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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gandhi remained the high ideal, but he was now the ideal that stood in our way

Home > Edits & Columns > Why Bapu matters Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express: Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Is he revered more because of his absence than his presence?
Gandhi's gloriously original and inventive life continues to be extraordinarily fascinating. But his assassination remains shrouded in embarrassed silence...Gandhi had already become marginal to the new forms Indian politics was taking in the late forties. He was out of sync with the political tendencies of the time: communalism, Partition, new constitutionalism, and development. He also had the sense of being marginalised in his personal relationships with leaders of the time. He had to plead to be consulted on major decisions, including Partition. But to see what his death achieved, just think of the counterfactual. One of the matters he attended to before his death was the rift between Nehru and Patel. His death, as Ram Guha has argued, ensured that the two would continue to work together. Imagine the strain it would have been on the fledgling republic if the Congress had openly split around these two personalities.
It has to be admitted that his continual presence and riposte to the government that was coming into being would have been an extraordinary liability for Nehru. On almost every issue of the time there were serious tensions between the emerging state and what Gandhi stood for; and his stance would have continually cast a shadow of doubt over Congress’s legitimacy. To put it bluntly, it was beginning to be felt that with Gandhi around, normal politics would have been near-impossible. But perhaps most importantly, had it not been for Gandhi’s assassination, the new state would not have been able to delegitimise Hindu nationalism to the extent it did.
It has become all too easy to forget the fact that by the late forties Hindu nationalism was in the position of being a potent political force, and the assassination made it difficult for more people to openly avow it. In a way, the surprise is not that Hindu nationalism reappeared in the eighties, legitimised by the excesses of the Congress; the surprise is that the guilt of being killers of Gandhi remained a damper on its aspirations for so long. It is a pity that we still don’t fully come to terms with Godse’s claims at his trial...But the essence of his case has three prongs:
  • Gandhi was a failure, the charkha could not even clothe 1 per cent of the nation and non-violence was an ideal honoured only in the breach.
  • Second, Gandhi was impractical.
  • But most importantly, Gandhi’s virtue had become his vice: “Gandhiji should have either changed his policy or could have admitted his defeat and given way to others of different political views to deal with Mr Jinnah and the Muslim League.”

The problem with Gandhi, on this view, was that his own path was too impractical to succeed, but his presence was powerful enough to ensure that no other path could gain equal legitimacy. Gandhi remained the high ideal, but he was now the ideal that stood in our way. In a way Gandhi’s resolute individuality, Ekla Chalo had become, not a signifier of leadership, but an ability to block. Again to quote, “Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces.” In a sense this captured the schizophrenia over Gandhi: his undoubted power over us, but also an experience that this power was a fetter to our conception of practicality.

One of the judges presiding over the trial had little doubt that had the audience on the day of trial been constituted into a jury, they would have returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ on Godse. To say that we were all complicit in Gandhi’s death would be to obscure several important moral distinctions. But it is not too far-fetched a claim to say that by the late forties no one had any idea about what to do with him. Even Patel and Nehru were at their wit’s ends. The moral force of his ideals could not be denied, even if living up to them was impossible; his personality remained a powerful force that could move people to peace. But it was peace sustained by the aura of his personality, not an acceptance of his ideals.

In some contexts, Gandhi still remains supremely relevant. There is little doubt, for instance, that the Palestinian cause would have succeeded far more if it had taken a Gandhian turn. His manner of constructing a fearless and inventive self remains supremely instructive. As the first genius to master mass politics, he remains, to use the defining aspiration of our times, cool. But on the sixtieth anniversary of his assassination, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that he is revered more because of his absence than his presence. As with Munnabhai, his ghost occasionally haunts us, but the important thing is that it is only a ghost. His assassination allowed us to cope with him. The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research pratapbmehta@yahoo.co.in

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