Though Gandhi had plenty of criticisms of modern political institutions, he never advocated total segregation from them. 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 coercively 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. He realized that the divorce of ethical principles in a materialistic society led to the widely held notions of realism and and self-interest. In such a situation, the power of the state was a standing inducement to social corruption. He felt that this could be tackled only by introducing the monastic ideal into politics. When he entered the coil of politics, he said that he realized that a political figure must discard all wealth and private possessions to remain untouched by immorality, untruth and political gain.
Gandhi felt that both politics and religion are concerned with ‘the happiness of the toiling masses, a means to the realization of the highest realizable in life’ which is why he was against the prevail norm of separating religion and politics. If people today talk about the segregation of politics from religion, it is the fault of both politicians and theologians. But he was firmly against state religion, even if a country had only one religion. He thought that a group which depended partly or wholly on state aid for the existence of religion does not have any religion worth the name. To understand Gandhi’s position, it is important to understand what he meant by ‘politics’ and ‘religion’.
When he spoke very critically about politics, he was talking about power politics. He thought that it was a part of politics that received too much importance. He did not place his faith in the necessity of being able to capture power at all costs. ‘To me political power is not an end but one of the means of enabling people to better their condition in every department of life.’ He felt that if politics was artificially separated from religious values, it would become a game played according to its own amoral rules that may be given a moral disguise.
Gandhi stood for the substitution of Power politics by Goodness politics by insisting that the means are important for achieving the desired ends. The institutional factors that constrain the actions and beliefs of ordinary people are what concerned Gandhi. Since he was not interested in a political career as conventionally understood and since he did not consider politics as separate from other aspects of his life, he regarded his periods of withdrawal from politics as political acts. When he spent an year in his ashram in 1926 withdrawing from political activities, he said, 'The condition of the country certainly makes me unhappy, but sometimes even silence is a form of action. I am sure that my silence is. '
Gandhi felt that the only way to wrestle with the snake of politics is to introduce religion into politics. He used the word ‘religion' in a sense that had nothing to do with its usual sectarian connotations. 'By religion I do not mean formal religion or customary religion but that religion which underlies all religions.' He was more concerned with religious values, which he thought were common to all religions, rather than the received dogmas. Religion means a belief in ‘the ordered moral government of the universe’. He referred to 'the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one's very nature, which binds one indivisibly to the truth within and which ever purifies'. It is 'rock-bottom fundamental morality'.
Christians who admired Gandhi would ask whether it was not the presence of Christ that guided him. He replied : “If you mean the historical Jesus, then I feel no such presence. But if you mean a Spirit guiding me, nearer than hands and feet, nearer than the very breath of me, then I do feel such a Presence. . . You may call it Christ or Krishna that does not matter to me.” Gandhi uses the word 'religion' several times in different contexts in his seminal text Hind Swaraj. For eg., he says, 'It is contrary to our manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery.'
This gives the impression that he was a reactionary figure who was mired in the past. This is due to a misunderstanding which Anthony Parel clears in Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. In the original Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi uses the term ‘dharma’ which is usually translated into ‘religion’ in English. But ‘dharma’ has a much wider meaning than ‘religion’. Gandhi uses the word ‘dharma’ in two different senses throughout the text: ‘dharma’ as ethics and ‘dharma’ as sect. Most occurrences of the word ’religion’ in the English translation of Hind Swaraj should be read as ‘ethics’. Gandhi applies the moral approach and he also pleads for politics guided by morals. He writes:
I have always derived my politics from ethics. It is because I swear by ethics that I find myself in politics. A person who is a lover of his country is bound to take a lively interest in politics.
In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira is disconsolate at the end of a senseless war that results in enormous loss of life and is haunted by the wailing of widows and children. He contemplates giving up his kingship and become a hermit to find serenity in the forest. Krishna dissuades him, saying, ‘Yes, Yudhishthira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them? A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning. Choose kingship, Yudhishthira, not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.’ Yudhishthira agreed with Krishna. So did Gandhi. In an article, Gandhi — the step-father of the nation, Ashish Nandy said:
After Gandhi died, he [Arnold Toynbee, a historian] said, “that henceforth humankind will ask its prophets, are you willing to live in the slum of politics?” It is that capacity to live in the slum of politics that identified Gandhi as a distinctive contributor to human civilization; one who expanded the horizons of human civilization. He did not live with only his values. He pushed them and worked on the basis of them in politics.
PS: Hannah Arendt was greatly influenced by Martin Heidegger who is acknowledged as one of the sharpest brains of the 20th century. She was disillusioned when she later found that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. She recognized in Heidegger the philosopher’s characteristic disdain for public life and, in his support for the Nazis, the philosopher’s tendency to prefer the order of tyranny over the contingency of politics. Subsequently, she was preoccupied by the problem of how ‘such profundity in philosophy could co-exist with such stupidity or perversity in politics’.
She traced this problem to a specific incident in Western philosophy - the sentencing to death of Socrates. Plato was shocked by the public condemnation of his greatest teacher. He then began thinking of politics as a solitary act through which the thinker confronts himself with the meaning of complex problems away from the world of the simple opinion. But Politics was for Arendt originally meant to be the place where men can manifest their individuality through speeches and deeds which can affect the life of the community. The politician was no more than a citizen taking part in public debate and not a technician who can operate according to his abstract principles.
Arendt strongly opposes the understanding of politics as a problem-solving technique that aims at conforming the social reality to a predetermined standard which science should be able to dictate. This technocratic conception of politics has become quite commonly held. Political thought is representative. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusion, my opinion.
Deeds and speeches cannot for Arendt be reduced to mere instrumental or strategic behavior: in that case, she says, they would be easily replaced by violence. She stressed that the characteristics of the political life are plurality, unpredictability of human action, the consensual nature of power, the use of persuasion in order to achieve consensus - the very features that Plato, and by extension, many intelligent people, are uncomfortable with.