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Gandhian Concept for the Twenty First Century

Sisir Sanyal

The Gandhian concept of political empowerment of people and the role of the state shine in radiating brightness in an age of civilization by weapons of violence that arm the centralized authority in state super powers to hold in ransom the future of mankind. The nonviolent alternative around which the Gandhian concepts are woven has started claiming serious attention of academicians, political thinkers, social activists, reformers and visionaries. The landscape of human civilization has witnessed the dawn and decay of the guiding principles of organization of government and state monarchy, capitalism, socialism, communism and the like. But the basic issue of individual liberty and freedom could not be resolved against the onslaught of centralized bureaucracy. The fundamental tenet of democracy that lies in providing the objective conditions for human beings attaining their best have also been substantially belied. This calls for a review of the ideologies that have carried the political institutions throughout the human history particularly in the preceding centuries. If we take them one by one we may come to a finding that human reasoning has been somewhat a prisoner of prevailing ideas on the advocacy of stalwart thinkers who ruled the rest. But there had always been a protestant voice, which was lost in the din and bustle of contemporaneous cacophony of ideas but ultimately emerged with a strong appeal because of the truth inherent in it. We may presently see that Mahatma Gandhi raised one such Protestant voice to traditional political institutions and thoughts that received scant attention during his lifetime, but is gradually assuming its legitimate place in the pedestal of thought where our political institutions are destined to mount upon with gradual maturity.

These protestant ideas have much in their content to shape the contour of the freedom and the power of people vis-a vis the state and that too on a nonviolent transformation.

The basic point of departure of the constitutional patterns conceived by Gandhi over that of others who still dominate the field, is that Gandhian concepts are borne out truth, nonviolence, love for all, while the others are borne out of mind of reasoning. And that makes all the difference.

The utilitarian philosophers of the west enunciated the concept of "greatest good of the greatest number" as the aim of the state policy. This has failed to take a holistic view of the entire human race and ignored man; that is to say, each and every man, as the prime concern of the state. A theoretical measurement of the greatest good for the greatest number is again a thoroughly subjective deduction and consequently lacks the universality of acceptance. As against this, Gandhi propounded the theory of Sarvodaya which means the rise of all; that too in the fullest measure each man is capable of. This is a departure from traditional thinking clamped upon the society and which held human reasoning within a closed shell. Gandhi released it from that bondage and gave a definitional aim of the state, which leaves no ambiguity. That is what the 21st century has to adopt if closed reasoning has to yield place to universality.

In the next place, the rule of the majority has become a kernel to democracy. The entire world has been fed with the idea that the majority must have its way, but remember, it is not the exclusive majority that has always sought to be championed; even a simple majority is enough. The result is that the tyranny of the majority has gradually perverted into the tyranny of the virtual minority. In a system evolved by a multi party functioning in the political arena, a minority or even a simple caucus can impose itself on the rest. As against this, Gandhi advocated decisions by consensus as the main thrust of democratic functioning. At one time the idea was considered ridiculous, but it is gradually gaining acceptance in situations while the alternative to consensus is grave and serious. Even the United Nations at its Security Council has to decide everything by consensus since a single veto can undo a decision. At the national level, the trend in all the countries is to strike a political consensus amongst all the parties whenever grave national issues are involved. Gandhi wanted this system to enter into our culture as a decision-making process in every public affair so that the minutest may not feel ignored or tyrannized.

The Gandhian concept of consensus does not mean that there should not be any two opinions on an issue or people must have identical thinking about everything. It only means a process for resolution of all differences, a process which will substitute the worn-out kernel of democracy with a fresh one with a view to richer fruition. He did not stop there; he was quite aware that a very big assemblage, with heterogeneity beyond control, is not a conductive arena where consensus can be reached. As we shall see presently, he advocated a direct democracy or a participatory democracy rather than a representative one, which has become ingrained in our present system.

