India should adopt root and branch reform and not uproot and blanch
Vivekananda with Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s disciples, Calcutta, 1899
Narendranath Datta, the charismatic son of a famous Calcutta high court lawyer, left an endearing legacy worth emulating by India’s CEOs in the private and public lives in diverse areas spawning spirituality to social service, character-building to nation-enhancing traits. For a wandering Hindu monk and a master institution builder, who did all this before asthma and diabetes plucked him away from Mother Earth before he could turn 40, Datta’s leadership toolkit is worth dipping into. From India’s Prime Minister Narendra Damordas Modi, serving his second innings from May 2019, to the 400 million youth in India, a phenomenal demographic dividend in the world largest democracy.
Datta, who the world knows now as Swami Vivekananda, died almost 117 years ago in July 1902 in the West Bengal capital of Kolkata (where, on the west bank of Hooghly river he founded in 1897 the 40-acre world headquarters of Hindu religious society Ramakrishna Mission and Math). But his leadership and management skills at a young age as a fulltime monk and peripatetic preacher and moral teacher must dot India’s vast landscape and the Marshal McLuhan’s mindscape.
As one of the world’s fastest growing economies – we just lost the top spot to our big rival China – the nation of 1.3 billion has enough horsepower to gallop through the world’s exciting racecourse. And emerge triumphant provided we take the reins of leadership and exploit the rich artesian springs of Indian human capital.
On one hand, doomsday prophets paint a gloomy picture of the world by referring to rise of right-wingers, threats of radical terrorism or even a plethora of economy-crushing populism budgets. On the other hand, optimists like Harvard professor Steven Pinker have knocked off the dark clouds away by assuring us that “people are now safer than they were a hundred years ago”.
It is more than a century since Swami Vivekananda, a brilliant Calcutta child who underwent his own epiphany after a fortuitous meeting with a venerable sage Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who passed on the leadership baton to him – he simply scribbled on a piece of paper “Naren will teach” – before he died in 1886. Vivekananda was only 23 but, as one of his followers noted a few years later, he had hundreds of years of wisdom.
The Swami loved the word “expansion” because it meant vibrancy of life. Contraction meant death. So he was constantly looking for opportunities to leverage his mind and learn the world’s best practices. When he set sail to the US in 1893 it was basically to barter Eastern spirituality for Western science and technology to plough that back into his home country India. To make India a superpower that she was earlier.
He was upset how India had fallen with invasion after invasion, including the colonisation of the Indian minds. The “cyclonic monk” known for his indefatigable energy was always on the lookout to lift India out of the deep slumber she seemed to have fallen in for various reasons including what he termed later tapas (inactivity).
He was in a tearing hurry to restore the broken walls and revive the sagging spirits of the Indians by injecting them with what he called rajas (activity) that the West had in plenty and giving them sattva (calmness) that they needed from the East to maintain an effective balance, an equilibrium in life.
Indians, as he observed, were destroying themselves because of jealousy. Although they were crushed under the juggernaut of imperial economic powers, shamefully as he noted, Indians were like mud bulls on the shores of a rough ocean butting their heads with jealousy while the waves crumpled them to oblivion.
With a new leader in India, it is time to take the bull by the horns. And remain bullish. As Modi, 69, steps into high gear for another five-year term, there are five key areas (there are many though) that he or anyone here can pick up from Swami Vivekananda’s leadership toolkit.
First, organisation. When he first landed on the shores of the US in May 1893 en route to attending the World Parliament of Religions which was a side event at the World Fair at Chicago (to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492). There he was fascinated by the sheer logistics of organisation. Among the hundreds of letters that he kept writing to his brother-disciples back in India from the US, he always talked of the strength of organisation – collective effort – of people in the US and Europe. The 690-acre Chicago fair, for example, saw nearly 27 million visitors over its six-month run, each one getting his ticket’s worth. For him, “organisation” or being organised to achieve a common goal by a collective effort was fundamental for success. That leadership template applied to a non-profit and a nation as well. He wrote, “The secret of success of the westerners is the power of organisation and combination (working with others to achieve same goal) That is only possible with mutual trust and cooperation and help.”
The world-famous steel tycoon and one of the biggest philanthropists Andrew Carnegie once said, “Take away all our factories, our trade, our avenues of transportation, our money, but leave me the organisation and in four years I will re-establish myself.”
Education and democracy were two key ingredients that helped in the art of organisation, he noted, even going to the extent of advocating a form of central leadership to enforce a much-needed discipline to achieve a common goal. A society like India should have a dictator of sorts to achieve the goal, he maintained. Perhaps he had a leader like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in mind. Some called him a benevolent dictator who transformed a mosquito-infested swamp that was once part of Malaysia into a world-famous island state of exponential growth and development today.
