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How liberals lost Gandhi as they lost their own intellectual moorings

Some liberals lost Gandhi because he was a democrat, who refused to surrender the individual to the mob in the name of majority rule.

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Over the past few centuries, liberals have played a key role in shaping human history. They were amongst the first to stand up against religious dogma and bigotry. They were undaunted by the temporal or religious authorities and chose to stand their ground against injustice. They cherished the renaissance and saw the birth of modern science by breaking many taboos. They oversaw many political revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Liberal paradigms of tolerance, justice, democracy, pluralism and market economics dominated much of 20th century. With access to political power, liberals increasingly relied on the state to pursue their policies, thus losing their original anti-establishment apprehensions about the nature of the state. As the 20th century rolled on, politics had degenerated into a game of capturing the levers of the state, and liberals found themselves on the margins of society.

The above hypothesis, which is open to correction, vividly illustrates the reasons why liberals lost ground. This is evident also looking at the range of their responses to Gandhi.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his apparent religiosity, failing to distinguish his spirituality from their own conception of religion. Gandhi held Truth as God, was devoted to non-violence, and looked at politics as a vehicle for human upliftment for his path to salvation. Gandhi did not claim absolute truth, but only a quest for truth, which provided him an opportunity to claim the true spiritual values of a universal religion of man. Instead some liberals chose to surrender religion to sectarian charlatans and showmen.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his commitment to nonviolence. Gandhi was not a pacifist, he was an aggressive civil resister, who repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the state and defied its diktat. He endorsed non-violence as a matter of moral principle based on self-suffering and self-restraint, instead of aggression towards others. It was a strategy to mitigate political conflicts and make political gains and a tactic to invite the masses into political action, who could afford to participate only in an environment of peace. Gandhi offers ways of principled political mobilization, but many liberals seem to be interested neither in principled non-violence, nor in its practical application in mass mobilization.

Also read: Why Mandela failed & Gandhi-Nehru succeeded in bringing about revolutionary constitutionalism

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his politics. Gandhi, the political activist, focused on regaining the principles of politics, and put them into practice. Gandhi, who was not a political scientist, acted as a true scientist, drawing up hypotheses, experimenting to test their validity, learning from mistakes, refining them, and then trying again. He sought to bring politics back to the people through the principle of non-violence. Many liberals, by the time Gandhi died, had lost political ground and preferred to closet themselves and their principles. Devoid of state power, liberals lost the means to practice their principles, leading many to conclude that liberal principles were too precious and fragile to practice.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his involvement with the masses. Politics to Gandhi was a vehicle to reach out to people, help secure justice, reconcile differences, and inspire them to claim their space as active citizens. Gandhi sought to legitimize politics by involving people. Some liberals wanted to protect their politics from the people, believing the masses to be irredeemable. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the liberals find themselves so ill-equipped to face the current challenge posed by populist politicians of every ideological shade, who specialize in politically mobilizing the masses. So many liberals seem to have concluded that their principles are too sophisticated for the common man on the street.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because he was a democrat, who refused to surrender the individual to the mob in the name of majority rule. Gandhi chose to stand his ground to uphold his ideal in the face of majoritarianism, because to him, the essence of democracy was not majority rule, but the protection of individual rights and freedoms. Democracies can survive only when this egalitarian aspect is preserved, without which majoritarian democracy will inevitably degenerate into mobocracy. Some liberals have failed to appreciate this essence of democracy, as a result they find themselves in the margins of majoritarian politics.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his insistence on decentralized government. Gandhi was apprehensive about his incumbent’s tendency to centralize political power. It would turn politics into an instrument for disbursing patronage and privileges to the few at the cost of many others. Gandhi was fearful that this approach to politics would turn into an arena for power games with people reduced to mere props to preserve the facade of democratic normalcy. Gandhi wanted democracy to grow at the grass roots with self-governing ‘village republics’, where people could hold their own government accountable. Some liberals continue to cherish the dreams of capturing power at the top and then changing the nature of the game for the sake of the people. But this approach has only entrenched the power game further, enabling the worst of the lot to capture the levers of the state.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his view that the means are everything and his warning “that violent means will give violent Swaraj that will be a menace to the world and to India herself.” Gandhi held that the state represents concentrated violence, and therefore must be restrained to the bare minimum, if it was not to devour its own people. Decentralizing the state was a way to limit the threat of an all-powerful centralized government. “Real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused,” said Gandhi in 1925. Some liberals continue to believe that the power of the state can be leveraged to do some good.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his stress on ethics in economics, and decentralized modes of production. Gandhi stressed on the spinning wheel as a mode of imparting self-discipline and a sense of dignity of labor. He looked at ways of igniting the entrepreneurial spirit of the people at the grass roots by getting the state to withdraw from economic interventions that skewed the market for the benefit of the few. In today’s terminology, Gandhi called for the withdrawal of the state to allow businesses to operate successfully. Some liberals continue to call on the state to improve the ease of doing business oblivious to the fact that state interventions created the chaos in the first place. The state may have no interest in improving the situation, except in some cosmetic sense or by gaming the system for the advantage of the elite. After all, those in power profit from their position and use state power to grant favors.

Liberals may have lost Gandhi along the way as they lost their own intellectual moorings, but Gandhi still provides a way for the liberals to rediscover their own roots and reclaim the lost political grounds.


This excerpt from How Liberal is India? The Quest for Freedom in the Biggest Democracy on Earth is published with permission from Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (Academic Foundation, 2019).

Also read: Having limited Mahatma Gandhi to sanitation, Modi is ignoring his central message


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