The Mahatma’s superpower


Was Mahatma Gandhi, who helmed India’s freedom struggle, an introvert? He was certainly no swashbuckling hero, says Akul Tripathi, but a leader who drew from his quiet and restrained personality to patiently wear down his opponents. In this manner, he scripted India’s massive freedom struggle.

Friendly and shy. These are blanket concepts that we have learnt to identify with and categorise others into, ever since we started understanding the world around us. As vocabulary and the need for euphemism dawned upon us, these got replaced by the technical terminologies of introvert and extrovert – sometimes without requisite understanding of them. Knowingly or unknowingly we have proceeded to incorporate these two concepts in our attempts to rationalise the actions of people around us and their interactions with us. Eventually, certain attributes have become the generalisations of a ‘type’ of people, related by things as diverse and heterogeneous as entire communities or bound by other generalised perceptions of the comparatively assimilated factions of neighbourhoods or profession.

While the others don’t really haunt us in our everyday life, the demands of personality traits associated with professions in the minds of those interacting with us can be rather rigid and often draining, especially if our personality traits do not correspond and adhere to perceived expectations of our vocation or calling.

Perhaps the ones most dramatically affected by these are people who choose or end up having to live in the public sphere. A happenstance that demands a cheerful disposition and believes skills like oratory, social small talk and what is today called networking as inherent in the DNA of the individual. A popular actor, a politician, a leader – these are traits one would believe them to possess even without having met one. There would be unbridled surprise if they turned out any different. Simultaneously, an unassuming writer who spent months in the corner of a coffee shop, painstakingly and meticulously writing his heart out on paper is expected to exuberantly bounce across the room engaging in multiple conversations and being the centre of attention once his labour of patience and loneliness has caught the fancy of enough people to generate significant profits for the publishers.

Gandhi the introvert?
All of this dawned on me in a moment of inspiration when I happened to read an excerpt from a book titled Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking authored by Susan Cain, who elaborates and analyses the dichotomous views, stand points and behaviour patterns of people exhibiting traits that can be identified as introverted or extroverted. One of the case studies in that was of Mahatma Gandhi – portraying a facet of Gandhi that is tremendously overlooked.

A political leader of a party that is striving for the independence of one of the largest populations in the world on a global scale can safely be assumed as one possessing a dynamic personality, full of life, enthusiasm, unrestrained booming energy and an overpowering charisma that inspires awe through loud actions, forceful speech and a gregarious, towering presence. These are the traits through which one would infer the leader to have conviction, boundless confidence and self assuredness. To be fair to those making these correlations, a large many of history’s most adored people have exhibited these very traits.

In light of this, when one looks at Gandhi, there could perhaps be no man further from these traits than the loin cloth clad diminutive, reserved and soft spoken man. He was an inward looking person, always comfortable in his own skin. Gandhi learned over time to manage his shyness, but he never really overcame it. He couldn’t speak extemporaneously; he avoided making speeches whenever possible. Even in his later years, he wrote, “I do not think I could or would even be inclined to keep a meeting of friends engaged in talk”.

Restraint, especially in action and speech remained a hallmark of Gandhi’s life choices – one born perhaps from his shyness as Cain believes. Whether it was his being excommunicated from his community for studying across the seas, being asked to remove his turban to take his oath as a law practitioner in South Africa or even when he was thrown out of the train. He accepted the immediate hurt and insult while focussing on a larger objective – the desire to have a lawyer’s degree from England, the need to take the oath to be able to practice law and the will to transform a nation. Through his largely homegrown nature of appreciating the beauty of compromise, he learnt to pick only those battles which would win him his war.

Why is it that I never noticed these differences? Never realised or appreciated that Gandhi’s modus operandi, his method to the madness differed so greatly from the perceived ideals of a leader engaged in a heroic struggle with one of the greatest empires the world has seen? How come the lack of a swashbuckling hero shining like a knight on a huge steed ready to react and avenge in a heartbeat, never felt wanting? Cain believes this to be a prominent difference between the cultures of the east and the west. In the western worldview, such silent acceptance would be seen as weakness, which is unacceptable, especially in a leader. However, what would seem like succumbing to the will of others in the western viewpoint, to the east would simply be basic politeness.

