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Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of the rich as trustees can make an effective, sustainable difference

Those of us who are privileged to be in leadership roles will realise that the power of position diminishes with time, whereas moral leadership endures.

Written by Azim Premji | Updated: October 11, 2019 11:20:53 am
Gandhi, Mahatma gandhi, gandhi on wealth, gandhi on business, gandhi on inequality, gandhi 150, gandhi jayanti, gandhi on income inquality In addition to the idea of trusteeship, I think business and industry leaders can learn a lot more from the life of the Mahatma. (C R Sasikumar)

It was Mahatma Gandhi who, after my mother, most strongly influenced my thinking and actions on what I should do with the privilege of my wealth. My mother was one of the founder members of a charitable orthopaedic hospital for disabled children — one of the first in the country after Independence — which she ran for 50 years as the executive chairperson. I observed, through my childhood, what it took to do that, and the difference it made in the lives of people.

The Mahatma’s idea that the wealthy must be trustees of their wealth for the larger good of the people has resonated with me from much before I became a wealthy man. To quote him, “supposing I have come by a fair amount of wealth — either by way of legacy, or by means of trade and industry — I must know that all that wealth does not belong to me; what belongs to me is the right to an honourable livelihood, no better than that enjoyed by millions of others. The rest of my wealth belongs to the community and must be used for the welfare of the community.”

There are multiple quintessentially Gandhian views and ideas embedded in the idea of trusteeship. The first is a clear-eyed understanding of the reality that the enormous inequities of wealth, while unacceptable, are not illegitimate. This is a positive approach. It does not put those with wealth in the dock just for the possession of wealth, unlike a few other economic ideologies. Second, it is clear and definitive that wealth and resources, irrespective of who “owns” these, must help with the betterment of society and all its people. Third, it puts the onus of making this happen on those who have wealth. This is a direct manifestation of his philosophy of non-violence — the wealthy must do it of their own accord, unforced by external pressure. Fourth, it puts faith in human nature, that eventually people will do the right thing, if you trust them.

Unsurprisingly, many people will be sceptical of the effectiveness of this approach to build an egalitarian society. And that would be for good reason. But I believe that over the long term, in the reality of the world we live in, this approach will be more sustainably effective.

In addition to the idea of trusteeship, I think business and industry leaders can learn a lot more from the life of the Mahatma. Let us take just one aspect, which I will call “moral leadership”. How is it that this man could sway and influence hundreds of millions of people to action, while holding no formal power over them? Part of the answer lies in the Mahatma’s moral leadership which millions followed, not requiring any power to sway them. This moral leadership was a result of three interlinked aspects of his behaviour.

First, was his relentless and uncompromising pursuit of truth. His own discomfort never deterred him, neither did fear. Discovering new aspects of truth that challenged his previous beliefs, he was ever ready to change his mind and had the courage to share this journey of learning publicly. It takes a truly great man to openly accept that he was wrong and to stand corrected.

Second, was the importance he gave to means over ends. We have witnessed this again and again through his life, that even the most cherished end of “purna swaraj” could not justify means that were at odds with the Mahatama’s unshakeable belief in non-violence. The suspension of the non-cooperation movement after the incident at Chaura Chauri is perhaps the most well known of these, and is controversial too. However, it did cement the public understanding of the importance of his approach, the importance of ethics, of weighing means over ends, and of doing the right thing the right way, always.

Third, was, quite simply, his innate empathy and humaneness. His devotion to the weak and poor is too well known to bear any repetition. His efforts to unite India, cutting across every category of people possible, was one his three great quests. But even more telling was his ability and commitment to see and draw the best from even his adversaries. At the core of all this was his empathy towards all — not only to all fellow human beings, but also to animals and nature, to all that emanated from the universal life force.

With this trinity of the pursuit of truth, the importance of means over ends, and empathy for all living matter embodied in his person, and lived every day in the public eye, he did not need any other power over people, for it was this that gave him moral leadership. The people saw in him a beacon, an ideal, and a leader whom they were inspired to follow. Those of us who are privileged to be in leadership roles will realise that the power of position diminishes with time, whereas moral leadership endures.

There are some words of timeless truth whose power only increases every time they are repeated because they are an invocation of moral leadership. Let me end this brief personal tribute to the Mahatma with his own oft-repeated words: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (woman) whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her. Will he or she gain anything by it? Will it restore him (her) to control over his (her) own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away”.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 11, 2019 under the title ‘The privilege of wealth’. The writer is founder chairman Wipro Limited.

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