by Col. R. Hariharan retd.
[Text of speech on “Gandhian values in participatory management” at the Gandhi Peace Foundation (Chennai Chapter) on January 29, 2012.]
A retired army veteran from the Military Intelligence who participated in wars and dealt with traffickers, forgers, criminals etc for nearly three decades speaking about Gandhian values may sound like an oxymoron.
I make no claim to be an expert either on Gandhi or on Gandhian values in participatory management the subject of my speech today. But I come from a family whose values were conditioned by Gandhian thoughts from 1930 to 1947 when my father actively participated in Gandhiji’s freedom struggle. These family values imbibed in childhood have guided me most of the times in my personal and professional life. I used these values to successfully cruise through some of the acid tests I had to face in the army – the biggest practitioner of participatory management.
A superficial view of Gandhiji would only see a number of contradictions in his life. He spoke of grass root participation and freedom for Indians, yet he ensured the Congress party chose its leader by consensus and not free vote. He appealed to the conscience of the rich to part with their wealth to benefit the poor, yet he went on a hunger strike to force independent India to share the united India’s treasury on Pakistan’s terms. However, a deeper study of his life and actions would reveal how he introspected and tried to correct himself to overcome his weaknesses. That is what made Gandhiji a leader of different calibre.
Gandhiji’s contribution was much more than leading the non-violent struggle to achieve India’s freedom. He was a great visionary with a universal idiom who recognized syncretism of Indian society that transcends differences of religion, caste, language and ethnic differences as its strength. He used it with great success to rally the masses in the freedom struggle. Thus he reinforced India’s national identity and enabled the people to regain not only their freedom but their pride and dignity, eroded by two centuries of colonial rule.
Gandhiji’s greatest achievement was in motivating and mobilizing the masses of India across the states, regardless of their differences in language, religion, caste, creed and sex, to come together and fight for the cause of freedom under the banner of Indian National Congress. There cannot be a greater example of participatory management than this.
Gandhiji managed to achieve all this when electronic media was practically non-existent, most of the Indians were illiterate, and physical communication excluded rural India where most of the population lived. How did he manage to do this? It was through his technique of participatory management that he appealed to one and all to see it as their campaign rather than his.
Gandhiji did not consider himself a pacifist. In fact, speaking at Geneva in 1931 he said “I regard myself as a soldier, though a soldier of peace.” He used quite a few principles of war – selection and maintenance of aim, flexibility, economy of effort, sustainability and cooperation to name a few – in his campaigns. His leadership style also shared many features of the armed forces’ leadership. These included ruthless adherence to goals, flexibility of approach, constantly testing and validating the strategy and tactics, and clear communication of objectives. Gandhiji led from the front like military leaders, persevered in spite of setbacks. His approach was not doctrinaire but based on doctrines. He inspired by example. Finally, his planning was centralized, but execution decentralized.
Gandhiji like military commanders reduced complex operational objectives into small achievable targets that gave everyone a sense of participation and achievement. That was how he motivated and involved the masses to voluntarily undergo hardships. Sometimes I wonder whether Gandhiji picked up many of these military practices when he participated in the Boer War in South Africa as a soldier of the British ambulance service.
If the armed forces style of participatory management was based on an ideal armed forces, Gandhiji’s style of was rooted in his vision of ideal society. His concept of ideal society was based on the following ideals:
· Social harmony where rich and poor of different castes and creed live in peace as equals;
· Gram Swaraj where the village is the basic unit of governance with grass root participation;
· Ahimsa: use of non-violent methods like ‘Satyagraha,’ and non-cooperation to persuade resolution of conflicts by evolving consensus solutions.
· Adherence to truth: Gandhiji’s believed “the voice of God, of Conscience, of Truth or the Inner Voice or ‘the still small Voice’ mean one and the same thing.” This faith in ‘eternal truth’ gave him a moral authority across religions and races. In action this translated into integrity in approach and transparency in action. He identified the ‘small voice’ as most important part of purifying himself.
Gandhiji identified seven social ‘sins’ as obstructive to the achievement of ideal society. These were: politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. We find the seven social sins to be relevant even today as they continue to cause of social and political aberrations in our country.
