altogether.
What are your main criticisms on Gandhi? Or limitations of his political ideology?
As I alluded to earlier, I think Gandhi’s attitude towards internal reform left much to be desired. Arguably, he was patronising towards women, towards Dalits and minorities, and he did not want to address social inequalities as energetically as he did political inequalities. The foreign tyrant was bad, but internal tyranny was brushed under the carpet so that unity would not be compromised. Perhaps it needed to be done, but Ambedkar pointed this out at the time itself, and this I think was probably Gandhi’s big miscalculation. The result was that we obtained a liberal Constitution but nobody bothered to make the masses who were supposed to live by it understand what it was all about.
So from day one, the Indian state and republic has been making compromises with older power structures of caste, religion, naked forces of power, illiberalism and more. Of course, no man has all the answers and I don’t mean to “blame” Gandhi. But I think his avoidance of social issues created a formula for compromise with many unsavoury elements. And that formula is what has mutated into much of what we see today. It is dangerous also because the liberal Constitution basically provides space for everyone to co-exist without being dominated. Now, however, whoever has the numbers tries to dominate not only politically but also culturally and socially.
There is a notion that democracy is purely about numbers. It reminds one of the story of a forest where three wolves and a sheep live. The wolves tell the sheep they would like to eat it for breakfast. The sheep says no. Then they ask: shall we take a vote? That is not democracy—it is majoritarianism. Democracy has other connotations which we have diluted, partly because we have never addressed social inequalities and injustice in the way we should have.
Was he a successful politician? How do you assess him as a mass leader?
Perhaps the most successful politician of his generation: he managed to do politics and at the same time convince everyone he was a saint. He frustrated everyone around him often, but none of them could act without his support. For many years he was indispensable. It is without doubt that he had mass appeal. We just need to remember, however, that this came not just due to natural charisma, but because he also understood how to use that charisma.
From his life we can learn both about his achievements as well as his failings. But most importantly I think he is a mirror to our own hypocrisy. And that is a good mirror to have.
N E Sudheer is a columnist and a social critique based in Kerala. He regularly writes for ieMalayalam portal.
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