Mandela Versus Gandhi

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The right use of a sword is that it should subdue the barbarians while lying gleaming in its scabbard. If it leaves its sheath it can’t be said to be used rightly. Similarly the right use of military power is that it should conquer the enemy while concealed in the breast

– TokugawaIeyasu. Greatest Shogun of them all (Japan 1543 – 1616)

Mandela Vs. Gandhi

This article is based on my reading of“Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela and M.K Gandhi’s “My Experiments With Truth”.

In reading both books, I understood Nelson Mandela was inspired by some of Gandhi’s work in South Africa. Mandela did things on a much larger scale (i.e. one man, one vote) compared to Gandhi in South Africa. In South Africa, Gandhi specifically focussed on improving lives of Indians. Gandhi also spent time between India, UK and South Africa during his life but Mandela’s story is largely based in South Africa and significant time is spent by him in a prison. Let’s compare their approach and juxtapose it with India’s struggle with cross border terrorism.

Nelson Mandela

Leading from behind: Nelson Mandela’s take on leadership is like shepherding:

“He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind”.

I got so much out of this because there is enormous wisdom packed in it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be doing this in terms of clearing the regulatory/legal bottlenecks so that his team of cabinet ministers and the bureaucrats that support them can perform at their highest level. To give sports analogy, this is like a midfielder in a football team controlling the game by constantly setting up goal scoring opportunities for the striker. Yes, the striker will do a victory lap after every goal is scored but it is the midfielder who is really setting the team up for a win and leading them from behind.

Nature of Struggle:

“It is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire”

I love the nuance here because Mandela is creating a bigger field for him to play with and be flexible. Adapting to the demands of the situation is an essential leadership skill. He isn’t rigidly set like Gandhi’s approach with ahimsa (non-violence). If the oppressor is violent, using non-violent method will lead to resistance getting crushed and eventually eliminated. If the oppressor understands the language of peace only then ahimsa would make sense. It is important to note that Nelson Mandela had a hand in plenty of violent activities before going to prison.

M. K. Gandhi

Gandhi’s book is a mixture of history, religion, politics and how all of that played a part in India’s freedom struggle. The book is about his continued experiments on his ideals which he validates or discards at the end of an experiment. That explains why he calls the book “My Experiments with Truth”. He mentions numerous books about Vegetarianism, various religions including Hinduism and India etc. He has some quotes from Shrimad Bhagavad Gita in the book but ironically the concept of Dharma-yuddha (refers to a war that is fought while following several rules) is missed by him completely. He could have adopted some of that thinking in India’s freedom struggle.

Without doubt ahimsa is a high ideal and it is something we all should aspire towards but somewhere it isn’t grounded in reality. We don’t live in an ideal world. As per Hinduism every Yuga (aeon) has a specific Dharma. And Dharma of one Yuga can’t be applied in another. To give an unrelated example, laws of physics applicable on Earth will not hold true in Mars. To navigate Mars, we need differentlaws of physics. So Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence are perfect for सत्ययुग (Satya yuga) but we are right now in कलियुग(Kali yuga).

Which method should India adopt in dealing with state sponsored terrorism? If we do a snap poll today, I am quite certain no Indian in his right mind is thinking of ahimsa strategy. After seventy years, one thing is clear Ahimsa will only result in body bags. The capabilities of our army personnel are never in question but we just did not adopt the right strategic approach in dealing with Pakistan. Thanks to PM Modi, India’s armed forces now have the political backing. If we continue on this path and sustain it, it is very likely we will solve the Pakistan problem in a few years.

As a leader, I certainly believe PM Narendra Modi will opt for a war only as a last recourse. But, he is unlikely to shy away from the path he has chosen because he has exhausted peaceful methods in the first two years of his tenure. Whenever provoked, India would retaliate and keep the cost of escalation high for Pakistan, as was displayed when in September, 2016; after Uri attacks Indian armed forces launched surgical strikes on terror camps well inside Pakistan controlled territory. He has a breadth of skills as a leader and he is taking his cards out with a steady hand.

In short, this is India’s struggle with cross border terrorism. We were misled by lack of strategic thinking (Gandhian thinking for every situation is lack of strategic thinking) or lack of political will or combination of both. Not anymore. It is time for hard headed Kautilyan thinking.

Let’s adopt Gandhian thinking for Swachh Bharat (Clean India campaign) but not for dealing with a violent force. We have come to a point where we need to fight fire with fire.


Vinayakan Aiyer



View expressed here are of the Author. Feedback can be given as responses to the article.

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2 Thoughts to “Mandela Versus Gandhi”

  1. Jaya ranjan

    सटीक मीमांसा .. हर युग अलग,समस्या अलग,सामाजिक दस्तूर अलग तो ज़ाहिर है उनसे निबटने का तरीक़ा भी अलग।समस्या का समूल नाश करना है तो सीधे जड़ पर ही प्रहार करना होगा,जो मोदीजी कर रहे हैं।बेहतरीन आलेख..

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