On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a lot of people said a lot of nice things about the father of the nation; we were also reminded about what others had said about him. His life and achievements were remembered not only in India but also elsewhere. From politicians of all hues to academics to celebrities, everybody expressed their views on Gandhi. Yet, the most important facts of his life and personality were missed by everybody.
First, Gandhi saved us from the 20th century. And, second, his life is worth emulating by all politicians, especially those in India, for he neither hankered for power nor flaunted it despite being the most powerful Indian in the country.
The first one needs some explaining. The twentieth century was very violent; it was the first time in the history of mankind that two world wars were fought, the second one being truly global in scope—from Japan to America and from Russia to Africa and Australia. While 8.5 million people died in World War I, four to five crore perished in the second war. This was apart from the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s murderous regime which slaughtered up to six million Jews; it also killed Poles, Russians, gypsies, etc., in large numbers.
The Nazis were not the only people who unleashed a reign of terror and mayhem in the twentieth century; the socialists and communists were not far behind; indeed they surpassed the Nazis. Under various communist regimes, about 100 million people died in the last century—40-70 million in Maoist China, 30-40 million in Stalin’s Russia, even two million in the tiny Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime.
More than the horrors of the two great wars, it was the mass murder in the name of building a new world—which fascism, Nazism, and communism claimed to be doing—that was frightening and sickening. In his profound and poignant work The Rebel (1951), Albert Camus wrote: “Slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or the taste of the superhuman, cripple judgment. On the day when crime puts on the apparel of innocence, through a curious reversal peculiar to our age, it is innocence that is called on to justify itself.”
Nobody has mentioned this, but Gandhi’s greatest contribution to India was not that he led the nation against the British but that he shielded us from the twentieth century, from its quixotic passions and ferocious enthusiasms. It would be a mistake to regard the threats of fascism or communism as remote or only Western afflictions. The meteoric rise of Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) shows that the ground was fertile for violent nationalism and communism in India, but the danger was tackled primarily by Gandhi.
Bose was a prominent nationalist leader who was widely admired by his compatriots. Unfortunately, his nationalism took a trajectory that was problematic; it was sympathetic to both socialism/communism and fascism. This reflected both in his ideology and practice; he met Hitler; he got military assistance from the Axis power in the East, Japan. In his inaugural speech as mayor of Calcutta in 1930, spoke about “a synthesis” of “Socialism and Fascism. We have here the justice, the equality, the love, which is the basis of Socialism, and combined with that we have the efficiency and the discipline of Fascism as it stands in Europe today.”
It was not a young man’s fascination for the two violent collectivist ideologies; it was a typical twentieth century Big Brother’s preamble for a Gulag that, luckily, never came into being. Bose worked hard for the unpleasant “synthesis.” In 1944, addressing students at Tokyo University, he favored a political system “of an authoritarian character… To repeat once again, our philosophy should be a synthesis between National Socialism and communism.”
He was also fascinated with the showy attainments of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; he was mesmerized by the apparent order, discipline, unity, and efficiency in totalitarian countries. Sadly, Bose didn’t think very highly of the most cherished Enlightenment concept, individual liberty. He wrote in 1935, “One is inclined to hold that the next phase in world-history will produce a synthesis between Communism and Fascism. And will it be a surprise if that synthesis in produced in India?... In spite of the antithesis between Communism and Fascism, there are certain traits in common. Both Communism and Fascism believe in the supremacy of the State over the individual. Both denounce parliamentary democracy. Both believe in party rule. Both believe in the dictatorship of the party and in the ruthless suppression of all dissenting minorities. Both believe in a planned industrial reorganization of the country. These common traits will form the basis of the new synthesis.”
It was not just Bose’s influence that was problematic; communists’ sway was also rising in the 1930s. While the Communist Party of India, formed in 1925, was still small, Marxist or progressive ideas were popular among intellectuals. In A History of Indian Literature: 1911-56, published by the Sahitya Akademi, Sisir Kumar Das wrote: One of the significant events in the history of modern Indian literature is the formation of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA). . . AIPWA held its first meeting in Lucknow in 1936 under the presidentship of Premchand.” The AIPWA was dominated by communists and socialists.
Premchand was the “first major Indian writer to respond to Marxism and socialism as an alternative to Gandhian politics.” He opined, “To hope that the capitalists will desist from exploiting the helpless condition of the peasants is like expecting a dog to stand watch over a piece of meat,” which debunks the Gandhian theory of trusteeship.
