Need-based development in a free, just society: the lasting legacy of Mahatma Gandhi

17 February 2010

An emphasis on popular mobilisation,  essential to enfranchising the millions who were excluded from public life and political processes for centuries, remains one of Gandhi’s epochal successes.

Hind Swaraj is an extraordinary tour de force of ideas, which tries to invest the concept of independence for an India freed from the burden and ignominy of colonial rule with an emancipatory social content and a grand vision. That vision is not that of a mighty nation in the mould of the Great Powers of a century ago: the established mega-Empire of that time, indeed of all time, on which “the sun never sets”, viz, Great Britain, or the then-emerging superpower, the United States of America. Nor is it modelled on any particular nation or nation-in-formation, or an Eastern, as opposed to a Western paradigm.

In Gandhi’s vision, Independent India would be sui generis, a society unlike any other, in a class of its own. India would not embrace statist Communism, but would not be capitalist either. India would not follow the Western pattern of industrialisation, urbanisation and individuation (or atomisation, as its critics might term it), which seemed to many in the last century to be necessary and inevitable—the eventual destination of all societies as they “develop” and modernise.

And India would not even be a great nation—in the conventional sense of a mighty state with formidable military prowess and great political-diplomatic strength, which has the ability to reshape the world in its own image. India would not impose its will upon the rest of the world.

Gandhi’s India, outlined first in Hind Swaraj and developed further in many other writings, would chart out a very different course. In place of gigantic development projects and large-scale industry and mining—typical of market-led growth under capitalism—India would pursue need-based, human-scale, balanced development while conserving nature and livelihoods. There would be no forced urbanisation under the twin factors: pressure of declining, if not collapsing, agriculture and the village economy, and the pull of industry and services in the cities.

Such an India would not be poor, but it would not be an affluent society of plenitude in the conventional sense either. It would be a society free of deprivation, where everybody’s basic wants are fulfilled, but which would still practise frugality and austerity.

Gandhiji’s India would be an open and modern society, committed to the freedom of expression, and some fundamental Enlightenment values, as well as participatory democracy. But it would not break with or lose respect for traditional ways of speaking, producing, dressing, eating, or relating to and caring for nature and people. As Gandhi famously said, his house would have windows through which the breeze of all ideas from different cultures would flow freely.

Gandhi’s India would not be secular in the classical Western sense of strictly separating religion from politics and public life. But it would respect plurality and be tolerant towards different religions and would not discriminate against any faith. There would be no casteism and untouchability in such a society; social hierarchy and gender discrimination would be questioned and reduced. This society would strive for a non-violent relationship with nature, the animal world, other countries and societies. It would strive to establish harmony both internally and between India and other nations.

Cooperation would replace competition as a major driving force of economic and social progress. Decentralisation and devolution of authority to the smallest unit—the village community or panchayat—would be at the core of Indian politics. Sarvodaya would necessarily entail gram swaraj.

At the same time, Gandhi’s India would reject reckless industrialisation, which makes a cult of industry in utter disregard of the ecological costs of growth. Gandhi was not against human-scale industry. His advocacy of khadi and the spinning wheel is often mistakenly seen as glorification of anti-industry or Luddite ideas. In reality, through them, he was defending artisanal skills and livelihoods of the poor and promoting the idea of making the village economy self-reliant by ridding it of its over-dependence on agriculture. Ecological concerns, and an understanding of the finitude of natural resources, came naturally to Gandhi. As he memorably said, the Earth has enough for everybody’s need, but not for a single person’s greed.

Gandhi’s vision was not perfect. As Ambedkar argued, he underrated the importance of the Dalit question and the value of Dalit self-representation. He also probably had a paternalistic attitude towards Dalits, as the term “Harijan” suggests. Gandhi romanticised the village community and didn’t fully comprehend its unequal, hierarchical and oppressive nature, as Dalits experience it. As Nehru often said, Gandhi paid little attention to nation-building and the need for creating institutions of governance.

However, there is simply no denying that the Gandhian vision was grand, expansive and original. It drew upon some of the greatest ideas and insights of different cultures, societies and schools of thought. (Hence the quotation marks around “purely” indigenous in the very first line of this essay.) It was the result of profound reflections of a seminal kind. Gandhi also forged practical strategies and instruments for implementing some of these ideas. The vision would make India unlike any other country or society.

Even with its imperfections, this represents a huge advance over the pitiably imitative, slavishly unoriginal, Western-style neoliberal model embraced by the Indian elite and our present leadership, which believes that there is no alternative to the “free market” or a homogenous future for the whole world which lies in liberal democracy, market-led society and Coca-Cola. The idea of justice, equity and harmony that runs through Gandhi’s vision is infinitely superior to the repulsive notion of self-interest and greed as the driving force of growth and prosperity and progress in the elitist perspectives.

The ecological value of the Gandhian vision is of signal, indeed unique, relevance at a time when the climate crisis threatens the Earth’s very existence. At no other time have Gandhi’s ideas of simplicity, responsible consumption of natural resources and sustainability and his abhorrence for wasteful production, opulent lifestyles, and over-consumption (exceeding Nature’s capacity to renew itself and replenish resources) been better vindicated. The importance of a radical alternative cannot be overstated when all social, economic and cultural diversity or plurality is threatened by capital.

It would of course be a grave error to believe that the contribution of a historic figure like Gandhi was limited only to these insights and conceptual breakthroughs, for which his legacy will remain valuable for decades. Some other aspects of the legacy are equally important: exemplary civic courage and innovation of methods such as satyagraha; an appeal to the moral sense of human beings regardless of who they are; and rooting politics in the mobilisation of people on platforms that pertain to their perceived needs.

Satyagraha will remain with the world as a powerful method of registering protest and offering resistance to powerful rulers—even without the self-purificatory content that Gandhi invested in it in a very personalised manner. Civil disobedience and peaceful campaigning around demands are yet again tools that Gandhi forged and refined which have value especially in a phase of capitalism which is so predatory as to make resistance central to all politics which aims to defend the rights and interests of the underprivileged and poor, whom neoliberalism dispossesses.

Gandhi’s faith in making a moral appeal to people when pursuing a political agenda might appear naïve in a world where rulers are becoming increasingly callous or hostile to the people to the point of sabotaging democratic institutions and long-established and hard-won rights. But popular movements can never abandon appeals to the moral sense of ordinary human beings.

Indeed, some of the greatest transformations in recent history, including the abolition of slavery, decolonisation, democratisation of numerous countries, or the end of Apartheid—a system operated with extreme brutality—or advancement of gender equity, could be accomplished primarily because of an appeal to the moral sense of ordinary citizens. Detaching politics from public morality and basic notions of democratic decency is fraught with the prospect of cynical Machiavellianism overwhelming politics.

This is where Gandhi’s emphasis on popular mobilisation is all-important. He believed that a victory achieved through mobilising the energies of people is worthier than a victory won through manipulative methods or backdoor elite- or leader-led negotiations. Mobilisation brings people into the streets—essential to enfranchising the millions who were excluded from public life and political processes for centuries.

If relatively stable democracy is India’s greatest achievement since Independence, then part of the credit goes to the Gandhian enterprise to create participatory structures of politics, and forcing parties to go to the masses. That remains one of Gandhi’s epochal successes.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.