Strategy and Steel

The strategic edge of Gandhi’s political method was just as remarkable as the ideological underpinning of his philosophy

Gandhi in Yerwada prison in 1932. He was arrested for the civil disobedience campaign
Gandhi in Yerwada prison in 1932. He was arrested for the civil disobedience campaign

Alok Bajpai

If Gandhi were alive today, what would he have done? This question comes up often. There is hardly any doubt his intervention would have been political—he was a political being, after all—but it is worth considering how different his method was from today’s ad hoc activism.

The most effective part of Gandhi’s politics was his strategic orientation. While other leaders too were adept at making an emotional pitch in their speeches dissecting the country’s problems, they couldn’t really go beyond hammering the British Raj; there was no plan of action, no guiding vision on how to rid the country and its people of those ills. Gandhi, on the other hand, had a way, an action plan, not just to rouse people but to also enlist their participation in his plans to weaken the hold of the British Raj over them. It was for this reason that Gandhi quickly became the mascot, the star campaigner, the face of the struggle for independence soon after he began active politics in India in 1916-17.

A special feature of Gandhi’s strategy was the ideological underpinning of his method. Gandhi assimilated the understanding of earlier leaders and intellectuals of the Indian National Congress and imbued this understanding with his own ideas, crafting a clearly discernible political ideology. The Gandhian ideology was not conceived in splendid isolation—it was an extension of the thinking of the Congress itself. Gandhi’s contribution was, in a sense, to graft his own understanding onto the core ideology of the Congress, which he had thoroughly imbibed. His contribution was to integrate into the Congress philosophy his own understanding of the constructive values of a mass political consciousness. He also made space in this political ideology for man’s struggle against the worse aspects of his own nature. That is why the ideology of Gandhi and the Congress could never become a refuge for narrow, reactionary politics. It was and remained a vehicle of progressive values in the political milieu of the country.

Another special feature of Gandhi’s political strategy was that it took on board an overall assessment of the adversary’s strength and weaknesses. That is why he was always able to overcome any resistance in implementing his strategy, in making it acceptable both to people in general and the enlightened political lot in particular. Even those who initially baulked and held a different opinion from Gandhi’s would ultimately fall in line with him, forced to concede that his method was the only effective option available. For example, when Gandhi stopped the active mass movement after the Chauri Chaura incident or after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, no other leader came forward to replace him though many criticised his moves.

Gandhi laid special emphasis on strengthening the Congress organisation, on taking it to every doorstep. He believed that to grow stronger among the people was to automatically weaken the enemy. Gandhi’s ‘constructive programme’ was also strategic—it was not apolitical but a part of the Gandhian method. To always challenge power to a point of confrontation was bad political strategy, in his book.

Gandhi also adopted the strategy of connecting the country together, to develop what is often called the ‘Idea of India’. That is why he did not raise socio-economic questions in the extremist sense, as is often done in identity politics. He tried to strengthen Indian nationalism and asked all Indians to unitedly fight social and political evil.

Gandhi was fully aware of the destructively divisive potential of communalism. In 1946-47, when communalism was tearing apart the country, Gandhi invested all his energy in direct dialogue with the people—through his padayatras in the Noakhali area of East Bengal, for example—working tirelessly for over four months to douse communal fires that had been lit in various parts of the country.

The current Bharat Jodo Yatra is another such effort to unite people against government-sponsored communalism that threatens India today. Early indications are that it has the broadbased support of civil society, not just public intellectuals. It is certainly reminiscent of the Gandhian way—and not just in its surface attributes either. The Yatra is most certainly about connecting people. It is also about drawing them out and coaxing their democratic participation in a way fuller than simply casting a vote. Its sway will expand, though, if there is a full-bodied commitment to Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha, in manifest faith that non-violent resistance can successfully overcome fascist regimes.

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