Das traces the AIPWA’s history: “This [Lucknow] meeting was a culmination of moods, efforts and initiatives that began with the publication of Angare (1932), a collection of ten works, including five stories by Sajjad Zaheer (who later became a prominent leader of the CPI), all written in Urdu and extremely radical in temperament. Sajjad Zaheer (1905-73) during his stay in London as a student was exposed to Marxism. He met several leftist writers, including Ralph Fox (1900-37), whose The Novel and the People became popular among the Marxists. During a conversation with Fox, the idea of a Progressive Writers’ Association was mooted. A draft was prepared by Mulk Raj Anand. An edited version of it appeared in the Left Review (London) in February 1935 and a revised version in Hindi was published in the October 1935 issue of Hans, edited by Premchand.”
The second phase of the pre-history of AIPWA is the meeting of writers in Paris in June 1935, Das wrote. “It was the International Congress of Writers, organized by Andre Gide, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland and Andre Malraux. . . Sajjad Zaheer and Mulk Raj Anand were the two Indian writers to be present in the meeting attended by galaxy of European writers…”
Although the Association was technically not the forum of any political group, and it certainly was formed with the intention to provide a broad platform to all writers sharing certain common values, slowly it came to be identified with the Marxists, Das wrote.
In the field of theater, too, the Leftist influence was perceptible from the forties. The Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) was formed in 1943. Sisir Kumar Das wrote: “It is not very clear whether IPTA was formed under a directive of the Communist Party of India or it grew out of the general temper of resistance against fascism and enthusiastic response to socialism.”
Bose’s rise should be viewed against this backdrop. In the late 1930s, he became strong enough to challenge Gandhi’s leadership. In fact, in 1939, he won the election for party president against Gandhi’s preferred candidate, Pattabhi Sitaramayya.
It needs to be mentioned here that Jawaharlal Nehru was no less enamored with socialism than Bose. The prominent historian Bipan Chandra wrote in the August 1975 edition of the Economic and Political Weekly: “Nehru’s commitment to socialism finds a clearer and sharper expression during 1933-36. Already he had declared himself a socialist in 1929 in his Presidential Address to the Lahore Congress.”
Nehru wrote in October 1933 about “the great human goal of social and economic equality… within the framework of an international co-operative socialist world federation.” In December 1933, he wrote: “The true civic ideal is the socialist ideal, the communist ideal.” Further, he wrote, “fundamentally the choice before the world today is one between same form of Communism and some form of Fascism… There is no middle road between Fascism and Communism. One has to choose between the two and I choose the Communist ideal.”
Nehru said in Lucknow on April 20, 1936: “I am convinced that the only key to the solution of the world’s problems and of India’s problems lies in socialism… I see no way of ending the poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation, and the subjection of the Indian people except through socialism.”
There were many other leaders too in the Congress who were sympathetic to communism/socialism. Gandhi’s presence and sagacity did two things: first, it tempered these leaders’ enthusiasm for these dangerous ideologies; and, second, it marginalized more radical elements like Bose. Bose had to leave India and wage his own war, with help from the Japanese, against the British; but that’s another story.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Gandhi was the only leader in India who had the moral authority, political clout, and practical acumen to check the rising tide of socialism, fascism, and communism; and he employed everything he had to do that—and did that successfully. Quite uncharacteristically, he also practiced realpolitik, thus ensuring that Bose exited the party.
This brings us to the second most important fact about, and the noblest aspect of, Gandhi. Despite being a skillful practitioner of realpolitik, he never used it for personal aggrandizement. Not for him the perks and majesty of power; he practically ruled the hearts of Indians in the last three decades of his life; yet, he was never captivated by the charms and trappings of political power. Had he desired, he would have become the prime minister or president of India, but he did not.
There are not many such instances in the history of mankind when a man had the opportunity to seize power and he did not. George Washington was one such person, perhaps the first in history. There was a lot of pressure on him to go for a third term, but he steadfastly refused. Another name that comes to mind is that of Jayaprakash Narayan, the great leader who spearheaded the crusade against Indira Gandhi’s despotism in the mid-1970s. He too could have become prime minister had he wanted to but didn’t.
In fact, Gandhi and Narayan never held office for a single day, despite having spent decades in politics. Yet, they are counted among the most successful politicians modern India has ever had. Gandhi is called the father of the nation; his birthday is a national holiday; every currency note has his picture on it; every city has roads named after him; there are government programmes with his name. Narayan too is held in high esteem by people.
The most important lesson that contemporary politicians should learn from Gandhi is simple: they should redefine success in politics. Today, it is measured in terms of the rank one holds—MLA, MP, minister of state, cabinet, etc. Instead, success should be measured in terms of change a politician is able to make—that is, change in according to his or her principles or ideology. Further, the principles and ideologies have to be in tune with freedom.
This is not a lesson in moral science; this is a practical suggestion, for at the end of the day every politician—indeed every human being—wants to be known as somebody who made his or her presence felt in society. Our politicians will actually serve themselves, and the nation, well if they stopped the pursuit of power for its own sake. This will also be their genuine tribute to Gandhi.