Both M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru played an important role in Indian politics. They helped their country get rid of its colonial past and infuse some of the basic tenets of democracy into the fabric of Indian politics.
Which leaders shaped the political legacy of India?
The particularities that characterize the ideological distinctions between Gandhian and Nehruvian schools of thought originate in more than three millennia of Indian history. Specifically, the origin of the clash between spirituality/religion and modernity/secularism that appears as a recurrent theme in the philosophies of these two individuals predates their immediate historical period. Although Gandhi’s rise to influence in India spans the first half of the twentieth century while Nehru acquires power mid century holding it for more than a decade hereafter, the middle period in which these two protagonists come together on the stage of Indian politics provides a powerful insight into the conflict between competing visions of Indian political philosophy.
Gandhi’s ideas of “satyagraha” (the search for the truth) and “ahimsa” (non violence) were deeply embedded within the spirituality and mysticism that has historically characterized Indian societies and exerted considerable influence upon the political structure he envisioned for India. By keeping these ideas as the foundation of his struggle for improving the lot of the ordinary Indian, he was able to build a powerful reserve force of labor that could be and was mobilized to oppose colonialism. It is important that some of the most powerful elements of his work such as the search for “satya” (the truth) and the emphasis upon developing supreme consciousness cut across religions; anyone could relate to them. Another useful political move was the use of local symbols such as the “charkha” and “khaddi cloth” which represented the rural way of life and had powerful resonance with the Indian masses into his philosophy. The widespread use of the khaddi cloth would then symbolize the need for national unity and equality while the emphasis upon rural industry and use of regional languages highlighted Gandhi’s emphasis upon the need for solidarity with the ordinary Indian and represented a silent rebellion against the western way of life. In addition his intensive personal involvement with ashrams resulted in the creation of entire family networks of adherents of his philosophy. Gandhi therefore was able to connect with the Indian people on grass root level and had a bottom up trajectory of political support.
Nehruvian secularism on the other hand is underpinned by the belief that India can only become a part of the developed world by developing a “scientific temper” that would throw off the chains of mysticism and fatalism that have historically impeded its progress and made it susceptible to colonization by the British. While Gandhi was entirely obsessed with the societies and problems of India, Nehru was deeply interested in India’s positioning in the global context and the role it could play as a mediator between the two ideological polarizations that divided the world during the cold war era. It is also interesting that in spite of having been well aware of the role that cultural unity could play in uniting societies divided due to ethnicity and other primordial loyalties and having observed his mentor Gandhi flesh out this idea first hand, Nehru chose to not pursue this path. Gandhi’s path to social regeneration had affirmed and upheld India’s rural identity while the extreme emphasis that Nehru laid on developing west-
ern style industrialization and his dismissal of India’s agricultural roots and identity marginalized the core values of the masses. Maybe Nehru’s most important contribution to India’s political structure was the institutionalization of parliamentary politics. He was such a strong believer in the parliamentary system that in the absence of effective opposition to the Congress in the initial decades, he would himself act as effective opposition. He was considerably enthused by the process of campaigning. In his own words: “I find this business of electioneering most exciting.”
The two leaders had a very interesting relationship. Nehru placed Gandhi on a very high pedestal and held him in the deepest regard. He says: “And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths, like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes, like a whirlwind that upset many things but most of all the working of the people’s minds.” However, Nehru placed limited significance on the role that spirituality could play in India’s uplift. As far as ideologies were concerned, he had more faith in Marxism than in Gandhi’s spiritualism. Interestingly, one of the biggest differences between the two leaders was that Gandhi’s spirituality brought all the diverse religions of India together on a single platform while Nehru positively shuddered from organized religion of any kind and held absolute faith only in secularism which he saw as being India’s salvation from religion and spirituality. His plans for India’s secularization in modernization in the early years were underpinned upon Marxism. However he lost conviction in the ideology towards the later years of his life, partly due to a realization of the inconsistencies of the ideology and partly due to the opposition it faced from the Congress.
Gandhi played the important role of transforming Nehru from an aristocrat removed from the people to a leader of the people. Although he chose Nehru as his political heir, Nehru faced significant opposition within the Congress to some of his ideas and did not acquire the unchallenged leadership position that Gandhi had acquired during his lifetime. Both leaders played important roles in Indian politics, not only by bringing India to the point at which it could effectively get rid of its colonial masters but also by institutionalizing some of the most crucial tenets of democracy such as political parties and electioneering in the fabric of Indian politics. As neither secularism nor spirituality can be separated from the Indian ethos, neither Gandhi nor Nehru can be separated from its history and both made profound contributions to its political legacy. The writer is majoring in Economics and Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Gandhi’s religious fervor and Nehru’s secularist ideas together shaped India’s political legacy.