It is wrong to believe, as often people do, that Gandhi was against political power. Gandhi was a very power conscious man. What he was against was the concentration of total power in the hands of the State only or in the hands of a few individuals. He said in Harijan on 18-01-1948, ' 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.' He believed that in modern politics, the term ‘people’ is a mere abstraction. He felt that democracy lessened but did not solve the problem of power. He did not think that merely holding elections and voting ensured democracy and people's autonomy. He said on 4-8-1920:
During my long experience, I also noticed that those who complain of others of being ambitious of holding power are no less ambitions themselves, and when it is a question of distinguishing between half a dozen and six, it becomes a thankless task.Though he had plenty of criticisms of modern political institutions, Gandhi never advocated total segregation of politics from political institutions. He very much understood the perpetual need for political institutions. Politics of refusal does not mean refusal of politics. He felt that the modern state coersively extends state power into realms which were once regarded as private. So you are caught up in politics whether you like it or not. He said in 1920: 'If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.'
He thought that leading a quiet, contemplative life eschewing politics is a dangerous tactic in the modern era because it leaves the field open for unscrupulous characters to use it for their own benefit. Although the split between ethics, on the one hand, and economics and politics, on the other, accompanies a tremendous economic growth, now both the economic system and the political system, whether democratic or authoritarian, are pressing heavily against an individual. For Gandhi, freedom came from within and therefore his inherent distrust of the state. He said on 13-10-1921, 'Possession of power makes men blind and deaf, they cannot see things which are under their very nose and cannot hear things which invade their ears.'
Modern states try to claim legitimacy by claiming that they work for the benefit of the people. The difference between ancient kings and modern kings is that modern kings keep saying that they are servants of the people. In both capitalist and communist countries the worker does not have much say with the decision making machine. The fact that peoples' circumstances compel them forever to be thinking about the increase of earnings, dulls their interest in public affairs. He said on 2-3-1922, 'Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. Under democracy, individual liberty of opinion and action is jealously guarded.'
In a democracy the people rule, in principle. But decision-making power over central areas of life resides in a few public and private hands. The state has a vested interest in monopolizing all initiative and fostering a state-centred political culture. The more its citizens became ‘addicted’ to it and the more they felt helpless without it, the safer it felt. Gandhi rebelled against such a state of affairs. He said on 6-8-1925, 'Self-government means, continuous effort to be independent of government control, whether it is foreign government or whether it is national. Swaraj government will be a sorry affair if people look up to it for the regulation of every detail of life.'
The state systematically nurtured the illusion that the problems of society were too complex and intractable to be solved by ordinary citizens acting on their own and was best left to the state and its official agencies. It felt threatened by active and independent-minded citizens determined to participate in the conduct of their affairs. The institutions of the state thus keep thought and attitudes within acceptable bounds, deflecting any potential challenge to established privilege and authority before it can take form and gather strength. Gandhi said in an interview in November 1934:
I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.He held the view that without non-violence on a national scale there is no such thing as a constitutional or democratic government. In a society based on non-violence, the smallest person will feel as tall as the tallest person. With violence the victorious group will always reduce the autonomy of the people in the losing group. But he recognized that a Government cannot succeed in becoming entirely non-violent, because it represents all the people. ‘I do not today conceive of such a golden age. ‘ Since an entirely non-violent state is impossible, Gandhi wants people to be vigilant and keep it in check. He said in Harijan on 7-5-1931:
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.Gandhi took the position that an individual must be a morally responsible citizen. On the one hand, “he must assist an administration most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees”; on the other hand, he affirmed that “it is the inherent right of the subject to refuse to assist a government that does not listen to him.” Indeed, if the state is oppressive, corrupt and inhuman, then the individual must rebel even though this has severe consequences. (See Democracy: Real and Deceptive) This subversive element in Gandhi's thought is what makes the state extremely uncomfortable and convinces one that he would have been the the government's most formidable critic if he had lived for long after independence. Ashis Nandy writes in Bonfire of Creeds:
. . . while leading a freedom struggle against a foreign power, he could get away with his antipathy to the state. . . His very success dug the grave of his ideology; his anti-statist stance quickly went into recession after Independence. . . . national leaders not only began to look with suspicion at the Gandhian emphasis on cultural traditions, they also began to to encourage political interpretations of Gandhi which fitted him into the state-oriented frame of politics, neutralizing or ignoring his culture-oriented self as irrelevant saintliness or eccentricity.
On this ideological issue, they were in perfect agreement with Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse, an avowed statist. It was no accident that Godse, though called an ultra-conservative, felt threatened not by modernists like Jawaharlal Nehru, but by Gandhi.