While Gandhiji was clear in his core values, he showed great flexibility in his approach. A good example is the Chauri Chaura satyagraha (1922) in a small town of that name in Bihar which turned violent and a police post was set on fire killing 22 policemen. Gandhiji regretted the deaths and suspended the entire non-cooperation movement, though it meant loss of face for him as it was the early days the non-violent experiment. But he did not give up his non-violent approach but only refined his technique. Such integrity in thought and action to own up the mistakes and learn from them gave him a clear moral strength when he dealt with his political opponents and detractors.
Gandhiji’s practice of participatory management was driven by ethical and moral considerations without sacrificing goal orientation. Its core values include: evolving a collective vision, balancing stakeholders and shareholders’ value, customer driven approach, and 360 degree communication. All these values were woven around his unique leadership style.
Gandhiji evolved a collective vision after protracted sessions at conclaves from the lowest to the highest level. Though at times he was stubborn in his style of execution, he gave a hearing to contrarian views. Though there was difference of opinion in national leadership on issues like non-cooperation and participation in legislature, he did not allow the differences to affect his personal equation with those who differed with him.
Gandhiji believed in looking after the interest of both stakeholders and shareholders. He believed in trusteeship management. For instance, Gandhiji considered every shareholder who invested a single rupee to buy a share of ‘Young India’ magazine, not only invested his money but trust as well. His ideas on stakeholders’ value were rooted in their needs. The Bardoli Satyagraha (1925) is a good example of this. The Bardoli taluka had suffered from floods and famine, resulting in total loss of crops and farmers faced financial ruin. Mindless of their problems Bombay Presidency authorities increased the revenue tax by a crippling 30% and refused to revise it although farmers represented against it.
A young Vallabhai Patel approached Gandhiji to seek his concurrence to launch a movement of farmers’s struggle and refuse payment of tax. Though Congress was not involved in the movement Gandhiji gave his blessings to it because he considered rural Indian as an important stakeholder. Though the government confiscated the land initially, ultimately a settlement was reached in 1928. Bardoli marked one of the earliest successes by non violent struggle and earned Vallabhai Patel the sobriquet ‘Sardar’.
Gandhiji was an instinctive marketing man who can translate the ordinary thing into an extraordinary icon. Khadi – the homespun cloth woven by villagers all over India – came to symbolize their survival struggle in the face of imported cloth. Similarly, the charkha to which the common man could relate became the symbol of Congress-led freedom struggle. Thus the use of symbols provided the rural masse rallying points to identify and participate in the Congress movement.
Communication is now a key element in modern life – be it politics, business or entertainment. But Gandhiji realized its importance very early. He had an instinctive ability to communicate across the lines – the rich and poor, the upper and lower castes with equal facility. Simplicity, sincerity and clarity of thought were the keys to his communication. He used it as a powerful tool in spreading his inspirational message not only across the country but the whole world. I can think of only one other leader- Swami Vivekananda, Gandhi’s contemporary in the early days, who had this gift.
Gandhiji’s successes inspired a host of leaders – from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to Abul Kalam Azad to Motilal Nehru and the young Jawahar Lal – who had their own ideas on freedom. During the World War II Netaji inspired soldiers of the colonial Indian army to join the Indian National Army. It sent a clear message that the British cannot depend anymore upon the colonial Indian army’s unshakable loyalty. At the end of war the British got a real scare when sections of the Indian Navy mutinied for the cause of freedom. On top of it, the War had crippled British economy and British troops stationed in India were keen return to their homeland after six years of war. Clearly the British in India were an exasperated lot.
Gandhiji showed his real time strategic skill when he leveraged these vulnerabilities to hasten the exit of British from India. So to my mind the greatest contribution of Gandhiji was not merely leading the freedom movement but in using the dynamic environment to further his aim of enabling Indians to regain their freedom, dignity and national identity.
Is Gandhiji relevant today? This is a question in the mind of many in India. Winston Churchill said in 1931 that he was alarmed and nauseated “to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.” But four years later the same man wrote to GD Birla: “Mr Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the untouchables….I do not care whether you are more or less loyal to Great Britain….Tell Mr Gandhi to use the powers that are offered and make things a great success.”
What made Churchill a diehard conservative colonialist to change his mind about Gandhi?
Gandhiji’s management style was ruthlessly leadership-driven; yet he ensured it related to the poorest of the poor, the downtrodden and the enslaved, the weak and the discriminated. This is what made Gandhiji’s message universal. It was this universality that influenced Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, two great leaders of our times, to adopt Gandhiji’s methods for their non-violent struggle and succeed. To me Gandhiji continues to be relevant; the more I learn about him, the more it grows.