IN RECENT days, critics of the so-called anti-corruption activist and Lokpal Bill agitator, Anna Hazare, have contested the notion that a Gandhi-like leader today walks among us. A National Post article, “Gandhian lookalike good for the messiah business, bad for democracy,” summarizes the efforts to refute the analogy. The question arises however: is Hazare really that different from the man with whom he so eagerly connects himself?
Among the more balanced and perceptive assessments of the “Mahatma” is George Orwell’s 1949 essay, “Reflections on Gandhi.” It is difficult to reduce the nuances of this piece to a few phrases; however, it is I think fair to state that Orwell acknowledges Gandhi’s honesty, consistency, and exceptional physical courage as a politician while expressing an aesthetic dislike of his anti-humanist and reactionary spirituality:
… one should, I think, realize that Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from.
For those who either did not know or have forgotten, many of the criticisms you will today find made of Hazare were made also of Churchill’s “seditious Middle Temple lawyer … posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East.” Consider, again, George Orwell — in this instance an entry of the Diaries dated April 3, 1942:
Gandhi is deliberately making trouble […] Impossible to know what his game is. Those who are anti-Gandhi allege that he has the worst kind of (Indian) capitalist interests behind him, and it is a fact that he usually seems to be staying at the mansion of some kind of millionaire. I do not know whether Gandhi or Buchman is the nearest equivalent to Rasputin of our time.
There is much to draw from this passage, written during the Cripps Mission of early 1942. Sent on Britain’s behalf to contain the Quit India Movement and thereby to bolster the war effort against Japanese expansion in south Asia, Sir Stafford Cripps offered Indians self-government at the provincial level — a notion which at least in principle might have some appeal to upper caste nationalists, but which was very far from Gandhi’s Tolstoy-derived program of the ashram, or guru-centred commune.
It is the bit about Buchman and Rasputin which is to me fascinating, registering as it does Orwell’s apparent apprehension in Gandhi of something bogus and sinister, a whiff of the charlatan in other words. Coming from the man who would later write of Gandhi that “compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”, this is a remarkable statement. There is no contradiction here however, Orwell’s final verdict of Gandhi being that “his character was an extraordinarily mixed one” and that his pacifism could be separated “to some extent” from his other (mostly religious) teachings.
Gandhi’s writings make it abundantly clear that he saw his life’s work as being spiritual in character rather than political. As far as I know, the only claim he ever made for himself was that he was a seeker of truth: but this is a claim of such large and, given the grandiose manner in which he undertook it, total character that further claims are unneccessary. Anna Hazare styles himself also a spiritual sort of fellow, following the Gandhian model of the chaste pre-modern village. It is worth noting that one of Hazare’s first acts was to construct a Hindu temple as the centrepiece of this idealized village life. Gandhi considered modern civilization and its technologies to be irreligious and thus incompatible with “true India.” The way forward was as a consequence backward, to simpler times. His obsession with hygiene led him to extremism in all matters related to the body, from diet to sex. Not for everyone, you might say — but the world toward which Gandhi laboured could be realized only if the asceticism, medievalism, and austerity of his own life became a generalized condition of Indian society.
This establishes a considerable problem. There are only so many ways to achieve one’s will in the world, the most noteable being physical force. Gandhi is unique because he formulated his political tactics in relation to the religious precepts of ahimsa and satyagraha, which may be translated respectively as “non violence” and “peaceful resistance to wrong.” His foremost tactic was the hunger strike, which under even brief reflection will be understood as an extremely coercive form of emotional blackmail. It is near impossible to believe that Gandhi did not perceive the implications of this, among which is the fact that he actively appropriated to himself a great degree of spiritual power and prestige. It will forever remain an open question whether or not this constituted a form of power-hunger on his part. Nonetheless his tactics were perceived by detractors as betraying enormous arrogance.
What Hazare and Gandhi have in common is the paradoxical style of the humble man who issues extraordinary and unilateral demands, and who refuses to be met half-way or even three-quarters way. They share with all religious fundamentalists and totalitarians the inability to see concession and compromise as anything whatsoever but a betrayal. Even one’s clothing becomes entangled in the mental disease of absolutism. (In Gandhi’s case, sartorial matters were already politicized for him by Raj dictates forbidding the production of cloth: his transition from top hat to the khadi dhoti was thus a more than aesthetic rejection of the Empire.)
It is this last feature above all others which makes of some of us skeptics. To live in the model villages of Gandhi and Hazare (or any of the other would-be liberators, such as Baba Ramdev) is to submit fully to the arbitrary and autocratic dictates of the Great Leader. Gandhi is a vegetarian, therefore there must be cow protection. Hazare does not like television and large families, therefore there will be vasectomies and no TV, and so on and so on. The only path to improvement is through submission, and if the leaders themselves submit at least they avoid hypocrisy, but is it possible they are nonetheless dictators?