Gandhi to Modi: The debasement of India’s political discourse

Contrast this exchange against the utterly crass and debased rhetoric, both during the election season and otherwise, that India’s political and cultural leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, employ.

Mayank Chhaya Apr 23, 2024
Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi may have become a figure of derision and diminishment in a growing politico-cultural constituency in India but he never fails to astonish even through a cursory scrutiny of his lifelong preoccupations.  

For instance, while reading Gandhi on Trusteeship in a 40-page booklet published by Navjeevan Publishing House of Ahmedabad, I came across a remarkable exchange between him and his personal secretary Pyarelal Nayyar.

The exchange took place in 1942 during Gandhi’s last detention in Poona, now Pune. Gandhi was 73 and Pyarelal 43. I seriously wonder whether any leader today engages in a discourse of this quality with anyone, let alone their personal secretary. Equally, which leader has a personal secretary of the caliber of Pyarelal these days? And that too someone who feels free to talk to their boss about such themes?

Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship was that the wealthy, the owning class of India’s society, should consider themselves trustees of their wealth rather than its owner. As part of that philosophy, he believed the owning class can reasonably keep up to 25 percent of their wealth as their own and put the rest in societal trust for larger good. Irrespective of the practicability of this idea, it was quite an extraordinary one.

Level of discourse

“The only democratic way of achieving it today is by cultivating opinion in its favor,” Gandhi used to say. That was over eight decades ago. In the current time, when wealth is so narrowly concentrated often in the hands of the top 1% of societies across the world, the idea of trusteeship seems even more remote or as Pyarelal put it “till the Greek Kalends” meaning waiting for a time or point that does not exist or will not come.

Pyarelal writes, “I put it to him that perhaps the reason why he had presented trusteeship basis to the owning class was that while non-violence could command many sacrifices from the people, it was not reasonable to expect any one to present his own head in a charger. So instead of asking the owning class to do the impossible, you presented then with a reasonable and practicable alternative.”

Take a pause and pay attention to the level of the discourse between the two men separated by 30 years. That alone is exceptional.

To that point Gandhi said, “I refuse to admit that non-violence knows any limit to the sacrifice that it can demand or command. The doctrine of trusteeship stands on its own merit.”

Pyarelal counters saying, “Surely, you do not mean that the change would depend upon the sufferance of the owning class, and we shall have to wait till their conversion is complete.”

He then goes on to challenge Gandhi by saying that many believe that trusteeship is a “make-believe” and then says this: “Or is it that, after all, there is a limit to the power of non-violence?”

Gandhi’s response is equally compelling. “Perhaps you have the example of Russia in mind. Wholesale expropriation of the owning class and distribution of its assets among the people there did create a tremendous amount of revolutionary fervour. But I claim that ours will be an even bigger revolution.”

He also argued, “So long as we have no power, conversion is our weapon by necessity, but after we get power, conversion will be our weapon of choice.” Note the brilliant distinction he makes between weapon of necessity and weapon of choice.

Lofty yet meticulous 

“Conversion must precede legislation. Legislation in the absence of conversion remains a dead letter,” Gandhi says.

It is in response to this that Pyarelal uses the phrase “till the Greek Kalends.”

“You say conversion must precede reform. Whose conversion? If you mean the conversion of the people, they are ready even today. If, on the other hand, you mean that of the owning class, we may as well wait till the Greek Kalends,” Pyarelal says.

Contrast this exchange against the utterly crass and debased rhetoric, both during the election season and otherwise, that India’s political and cultural leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, employ.

There are many reasons why Gandhi has been exalted, one of which is evident in his idea of trusteeship and his willingness to defend it even with his personal secretary.

At the more mundane end of the spectrum of Gandhi’s exceptionalism I discovered something equally memorable during a recent visit to the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad where I bought this booklet. On one of the walls of the ashram buildings there is an enlarged photograph of a letter that Gandhi wrote to Seth Mangaldas, a prominent industrialist of Ahmedabad, seeking his help to set up the Sabarmati Ashram.

It is a tribute to how meticulously detailed he was that he even lists the carpenter’s tools that would have been needed to construct the ashram. The list includes 4 planers (Randha in Gujarati), 4 wood files (Kaanas), 5 pincers (Pakkad), 5 big hammers (Hathoda), 5 small hammers (Hathodi) 2 anvils (Eran). He then tells Mangaldas that he is in the process of working out the costs of these tools.

Between arguing his case in favor of trusteeship and listing the tools needed resided just two of Gandhi’s lifelong innumerable and often lofty preoccupations.

(The writer is a Chicago-based Indian journalist, author, filmmaker and songwriter. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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