Gandhi’s soft power
A large part of Gandhi’s creed was accepting and forgiving, virtues often termed as fatalistic and passive. Passive means submissive or being subservient to an external agency. But that was not what Gandhi was about. Gandhi himself ultimately rejected the phrase “passive resistance”, which he associated with weakness, preferring satyagraha, the term he coined to mean “firmness in pursuit of truth”; focusing on an ultimate goal and refusing to divert energy to unnecessary skirmishes along the way.

Contemporary thinkers are beginning to call the kind of power Gandhi wielded as soft power. Joseph Nye, who coined this phrase believes that the key is to make one seem attractive to the others through cultural universality and defines soft power in a nation as a partially autonomous element of overall national power. India’s non-violent struggle for freedom led by Gandhi is often seen as the perfect example of the use of soft power.

The true depth of the soft power harnessed by Gandhi can only be gauged when one understands the hopeless condition of India when Gandhi went to reconnaissance the country of his birth. The British would never have given up the country merely by appeals to their sense of justice and in actuality, the idea of armed rebellion against the British would have been disastrous as India was just not equipped nor organised for a war of that scale. The British, in turn viewed the Indians as extremely malleable clerks or violent savages.

The genius of Gandhi here was the acceptance of these viewpoints instead of denying them or living true to them. In a time where in truth India possessed no power, Gandhi’s unique understanding of this, a by-product of his introvert nature that compelled him to quiet and restraint, led him to create India’s soft power that would eventually win her independence. In classic psychological warfare manoeuvres, he defied the British expectation of the Indians in both aspects – by coercing them to not be malleable (non-cooperation) and be nonviolent (satyagraha and ahimsa) at the same time!

With solemn firmness to the truth of his cause, he put aside all other notions and hammered this successfully and repeatedly through millions of people, creating such dissonance that the British could have only two options – choose to go away from a machine they thought they had figured but would suddenly not work for them, or drastically elevate their assumptions about Indians, which in turn would compel them morally to leave.

In his soft manner, Gandhi made the British image of themselves fall away and along with it fell their assumption of their right to rule India. Dalton, in his book Mahatma Gandhi quotes the testimonial of John Court Curry, a veteran member of the Bombay police force at the time of the salt satyagraha of 1930, which succinctly explains the nightmare Britain was living:
“As time went on I found to my dismay that my intense dislike of the whole procedure (of dispersing nonviolent demonstrators) grew to such an extent that on every occasion when the Congress staged a large demonstration, I felt a severe physical nausea which prevented me from taking food until the crisis was over. . . I was at a loss to understand why I should be physically affected by it. I remembered that I had had no such feelings on occasions of serious rioting in Bombay or in my earlier pursuits of frontier raiders. I thought then, and I still think, that I was largely influenced by the feeling that whatever we did, the result was to the advantage of the Congress policy and that the policy of our Government in dealing with it was wrong.” Curry resigned from the force that same year.

The British probably could not have stayed in India indefinitely; but if one wants to understand why they left in the manner they did, it is essential to recognise their dramatic loss of self-confidence over the course of the decades-long encounter with Gandhi’s, what Stanley Wolpert called, “suffering love”.

Gandhi is widely seen and regarded as a part of the moderate faction of India’s freedom struggle. A person who through manoeuvres of compromise and acceptance appealed to the reasonable amongst the British and convinced them for the case of India’s independence. In reality, he was an unyielding, unbending, unshakeable revolutionary, who frustrated all who negotiated with him by patiently wearing them out while not budging from his stance.

That it was Gandhi who energised this kind of latent potential into a physical form, took a unique fusion of eastern cultural values, the quiet power of an introvert and his extraordinary firmness in the pursuit of truth. The inaudible but deeply felt explosion that this brought about continues to reverberate through the globe with as much intensity as it was produced. Famously imbibed by the likes of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and alive in spirit through the peaceful Wall Street takeover and Anna Hazare’s activism, satyagraha is a tool of liberation that never loses its edge.

“In a gentle way,” said the Mahatma, “you can shake the world”. To be the best example of your own words – now, that’s a superhero. A gentle superhero.


Akul Tripathi

The writer is a media professional and freelance writer.