Clarifying Gandhi # 10: Election Education for Refining Democracy

Note:  This article was originally published as Feeling the ‘Bern’ with Gandhi 80 years ago in India  and has been altered to include some of our President’s efforts to refine our democracy.

“The penalty good men pay for indifference to politics is to be ruled by evil men.” – Plato

“I am a lover of my own liberty and so would I do nothing to restrict yours.”i – Gandhi

The 2016 US Presidential election saw the nation getting an education:  President Trump won on the principle of Swaraj, self-reliance, made in one’s own country, including the role of the Christian religion.  Candidate Bernie Sanders elucidated the meanings of socialism, and what it could look like meshing with democracy.  Both candidates espoused a refinement of democracy, clarifying it to serve our people.

President Trump

President Trump heard and renewed the desire of the People for self-reliance in all aspects of life, Swaraj.

These formerly ‘politically incorrect’ words and concepts are now in our public discourse: resource management tools for democratic use; no longer identified with the houses of ignoble governments, or as outdated systems and beliefs for conducting one’s personal life. We rightly shun unjust oppression, perhaps what has been behind a general ‘deafness’ in understanding terms.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, taught Americans how socialism and democracy could combine.

Gandhi found pressures of ‘political correctness’ or coercive popular peer pressure to discourage individual questioning of political and social trends, and therefore detrimental to the exercise of democracy:

“The spirit of democracy cannot be established in the midst of terrorism whether governmental or popular. In some respects popular terrorism is more antagonistic to the growth of the democratic spirit than the governmental. For the latter [governmental terrorism] strengthens the spirit of democracy, whereas the former [popular or politically correct coercion] kills it.”ii

Gandhi also addressed public confusion on the meaning of ‘socialism’, ‘communism’ and ‘democracy’. In his time, 1869-1948, there was a communist party in the USA, as well as socialist. He saw the context of these terms as being affected by notions of the very nature of what being a human being means. Speaking to an Indian audience, he said:

Socialism and communism of the West are based on certain conceptions which are fundamentally different from ours. One such conception is their belief in the essential selfishness of human nature. I do not subscribe to it for I know that the essential difference between man and the brute is that the former can respond to the call of the spirit in him, can rise superior in the passions that he owns in common with the brute and, therefore, superior to selfishness and violence, which belong to the brute nature and not to the immortal spirit of man.iii

Real Democracy is Ahimsa in Action

Gandhi presented the world with a thorough grounding in the meaning, exercise, and refinement of democracy. A working democracy keeps ahimsa, or nonviolence, non-exploitation, through the exercise of tolerance and love, at its core. Gandhi’s vision of democracy in practice meant practical reforms in social, economic, educational, political, environmental, personal, and spiritual life. Gandhi saw that a vision of real democracy as India’s ideal had to be re-created; the political mind and will of the people was addled – riddled by the corruption of economic and racial domination, caste, and hierarchical issues:

To bring this ideal into being the entire social order has got to be reconstructed. A society based upon nonviolence cannot nurture any other ideal. We may not perhaps be able to realize the goal, but we must bear it in mind and work unceasingly to near it. To the same extent as we progress towards our goal we shall find contentment and happiness, and to that extent too shall we have contributed towards the bringing into being of a non-violent society.”iv

For Gandhi, a working democracy saw the relationships between economics, the purpose of life, social governance and use of resources as permanently intertwined. He worked to bring about a new understanding and practice of it:

“My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. That can never happen except through nonviolence. No country in the world today shows any but patronising regard for the weak…Western democracy as it functions today, [this was said in 1940] is diluted Nazism or Fascism. At best it is merely a cloak to hide the Nazi and the Fascist tendencies of imperialism. India is trying to evolve true democracy, i.e., without violence. Our weapons are those of Satyagraha [the power or force derived from sticking to the truth] expressed through the Charkav, the village industries, removal of untouchability, communal harmony, prohibition, and non-violent organisation of labour…”vi

Democracy, being an ideal which respects individual rights, cannot stand the strain of promoting violence or usurping the rights of others.

“Democracy and violence can ill go together. The States that are today nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian, or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent. It is a blasphemy to say that nonviolence can only be practised by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals.”vii

Ethical Refinement of Democracy

Throughout known history, India had been a welcoming spiritual haven for those who were religiously or politically persecuted. As such, the genuine foundation of democracy was laid deep into the social ethos: tolerance and patience for vastly differing outlooks on life; a deep, deep, respect for individual liberty. Naked (Sky-clad) Seekers meshed with atheists, Zorastrians known as Parsees, put their dead in silent towers for birds to eat, whilst Hindus cremated, some worshiped the cow, while others ate them. The arenas of divergence and congruence is nowhere more unrestricted and all-embraced than India; at its core, was an authentic exercise of liberty and non-violent toleration for differing views. Gandhi was to pull on that profoundly democratic spirit underpinning the society to round out the commonly understood definition of democracy into Swarajviii raising it to a highly ethical and moral political system that extolled individual responsibility:

“The word Swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint which `independence’ often means.”ix

He saw that the ethical contribution of India to the formulation and practice of democracy as Swaraj would allow the blossoming of democratic ideals; speaking of India then he said:

“If Swaraj was not meant to civilise us, and to purify and stabilise our civilisation, it would be worth nothing. The very essence of our civilisation is that we give a paramount place to morality in all our affairs, public or private.”x

He was to describe the exercise of democratic principles in India also as Poorna Swaraj, a maximum state of personal and social tolerance and equality for all members of society:

“Poorna means ‘complete’ because it is as much for the prince as for the peasant, as much for the rich landowner as for the landless tiller of the soil, as much for the Hindus as for the Mussalmans, as much for Parsis and Christians as for the Jains, Jews and Sikhs, irrespective of any distinction of caste or creed or status in life.”xi

There are two types of rights that are seen through the exercise of liberty in democracy: (#1) the right that could be abused, which came from the social guarantee of democratic rights and (#2) the right which comes to the individual by performance of duty. To accrue such rights through dutiful actions, is to exercise one’s political participation in a socially beneficial and therefore personally beneficial way. It is democracy in its most positive aspect.

