Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker:
Mohandas Gandhi was the twentieth century’s most famous advocate of nonviolent politics. But was he also its most spectacular political failure? The possibility is usually overshadowed by his immense and immensely elastic appeal. Even Glenn Beck recently claimed to be a follower, and Gandhi’s example has inspired many globally revered figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Gandhi, rather than Mark Zuckerberg, may have been the presiding deity of the Arab Spring, his techniques of resistance—nonviolent mass demonstrations orchestrated in the full glare of the world’s media—fully absorbed by the demonstrators who prayed unflinchingly on Kasr al-Nil, in Cairo, as they were assaulted by Hosni Mubarak’s water cannons.
And yet the Indian leader failed to achieve his most important aims, and was widely disliked and resented during his lifetime. Gandhi was a “man of many causes,” Joseph Lelyveld writes in “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India” (Knopf; $28.95). He wanted freedom not only from imperial rule but also from modern industrial society, whose ways Western imperialists had spread to the remotest corners of the globe. But he was “ultimately forced, like Lear, to see the limits of his ambition to remake his world.”
How can one square such quasi-Shakespearean tragedy with Gandhi’s enduring influence over a wide range of political and social movements? Why does his example continue to accumulate moral power?