This year features a spate of anniversaries highly relevant to the multiple pasts (and possible futures) of Indian democracy. In the first month of 2010, the Indian Republic completes sixty years; in the last month of 2010, the Indian National Congress will mark one-hundred-and-twenty-five years of continuous existence. A third relevant date, which just went by, is January 15, 2010, the day on which, 95 years ago, that Congressman and patriot, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, came back to his homeland after two decades of life and struggle overseas.

The challenge that confronted Gandhi on his return was to convert a campaign of urban elites into a mass movement. Till then, it was easy for the British to dismiss the Congress as a front for lawyers and other English-speaking professionals seeking the loaves and fishes of office. Gandhi felt this criticism keenly, and sought to refute it.

First, he encouraged the Congress to function in the vernacular, building up provincial committees that operated in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Oriya and in other languages of the people. Next, he brought in peasants and women, two groups that had previously been excluded from the proceedings. Third, he campaigned to abolish untouchability and to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony, seeking to answer the charge that the Congress was a party of banias and Brahmins. Fourth, he worked to nurture a second rung of political leadership that would work with him in deepening the social base of the Congress and make it truly representative of the nation-in-the-making.

In the short-and-medium term, Gandhi was successful in all but the third ambition. The rejection of colonial provincial categories - the Madras Presidency, the Bengal Presidency, and so on - through the creation of local Congresses based on language proved to be a superbly effective link between the metropolis and the periphery. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the nationalist message was conveyed through the medium of newspapers and magazines printed in languages other than English. The flow was not unidirectional; rather, the concerns of the different linguistic communities were also brought to the attention of the All India Congress Committee. Long before Amartya Sen, Gandhi had concluded that a person had multiple identities - and that it was perfectly consistent to be both Bengali and Indian, or Kannadiga and Indian.

As Madhu Kishwar once pointed out, more women participated in Gandhi's campaigns than in movements led by any other man in modern history.

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It was also Gandhi who brought the rural masses into the freedom struggle. Operating in the vernacular helped here; as did his dress and lifestyle, which resonated far more with the peasantry than the turbans and suits of an earlier generation of Congress leaders. Peasants played a notable part in the Non-cooperation movement of the 1920s and the Civil Disobedience movement of the 1930s, although, as historians such as Shahid Amin and David Hardiman have demonstrated, they were motivated more by their own livelihood concerns - lower taxes, higher wages, freer access to forest and grazing resources and so on - than by abstract political categories such as 'nationalism' and 'anti-colonialism'.

From the perspective of the modern feminist, some of Gandhi's statements about women appear to be less than emancipatory. He was opposed to contraception, for example, and decidedly ambivalent about the role of women in the workplace. At the same time, he extolled their character and goodness, and considered them more courageous than men. At first, he was hesitant to allow them to offer satyagraha, but his reservations were overcome by his independent-minded colleagues, such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Sarojini Naidu. In the end, thousands of women courted arrest during the salt satyagraha of 1930 and the Quit India movement of 1942.

Thus, as Madhu Kishwar once pointed out, more women participated in Gandhi's campaigns than in movements led by any other man in modern history. In this respect, he was conspicuously more successful than ostensibly more 'modern' and less 'chauvinist' leaders such as Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and even Nelson Mandela.

One of Gandhi's less-noticed achievements was his making leaders of followers. Vallabhbhai Patel was given charge of building the Congress party; Jawaharlal Nehru of reaching out to the youth and to the West; C. Rajagopalachari with taking the nationalist message to south India; Maulana Abul Kalam Azad with taking this message to Muslims. The delegation of responsibility was also followed with regard to the constructive programme; thus J B Kripalani was asked to set up khadi centres, J C Kumarappa set to work on reviving the agrarian economy, Zakir Hussain was charged with designing an educational curriculum. In later years, the trust reposed in them by Gandhi helped these men make substantial contributions to the political and cultural life of the nation.

However, Gandhi's activities were not quite as successful with regard to the Dalits and Muslims. One major political rival of the Mahatma was B R Ambedkar, who insisted that Gandhi's attitude towards the lower castes was patronising rather than wholly sincere. A second and even more substantial rival was M A Jinnah, who argued that Gandhi's Congress was merely a vehicle for the interests of the Hindu majority. The latter claim gathered so much force that in the endgame of Empire, the Congress could not hold on to its vision of a single and united India.

It is a mark of Gandhi's greatness that these rivalries made him redouble his efforts to make Dalits and Muslims feel being part of India. Although he had been at the receiving end of much bitter polemic from Ambedkar, Gandhi persuaded Nehru and Patel to appoint him law minister in the first cabinet of independent India. The special provisions for Dalits and adivasis in the Indian Constitution also owe much to Gandhi's concerns.

Gandhi saw Partition as a colossal defeat for his ideas. Yet, in many ways, it was the period after Partition that saw him at his most noble, as he sought, by personal example, to stem the religious rioting. He succeeded in bringing some sanity back to Calcutta, and was at work on the same mission in New Delhi when he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic. After his assassination, the governor of West Bengal, C Rajagopalachari, wrote: "May the blood that flowed from Gandhiji's wounds and the tears that flowed from the eyes of the women of India everywhere they learnt of his death serve to lay the curse of 1947, and may the grisly tragedy of that year sleep in history and not colour present passions."

Rajaji's prayers were answered in good measure. The rioting stopped, as the rioters, shamed and embarrassed by the death of Gandhi, put away their weapons. Meanwhile, Gandhi's follower, the prime minister of India, urged his colleagues not to make this country a "Hindu Pakistan", to ensure that Muslims and other minorities were granted, in theory as well as in practice, the rights of equal citizenship.

The Republic of India came into being through the patient work of countless men and women. The Congress party was likewise a collective enterprise. That said, it was one Indian, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who did most to ensure that our political system would be based on democracy and pluralism. It was the same man who did most to make the Congress party a truly national institution. In a few days, the citizens of India will be called upon to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Republic. Later this year, members of the Congress party will be asked to celebrate the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of their party. Had Gandhi chosen to stay on in South Africa, however, the Republic would have taken a different, that is to say, less democratic, shape.

As for the Congress, had Gandhi not returned home, it may still have been a club for English-speaking gentlemen.