Thinking Gandhi and the Democratic Theory

Examining some core attributes of Indian political theory and refocus them using the Gandhian lens
M.K Gandhi
M.K Gandhi File

Mahatma  Gandhi after his return from South Africa was advised by Gopal Krishan Gokhale  to undertake a Padyatra and meet people of all castes and communities; keep the  “mouth closed” and  let people speak  and don’t lecture them  for you cannot have answers to many of their questions.

The common people have a lot to tell you”. Bapu, as he was commonly called, abided  by  it  and moved in the length and breadth of India and thus became the first mass leader to remove the fear of colonial state from the minds of people.

The yatra enabled him to understand India and Indians from a close range. The Gandhians of my times and generation  need to follow this advice,  practice  it and make  it  part of the  mantra of good governance.

The great Bapu used to say that three fourths of the miseries and misunderstanding in the world would disappear if only we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their viewpoint.

In this limited space I shall try to examine some core attributes of Indian political theory and refocus them using the Gandhian lens.

The history of democratic struggle in India has had four distinct phases. The rise of Gandhi on Indian political scene in 1920s was the beginning and the second phase started only after the withdrawal of colonial state from India in 1947.

The third phase commenced when under the constitution of India all people irrespective of any discrimination were give the right to vote. This universal adult franchise had not happened in the same way even in the most advanced countries of the world and hence truly a democratic feat in a primitive  society implanted by a modern state and a country where people were living simultaneously in several centuries.

The fourth democratic upsurge happened in 1980s when some vernacular political formations viz, Bhujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party etc.,  started denting the power structure which resulted in plebianisation of Indian politics. This long democratic struggle before and after India got freedom has suffered a serious dent for many reasons.

What is needed is to relocate Gandhi and bring him back at the centre of Indian political thinking so that India’s great march to democracy gains more momentum  and moves in right direction.

Gandhi and Nationalism

Gandhian nationalism was inclusive and participatory in which there was no ‘othering’ and “no enemies within”. It advocated tolerance and respect for diversity.  It  differed fundamentally from the nationalism that was being practiced in Europe in the 17th century following the Westphalia peace treaties. Further the Gandhian nationalism had nothing in it which could have put it over and above the people of India.

For Gandhi the nation is there for the interest of people and to improve their living conditions and to ‘wipe away the tears from the eyes of every Indian’. The Indian nationalism for Gandhi was liberating and emancipatory and the nation was there to be fair to all manner of people.

This was the reason why Gandhi wanted India to give to Pakistan its due of Rs 55 crore after the partition, ignoring all ill will and enmity generated  by the partition of India. In 1931 Gandhi wrote in “Young India” that “it has been said that Swaraj will be the rule of the majority community i.e., the Hindus.

If this were to be true I for one would refuse to call it swaraj and would fight it with all the strength at my command. For me the Hind Swaraj is the rule of all people and rule of justice”.

Before his assassination on January 23, 1948 Gandhi declared, “It would spell the ruin of both the Hindu religion and the majority community if the latter in the intoxication of power entertain the belief that it can crush the minority and establish a purely Hindu  Rashtra”.

Equality & Democracy

The first foreign economist to come out openly in support of Gandhi’s  economic ideas  was German Economist Ernest Schumacher. In his book “Small is Beautiful” he describes Gandhi as “People’s Economist”. Gandhi’s skepticism of grand theories makes him relevant  for twenty first century.  His theory of Trusteeship evoked poor response but two top industrialists JRD Tata and Jamnalal Bajaj adopted it.

For Gandhi, no political system is sufficiently capable of delivering non-violence and freedom but a democratic system of government and an equitable social order has capacity to provide justice to the people. For him the democracy is not merely the procedural but the one which is substantive.

The real objective of a democratic political order is that the weakest be provided with the same opportunity as given to the strong. He located  his ideal democracy in the village where life was simple, power diffused and the economy decentralised  (unfortunately my village has lost all three ). The best way for the political system to practice non-violence is to be relatively inactive.

