ARTICLES : Gandhian view On Politics

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Decentralized Political Order: The Gandhian Perspective

By Ramashray Roy*

This paper discusses the rationale of local democracy by looking at the democratic discourse surrounding the usefulness and limits of the representative form. Stalwarts like Jefferson called for the creation of ‘elementary republics’ by dividing counties into wards. Such intimate communities are not only a more reliable means of addressing public problems, but also avenues of the inner growth of the citizens in self-responsibility. This means reversing the pyramid of authority and power. The Gandhian scheme of decentralized political order is more than a technical device; it is, at one and the same time, an institutional strategy for facilitating and sustaining spiritual regeneration of human existence in the backdrop of a simple economy based on limitation of wants.

YEARNING FOR FREEDOM lies deep in human psyche. However, this yearning is in most cases frustrated because of adverse circumstances. Even if this yearning is satisfied by snatching freedom out of the clutches of an alien ruler, it can either be suppressed or circumscribed because of certain kinds of political institutional arrangement. And then what happens is the evisceration of freedom and eclipse of justice.
This situation is characteristic of a democratic republic. Shunning direct democracy, it elects to create a top heavy super-structure of representative democracy. By doing so, it preserves the traditional structure of political organization that makes the apex of the system the source of authority and power. In this system, influences of all sorts flow downwards; it is these influences that determine the character of the political system at large. Even the federal system of government does not easily escape the overbearing influence of the national government.
This is well illustrated by the examples of two countries, United States of America (USA) and India. Both these countries won their freedom after launching a successful revolution against alien rule. They had then to face the task of installing a new body politic that would be equipped with a political institutional arrangement capable of supporting the exercise of freedom by all. After all, both these countries launched their freedom struggle not only to gain freedom but also to retain it. And the retaining of freedom was to enable not a few but all the citizens to exercise their freedom.
This is an important task. Revolutions represent only a transitional stage; they wipe the slate clean signifying the closure of the past; it has to be written upon again by installing a new body politic. This signifies that “the course of history suddenly begins anew, an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold.”1
The plot of the story may, as Alexis de Tocqueville suggests, be shrouded in obscurity; however, the moral of the story is never in doubt; it is neither insignificant nor ambiguous. This moral is, of course, the celebration of freedom. It opens the way for every citizen to exercise freedom not only to mould his own destiny but also to participate in the task of giving a preferred direction to collective political life and relations. This is possible only when a proper institutional support base is provided to freedom so that it is not prevented from making its appearance.
The story that grandmothers tell, always ends with the good triumphing over the evil. However, this does not apply to the formation of a new body politic. What happens is that the demon of highly centralized political order appears to put freedom in fetters and deny it the space where it could make its much awaited appearance.
When a majority, based either on passion or interest, becomes the ruling faction, it tends to “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and private rights of citizens.”2 This is true particularly of a direct democracy consisting of “a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” It is easy in this case for a majority faction to form and be animated by common passion or interest. And there would be nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. If this inducement becomes compelling, neither religions nor moral motives can then be relied upon to checking the action by the majority faction from sacrificing public good or private rights of others.
Alternatively, the majority faction may perhaps happen to be just containing several smaller factions. In such a case, a serious threat is posed to the smooth functioning of the popular government. Additionally, there is also the danger of private interests eclipsing collective good. It need not be pointed out that every individual has his own passion or interest which moulds the way he thinks and acts. When he speaks in the public, he is most likely to express his views that reflect his interest or passion. Similarly, when he acts in public, passion or interest exerts more control over his conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice.3
