NEW DELHI - With the Nobel Peace Prize presented this month in the absence of this year's laureate, the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, it might be wise to think of a man who never won the prize: Mahatma Gandhi. Despite that omission, there is no doubting Gandhiji's worldwide significance - including for Liu.
The Mahatma's image now features in advertising campaigns for everything from Apple computers to Mont Blanc pens. When Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi swept the Oscars in 1983, posters for the film proclaimed that "Gandhi's triumph changed the world forever." But did it?
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The case for Gandhi-led global change rests principally on the American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who attended a lecture on Gandhi, bought a half-dozen books about the Mahatma, and adopted satyagraha as both precept and method. In leading the struggle to break down segregation in the southern United States, King used non-violence more effectively than anyone else outside India. "Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence," he memorably declared. "We must meet the forces of hate with soul force."
King later avowed that "the Gandhian method of non-violent resistance...became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, and Gandhi furnished the method." Last month, Barack Obama told India's Parliament that were it not for Gandhi, he would not be standing there as America's president.
So, yes, Gandhism helped to change America forever. But it is difficult to find many other instances of its success. India's independence marked the dawn of the era of decolonization, but many nations threw off the yoke of empire only after bloody and violent struggles. Other peoples have since fallen under the boots of invading armies, been dispossessed of their lands, or terrorized into fleeing their homes. Non-violence has offered no solutions to them.
Indeed, non-violence could only work against opponents vulnerable to a loss of moral authority - that is, governments responsive to domestic and international public opinion, and thus capable of being shamed into conceding defeat. In Gandhi's own time, non-violence could have done nothing to prevent the slaughter of Jews in Hitler's path.
The power of Gandhian non-violence rests in being able to say, "To show you that you are wrong, I punish myself." But that has little effect on those who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you. Your willingness to undergo punishment merely expedites their victory. No wonder Nelson Mandela, who told me that Gandhi had "always been a great source of inspiration," explicitly disavowed non-violence as ineffective in South Africans' struggle against apartheid.
Indeed, Gandhi can sound frighteningly unrealistic:
"The willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God or man. Disobedience, to be 'civil,' must be sincere, respectful, restrained, never defiant, and it must have no ill will or hatred behind it. Neither should there be excitement in civil disobedience, which is a preparation for mute suffering."
For many around the world who suffer under oppressive regimes, such a credo would sound like a prescription for sainthood -- or for impotence. Mute suffering is fine as a moral principle, but only Gandhi could use it to bring about meaningful change.
The sad truth is that the staying power of organized violence is almost always greater than that of non-violence. Gandhi believed in "weaning an opponent from error by patience, sympathy, and self-suffering." But, while such an approach may have won Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi the Nobel that eluded the Mahatma himself, the violence of the Burmese state proved far stronger in preventing change than her suffering has in fomenting it. And, as the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 demonstrated, India today faces the threat of cross-border terrorism to which the Mahatma's only answer -- a fast in protest -- would have left its perpetrators unmoved.
In his internationalism, the Mahatma expressed ideals that few can reject. But the decades since his death have confirmed that there is no escaping the conflicting sovereignties of states. Some 20 million lives have been lost in wars and insurrections since Gandhi died. In a dismaying number of countries, including his own, India, governments spend more for military purposes than for education and health care combined. The current stockpile of nuclear weapons represents more than a million times the explosive power of the bomb whose destruction of Hiroshima so grieved him.
Outside India, as within it, Gandhian techniques have been perverted by terrorists and bomb-throwers who declare hunger strikes when punished for their crimes. Gandhism without moral authority is like Marxism without a proletariat. Yet too few who have tried his methods worldwide have had his personal integrity or moral stature.
None of these misguided or cynical efforts has diluted Gandhi's greatness, or the extraordinary resonance of his life and his message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, the Mahatma taught the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace. He destroyed the credibility of colonialism by opposing principle to force. And he set and attained personal standards of conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare kind of leader who was not confined by his followers' inadequacies.
Yet Gandhi's truth was essentially his own. He formulated its unique content and determined its application in a specific historical context. Inevitably, few in today's world can measure up to his greatness or aspire to his credo.
The originality of Gandhi's thought and the example of his life still inspire people around the world today -- as Liu Xiaobo would readily admit. But his triumph did not "change the world forever." I wonder if the Mahatma, surveying today's world, would feel that he had triumphed at all.
Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and UN Under- Secretary General, is a member of India's parliament and the author of several books, including, most recently, Nehru: the Invention of India (in German).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. Exclusive to the Sunday Times