Gandhi on democracy, politics  and the ethics of everyday life

This paper is about Gandhi’s critique of politics, of which his ambivalence towards democracy was a part. I argue that for  Gandhi the ground of moral action is fearlessness,
while that of political reason is security and self-defense. Gandhi sees the context of
moral action in the mundane fabric of everyday life, in places such as the family
and the village. For that reason he does not believe that moral action requires being
supplemented by the particular kind of unity which politics and the state call for and

Gandhi had a complicated view of democracy. If we think of democracy as in some minimal sense it is commonly understood—as an interlinked set of institutional practices that feature regular elections, broad representation and a spectrum of individual rights, all of which are meant to give expression to the idea that individuals are free and equal and that the ultimate source of legitimate political power is the cooperate body of the people, because it alone is deemed to be sovereign—then one must conclude that Gandhi was
substantially unimpressed by democracy, though not always opposed to it.

His writings are replete with comments critical of the idea of elections, representation
and individual rights. In Hind Swaraj he famously characterized the British
parliament as a “sterile woman and a prostitute,” and identified it as the cause
of a long litany of British and modern woes. In that context he was explicit, “I pray that India may never be in that plight.”1 Gandhi similarly was not overly Taken with the idea that individuals were naturally free or that they were naturally equals. In their common rendering these ideas are not of particular importance to him. Such claims embodied an abstractness that is antithetical to the basic tenor of his way of thinking. He certainly did not think that the special value of freedom lay in giving individuals a sense of their political power as citizens. He did occasionally speak of individual rights; nevertheless it was obligations, and not rights, that he emphasized. Again he did not always oppose rights, but nor were they the cherished focus of his considered deliberations on social, political
and ethical matters.
Perhaps most importantly he did not approve of a conception of politics in which the quest for individual and collective security was motivationally and normatively primary because he recognized that emphasis as alloyed with the sanction of state violence in both the domestic and international arenas. In this sense he did not share one of the founding orientations of modern politics, including in its democratic variants. There is no denying that an important tradition of modern political thought has been guided by Hobbes’s rendering of the Latin expression salus populi suprema lex esto, where salus no longer referred to salvation, but rather to the safety of individuals, and, more importantly,
to the security of the political society as a whole.2 The primacy of individual  and collective security is an emphasis that is shared by traditions of thought which in other ways are sharply critical of other aspects of Hobbes’s political ideas. For similar reasons the idea of sovereignty, either of individuals or of an established polity, had little hold on Gandhi. He was not drawn to cognate  ideas such as the territorial integrity of states or the importance of nations having the power to reaffirm that integrity. On these issues his vision was
more capacious, less particularistic and, most importantly, indifferent to the  recise shape of how political power was organized. His conception of unity was much more linked with the patterns of social and civilizatIonal life and less with what is now associated with the imperatives of nation states. Gandhi’s endorsement of democracy was very much in a lower key. It was nestled in the  everyday and commonplace materials of social life, which for him supplied the conditions of moral action, and not the elevated gravity of the political, which as he disparagingly said always had “larger purposes.”
And yet, on the other hand, ideas of self-rule, transparency, accountability and inclusiveness, which are associated with the basic ethos of democracy, are fundamental to Gandhi’s thought, life and practice. He did more than any  single individual in the twentieth century—more than even Lenin or Mao—to bring the common man and woman into the fold of public life, on terms that were marked by a singular absence of hierarchy, prescriptive authority and the condescension of political parties and traditional elites. It seems fair to say that but for his influence, the struggle for India’s independence would
have been a much more elite, if not Brahmanical, process. Moreover, the subsequent post independence political and social norms of the country would have been more exclusionary, less mindful of the dignity, though perhaps also less concerned with the material needs, of the most disadvantaged, and hence at odds with the broad orientation that has characterized, from the outset, the democratic and legislative thrust of Indian politics. His deep commitment to  openness and truth; his view that individual self-rule was a function of character and self-discipline and not predicated on traditional markers of education,gender or property ownership; his view that power, including that of the state,
had no presumptive normative priority—are all consonant with a spirit of democratic governance.His visage, background (middle-class, middle-caste) and his life, lived among common people with disregard for sectarian, communal or economic status, are all exemplary of a profoundly democratic person. Like  Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi ennobled of what was utterly common and ordinary.
His legacy confirms this. Maoists, religious sectarians (Hindu and Muslim) and
secular advocates of a strong state have all equally reviled him and what he stood
What explains this complex and ambivalent relationship with democracy—at  once deeply skeptical and yet also profoundly exemplary? I think the answer to this question centers around two ideas—violence and politics and the way they affect the ground of everyday action. For Gandhi, violence and politics,while often mutually reinforcing each other, also detracted from an attentiveness to the ethical gravity and context of everyday life. Democracy as a modern  political form gives expression to that connection with violence, along with a diminished or instrumentalizing view towards everyday actions. Democracy
was not unique in this sense; other forms of organized politics evince the same connection. Precisely because Gandhi saw an essential link between violence and politics, non-violence could not be stably affirmed within any political orientation. It is the underlying link between violence and politics, and what for  Gandhi was a related diminishing of an everyday ethic, that is evident in Gandhi’s ambivalence to democracy as a political form. This essay explores that underlying connection.