This is also true of groups and political parties when common passion or interest bring them together for political action. Perhaps one can rely on the wise counsel of enlightened statesmen for protecting the republic from contrary pulls and pushes of partisan politics. However, they are not always available for advice and guidance, nor it is certain that their wise counsel would be heeded at all when the passion of partisan politics invades man’s better judgment. Thus opinions of individuals and groups of individuals including also those of legislators are usually expressions of self- interest, often biased. Not infrequently they express the views of those whose integrity has been corrupted. The result is that self- regarding opinions have “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress than to cooperate.”4
The division of society into rival factions and parties is likely to give rise to two different situations: either a dominant majority faction or a badly splintered space of public opinion. In the case of the former, the majority would most likely use its power to benefit itself at the cost of both individual rights and public good. If the space of public opinion is badly splintered, coalescence of different factions proves difficult. This is likely to lead either to recurrent crisis of deadlock in the making of public choices, or to intrigues, manipulations, and horse- trading by “ambitious, vindictive and rapacious politicians.”5
All this makes it necessary to guard against the confusion of the multitude. Also, when popular governments become turbulent and very prone to instability, violation of individual rights and the eclipsing of public good become possible.
The only way was the establishment of what Jefferson called “elementary republic” that traditionally existed in townships and town councils. Emerson called them “schools of the people” which provided the citizens the space where they could assemble, discuss and decide matters of common interest fully and freely. These schools taught the People the art of ruling and to be ruled.6 These townships and town councils represented “the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together and its true space lies between people living together no matter where they happen to be.”7 The possibility of enlightened opinion becomes real when men communicate freely with one another and have the right to make their views public. And it is the confrontation between opposing viewpoints that conduces the people to exercise their reason coolly and freely.
The success of democracy depends on the degree to which the people who participate in the management of public affairs are capable of self-transcendence as a necessary condition of moral self-development.
Globalization of economic life and relations has radically changed the conditions that bear upon the question of establishing elementary republics. The material aspect of human existence has driven spiritual orientation far out of human consciousness. Local communities have reached the stage of maximum obsolescence. The rise of subjectivity has made disengaged instrumental mode of existence the regnant pattern today. The vision of the good has been eclipsed by the consideration of “what is good to me.” Consequently, there has occurred a loss of auto-control; this drives men to think and act in terms of what benefits them.
The idea of who man is, is currently understood in terms simply of a body-mind complex with the spiritual aspect effectively drained out. As a result, man emerges as a broken totality; he is at odds with his inner reality and alienated from both society and nature.
Alienation creates inner vacuum which is sought to be filled by the acquisition of more and more wealth. This means that the more the environment of human being is judged in terms of its congruence with or subservience to self-needs, the less fulfilling it becomes. When expectations of fulfillment become at once so vast and amorphous, the possibilities of fulfillment are diminished. As self-needs become irresistible, social relations assume instrumental character. This destroys what Plato calls philia politike, friendship among the members of a political community. When shareable commonality loses its salience, there is less of a reason to serve the common good.
All these taken together have conspired to empty life of meaning and threaten public freedom, that is, the institutions and practices of self-government in both spiritual and political senses. What is all the more disturbing is the ascendance of the will, the wayward will that is supposed in modern times to be the bastion of freedom. For the wayward will, reason and rule represent a sort of impersonal tyranny in relation to which, however, the will represents perfect freedom. Wrapped in subjectivity, the individual finds himself alone and separated from his fellowmen. It is not surprising then that the individual personality dwindles to pure egoism eroding the bases of morality.
