Arundhati Roy says, '. . . it was Gandhi's business to accumulate power, which he did effectively.' What Gandhi accumulated was moral power not executive power. He was president of the Congress for only one year, was not even a primary member of the Congress from the mid 1930s onwards and did not occupy any official position in independent India. His political activities were characterized by what can be described as 'passionate detachment'. It is telling that when his political authority was at its lowest towards the end of his life, his moral power was at its highest. Louis Fischer writes in Mahatma Gandhi – His Life & Times:
Gandhi had more than influence, he had authority, which is less yet better than power. Power is the attribute of a machine: authority is the attribute of a person. Statesmen are varying combinations of both. The dictator's constant accretion of power, which he must inevitably abuse, steadily robs him of authority. Gandhi's rejection of power enhanced his authority. Power feeds on the blood and tears of its victims. Authority is fed by service, sympathy and affection.
In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse defines finite games as the structures in our life – societies, nations, war, dating, careers – that have a clear beginning and end, willing participants, boundaries, opponents, winners and losers, and competition for titles or possessions. The purpose of finite play is to bring the game to a conclusion. It is competing for a ranking or status: to be the best lawyer or the best yogi. They are the familiar contests of everyday life, the games we play in business and politics, at home and in competitive sports.
This is in contrast to ‘infinite games’ which Carse describes as games played with the intention of continuing play (rather than ending it to declare a winner). The purpose of infinite play is to allow the game to go on and bring as many other people as possible into the game. Infinite players recognize that most of social hierarchy is a form of play (drama, performance, roles). “The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.” The prevailing wisdom is to encourage finite play. Gandhi was the consummate infinite player. Carse writes that
‘Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.’
Arundhati Roy makes a pertinent observation:
Gandhi always said that he wanted to live like the poorest of the poor. The question is, can poverty be simulated? Poverty, after all, is not just a question of having no money or no possessions. Poverty is about having no power. As a politician, it was Gandhi's business to accumulate power, which he did effectively. . . If you are powerful, you can live simply, but you cannot be poor. In South Africa, it took a lot of farmland and organic fruit trees to keep Gandhi in poverty.
Arndhhati Roy is seriously under-estimating Gandhi if she thinks that he was not aware of the unequal distribution of power in Indian society and modern societies in general (the loss of individual autonomy lay at the center of his criticisms of modernity with its worship of rationality and science.) His notion of swaraj was far more expansive than that of Congress or other Indian elites because of his concern about the unequal distribution of power in society.
Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with the cunning and amoral use of power, wrote 500 years ago that “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearance, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are”. Gandhi knew very well that those in power try to seduce others into conformity by forcing particular interpretations of the world down others’ throats. He contended that most modern systems of power are dependent on hierarchy and deception.
Gandhi is not satisfied with conventional definitions of power which tend to concentrate on political power. Even here he sees political power hiding deceptively behind elaborate ceremonies and becomes visible only when power is abused. Gandhi saw power resting not only in the authority of the state but also in ideology (eg. the power of modernity), social practices (eg. Untouchability) and the structure of the economy. He saw democracy reducing but not eliminating the problem of power. He thinks that terms like efficiency, order, productivity, growth etc. erode the autonomy of people and he means to rob them of their self-importance.
He insisted that merely overthrowing British rule and replacing it with an all-Indian government was not going to bring swaraj. It would only result in replacing white sahibs with brown sahibs. It would have to be a society where existing forms of domination like untouchability and the forces of modernity and modernization (which he believed caused large-scale unemployment) would have to go. According to Gandhi, complete Indian independence 'means the consciousness in the average villager that he is the maker of his own destiny'. That was why he spent a lot of time on social work and reviving village industries which the Congress considered a distraction from the main task of winning political freedom.