Gandhi, morality and political legitimacy

While true political legitimacy has to be premised on popular will, on the desire for self-determination, and on the capacities and capabilities of a government, it resides in a more subtle quality that has to do with the inherent morality of any structure of power that purports to rule a people in their name and for their own good

October 04, 2014 01:30 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

Every October 2, for the past 66 years, Indians have reflected on the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, born on this day in 1869, and killed on January 30 in 1948. This moment of reflection has sometimes gone by in a haze of indifference, at other times sparked deep criticisms of the flaws and contradictions in Gandhi’s thought, and on yet other occasions has been observed as a day of ahimsa, non-violence. This year after the general election and the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Gandhi Jayanthi feels like a poignant crossroads. Young Indians seem not to have any particular attachment to Gandhian ideals like ahimsa, swaraj and satyagraha.

Is Gandhi still relevant?

Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s invocations of the Mahatma’s name are frequent, but not always convincing: Gandhi is either diminished into a parochial Gujarati figure, or reduced to a formula and a cliché. In the current administration’s rhetoric, Gandhi is not the fountainhead of modern India’s political selfhood but rather a mere icon to be monumentalised and trivialised in one go. Why just Gandhi, it could be Swami Vivekananda who is trotted out one day, Sardar Patel another day, and Babasaheb Ambedkar when his name happens to suit a given purpose. The particularities of the beliefs and ideas of each of these individuals, and their very different, often incommensurable contributions in the making of modern India, are of no relevance in an atmosphere of illiterate nationalistic jingoism and complete ideological vacuity.

But like with any thinker of such enormous and lasting influence, Gandhi’s repertoire of ideas turns out to be more surprising and more resilient than we might realise after many decades of having him be a part of our default political furniture.

If ideas like non-violent sovereignty, the dignity of the poor, the power of truth, and the difficult practices of moral courage are not fashionable today, there is nevertheless a key lesson Gandhi taught us, that remains as relevant in our own time as it was during the British Raj. This is the lesson about the true sources of political legitimacy, and how to recognise them, no matter what the outer garb of sovereign power or the architecture of a state.

Gandhi showed Indians and the world that the ultimate legitimacy in politics comes not from brute force, not from the state apparatus, and not even from mechanisms of political participation, electoral choice and representative self-government. All of these are limited, and all of them are fallible. The popular mandate of Hitler did not make Nazi rule legitimate. The benign despotism of the British in India did not make colonial rule legitimate. Totalitarianism that enters riding on the coat-tails of democracy, or imperialism that seems bent over with the self-inflicted burden of delivering benighted natives from their ignorance and backwardness — neither of these forms attains legitimacy merely because it is successful in capturing power on the basis of professed good intentions.

True political legitimacy has to be premised on popular will, on the desire for self-determination, and on the capacities and capabilities of a government, for sure. But in the end it exceeds and transcends all of these factors, and resides elsewhere, in a more subtle quality that has to do with the inherent morality of any structure of power that purports to rule a people in their name and for their own good.

Lessons from a flood

An illustration from recent events: the devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir in early September were on the face of it a sign of climate change, environmental calamity and the inadequacy of early warning and disaster management systems. But as the weeks have passed, with houses still submerged; telephone, television, radio and Internet services still down; roads, bridges and highways in a shambles, and government infrastructure unable to come back up to provide even a hint of civic normalcy, it becomes clear that the real crisis in the Valley is a crisis of political legitimacy.

The State government has next to no legitimacy because it failed so completely to warn and evacuate citizens as the waters of the Jhelum began to rise to dangerous levels after unusually heavy rains; it failed to re-establish a basic quorum of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, police officers and municipal workers who could operate out of private homes or makeshift offices while the government’s own buildings were under water; it failed to marshal, collect and distribute relief supplies that were pouring in from all parts of India and the world at the Srinagar airport; and it failed to provide a modicum of on-the-ground support to the agencies most involved in search, rescue and relief operations for the first few days — the Indian armed forces, the National Disaster Response Force, and the informal and spontaneously arisen Kashmiri citizens’ groups that worked tirelessly in almost every neighbourhood in the deluged State capital, Srinagar.

