Gopal Krishna Gokhale is now a forgotten man even though both M.K. Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah were inspired by him in the years before they became mass leaders. Gandhi described Gokhale as his political guru while Jinnah aspired to be the Muslim Gokhale.

However, the importance of Gokhale goes far beyond his influence on these two star disciples, who continue to be worshipped as the fathers of their respective nations. He was the lodestar of a style of liberal politics that needs a fresh airing in contemporary India.

Gokhale died on 19 February 1915, so today marks the beginning of his death centenary. He was one of a stellar cast of patriots in Pune, at a time when that city matched Kolkata as a crucible of the new nationalism which emerged from the ruins of 1857. The Pune liberals had three principal concerns: political freedom, social reform and economic development. Everything they did in public life followed from their quest to advance liberty on these three fronts, and thus prepare the ground for a resurgent India after centuries of foreign rule, social oppression and economic stagnation.

The Pune liberals firmly believed that politics should have intellectual and moral foundations. Gokhale as well as his guru M.G. Ranade were a perfect embodiment of that rare combination of head and heart, as is evident in their careful empirical analysis and policy prescriptions in the quarterly journal of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, the house journal of the liberals, on everything from indebted farmers to the spread of education.

Gokhale’s grasp of economics was evident in his famous budget speeches as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council, when he took the colonial government to task because its policies were damaging India; no less a person than John Maynard Keynes praised his mastery of economic logic. He was also a great lover of mathematics; a textbook on arithmetic that he wrote was a standard prescription for school children for many years. The precision of his thinking could perhaps be explained by his love of mathematics, the most precise of intellectual pursuits. And Gokhale was also a very popular professor of history.

Such intellectual depth was matched by a compassionate heart. He attracted young nationalists who wanted to serve the country. Gokhale had no shortage of critics who thought, with some justification, that he trusted the good sense of the colonial government too much. His personal record was also marred by a controversial apology to the British government. Yet, it is a testimony to his personal qualities that criticism did not degenerate into personal enmity. His great political rival Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote a moving obituary when Gokhale died at the young age of 49. V.D. Savarkar is said to have stood up in his favour when a group of revolutionaries in London wanted to assassinate Gokhale. Men who held views that were antithetical to his could still be impressed by Gokhale.

The liberal constitutionalism that Gokhale stood for was swept aside by the rising tide of agitational politics after 1920. Ironically, the two men who were responsible for this great shift were Gokhale’s disciples, Gandhi and Jinnah. Politics based on the inner voice, satyagraha and direct action replaced the reasoned politics of Gokhale, with its rare blend of the intellectual and moral. The quest to draw more people into the national movement compromised some of its core values embodied by Gokhale.

That style of street politics has lingered on in India well after independence. B.R. Ambedkar had warned in 1949 that the continuance of agitational politics in a constitutional republic would eventually harm the Indian nation, as would the unthinking devotion to Great Leaders as well as persistent social inequality rooted in centuries of caste oppression. His perspicacious warning was unfortunately ignored.

India right now is perhaps on the cusp of political change. A young, urban and prosperous class has emerged after three decades of rapid economic growth. It could provide a base for a new liberal politics. There are important differences between contemporary India and the country that Gokhale served with such dedication. But his core beliefs about the importance of political liberty, social reform and economic progress for all Indians are still relevant to our times. So is his insistence that means are as important as ends in politics, and that politics should have strong intellectual foundations.

Liberal constitutionalism had its high noon when Gokhale personified its lofty hopes. It was swept away by the rising tide of populism after the Gandhian takeover of the Congress in 1920. A hundred years later, the main concerns that Gokhale articulated are still relevant. They can offer fresh direction to a country that is once again at the crossroads.

Can India today revive the spirit of liberalism?