The Gandhian Alternative

by Robert Ellsberg

Indira Gandhi, c. 1965; photographer unknown; courtesy of

The Indian consulate in New York City occupies a stately building off of Fifth Avenue. I was arrested for distributing leaflets marking the first anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency. I was charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of government administration. “Which government might that be?” I asked hopefully. “Whose jail are you in, buddy?” replied my arresting officer.

At that time, in India, tens of thousands of men and women were in jails and detention camps, among them the most active segments of the nonviolent Gandhian movement, for having committed crimes not much different than my own.

And now, more than two years later, the dark days in India, which began on June 26, 1975, have passed. In the spring of 1976, Mrs. Gandhi gave six-weeks notice that free elections would be held, scheduled for mid-March. The announcement itself came as no surprise; Indira’s power was confidently entrenched, most of the provisions of emergency rule (which was maintained throughout the election) were long since codified in law, or established in fearful precedent. It was obvious that elections under these conditions would accomplish no more than to legitimize and cement the existing constitutional dictatorship.

What was not expected, what could scarcely have been imagined was that the decimated opposition, whose leaders, on the whole, had spent the previous year in prison, could in six weeks overcome such obstacles as press censorship, continued bans on political rallies, a pervasive climate of fear and distrust, to organize a resounding landslide victory over the Congress Party. Just as encouraging was the fact that the opposition did more than articulate popular resentment to the repressive features of the Emergency. Their campaign, which gained momentum with a tide of significant defections from the Congress Party, outlined the weaknesses in the political and economic system, which had made Emergency inevitable, as well as  offering  constructive  alternatives.

We were among many others who suggested that the current troubles in India could not simply be reduced to some insidious characteristic of Indira Gandhi’s personality, but must be traced to the very beginnings of Congress rule, to a tendency instituted thirty years ago toward elitist, centralized administration, a policy of development along Western, urban-industrial lines, a bias toward productivity at the expense of employment and increased self-sufficiency. The price for this, moreover, was not only dictatorship, but a level of poverty, corruption, and bureaucracy, such as was never seen under the British raj.

The Gandhian Alternative: Both Bread and Liberty

The other day I was back at the Indian consulate to pick up a copy of the manifesto issued by the Janata (People’s) Party. It is a broad-ranging coalition unified through common repression, and now forms the ruling government in New Delhi. The manifesto is subtitled “Both Bread and Liberty—The Gandhian Alternative.” After listing the various things which the Party opposes, it poses this critical question: “The time has come to examine whether we have not strayed from the path that we walked when we fought for Independence; whether we have adhered to the ends and means that Gandhiji placed before us, and the values which led us to Independence and brought the masses into their own.” From there, the manifesto does indeed proceed to outline a Gandhian social, economic, and political program that, were it actually carried out, would amount to a gentle revolution.

Gandhi’s “practical realism” consisted of a distrust of political power except in its most decentralized form, and an appreciation for the natural strengths, weaknesses, and requirements of rural society. India, he observed, was a society of villages and peasants. A program of industrialization that ignored the necessity for a strong rural base to the economy would result in disastrous poverty, and dictatorship of the urban elite over the masses.

Below, we have reprinted certain portions of the Janata Party Program which discuss the need for devoluting economic and political power through the villages and alternative institutions, for agricultural self-sufficiency, an appropriate technology that puts production into the hands of the poor, and a concern for ecological harmony.

It must be said that while the Janata Party includes many avowed Gandhians, including the ascetic Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, and is supported by such venerable leaders of the nonviolent movement as Jayaprakash Narayan (whose influence is clearly evident in the Program), the constituent character of the Party remains predominantly middle class: landowners, small businesses, and industry. It is also true that a Gandhian society, or an authentic socialist one, cannot be enacted by legislative decree. By definition, it is made by the people themselves. That is the reason that Gandhi urged the Congress Party to dissolve itself as a political party, and why Jayaprakash Narayan resigned from the Socialist Party he had founded, abjuring by oath any further political power. Whether the Janata coalition will withstand the conflicts which serious commitment to this program (significant land reform, for instance) must inevitably produce, will remain to be seen.

In any case, the ousting of the Congress dictatorship constitutes an encouraging example of “People’s Power.” Radical change in India and elsewhere will depend on the further exercise of that kind of power.

