Gandhi and strategy of procrastination

Recently I was in a conversation with one of my friends about ‘doing right things at the right time’ in our careers. Interestingly he made a statement ‘Procrastination is also a very important factor. While in some cases procrastination is considered to be a delaying or lazy act, it is important for us to spend quite a lot of time on few critical roles, develop deeper understanding about right things’. Upon pondering deeper I started asking few questions to myself — Can procrastination be a strategic act? If yes, what are the benefits of that? Has anybody done it successfully in the past? Has it yielded significant results? Accidentally I started connecting this thought process with many of the key events happened in Mahatma Gandhi’s life. Let me delve into few historic facts and derive some interpretations.

For most of us, who understand Indian history to a decent extent think Gandhi and his Satyagraha strategy is key behind India getting independence from the British. After being ruled by British for more than a century (by foreign rulers for more than one thousand years), India has become the largest democracy in the world. However very few of us understand the roots of Satyagraha and how Gandhi stumbled upon this strategy. The root of Satyagraha traces back to 1893 when Gandhi, a young barrister from India travels to South Africa being employed by an immigrant Indian to fight a civil case. The same year another very significant incident happened Gandhi’s life, when he was thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg station, citing his skin color as the reason. As a shy barrister with so much of self-doubts, Gandhi couldn’t digest this incident. At the same time he didn’t take any immediate decision (say complaining to the local police station) to address this issue. Rather he procrastinated and wanted to understand the deeper aspects of the ‘skin-color’ issue.

Upon deeper discussion with Indian immigrants (who were mainly labor class) in South Africa, Gandhi understood the discrimination issues of fellow Indians. Even though he understood the issues relatively better, he was not sure about launching fight against the British that too in an alien country. The only option left with him was to unite all immigrant Indians (with support of some locals) under one umbrella, device a strategy and then fight against the British. This lead Gandhi to another logical question – How to unite all Indians, who are so different by design? Just by looking into the smaller chunk of immigrant Indians he could clearly see multiple religions (mainly Hindu, Christian and Muslim) and languages (Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu) which differentiated them at elementary level. However Gandhi considered them all to be Indians, taking a lifetime view that ‘Indianness’ transcended religion and caste, before which the concept didn’t even exist in most of the people’s wildest dreams. He believed he could bridge historic differences, especially regarding religion by taking care of the broader ‘Indian’ view. The South African experience also exposed handicaps to Gandhi that he had not known about. He realized he was out of contact with the enormous complexities of religious and cultural life in India, and believed he understood India by getting to know and leading Indians in South Africa.

Gandhi came across multiple such issues and challenges during his stay in South Africa. It took him a long period of 21 years (1893-1914) to systematically strategize, experiment and implement various aspects of Satyagraha. Since his vision was to find out a sustainable yet effective fighting mechanism with diversified set of people (as mentioned above), he felt nothing other than taking the non-violent approach could help. Before taking every small step, Gandhi deliberated a lot, internalized many key points and then went ahead executing them. For most of them it looked like Gandhi was wasting his time (rather procrastinating) by not taking a few critical decisions on time. However, over a period of time the Satyagraha strategy manifested as a mammoth civil rights moment in South Africa, which made the all the difference to immigrant Indians.

In summary it took 21 years for Gandhi to find out the ‘right thing’ for Indians where he developed his political views, ethics and political leadership skills which were critical for him to re-build Indian National Congress from the scratch back in India. After returning back to India in 1915, he implemented the same approach which eventually resulted in Indian independence in 1947. In total Gandhi spent 53 years for Satyagraha, which almost occupied his whole life. By looking into Gandhi’s life and his political struggle clearly indicates me that what is perceived as procrastination from many of us, can very well be a powerful strategy. The very fact that India exists as a single piece, in spite of so many issues talks the power of Satyagraha’s effectiveness.

Two smart things that Gandhi did…

Last week myself, along with two like minded individuals met during lunch. As usual our conversation took multiple directions and eventually hit upon Gandhi when the first one asked ‘ I really don’t know how Gandhi  galvanized such a diversified Indian population against a single goal of freedom from British Raj!’ . The second friend, who is a well read intellectual gave a very convincing answer, which I would like to share in this post, especially tomorrow marks another Gandhi Jayanthi.

Here are the two smart activities, well planned and executed by Gandhi. These two eventually made all the difference.

Organization Building

During 1915 Gandhi retuned back to India after spending 22 years in South Africa, where he conceived, experimented and achieved success with the concept called ‘Satyagraha’. While he understood the Indian diversity to the larger extent, India was relatively different when he returned back. Briefly coming out of mainstream politics, he went around the country and understood grass-root level issues before putting up the fight against the British. During his journey he understood the need of building next level leaders in order to drive the independence moment across the country.

During this period he found out people who were having larger influence in the local people. For example, C Rajagopalachari (popularly known as Rajaji) was president of Salem municipality in Tamilnadu. In similar lines he found people like Sardar Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Nehru who came from different parts of the country. He eventually folded them under Indian National Congress which eventually changed the face of the party.

In summary, understanding India’s diversity, identifying leaders from each region and binding them under one common vision was done remarkably well by Gandhi. If not for this approach Indian independence moment would have remained as a smaller moment restricted to a particular state. Gandhi was an excellent organization builder.

Salt – A powerful weapon

Salt Satyagraha - Gandhi

While the top layer got built with such leaders, the equally important aspect is to build a followership by uniting the large volume of Indian population. However India was in a different situation, where the educated, upper-caste elite Indians were very happy serving under the British Raj as they enjoyed multiple benefits. The lowercase people and ladies (which was the major chunk of population) were busy fighting a different battle against the local landlords and upper caste, for gaining basic rights. They hardly felt the pinch to fight against the British.

While exploring options, Gandhi eventually hit upon salt as a weapon to unite such people against the British. During that time about 8% of the revenue for the British Raj was coming from salt tax, which was the basic ingredient in every Indian food. Whether you are an upper caste or a lower caste individual salt played was something that people just can’t image to ignore it.  Explaining his choice, Gandhi said, ‘Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life’. This resulted in Dandi March on 1930, played a significant role in uniting the lower caste people against the British. This eventually went on becoming the biggest civil disobedience moment, thereby salt becoming the strongest weapon.

The phrase  ‘The more you know then you know how less you know’ – lingers my mind when I think about Gandhi. In my opinion, his deeper understanding about India and approach taken for Indian independence are research topics.

Related links:

Indian Independence – Gandhi way
Hey Ram – A transformational experience