Gandhi stressed #2 – performance of social duties before rights:

In Swaraj based on ahimsa people need not know their rights, but it is necessary for them to know their duties. There is no duty but creates a corresponding right and those only are true rights which flow from a due performance of one’s duties.

Hence rights of citizenship accrue only to those who serve the State [country, not necessarily government] to which they belong. And they alone can do justice to the rights that accrue to them.

Everyone possesses the right to tell lies or resort to goonda-ism.xii But the exercise of such a right is harmful both to the exerciser and society. But to him who observes Truth and nonviolence comes prestige, and prestige brings rights. And people who obtain rights as a result of performance of duty, exercise them only for the service of society, never for themselves. Swaraj of a people means the sum total of the Swaraj (self-rule) of individuals. And such Swaraj comes only from performance by individuals of their duty as citizens. In it no one thinks of his rights. They come, when they are needed, for better performance of duty.”xiii

Gandhi’s view of democracy or Swaraj was from the angle of the masses; he saw democracy as requiring education to enable vigilant questioning; keeping authority squarely in the hands of the working people:

Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”xiv

“True democracy cannot be worked by twenty men sitting at the centre. It has to be worked from below by the people of every village.”xv

He saw that individual liberty would need to be tempered with restraint, out of consideration for and allowance of the practice of democracy by all:

“I value individual freedom but you must not forget that a man is essentially a social being. He has risen to his present status by learning to adjust his individualism to the requirements of social progress. Unrestricted individualism is the law of the beast of the jungle. We have to learn to strike the mean between individual freedom and social restraint. Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the wellbeing of the whole society enriches both the individual and the society of which one is a member.”xvi

Gandhi was against `mob’ rule and he saw the danger of this assumption for democracy:

“The rule of the majority has a narrow application, i.e., one should yield to the majority in matters of detail.1 But it is slavery to be amenable to the majority, no matter what the decisions are. Democracy is not a state where people act like sheep. Under democracy, individual liberty of opinion and action is jealously guarded. I, therefore, believe that the minority has a perfect right to act differently from the majority.xvii

He saw the fragile state of a working democracy, dependent upon the goodwill and informed, alert participation, of all citizens possible:

“There is no human institution but has its dangers. The greater the institution the greater the chances of abuse. Democracy is a great institution and therefore it is liable to be greatly abused. The remedy, therefore, is not avoidance of democracy but reduction of possibility of abuse to a minimum.”xviii

Gandhi prepared India painstakingly for participation by the masses in localized democracy; village-level self governance, universal basic education that related to India’s unique contexts, a self reliant medical system based upon Nature Cure, an artisan based economy which ensured living wages, and equitable urban-rural exchanges. In the end the status quo was upheld, and the blossoming institutions created for India’s masses whom Gandhi had awoken with attainable dreams, were sidelined and continue to be so today.

Despite the years of ‘progress’ since Gandhi’s time, we must still re-focus the people on the government’s rightful duty. Ensure that our taxes are used for the social, economic, and ethical progress of society. Re-educate our nation as to the real reason for even employing democracy as a system of governance – the advancement of the human being in ethical stature. So the individual, so the society.


1‘Details of the State’ are things like trusteeship of resources for the public weal; water, mining, limited taxation for support for infrastructure works.

i youngi{January 3, 1927}{Age 57.

ii youngi{February 22, 1921}{Age 51.

iiiFrom an article on a talk Gandhi gave, in the newspaper Amrita Bazaar Patrika, dated August 2, 1934. Gandhi was then 64 years of age.

iv\endnote{\harijan{August 25, 1940}{Age 70.}}}

vCharka – hand spinning wheel.

viharijan{May 18, 1940}{Age 70.}}}

vii harijan{November 12, 1938}{Age 68.}}}

viiiSwaraj- from Sanskrit ‘swa’ meaning ‘self’ and ‘raj’ meaning ‘king’ or ‘ruler’.

ixendnote{\youngi{March 19, 1931}{Age 61.}}

x\endnote{\youngi{January 23, 1930}{Age 60.}}

xi\endnote{\youngi{March 5,1931}{Age 61.}}

xii Goonda-ism—hooliganism. A goonda is held as a person exhibiting socially disruptive, rude behaviours.

xiii harijan{March 25, 1939}{Age 69.

xiv\endnote{\youngi{January 29,1925}{Age 55.}}}

xv harijan{January 18, 1948}{Age 78.}}

xvi harijan{May 27, 1939}{Age 69.}}}

xvii youngi{March 2, 1932}{Age 62.

xviii youngi{May 5, 1931}{Age 61.

PK Willey

PK Willey, Ph.D., is an American, a Gandhian scholar, author and entrepreneur, who has delved deeply into Gandhi's Earth Ethics. Willey seeks to enhance philosophical discourse around the world where globalization has altered ethical values, particularly in the USA. Willey finds Gandhi's ideas, thoughts, and example, to be invaluable in this effort. Currently, besides numerous articles and book projects,Willey is developing a new framework for qualitative research that employs Earth Ethics, guided by a Gandhian compass and Weibust's Transformative Paradigm.

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