Program of the Janata Party


A high degree of centralization or concentration of power is inconsistent with democracy. The Party, therefore, believes in a policy that ensures decentralization of economic and political power. … Government of and by the people can have no meaning without the widest possible popular participation at all levels. The Janata Party will work for such devolution and decentralization of power as is necessary for the attainment of these objectives. It will attempt to evolve a national consensus on the desirability of smaller districts and smaller development blocks so as to encourage democratic participation and sound economic management, and micro-planning from below. Panchayat institutions (traditional village councils. RE) and municipalities will be revitalized and vested with larger powers and responsibility so that they may play their true role as basic organs of popular government initiative and planning.

Rural Economy

In the economic sphere the Janata Party will accord primacy to agriculture and rural reconstruction, which must constitute the base of our development and planning.

There cannot be two societies, rich and poor, in which the latter category is made to subserve the goals of elitism, consumerism, and urbanism. The Gandhian values of antyodaya (against endless consumption. RE) and austerity must be accepted and implemented if the vicious circle of the poor becoming poorer and the rich richer is to be broken. Hence the Janata Party affirms the right to work. This can become a realizable ideal only if we move towards the establishment of an economy in which agriculture and cottage and small industries have primacy, and are not sacrificed to the big machine and the big city.

Modernization of industry must be based on improved technology. But the only way to steer clear of the evils of capitalism and state capitalism, and to ensure full employment and the decentralization of economic power, is to follow the Gandhian precept that whatever can be produced efficiently by decentralized industry should be so produced. There is room for heavy and large-scale industry, but only where it is not possible to organize such production satisfactorily in the cottage and small scale sector.

Village Economy

The country’s growing population is both the consequence and cause of its poverty. Yet we cannot forget that our people are our wealth. It is estimated that the country will have a population of over 900 million by the year 2000 A.D.; 125 million people will be added to the labor force in the next 25 years. These new entrants cannot be absorbed in the cities, which have already become vast camping sites for migrants from rural areas who are being squeezed off the land and from other traditional occupations. Cities have their place. But if rural India cannot provide economic opportunity and creative outlets for the growing masses in the countryside we will be forced along the capital-intensive, urban-oriented and centralized path of development followed in the West.

The experience of the past three decades has only underlined the relevance and validity of the values that Gandhiji placed before us … The Janata Party will, therefore, re-orient planning goals and priorities to adopt a pattern of development based on an appropriate technology that answers our need to find full employment and a better life for our people and to steer clear of the evils of capitalist or totalitarian industrialization. There must be safeguards against pollution and environmental degradation and an accent on conservation and the exploitation of renewable resources and recycling principles.

Appropriate Technology

The Janata Party wants the benefits of science and technology to reach all our people. It is not opposed to advanced technology but it firmly believes this can be harnessed to our needs only if we employ appropriate technology—simple or sophisticated—that is compatible with the environment and, while maximizing employment, will yield optimum socio-economic benefits in the circumstances of promoting individual and community self-reliance. … The Janata Party attaches the highest importance to the development of cheap, alternative sources of energy and mass transport facilities. It will give high priority in working out schemes for the utilization of solar energy, wind and tidal power, bio-gas and other non-conventional sources of energy, and synthesize these in a national energy policy. This is necessary to promote a decentralized and labor-intensive economy and the goal of Swadeshi (self-reliance. RE). [end Program]

What we might conclude from the Janata Party Program is that, if all else fails, the ultimate guarantee of democracy and the final safeguard against exploitation and abuse of power, is Satyagraha, or peaceful, nonviolent resistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Ellsberg (b. 1955) is editor in chief of Orbis Books, the publishing wing of the Maryknoll Society. He graduated from Harvard College with a degree in religion and literature and later earned a Masters in Theology from Harvard Divinity School. From 1975 to 1980 he lived at the Catholic Worker community in New York City, and was the paper’s managing editor from 1976-78. He is the author of a number of bestselling books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, which won a Christopher Award and a Catholic Book Award. His Blessed Among All Women won three Catholic Book Awards. Robert is also the son of the famous “whistle-blower” Daniel Ellsberg. Article courtesy of Marquette University and the CW; from issue of September, 1977; p. 6.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi