A new biography on Mahatma Ghandi by Joseph Lelyveld called Great Soul depicts the famous Indian leader of independence as a “sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist.”
Reviewing the book in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Roberts says Lelyveld gives credit where it’s due, but concludes that Ghandi was an “archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.”
For all his lifelong campaign for Swaraj (“self-rule”), India could have achieved it many years earlier if Gandhi had not continually abandoned his civil-disobedience campaigns just as they were beginning to be successful. With 300 million Indians ruled over by 0.1% of that number of Britons, the subcontinent could have ended the Raj with barely a shrug if it had been politically united. Yet Gandhi’s uncanny ability to irritate and frustrate the leader of India’s 90 million Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (whom he called “a maniac”), wrecked any hope of early independence. He equally alienated B.R. Ambedkar, who spoke for the country’s 55 million Untouchables (the lowest caste of Hindus, whose very touch was thought to defile the four higher classes). Ambedkar pronounced Gandhi “devious and untrustworthy.” Between 1900 and 1922, Gandhi suspended his efforts no fewer than three times, leaving in the lurch more than 15,000 supporters who had gone to jail for the cause.
Geoffrey C. Ward’s review in the New York Times says the book is not a full-scale biography and assumes a familiarity with the general events of Gandhi’s life. It does sound, however, as though Lelyveld gives a thorough treatment of Gandhi’s significant efforts, such as his campaigns in South Africa, as well as the complicated man that he was.