Salil Tripathi: Does Gandhi still matter?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Tripathi is a writer based in London.]

Fresh garlands were placed on portraits and statues of Mohandas Gandhi yesterday, as India remembered its founding father on the 60th anniversary of his assassination. In India, Gandhi is everywhere: Town squares, streets and hospitals are named after him; most currency notes in India bear his image. Many Indians feel proud that one among them found a creative way of passive, nonviolent resistance to fight injustice.

But does Gandhi really matter anymore? In 2008, India is further than ever from Gandhi's vision of the country at independence in 1947. His India lived in villages, which he hoped to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. People wore homespun clothes, lived simply, and used handmade objects. Machinery was avoided and foreign goods shunned.

Gandhi wanted the Indian National Congress -- the political movement that spearheaded the freedom struggle -- to dissolve, its workers becoming volunteers working for rural uplift. For the apostle of nonviolence, India would naturally not have an army; its businesses would act as trustees of public wealth, distributing their profits among the poor.

Far from being dissolved, the Congress has ruled India for 48 of its 60 years, the last four years in coalition. India is a nuclear power and it has one of the largest armies in the world. Its businesses are buying companies worldwide, its CEOs joining lists of billionaires. As a nation, India talks the Gandhian talk, but appears to walk a distinctly un-Gandhian walk.

The reason for this divergence is nuanced: Independent India's leaders realized, over the years, that while Gandhi was an idealist, he was not an ideologue; and his ideas were specific to a particular context, when India was a colony. He was not dogmatic; he changed tactics. So did India. These realizations took time, though, and in some areas Gandhi's ideas were misinterpreted -- to the detriment of the country.

Indian politicians were quick to move away from the idealism of Gandhi's pacifist views and developed a powerful army. They had reason to: India has fought wars with Pakistan in 1948, 1965, and 1971, and with China in 1962. Given its hostile and unstable neighborhood, India could not afford to disarm unilaterally. In 1974, and again in 1998, India declared its nuclear capability.

But economics was a different matter. Indian politicians liked the notion of self-reliance, but not Gandhi's small-is-beautiful philosophy. Unlike Gandhi, they did not trust private capital. Instead of letting Indian businesses grow -- and Gandhi was not a foe of big business -- they stifled Indian companies, and by ostensibly claiming to help the poor, they established a gargantuan public sector, which remained inefficient and kept India poor....

Gandhi was a visionary, and visionaries aren't practical, which is why he never sought public office. Indian leaders, thinking they were being practical, took a very different path. By not focusing on small they were not wrong; but by making the state bigger than people, they were not right either. Gandhi had said: "Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? . . . Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away."...

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