To Bapu  that state is best which governs  the least which of course is different from ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ a catchphrase drawn from the dictionary of contemporary  neo-liberalism. Gandhi had firm belief in the method of dialogue for resolving differences and conflicts.

Dialogue opens the possibility to convert rather than coerce others to your position. Decisions arrived at by democratic means have lasting impact than those imposed from above. Prof Laski had taught this lesson to a generation of Indian leaders who went England for higher education before independence.

Gandhi identified many dangers to freedom viz, economic inequality, unemployment, industrialization and untouchability. He like French thinker Rousseau believed that equality never meant absolute equality. Everybody should have enough for his or her needs.

The world according to him has enough for every body’s need but not for their greed. He stated it on many occasions that no one should be so rich as to be able to buy someone else and none would be so poor as to be forced to sell himself to someone else”.

His views were akin to American political theorist  John Scharr’s who held “equality is affirmation of being and belonging. No one should define being of others”.


M K Gandhi  opposed capitalism  as it is based on exploitation of human labour which to him was violence. He was against concentration of wealth in few hands and attributed it to  use of machinery which replaces human labour. Today when neo-liberal economy has created ‘human trash and wasted lives’  the teachings of Gandhi assume renewed significance. Bill Gates recently suggested to slow down automation as it affects jobs.

In recent years in India we have see jobless growth and extreme employment crisis in the country. The series of reports by Oxfam and World Inequality Lab in 2018 are indicting and earthshaking. The Oxfam survey reveals that India’s  richest one  percent corner 73 percent of the national wealth.

During Covid 19 we saw more poverty and growing inequality but  the  number of billionaires has increased in India. It is due to this capitalistic penetration of Indian economy that inequality has widened in India and assumed critical dimensions. Some  experts opine  that inequality in India is worse than what it was during the British Raj. Economist Thomas Picketty  argues that India is seeing a sharp rise in the income of  top one percent of its population after 1980.

Gandhi likened a capitalist to a thief. The wealth is not to be possessed but shared and held in trust. The rich should consider themselves as trustees. Gandhi looked for a state of equality through trusteeship.

He stated on many occasions that happiness and satisfaction are a mental condition as there is no end to the multiplicity of wants. He looked at human mind as a restless bird the more it gets the more it wants and still remains unsatisfied.

The other day I spoke to a group of students on the rise of ‘Precariat’ as a new class in India. It is understood as a mode of economy, social system, employment, identity under neo-liberal economy. The Precariat is a category of people living a precarious life, short term jobs, without stable identities or protection.

To be precise these are our frustrated unemployed youth with insecure jobs different from the ‘Salariat’  of yesteryears who had secure employment, pension and permanence in jobs. These insecure workers, disposable young  are cheated both by the  state and the market.

The relevance of Gandhi comes to my mind when we analyse his entire concept of dignity of labour. The fact is that  economics and ethics cannot be separated and life must be studied as a whole.

The social and political  thought of Gandhi has  been subjected to critical scrutiny during his life time and after death by critics and scholars in and outside India. Some believed that Gandhi doesn’t understand economics.

Among his greatest political critics were B R Ambedkar, Winston Churchill and M A Jinnah. Dr Ambedkar described Gandhi the “most dishonest politician in Indian history with pernicious saintly idiosyncrasies”.

Churchill described him as “half -naked seditious  fakir”. In all fairness Gandhi had and continues to have  more admirers than critics. The admirers and advocates of Gandhian theory and practice find renewed relevance   in a world  at once  unstable, insecure, disordered, and dislocated.

Towards the end we need to appreciate and understand that M K Gandhi did not want his political thought  to be treated as sacrosanct system. In 1940  Gandhi wrote that “if I were to know after my death that what I stood for had degenerated into sectarianism I should be deeply pained”.

This powerful statement  provides us sufficient intellectual and academic space to reconceptualise Indian politics  and the discipline of  political theory.

This  framework can also be employed by those of my friends on the right side who passionately advocate the decolonisation of Indian thought.

Prof Gull Wani is Kashmir based Political Scientist 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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