Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gandhi and Populism


Today on Mahatma Gandhi’s 66th death anniversary I am thinking of him and this notion of populism, which seems to be sprouting all over the world. I am no scholar on the technicalities of populism but in a general sense it is a rather uncrystallized, aspirational yet increasingly popular sentiment. Often times it takes the form of reactionary movements where citizens cannot bear the status quo. Unfortunately, such movements and their successes have a short life span. The so-called Arab Spring and Ukraine are the latest examples of this concept. In the Indian context, the spectacular success of the AAP in Delhi too is giving way to a somewhat chaotic governance making people wonder if its success in Delhi can really be scaled to the national level. 

In almost all these movements, protests gave voice to some legitimate, deeply felt grievance. While these movements had broadly defined ideals they did not have any meaningful roadmaps. Not only that, most of these movements bypassed key steps in building a sustainable movement that would stay viable post-victory. And this is where Gandhi comes in. 

In 1920, India was in some ways on the cusp of winning independence as the non-cooperation movement took the nation by storm. Mass protests were breaking out and after a really long time people saw a national fervor in the opposition to the British. And then there was the massacre of policemen in the obscure town of Chauri Chaura and Gandhi withdrew the movement. Many thought this would permanently deflate the movement. It didn’t. The next ten years Gandhi spent building elements of nation through this movement. Today’s protests don’t think they can afford to do that. There is an understandable impatience. For Gandhi the objective was not just a political change in Delhi but a transformation of Indian society that post-independence could build and sustain the institutions a democracy would need. He deeply understood the cultural evolution Indian needed to go through to, in his own words, be “worthy” of independence. Most populist movements and their leaderships are not visibly putting in that effort. I am not being judgmental but critical. I am saddened to see such incredible amounts of public energy and sacrifice simply not yielding results. 

In 2001, Young India put together this process flow for Gandhian Nonviolent Transformation ( that shows nonviolent direct action (protests) as one of the final steps in a movement for change. Today, the earlier steps are getting bypassed and with discouraging outcomes becoming all too frequent. There was a reason Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to India in the late 1950s to better understand the mechanics of the Indian freedom movement. He understood the importance of methodology. And did the Civil Right Movement ever perfect the art of nonviolent transformation!

At the highest level, these movements are lacking a vision that encourages mass participation beyond sitting in a large square and facing off brutal police action. And when victory is achieved in the short-term the process of reconciliation is never started. In some cases, it is revenge that is sought. Gandhi gave a constructive program for every Indian to be a participant in the movement no matter whom they were or where they lived. The movement also had a spiritual element that separated the British from their deeds. The incredible relationship India and Britain developed right after independence is an outcome of the Gandhian approach.

My request to all those brave souls fighting the right fights is to not only start articulating a vision for the future but also the numerous smaller steps you will need to take to sustain your hard fought win. Institutions on paper are only as good as the culture in which they find themselves. A cultural transformation is as much part of a political movement as is change at the helm or in laws. In the end, culture is at the epicenter of our democratic aspirations that find expression through our politics. True change has to permeate all three. Just like Gandhi made happen in India and left a country that 66 years later is still a democracy.

May the Mahatma’s soul forever rest in peace.



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