To repeat, the question of installing local democracy is inexorably linked with the conditions that now prevail. And the prevailing conditions do not augur well for the smooth functioning of the decentralized political order. As long as man remains separated from the divine entity, his status as a broken totality will continue to bedevil his attempt to self-transcendence. Looked at from this perspective, Jefferson’s scheme of elementary republics has no fair chance of success. This is so because it stops short of total renovation of the idea of who man is. Jefferson takes man as he is, man who seeks his earthly salvation through what Mahatma Gandhi calls “body worship.” This means a greater reliance on technologically induced economic growth to supply goods and services to make man happy. But the effect of body worship is the proliferation of needs. As a consequence, demand of goods and services will go on escalating as standard of living swings upward. This will nourish the culture of what Chhandogya Upanishad calls kamachar, behaviour driven by passions. This drowns the love of God in the sea of self-indulgence; this, in turn, promotes self-interest at the cost of shared ethical commitments to the public good.
Given the primacy of material well-being and the globalization of economic life and relations, local communities have lost economic autonomy, an important dimension of human existence that constitutes the core of activities at the local level. As a result, local communities have become highly dependent on the world beyond themselves for meeting their ordinary life needs. They have become highly vulnerable to influences that emanate in their external environment. Economic inter-relatedness demolishes barriers between different economies, breaks their self-sufficiency, disturbs their internal coherence, and sets in motion a process of homogenization by linking them with national, even international economy.
This linkage tolerates no deviance and suffers no autonomy.
To make a success of the scheme of elementary republics in conditions that prevail now, two conditions have to be met. The first condition refers to the need of self-transcendence as a necessary condition of rising above self-interest and self-regarding action for overcoming disengaged instrumentality. The second condition concerns the need to reverse the pattern of locating authority and power at the apex of the system and rejoining freedom and power at the local level.
This means reversing the pyramid of authority and power in a way that permits the base units of the political order to have the primary authority and the power to manage their affairs themselves. This will allow them to play a more significant role in the management of public affairs than they currently do. This will make local communities the primary building blocks of political organization by treating higher echelons as residuary holders of authority and power. In short, the scheme of decentralization that Mahatma Gandhi suggested long ago.
The significance of the first condition lies in the fact that the partners in the self-rule must have a fully developed sense of self-responsibility. They must be ever conscious of reconciling the good of one individual with the good of all individuals. This is consequent upon the reining in of unruly passions that have been given a free hand in modern times. This has created a situation in which the faith in the divine has been lost arid there is no other means of than the brittle barrier of the laws to control them.
This brings us to contemplate the problem of moral crisis that cannot be surmounted by ejecting everyone from the society.
The vice of cupidity masquerading as virtue cannot be mitigated by the simple-minded changes in the institutional structure of society or by a recourse to political reforms. Nor will the reform of laws and institutions lead willy-nilly to political improvement, unless they are accompanied by an underlying improvement of the spirit of those who operate them what this means is that it is the neglect of the spiritual or moral dimension that is the source of the civilizational crisis that we face today. Moral regeneration is the only way out of it. Obviously, changes in the exterior of man are of no help in this; what is required is the internal change signifying self-transformation. Once internal change occurs, outward form would take care of itself. What everyone should, Mahatma Gandhi insists, be concerned with is “a radical change more in inward spirit than in the outward form. If the first remains unchanged, the second, no matter how radically changed, will be like a white sepulchre.”8
The process of inward change is the process of self-transformation. It implies the taming of the beast in man. It is accomplished when man recognizes his true nature. When man succeeds in developing his real nature to the fullest, he attains the status of dwija. This allows him to recognize that “he is a special creation of God precisely to the extent that he is distinct from the rest of his creation.”9 The realization comes to him that he cannot “rely on external freedom to protect internal freedom because relying on it, we often find that the laws made to secure freedom turn out to be shackles binding us.”10
For Mahatma Gandhi, then, swaraj (freedom) is primarily the rule over oneself; it cannot come from any external circumstances or paying a lip service to it. “It is an inward change ....It is the transformation of the heart ....And that absolute transformation can only come by inward prayer and a definite and living recognition of the presence of the mighty spirit residing within.11 Thus, as Chandogya Upanishad 8.1.1 notes, this transformation is possible when man accepts the suzerainty of the mighty spirit within. By doing so, he becomes swarat, self-sovereign and acquires the capacity to terminate his status as, in Plato’s words, ‘the slave of many mad masters’. It is the attunement of the soul to the divine ground of being that forms the firm foundation of a self-governing society.