Even since the Western scholars like John Stuart Mill and others upheld the case of representative as the pillar of statecraft, the concept has gripped the whole world. As power has concentrated more and more on centralized government, the tooth of the representative government has sharpened all the more. The government by representation has, however, a sad commentary everywhere. The representatives after elections hardly represent the people but only themselves. It is common knowledge how the representatives of the people have emerged as a class by themselves each having ambition of his own, each motivated by the power have emerged as a class by themselves each having ambition of his own, each motivated by the power to distribute favours, each lobbying for his own selfish end; and collectively, as a class, the representatives trying to entrench themselves with more privileges, authority and power. In the face of power struggle, the people are relegated to a dumping lot, gradually losing the efficacy of the right to votea right, no longer a right to make a choice on one's own, but content with the limited choice as left under the political systems. The result is a negation of democracy at the grass-root level, which is conceived in his philosophy of Gram Swaraj. He wanted all adult peoplemale or female of the entire village to be involved in the decision making process on matters that concerned people at large.

The next question is what should be the quality of "Village Republic' where a participatory democracy of all people of envisioned. Here lies the crux of Gandhism. Where all systems, capitalistic, socialistic or communistic, have inevitably resulted in centralization of power and authority at the apex, the Gandhian concept of Gram Swaraj unleashed a compulsive force in the opposite direction.

He believed in Panchayati Raj, which is certainly not the concept as enshrined in our constitution, however proudly it may bear the nomenclature of a Panchayati Raj. The Gandhian concept of Panchayati Raj is not a concept of decentralization but a pattern of "building from below". The Panchayati system projected in our constitution with the latest amendments is at best to be termed as a system to Panchayat administration of centralized governmental power.


Gandhian Gram Swaraj: Gandhi mooted the idea of Panchayat Raj with a concept of self-sufficient and self-reliant villages functioning as a Republic. In his dream, every village in India should be characterized by a direct and participating democracy, endowed with all the powers that enable it to function as a government in the true sense of the term. The power and functions, which cannot be effectively discharged at the local level, should alone be transferred to the government at the center. Thus, the policy in India shall take a pyramidic shape having a broad and strong base at the village level and a gradually narrowing one towards the upper hierarchy with delegation only of essential functions where a heavy splash on the water creates the most intense wave at the initial circle, which gradually fades as the circle expands. This is what Gandhi meant by "building from below". That is one aspect. On the other, a republican village shall be self-sufficient and self-reliant in respect of its basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, employment, education, health, social security etc. The modality of functioning of the village policy was also embroidered by Mahatma Gandhi in his various writings from which the essence that can be gathered consists in the following precepts, namely:-

1. All adult persons, male or female, of the village shall have a say in the village administration in order to make it truly participatory, as wide as the community.

2. All decisions in the village panchayat shall be on the basis of consensus, which eschew out divisive approaches arising from consideration of party politics, religion, caste, creed, class or culture.

3. "Antodaya" or unto the last, is the philosophy behind distribution of resources so that an equitable distribution of scarce resources can be ensured.

4. All village disputes have to be settled within the four corners of the village and not to be taken outside it so that the curse of litigation may not shatter the rural economy.

5. An approach of villagization to create community assets for the community to be independent of outside resources for further development of the community and to inform all measures for social security in the from of care for the old and infirm, widows and destitute women, orphans and neglected children, handicapped and mentally retarded and the unemployed and the helpless.


Touchstone for Government: we may not fall back on the concept of government as an institution. What really makes an authority a government? While we spin out the concept of local self-government, we have to bear in mind if the authority at the village level created by the constitution has really assumed the character of a government. What are the essentials for such a government? It has been recognized in the modern parlance of political theory that a government must have three essential powers:-

i) Taxing power ii) Police power and iii) The power of the eminent domain. By taxing power it is meant that the authority termed as government should have the right to raise revenue through compulsory exaction to defray the expenses of its obligatory functions. By police power is meant the right to regulate the behavior pattern of the people living within the governmental jurisdiction in such manner that the individual voluntarily sub-judge individual interests for the community interest since "Good of individual is in the good of all". The power of the eminent domain vests the authority termed as government to resort to preceding of acquisition of land, water, sub-soil rights, ambient air, mines, minerals etc. including the power to escheat. It is on these touchstones that one has to determine whether an authority is really clad with governmental power or not.

The 21st century is knocking the door of history. It will usher in a new millennium. It is time that the entire human race comes out of the bondage of traditional thinking and look out to the future with a liberated mind. As we look up at such a prospect, we may find the precepts of Gandhi holding out a great promise for freedom and empowerment of the people vis-a vis a totalitarian and centralized state which has usurped all such freedom and power.

Source: International Seminar On Gandhi and the Twenty First Century (January-30, 1998), New Delhi-Wardha.