But these multiple failures of the local government in the face of the biggest natural disaster that the State has ever seen, are only premised on its already low credibility based on a track record of an indifferent administration, weak and faltering alliances, and the inability to put pressure on the Indian and Pakistani governments to resolve their long-running disputes and take concrete steps to break the perpetual political deadlock of Kashmir. The truth is that the floods only provided an alibi for a State government that has barely functioned for its entire term in office. That Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) was elected to power is a fig leaf that scarcely covers how much the party and its leadership is disliked and mistrusted by the people of Jammu and Kashmir, who knew well before the floods that theirs was a government mostly missing in action.

After the floods, even the pretence of law and order, of administrative control, of the delivery of basic services to the citizenry, disappeared entirely. Given that State elections stand to be postponed from December 2014 to next summer, there is no reason to expect that the abysmal standard of governance will suddenly be raised now. Persistent flood conditions and their aftermath, a looming winter, an impending durbar move to Jammu, and, very possibly, a spell of Governor’s Rule make it unlikely that the very politicians and administrators who abandoned their people will belatedly rise to the occasion and do later on what they ought to have done for the past month.

There are at least two positions on the electoral process as a route to political legitimacy in the State, especially in the Valley. Members and leaders of mainstream political parties like the NC and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) participate in State elections, enter into alliances with national parties like the Congress and the BJP, and form and run the State government if elected to power. Others like the Hurriyat leadership and their supporters do not participate in elections. Their contention is that Jammu and Kashmir is essentially not like any other State of the Indian union, and should not proceed as though it were exactly that, until such time as the overarching dispute about the status of Kashmir is settled in national and international fora.

The terrible predicament of the people of the State is that they have to choose between on the one hand, leaders who do participate in Indian electoral democracy and try to provide at least a semblance of representative self-government, howsoever interim its character — but then make a mess of their regime. On the other hand, there are leaders who don’t participate electorally at all, but don’t have the leverage to actually restate the problem and restart to the process of multilateral dialogue and conflict resolution from scratch. It’s a lose-lose bind. The floods only press home the reality that it’s a pathetic choice between a leadership that can’t govern in fact and one that won’t govern on principle.

In a situation of extreme crisis, like a natural disaster, this dilemma stops being abstract and becomes all too real. Neither a helpless Chief Minister wringing his hands on the Indian media sans his cell phone and his secretariat, nor a popular separatist personally delivering water and food to hundreds of stranded residents of his locality in Srinagar in a small makeshift boat, can present a viable answer to the question that has hovered over the Himalaya since Partition: Who really commands political legitimacy in Kashmir?

Over and above democracy

It has been suggested that what Gandhi has to give to Kashmir is the usual message — non-violence. Militants should put down their weapons, fundamentalists should embrace their neighbours and everyone who has lived through the conflict should renounce anger and vengeance to chart a new path to freedom. But in fact the real relevance of Gandhi to Kashmir — and more so in light of the floods, which have washed away all existing structures of authority, such as they were — is to table once more the question of political legitimacy.

How is political legitimacy in Jammu and Kashmir to be earned? Who can demonstrate having it? From rebuilding Srinagar after the devastation, to repatriating Pandits, to putting in place enduring systems of environmental management, to demilitarisation, to resuming talks with Pakistan, to tackling corruption, to instituting processes of rehabilitation, justice and reconciliation for all those affected by 25 years of war — what needs to be done, and who will do it?

Gandhi’s achievement in forcing a subcontinent and later an empire to re-examine the very foundations of sovereignty urgently needs recalling. Not only have the floods in Kashmir left an entire regional population without any kind of government, whether popular or unpopular, but down south, in Tamil Nadu, another electorally powerful and massively admired leader, Ms. Jayalalithaa, has had to forfeit her mandate in the face of corruption allegations. Her democratically ratified legitimacy is nevertheless not sufficient to protect her from criminal charges in a court of law. And at the centre, a majority win for Mr. Modi and the BJP still leaves open the question of who this government really speaks for, who it represents and sees itself as representing, and who gets left out of its ambit.

The writing is on the wall: in a fractured democracy like India, numbers alone do not tell the whole or the true story of legitimate rule. Legitimacy has to be earned the hard way, through good governance, transparency, probity, lawfulness, justice, inclusivity and the capacity to demonstrate, both every day and in a crisis, that a government really is not just by and of, but also for the people.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India .)

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