Gandhi In The 21st Century
His main lesson for contemporary societies: morality matters, not just bargaining power
Albert Einstein’s ode to Mahatma Gandhi – “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth” – was technically incorrect. Only a few years ago, an international survey by PWC ranked Gandhi as the third most admired leader of all time, after Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs. Gandhi, born 150 years ago, continued to capture the imagination of leaders attempting to change the world. He influenced Martin Luther King Jr’s 1955 Montgomery Boycott, the seminal event in the US civil rights movement. Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh considered himself Gandhi’s disciple. He is a hero to Jack Ma and Al Gore. Gandhi also inspired John Lennon’s music. Imagine!
Gandhi’s work continues to light many lamps. The foremost quality he brought forward was courage. He refused to succumb to the status quo of unearned authority. When thrown off a train in South Africa for refusing to leave his first class compartment, legend has it, he sat all night in the freezing cold at the train station wondering whether he should fight for his rights or return to India.
Narrow rationality would have steered some towards the latter. However, his idealistic bent dominated his stand. He protested the next day and was allowed to board the train. Modern day entrepreneurs – in politics and business – repeatedly find that the world rewards courage more than intellect.
In a world driven by bargaining power, he introduced morality. He rejected the barriers created by accidents of history and amplified by human narcissism. He went after India’s social fault lines. Over time, one has seen such morally idealistic stands being repeated by many, whether challenging the sins of such hallowed institutions as the church in many parts of the world, or the left movements in many countries, or the current protests against Chinese high handedness in Hong Kong.
Leveraging truth allowed Gandhi to scale his movement. Many movements do not reach their promised potential because they are often fuelled by ambition or opportunism. Gandhi did not allow this to contaminate his movement beyond a point. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 amongst 273 nominated contenders, is a recent example of devotion to the greater good.
It took on the challenge of building a pluralistic democracy after the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. Consciously sidestepping personality driven agendas, it coopted the labour union, the national industry confederation, the human rights body and the legal association. Victories of an unadulterated cause are quite alike.
Gandhi separated problems from people. Churchill disliked him. Gandhi did
Modern day entrepreneurs – in politics and business – repeatedly find that the world rewards courage more than intellect
not reciprocate. In1915, the man who would years later deliver the powerful Quit India speech at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay, raised a toast to the British while addressing the Madras Bar Association, emphasising the good aspects of British society. He would often call himself anti-injustice, not anti-British.
Gandhi used the purpose-overpersonalities mantra to lead the freedom movement’s Dream Team. He had differences with his protege Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi looked for solutions to social challenges within people, Nehru wanted to bring them from outside. He had fundamental issues with Bhimrao Ambedkar on whether contemporary Hinduism was a bane or a boon for Indian society. Still, he let Ambedkar shape the Constitution.
Gandhi practised distributed leadership well before it was brilliantly articulated in the recent book ‘New Power’ by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. Business schools need a case study on Gandhi’s leadership style, so multinationals can better manage their star-studded teams and avoid management feuds that occasionally rock the corporate world.
Gandhi was a liberal, who built on the traditions set by John Locke in the late 17th century. To me, Gandhi’s most profound words are: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” This simple, yet powerful statement would well serve today’s world of ideological myopia and self-imposed autarky. Mr Trump, hope you are listening.
Gandhi’s is a story of a young man of strong convictions and privileged upbringing, who came out of his comfort zone and transformed himself into what Churchill called a “half naked fakir”. He was not preordained for this great role. His extraordinary success came from following his calling. After his unspectacular legal career in Gujarat led him in his mid-20’s to move to South Africa, chance events enabled him to develop and refine his political ideas and emerge as an independent-minded community leader.
He left an impact on Gopal Krishna Gokhale, president of the Congress party. At Gokhale’s prodding, Gandhi moved back to India at the age of 46 and was influenced by his mentor’s moderate politics. By 1920 – within five years of returning – he had become the icon of India’s quest for freedom. His utopian worldview had earned him the title of Mahatma, conferred on him by none other than Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Over the next quarter century, he became the father of independent India. Such is the history of greatness!