It is an attention to everyday life that is crucial to understanding Gandhi’s view of non-violence. In fact one might say that non-violence is what becomes manifest when there is scrupulous attention to everyday life. For Gandhi violence and politics are otherworldly. They are deferrals to another time and another space. That is the warrant for the idealism that backs up modern politics. Like Max Weber, who believed that modernity had disenchanted the world and thus had also made it more ghostly and less attentive to the Calvinist gravity of everyday life, Gandhi’s focus is worldly. He identifies that concern with religion generally, and with the central message of Gita in particular. Gandhi in fact Demands of religion that it vindicate itself in the hurly-burly of everyday life.
As he says of the author of the Gita, “he has shown that religion must rule our worldly pursuits. I have felt that the Gita teaches us that what cannot be followed out in day-to-day practice cannot be called religious.”3 This leads Gandhi to so often accept the terms in which social life is given—for example, the caste, religion or profession one is born into—without resorting to an idealism that is constitutionally transformative of those social particularities; and yet neither does he accept an ethical lassitude that is prepared to excuse the self on account of some metaphysical or religious fatalism. For Gandhi the terms of everyday life,often in its most banal form, supply the very material through which one gives ethical substance to one’s life. But the vigilance, intensity and energy he brings
to this ethical enterprise should not be confused with a political purposefulness.
In summarizing the doctrine of the Gita as action with a renunciation of the fruits of actions, Gandhi is attempting to sever action or the everyday from any essential teleology. In doing so he undermines the grounds for violence and much of modern politics because it is essentially invested in a teleology or quite simply in the deferred “larger purposes” of instantiating justice, material well-being or political equality. As he says, “When there is no desire for the fruit, there is no temptation for untruth and hims a [violence]. Take any instance of untruth or violence, and it will be found that at its back was the desire to attain the cherished end.”4 There is no making sense, at least of modern politics—democratic or
otherwise—without some notion of cherished ends and of a future in which
those ends will be realized.
Gandhi had a deep abhorrence for war and violence, but his understanding of these phenomena also makes it clear that his commitment to non-violence cannot in any simple way be meshed with a modern tradition of thought, which along with its concern with war, violence and peace, is also deeply committed to notions such as the public interest, abstract principles of justice, improving the world, and giving priority to the ontological conditions through which we give expression to our nature as political animals—namely the idealism of politics. Gandhi could  and did imagine a world in which politics was not the ground of individual or collective well-being. It is the priority of politics which Gandhi’s understanding of non-violence sidesteps and denies. Gandhi was also ambivalent about peace,which he understood to be another form of political entrenchment. He referred
to those who merely opposed war without seeing its link with the surrounding international context as advocates of an “armed peace.”5 Even as a nationalist, a designation so often carelessly applied to him, Gandhi was, if at all, a reluctant and inconsistent votary. He even demurred at the idea of India having a constitution.

As he so often reiterated, “My religion has no geographical limits. If I have a living faith in it, it will transcend my love for India herself.”6 Even his conception of independence did not for the most part tally with a national or political vision,“Swaraj [self-rule] has to be experienced by each one for himself.”7 Or as he says elsewhere, man “can be independent as soon as he wills it,” thus simultaneously  refusing the complex temporalities on which both imperial and national visions relied.8 His opposition to violence did not draw on nationalist or communal justifications. He thought of peace in its familiar rendering as no more than a punctuation between the patterned and instrumental use of violence and force.


Uday singh mehta

Political Science Department, Amherst College

Modern Intellectual History,7,2(2010), pp.355–371 ,

Cambridge University Press


1 M. K. Gandhi,Hind Swaraj, ed. Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press,

2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B.Macpherson (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), 81.

3 MahadevDesai, TheGospel of Selfless Action or The Gita According toGandhi (Ahmedabad:Navjivan Publishing House, 1956), 132.
4 Ibid.
5 M. K. Gandhi, The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Raghavan Iyer (Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 1991), 242.

6 M. K. Gandhi, Essential Writings, ed. V. V. Ramana Murti (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace
Foundation, 1970), 147.
7 Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, 73.
8 M. K. Gandhi, Harijan, 11 Jan. 1936 (emphasis added).


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