Mahatma Gandhi as an apostle of peace, non-violence and liberalism
lives in symbolism these days and thrives on impressive rituals on
special occasions of his birth and death anniversaries across India,
from the VVIP-oriented Rajghat in New Delhi to the low-profile
Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad. This time, on the occasion of his 150th
birth anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stole the show with
his landmark announcement that India's villages have declared
themselves open-defecation free, thanks to his efforts to provide 10
crore toilet facilities to more than 60 crore people in 60 months.
Modi claimed that this feat of his has “amazed” the whole world. There
is, no doubt, that this is an extraordinary feat on the ground,
provided toilets are in good working condition with regular water
supply and sanitary infrastructure. As of today, we have to go by
Prime Minister Modi’s words. Media persons will have to wait some time
for authentic ground reports to assess them honestly and objectively.
To say this is not to doubt or question PM Modi’s gigantic efforts. We
applaud him for his “Swacch Bharat” efforts and for motivating village
sarpanches who have worked hard for “Swachhata”.
I, however, look at Gandhi in a larger perspective in our country of
extreme diversity. Gandhi, one may recall, first injected ‘religion’
and religious symbolism into the body politic soon after his return to
India from South Africa in 1915. He then said: “Politics could not be
divorced from religion”. For the present, I do not wish to debate on
the pros and cons of the issue. Religion and politics have to be
looked at in a larger national perspective and rationally of the
modern political idiom in terms of young India’s changing mindset.
Ironically, Jinnah in his time succeeded in mobilizing Muslims through
Islam. Here Gandhi’s symbolism may also be seen for the promotion of
an undivided India, which was not to be.
Although fully aware of the consequences of Partition, Gandhi did not
ignore Nehru’s interests. Had Jinnah been made Prime Minister of
India, perhaps the demand for Pakistan by him on communal lines would
have been a different story. This is, in any case, highly complex and
In 1946, India held its last elections under the British auspices. The
Muslim League swept the Muslim constituencies. Jinnah established
himself as the Quaid-i-Azam of the Indian Muslims, their authoritative
spokesman, an equal in negotiations with the Congress and the British.
In 1946, a Cabinet Mission from the British government recommended a
constitutional settlement on the lines of the Cripps Mission of 1942,
based on a variation of the weak centre/strong province formula. Nehru
finally rejected it for the Congress.
Jinnah declared August 15, 1946, as ‘Direct Action Day for Muslims.
The horror era thus began. The subcontinent was partitioned and
Pakistan was born in a whirlwind of death and destruction. Jinnah
himself called it ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan, to be bitten in half again in
1971 when its Bengal part seceded.
Looking back, after Independence, the basic thrust of the Indian model
of governance was to create a unified system that was meant to be
sensitive to the social reality of a highly dispersed and
decentralized society and which permitted a large role to voluntary
effort outside the state sector.
It was a model for building unity by drawing on India’s diversity,
something that emerged out of a given population and land-mass with a
highly voluntaristic ethos. This was possible largely because of the
continuous presence of a unique party system, which ensured that the
centralized thrust of both ideology of development and the
bureaucratic power inherent in the Westminster model were moderated by
pressures from below and imbued by a culture of accountability and
But, the decline of party as the basic institution of the system and
its displacement by the bureaucracy on the one hand and personal
charisma on the other, the system of governance was in for a period of
crisis. And the crisis continues.
This was one aspect. No less important was the nature of leadership
and its capacity to instill in the system a set of values, norms of
behavior and rules of the game. The role of Mahatma Gandhi in
providing pace-setting personal example in moral standards is
This was followed by Nehru, who broadly shaped the post-Independence
political system, provided it with a set of basic norms and values
which he constantly emphasised in his role as the nation’s school
master. In the process, he enabled the system to bear the loads of an
expanding framework of political participation, economic and social
mobilization, and open competition and criticism.
Gandhi did throw up dozens of smaller Gandhis. But Nehru lacked
Gandhi's talent of “self-reproduction” and freedom from a sense of
insecurity. Sardar Patel, unfortunately, did not live long enough.
What is more, several Nehrus and Patels came into being under a system
where Jawaharlal was the chief operator.
All over the country outstanding individuals came to the fore and
provided a dominant style of leadership for a period of time. Their
word was law. They consolidated political machine encompassing large
territories on the basis of the support network they built around
themselves. They also penetrated into a wide array of both traditional
and developmental institutions, and constantly mediated in disputes
Above all, they imbued politics with an ethical code and imparted to
it the concept of ‘service’ of duty and the Gandhian stress on
Here I wish to say that whenever the state is shorn of the moral
imperative, the nuances and controls that go with it, it becomes
totalitarian, no matter what legal framework of the constitution might
be. It is for readers to critically examine how and where we have gone
wrong and abandoned Gandhi and his value system from the national and
Whatever flaws we see around in the working of the Republic, it is
mainly because of declining values in the quality of governance
from the grassroots to upward. The jacking for power, pelf and self is
what often passes for democracy in our country.
We have to examine afresh the structural characteristics and the
operating culture of governance urgently if we mean to uplift Gandhiji
from ritualism to value-oriented democratic nation-building. Over to
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his trusted Home Minister Amit Shah.