Guy Sorman reviews a new biography of Mahatma Gandhi.

…now, thanks to Lelyveld, a much-exposed private life, one is struck by the contradiction between Gandhi’s actual political failures and his enduring influence. After the 1930s, Gandhi had lost any political role in the struggle for Indian independence, and he took no part in its eventual achievement. He proved unable to realize his ultimate goal of keeping India united as a multiethnic and multi-religious nation. He also failed to transform India into a utopia of self-sustaining villages, an alternative to Western capitalism and Soviet socialism. Gandhi embraced no secular ideology of collective redemption. He rejected any “ism,” whether socialism, capitalism, or “Gandhism.” His only political program was the example of his own life, based on complete honesty, frugality, tolerance, and love for the poor. No surprise, then, that the French writer Romain Rolland, who published the first Gandhi biography in 1924, called him the Jesus Christ of the Orient. Gandhi reportedly told Rolland: “Not only have you made me famous, you also invented a man named Gandhi!”

How does such an awkward, even exotic, character maintain such appeal in our contemporary world? The main reason is likely the power of a new political tool that Gandhi pioneered: nonviolence, or the Power of Truth (“Satyagraha” in Sanskrit). It was Gandhi who conceived of nonresistance to police or military aggression and of fasting, potentially until death, for a just cause. Satyagraha would eventually convince the British public that imperialism in India was unjust, and decades later, it would break apartheid in South Africa. Its power has been proven by men like King, Mandela, and Havel. At the same time, its effectiveness has been overestimated, a fact perhaps not fully understood by Gandhi himself.

The Power of Truth works only when the adversary shares the same ethical principles as the victims. Addressing Americans, King, for example, spoke as a Christian to other Christians: he made them discover their own moral failure. Gandhi may have had more support among the guilt-ridden British than among the Hindu nationalists. Today, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have succeeded with only minor violence thus far, in part because the military would not shoot their Muslim brothers. But the limits of Gandhi’s Satyagraha were proven in his own time, when he wrote to German-Jewish community leaders that they could deter Hitler through passive resistance. To Zionist representatives who asked for his support before the creation of the state of Israel, he suggested that they peacefully persuade Arabs of the justness of Jewish aspirations.

Gandhi seemed unable to see the evil in the world. He could hardly understand the unlimited violence of tribalism, religious sectarianism, and ideological bigotry; he imagined that wolves could become vegetarians. Despite such limitations, which sometimes approached absurdity, one can understand how Gandhi’s unlimited faith in humankind remains attractive and, sometimes, effective. After all, he is the only major political leader of the twentieth century without blood on his hands—no minor achievement.