On authentic leadership of Mahatma Gandhi | Opinion
In early 1930, Mahatma Gandhi went into seclusion for two months, returning with a decision that became a defining moment in India’s struggle for independence. Shortly before, the Indian National Congress had passed a resolution demanding full independence from British rule; the next step in reaching this goal had been left to Gandhi. As the days stretched into weeks, rumours began to swirl around Gandhi’s continuing silence. He is retiring from the struggle, says one, the saint who had strayed into politics is returning to the real business of saints, the pursuit of salvation of the spirit. He is endorsing a violent movement to drive the British out, says another; he has given up his faith in non violence and will now exhort the youth of the country to take up arms.
Gandhi was silent for many days. What he was searching for was a form of collective action that would capture the imagination and rouse the spirit of the poorest of India’s masses. Many expected that his proposed movement would follow the time honoured path of civil disobedience: a refusal to pay taxes to the government; the boycott of its law courts. But Gandhi was looking for something that touched the life of every villager, and one morning he suddenly announced his decision: salt. India’s freedom struggle would begin by breaking British salt laws all over the country and Gandhi would be the first one to break them.
“Salt!” the Congress leaders were incredulous when he first told them at a hurriedly summoned meeting. “Are you serious?” You expect us to make salt?” But Gandhi’s arguments and the good humour with which they were advanced soon convinced them. Salt was a basic necessity of life. It could be easily made by Indians, yet the British imposed taxes on it and imposed strict control on its production. The letter Gandhi wrote to the British viceroy [Lord Irwin, dated March 2, 1930] informing him of the decision rang with his characteristic authenticity. Addressing the viceroy as “Dear friend,” he writes, “My personal faith is absolutely clear. I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less fellow human beings, even though they may do the greatest wrong to me or mine. Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India. (…) I regard this tax on salt to be most iniquitous from a poor man’s standpoint. As the independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made by this evil.”
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Today, in the months following India’s 2019 general election, as the nation contemplates its newly elected leadership, it is amidst a palpable pining for a great leader such as Mahatma Gandhi, whose authentic voice resonates with the ethical core in our psyches. Six qualities functioning together in the story I narrated above, undergirded Gandhi’s great and authentic leadership: sympathy; detachment from fruits of action; deep introspection upon his mission and identity; attentiveness to the inner voice from one’s unconscious depths; carrying out the decision reached with fearlessness and humour; and, acceptance of complete responsibility for the consequences that flow from the decision.
Authentic leadership combines these six qualities that draw both from a deep sympathy for all living beings, as well as a strong and vigorous individuality of the self. While the combination of sympathy and individuality may sound paradoxical, it is, in fact, true that the more vigorous our individuality, the less the need to encase the individual self in an armour of self-centredness and more the capacity to make it permeable and thus participate in the play of what we call the ‘soul’.
Sympathy, as understood in the spirit of Gandhi, is the highest manifestation of the human soul. Accessing sympathy involves freeing the soul from its prison of individual self, guarded by warders of self-centredness. Sympathy is initiated in our love for those who nurtured us when we were children and our love for our own children, friends, and lovers as we get older — wider and wider manifestations of sympathy that are the true measure of human progress.
Gandhi’s integration of a sympathy so wide that it resonated with the inner voice of millions with an individuality so vigorous that it facilitated the fearless carrying out of his decisions, made him, in the words of the German philosopher Nietzsche, “a Roman Caesar with the heart of Jesus Christ” — a hoped for leader of the future. We have had and continue to have many Caesars who will not be called great because they lack the heart of Christ. The reverse is also true: a heart full of compassion but a self that lacks vigorous individuality also does not have the follow through required for a great leader.
The measure of a great leader — his or her synthesis of compassionate sympathy with a strong sense of the self that does not sink into overweening egotism — is conveyed through his or her being, and experienced as a felt authenticity that touches the ethical core in our psyches. The voice of ethics in our psyche, like the voice of reason, is low, sometimes hardly more than a whisper, yet it is insistent and demands a hearing even if at times it is drowned out by the roars of desire, aggression, and narcissism.
To repeat, it is the perceived authenticity of leaders, of all institutions, that earn them the sobriquet of “great”, not promises, plans, the language of their vision statements, the rhetoric of their speeches or the power of their oratory.