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Search for alternative development path: Relevance of Gandhian thought

Frequency of extreme weather events has been increasing. Ferocious cyclones, severe droughts and floods, wild fires, melting glaciers and polar ice caps are reported all too frequently. The world needs to consider an alternative development path and Gandhi can be one starting point.


Gandhi, tradition and modernity

Gandhi is a hallowed figure in the world, not just in India. However, Gandhian thought has been increasingly pushed to the margins since his death in 1948. It survives in the alternative spaces but hardly practiced anywhere, including in India.

This marginalisation is the result of Gandhians’ failure to create a milieu which could make Gandhi’s thoughts widely acceptable, especially to the youth. The dynamism required on their part to rapidly evolve their thought to meet the growing challenges in the world in the last 70 years has been missing. Gandhi himself was dynamic, ever evolving with the changing social situation. In contrast, after his demise, his followers, wanting to remain true to what he had said, got frozen in the past.

Gandhi was ahead of his time. During his lifetime he struggled to convince the public to pursue the path he propagated. Even the Indian national movement which he led veered off from the path he wanted India to pursue. In his India of my dreams he argued that India could give a civilisational alternative to the Western civilization which he rejected as `evil’. He perhaps accepted later on that the Congress party was not willing to follow a different path than the path of western modernity.

Gandhi operated at two different levels and that confuses analysts. First, there were his fixed points and second, was his tactical political line which changed with the need of the national movement. Analysts often get confused by this duality and interpret him in the latter framework while his thought emerged from the former. It is his fixed points that need to be understood and propagated at present.

Presently, a change is taking place globally in the consciousness of people due to the growing threat of climate change and extreme weather events. The emergence of new viruses infecting humans leading to the Coronavirus pandemic has driven the world towards a ‘new normal’ which requires a different understanding than what the world has functioned with. So, there is a search for an alternative sustainable development path. Youth is realising that their future is in jeopardy and they want change – Greta Thunberg is a symbol of that. In this context, Gandhian thought provides an alternative way of thinking.

India and especially its poor face a dire situation. Not only is the country impacted by global climate change but also by the rapacious consumerism of the well off. At a low level of per capita income, our air, water, land, forests, etc., are some of the worst polluted in the world. The adverse impact of this is disproportionately more on the marginalized sections who are the least equipped to deal with the challenge. So, for the vast majority of Indians, Gandhian thought could provide an alternative way for themselves and the nation. So, what may have seemed to be irrelevant is now resurfacing as an alternative, especially for the marginalised majority in India.

Leadership required to guide society

Gandhi’s praxis and sacrifices made him acceptable to both the impoverished Indian masses and to thinking people across the world. The gap between his thought and action was minimal which made him a credible figure and acceptable as a mass leader. People of such conviction and moral strength are missing today, especially among the leadership which is mostly seen to be hypocritical and power hungry. Even Gandhians have been found wanting in this respect and have not been able to lead the people.

Gandhi believed in public action and not individual action which led to his connection with the people. His actions were designed to impact the consciousness of people and induce them to think of the wider social sphere and accordingly change themselves.

Presently, consciousness is increasingly leading to individualisation and atomisation and hence growing alienation from society. The rampant use of social media gives the feeling of connectedness but there is growing atomization. Linkages between individuals are so weak that they feel they are autonomous but lonely which is resulting in growing psychological problems. A holistic existence has become a challenge. Gandhian thought offers a viable alternative.

The changing social consciousness is a result of the ongoing process of marketisation in society – meaning that principles of markets have increasingly penetrated social institutions. This is resulting in a philosophical shift in society taking it away from Gandhian thought and making collective action difficult.

Great leaders of present times, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King said that Gandhi inspired them. But in spite of their aura, the situation in their country only deteriorated. In S Africa inequality has grown since apartheid was abolished. Nelson Mandela as the first president of the country after apartheid ended could not pursue alternative policies to help the marginalised there. Martin Luther King made a marginal impact on social attitudes in the USA as is clear from the `black lives matter’ movement. 60 years later, even after a black president, African Americans are struggling for equality. 

Fundamental change is required to build a different consciousness, to make Gandhian thought acceptable to a wider audience. Marketisation has gripped people’s thoughts and they have adopted consumerism which has become their opium. So, there is a resistance to think of a different and difficult path proposed by Gandhi.

In brief, after the Second World War, the philosophical changes in society have created a situation in which neither is there leadership to guide society to change nor is the public prepared for it.

Gandhi’s Hinduism not an impediment to wider acceptance

Gandhi’s thought has its basis in spiritualism. While he was politically active in the independence movement and acted tactically to help India achieve it, his actions were motivated by the idea of unity of all living and non-living things on this planet – humans, animals, plants and the Earth itself. So, for him violence towards any of these elements was violence towards oneself. A natural corollary of that was non-violence.