Self-government is only of value if human beings attempt to govern themselves in order to reach their full human nature. This means renovation of spiritual orientation, which is possible only when man renews his link with the divine. This renewal helps man “attain mastery over our mind and our passions.” In doing so, we come to know ourselves.” Even more importantly, we come to rule ourselves both as individuals and as people. The implication is clear. Direct democracy demands not the pursuit of individual or collective self- interest, but a transformative popular self-rule (that is, the rule of the people over themselves) or swaraj in the spiritual sense. “It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”12
Swaraj implies willing surrender to God. When the individual does so, he “gets in touch with his highest; he has then a broader and higher vision of man and his place in nature. When he identifies with God, he realizes that he has no special interest of his own to serve.... He perceives God in all things and all things in God.” This realization is the fountain-head of both morality and sociality. It becomes instrumental in demolishing the separation between the individual and society and establishes between them the relationship of the drop and the ocean. “In this ocean of life we are little drops” and, as such, we must share, as Mahatma Gandhi puts it, “the majesty of life in the presence of God.”13
Thus, for Mahatma Gandhi, there cannot be any distinction between individual and corporate growth. However, the focal point of this growth is the individual; the corporate growth is dependent upon individual growth.14 It follows, then, that self-development is as valuable as the sustenance the individual receives from his community. This prompts Mahatma Gandhi to reject the Enlightenment view of man and his world, which is “utilitarian in its ethical outlook, atomistic in social philosophy... and looks to social engineering to organize man and society for happiness.”15
Mahatma Gandhi therefore stresses the need for reviving community living; this will allow man to enjoy more “effective ties, to experience some closer solidarity than the nature of urbanized and industrialized society seemed willing to grant.”16 The maintenance of closer solidarity is possible only in small, face-to-face communities.
Small, intimate communities are not only a more reliable means of addressing public problems but also the more invisible, although more crucial avenue of the inner growth of the citizens in self-responsibility. “Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one and others.”17 Through experiencing the art of association, men acquire a taste for cooperation and develop the virtues indispensable to the maintenance of the order in which they live.
One other condition is, Mahatma Gandhi insists, necessary for a decentralized political order. The economy must be very simple and cater only to minimum material needs. This will allow greater dependence on locally available resources, check the invasion of larger market forces, and protect social institutions and cultural ethos from pollution. Mahatma Gandhi therefore insists on the minimization of wants as a condition of promoting self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
It is clear then that the scheme of decentralized political order is more than a technical device; it is, at one and the same time, an institutional strategy for facilitating and sustaining spiritual regeneration of human existence. This makes the attainment of wholeness possible, the wholeness without which wholesomeness is not possible.

Notes and References:
  1. Hanna Arendt, On Revolution (Middlesex: Pelican Books, 1965), p. 28.
  2. The Federalist, No. 10.
  3. Ibid., No. 6
  4. Ibid., No. 10
  5. Ibid., No. 6
  6. John Keane, Public Life and Late Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 116.
  7. Hanna Arendt, The Human Condition (New York: Basic Books, 1959), p. 177.
  8. M. K. Gandhi Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1959), Vol. IV, p. 67. Hereafter CWMG
  9. M. K. Gandhi, The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Ed. Shriman Narayan (Ahmadabad: Navajivan Press, 1969), Vol. VI, p. 110.
  10. CWMG, XXXVIII, p. 18.
  11. Ibid, XXXIV p. 506.
  12. M K Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (Ahmadabad: Navajivan Press, 2006), p.56.
  13. M K Gandhi 1969, The Selected Works ,Vol. VI, p. 109.
  14. CWMG, XXXIV, p. 505.
  15. Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 1.
  16. Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western PoliticalThought( Princeton: Princeton University Press 1960), pp.63-64.
  17. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1956), p. 117.

Adapted from 'Gandhi Marg', Vol 34 Number 3 & 4, July-December 2012

* RAMASHRAY ROY is a former Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Email: