The Mahatma’s legacy for the world | Analysis

On October 2, 1869 —150 years ago — an extraordinary individual called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Porbandar, Gujarat. Through his pathbreaking ideas and actions, he evolved into a Mahatma and left an indelible footprint on the sands of time. Today, while recalling his immeasurable contribution, on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, we are amazed at the inexhaustible treasure he has bequeathed to the world. That he was an Indian, and that we had him as our leader during the most crucial period in our history, makes us infinitely proud.

For Gandhi, character was the key criterion for public service (Photo: National Gandhi Museum)

The inheritance he has gifted us, in fact, is a perennial fountain of inspiration. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly pointed out the other day that Gandhian principles act as a moral compass today as the world grapples with the growing challenges of climate change, terrorism and corruption. Gandhiji’s abiding faith in the collective will of the people, his profound moral concern, relentless endeavour to bridge socioeconomic inequalities, and faith in a shared destiny are relevant more than ever today.

As we reflect on the quality of our polity and governance, it might be worthwhile to recall his conception of swaraj and his vision of governance expressed in the geometrical metaphors of a square and a circle. Writing in the journal Harijan on January 2,1937, he gives us his concept of swaraj:

Let there be no mistake about my conception of swaraj. At one end you have political independence, at the other the economic. It has two other ends. One of them is moral and social, the corresponding end is dharma, i.e. religion in the highest sense of the term. It includes Hinduism, Islam, Christianity etc. but is superior to them all. Let us call this the square of swaraj, which will be out of shape if any of its angles is untrue.

The four corners of the swaraj square are as relevant to our contemporary context as they were when Gandhiji formulated them.

Another conception that is gaining great relevance today is the need to make development a people-centric process. Gandhiji’s vision of governance had people as the main agents of change. For him, decentralisation was an article of faith. As he postulated, “Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by its bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual.” This was the Gandhian dream of inclusive, facilitative, sustainable development adopting a bottom-up approach. Gram swaraj was integral to this vision of the oceanic circle of development deriving strength from the collective strength of the core.

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Gandhiji’s dream of gram swaraj acquires greater relevance today when our country, under the leadership of PM Modi, is seeking to bridge the rural-urban divide by empowering villages through a sustainable and holistic growth model. This includes interventions in education, health care, infrastructure, hygiene and sanitation, as envisioned by Gandhi. The eradication of social evils like untouchability and promotion of communal harmony were central to Gandhian thought. So was sanitation, which, he felt, was more important than even political independence.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched in 2014, is perhaps among the greatest tributes paid, in letter and spirit, to the memory of Gandhiji. His emphasis on cleanliness is the mainspring of this initiative. Making it a people’s movement is in consonance with the Gandhian ideal.

When we introspect on the quality of our parliamentary democracy, Gandhiji’s words provide some illuminating guidance. Writing in Young India in 1920, he warned that “a most perfect constitution may be rendered nugatory if it is handled by selfish or ignorant councillors“, and that “if the voters wake up only to register their votes every three years or more and then go off to sleep, their servants will become their masters“. For Gandhiji, character was the most important criteria for public service. He emphatically said, “I consider it impossible for a man without character to do higher national service so that if I were a voter from among the list, I would first select men of character.” He felt that ministers should hold their offices as avenues for service.

On the conduct of the legislators, Gandhiji had laid out clearly that it “would have to be that of strictest honesty and courtesy in dealing with his opponents. He will not resort to shady politics, will not hit below the belt, will never take mean advantage of his adversary“.

Gandhiji said that the following seven deadly sins have to be avoided: wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce (business) without morality (ethics); science without humanity; religion without sacrifice; and politics without principle. These are the elements of the moral compass that Gandhiji presented to humanity. They are touchstones of ethical behaviour so essential for a just and harmonious society.

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As our nation gains in economic strength and inclusive development, making the fruits of swaraj accessible to everyone, Gandhiji’s words are a useful reminder to ascertain if we are moving in the right direction.</p>

Swaraj, for Gandhiji, was “not a matter of receiving or taking“. It was one of evolution. “We either grow to it from day to day or we go away from it. If we, as a nation, are becoming more and more conscious of ourselves, of the fundamental unity of millions, then, we are certainly progressing towards it. Whereas if we are dissolving, then we are receding from it.” Unity, harmony and progress underpin this vision. The government’s endeavours have the same overarching goal encapsulated in its Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas approach.

It would be also pertinent to recall the words of Martin Luther King Jr on the relevance of Gandhi. He said: “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.

M Venkaiah Naidu is vice president of India

The views expressed are personal

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