So, all human beings, whichever religion they believed in, were also a part of him – difference in faith of others was immaterial. His being a staunch Hindu did not come in the way of accepting non-Hindus. He also treated his political opponents and the British colonizers with dignity for the same reason. The fight against British rule had to be non-violent.

In present day India, communal divide is being promoted for electoral gains. Gandhi also encountered that because the British practiced divide and rule. He understood how that had weakened India and therefore, would have characterised the present situation as exceedingly short-sighted and against the national interest. In his framework, conflict among people can only be a source of suffering and retrogression in society.

Civilisational alternative

Gandhi believed that Western civilisation was evil and that Indian civilisation could provide an alternative to it. But he was not against learning from others. He said, we need to keep our windows open for ideas from everywhere. He believed society would be mature enough to discriminate which foreign influences were in their interest and which were not.

Non-violence was a way of strengthening the individual’s resolve to be able to reject that which may be in their individual interest but against that of society. He propagated `voluntary poverty’ as a check against consumerism which is destroying the planet and its environment. He argued, there is enough for everyone’s needs but not for their greed. So, greed is bad and has to be given up voluntarily. One can consume more but one should voluntarily give it up – only a strong conscious individual can do that. This was the essence of `swaraj’ which was not just for the nation but was equally applicable to the individual.

Gandhi was against the imposition of ideas on others. He was for dialogue and convincing others. He was opposed to the hegemony of western civilisation created through violence, colonisation and impoverishment of the colonized. So, he did not want the imposition of Indian civilisation on anyone – it had to be through reason.

Holistic vision

Gandhi’s vision incorporated the political, social and economic aspects of society’s existence. Due to the centrality of non-violence, the India of his dreams was to be based on the following principles: the `last person first’, acceptance of `voluntary poverty’ and non-alienating education based on `nai taleem’. The first principle was political to establish true democracy. The second one was to check consumerism and preserve the environment. The third one was to end alienation and strengthen individual’s commitment to society. These elements together were to be the bedrock of a harmonious existence and human development in the wider sense and not just the material; contrary to how development is viewed today.

Following these principles, India could become a truly democratic and egalitarian country with a development path sustainable over a long period of time with a clean environment and highly conscious individuals. That sounds Utopian but utopias, even if not achieved, give society and individuals a direction to strive for.

Gandhi and the capitalists

Gandhi proposed `trusteeship’. That is, owners of capital hold it in trust for society. Marxists characterise it as collaborationist. Gandhi’s framework was built on individuals and not classes and conflict. Due to his belief in non-violence he did not subscribe to the idea of existence of a fundamental conflict between capital and labour. He believed that there is good in everyone and one can appeal to that and change people. So, through the idea of `trusteeship’, he appealed to the goodness in capitalists. This is seen as status quoist and pro-capitalists. But, this idea in conjunction with `last person first’ could be a force for equity in society.

At the practical level, Indian businessmen wanted an independent India for their own unhindered growth and mostly paid lip service to Gandhi’s principles. They saw Gandhi as an instrument to get freedom to achieve their goal.

Indian businessmen and the Indian elite desired Western modernity and that is what they pushed for after independence. They were not for equity and lukewarm towards democracy and undermined government intervention in favour of the poor. They supported the trickle down approach for their own interest even though there was little trickle down. They promoted corruption and cronyism to corner gains.

India was a deeply feudal society during Gandhi’s time and he worked under severe constraints and limitations. The prevailing social conditions and people’s consciousness did not allow them to transcend their situation to follow the Gandhian path. So, the capitalists used Gandhi for their own ends. So, on his own yardstick of `ends and means’ Gandhi failed. He used means of freedom which were not consistent with the ends he strived for.

Is Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj an abnormality?

Was Gandhi against technology? He promoted charkha which is a technological innovation. He was against that technology which would lead to unemployment and environmental destruction. He wrote in the Hind Swaraj against doctors and the railways. He said that western medicine makes the individual weak when it says one could eat anything and if there is a problem there is a medicine for it. He wanted individuals to be integrated with nature and not kept healthy artificially through medication. Ignoring his lesson today there is a proliferation of lifestyle diseases. Use of antibiotics is resulting in drug resistant disease.

Gandhi wanted technology to help people become stronger and not to weaken them as at present. The choice of technology should be under social control, based on society’s needs and not the other way around. Presently, it is resulting in irresolvable challenges to society. 

In brief, relevance of Gandhian thought has become apparent now after having been side lined for decades. The relevance would become more evident as countries face more calamities. The question is, would this realisation come in time? Delay would imply that humankind is not the fittest to survive like many other species that have become extinct earlier. Following Gandhian thought will make human kind fitter to survive on Earth.

Based on the author’s book, `Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption’. 2013. Vision Books.

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