Learning Gandhi

IT MAY be unfashionable to say so these days, but Makarand Paranjape says it anyway: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was right. Realising perhaps that a straightforward discourse would make this a difficult book to read, the writer uses the question-answer format of a dialogue between a teacher and a student. By this stratagem, he hopes to create space for the neo-Gandhian perspective in current debates on the course that India should follow in an era in which the abandonment of socialism has left a moral and ideological vaccuum.

It is, as the "teacher" says early in the book, a question of survival: "By survival we mean the preservation or the ensuring of a life which is meaningful and worth living." Obviously, an attempt to ape the development pattern or lifestyles of the West will not make life in India more meaningful. The citizens of the West, he rightly points out, are often powerless cogs in a huge alienating system which, though guaranteeing them a certain measure of prosperity and choice, denies them the freedom to define and hold values contrary to the dominant ideology, especially as regards the ultimate goals in life.

India, he posits, is in a position to offer a critique and a challenge to the West's dominant ideology of consumeristic, techno-modern materialism. The "student" objects to this glorifying of India as the last bastion of spirituality in the modern world, much in the same spirit that critics objected to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's address to the US Congress, where he harped on the theme of India's age-old culture. But, as the "teacher" retorts, "We are special!"

An interesting thesis put forward by the writer is about the fabled corruption and inefficiency of the Indian bureaucracy. It is well worth quoting in full: I think efficiency has something to do with the internal workings of a society; how it acts, how it transmits power, how it passes on information, how it communicates with different segments -- in a word, how it functions.

Though power and authority generally permeate all levels of society both in the West and in India, the difference lies in the way they are transmitted from the top to the layers below...In India, political authority is not communicated and imposed as efficiently as in the West; rather, it is deflected, diffused and rendered less damaging. Given the rationalisation and bureaucratisation of the West that Weber talked about, authority is communicated and implemented very efficiently and ruthlessly.

In the West, a certain mechanisation of society has occurred. In India, we have a society which functions organically; mechanised efficiency is not possible.

For the rest, the book really puts forward the doctrine of neo-colonialism which used to be familiar to social science lecturers and students on Indian campuses in the '80s, but is no longer politically correct. The writer, however, calls it post-colonialism and brandishes the concept as if he has just invented it, a subterfuge that was quite unnecessary. To illustrate, the "teacher" mentions that the US paper industry consumes enough wood each year to make a boardwalk to the moon. Most of the wood comes from forests outside the US. The Amazon rainforests in Brazil are being cleared at the rate of something like 100,000 acres a day to create pastures for beef cattle exported to the US. For 20 years, under the guise of development, the World Bank has been encouraging such deforestation. Now the same World Bank is giving money for ecological conservation.

So where is the Gandhian doctrine in all this? Gandhi's humanist, non-violent means of achieving an end is an underlying theme in the book. The "teacher" asks: "What is the use of making a straw man out of our opponent and them demolishing him? That would be like witchcraft -- we make little effigies of the West and then poke them with our intellectual pins. That is rationalised hatred, not decolonisation. We must examine the oppression of our opponents so that we don't flatten them into ciphers, thereby dehumanising both them and us."

The book is valuable for the insights it offers and the questions it raises. Ashis Nandy, whose Foreword also uses the dialogue format -- a dialogue between Gandhi and a fictitious grandson -- makes the point that even if none of Gandhi's ideas work, his critique of modernity will survive. "This is because modernity is now about 400 years old, and shows all the signs of tiredness that all historical eras show after surviving for 400 years."