How Mr Modi can fit into the leadership mould that the Swami recommends is a matter of interpretation, but the urgent need of the hour is to deploy “organisation” to the hilt and take India forward without wasting a second.
As much as it is imperative for Team Modi, it is also important for every Indian to take this trait seriously in his or her own lives and in the lives of the community.
Two, “so work, my boys, work”. In one of his letters to his disciples, he wrote, “If I can get some young men of heart and energy, I shall revolutionise the whole country. There are a few in Madras. But I have more hope in Bengal. Such clear brains are to be found scarcely in any other country. But they have no strength in their muscles. The brain and muscles must develop simultaneously. Iron nerves with an intelligent brain — and the whole world is at your feet.”
Calcutta port handled 40 per cent of traffic in 1947 but other ports on the west coast have overtaken by several knots the first-mover advantage of the old British capital city (only at the 1911 Coronation Durbar that the British monarch George V announced the transfer of the seat of government from Calcutta to Delhi and with famous English architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker designing the new capital and the iconic government buildings including Parliament House, Secretariat buildings and the Rashtrapathi Bhavan off Raisina hill).
Of course, he meant that there is “the youth energy” – or the demographic dividend – spread throughout India. Hailing from Calcutta, he was particularly emphasising the untapped potential of talent in his home state. But the overall call that is relevant even now is the call to “work, work, work”.
Third, travel the world and tap science and technology. Modi has travelled over 30 countries in his first term, and he is likely to travel more in his second term. This would have pleased Swami because he was a big believer in getting our minds exposed to the great advances in science and technology and their impact on the communities in the Western world.
A year before he made waves with his phenomenal address in Chicago, Swami told his disciples that “we must travel, we must go to foreign parts. We must see how the engine of society works in other countries and keep free and open communication with what is going on in the minds of other nations, if we really want to be a nation again.” He added with good measure that “America’s opulence was achieved through hard work, moral discipline and cooperative effort.”
Once a crippling economy in East Asia, South Korea rose like a phoenix from its ashes thanks to rapid industrialisation and economic reforms under successive military governments in the 1960s helped by a large measure with US and other countries’ support. Home to big behemoths such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai to name a few, its journey from poverty to an economic powerhouse didn’t come easy. Over the years, its highly skilled work force helped ramp up its robust economic development for it to have a special space at the high table of G20 major economies today.
The Modi Government must encourage hundreds and thousands of students and skilled workers to be exposed to the best practices in the developed nations. Granted that some of them may find the green pastures too tempting to return home. But there will be another cohort of India-loving patriotic science and technology brains who will want to put their roots on the soils of their motherland, the punya bhumi, to help her reclaim her lost glory. We have great examples of such brains who, following the advice of the Swami, have dipped their toes in the science and tech pools of America or Europe and have come back home to build India.
Examples galore: Gujarat’s great institutions builder Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai (Cambridge, 1940) was only 52 when he passed away but by then he had seeded India’s space and nuclear programs besides founding IIM-Ahmedabad, PRL; physicist and TIFR founder Homi J Bhabha (Cambridge, 1933) economist and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Cambridge, 1957; Oxford, 1960), ecologist Prof Madhav Gadgil (Harvard, 1965) in Pune, aerospace scientist Prof Roddam Narsimha (Caltech, 1961) or JNCASR founder Prof CNR Rao (Purdue, 1958) in Bengaluru to even industrialists like Ratan Tata (Cornell, 1962).
Believe it or not, Swami was a big proponent of building factories and manufacturing sector more than minting billions from trade or just services. He even pushed Indians to become entrepreneurs. He would have been at home in the new economy start-up hubs of India that gave unicorns ranging from Flipkart to Zomato to Swiggy et al.
He would have pushed India to emulate the Israeli model of making billions with innovation, invention and cutting-edge product development. Research from Israel is driving great advances in medicine, water management, autonomous vehicles, consumer products, manufacturing besides the arms sector thanks to the pioneering vision of Israel’s father of the nation and her first prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Twenty per cent of nearly 900 Nobel laureates are Jewish.
Compare the output from Israel Aerospace Industries (Shimon Peres, cofounded it in 1953 after Israel was formed in May 1948) vis-à-vis Bangalore-based Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (founded in 1940). Both the companies are government owned but in terms of global impact, the Israeli aerospace and defence industries are strongly export driven (nearly ten billion dollars in total exports last year).
Israel, 158 times smaller than India in size (eleven times smaller than Uttar Pradesh) and population (only 9 million), sells India avionics software and other weapons worth billions of dollars (after Russia, Israel is the biggest defence supplier to India) Israel built its tech and software process virtually from its desert base from 1948 after it came into being. Israel named world’s 8th largest arms exporter with 3.1 per cent of global weapons sales are from the Jewish state, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with top customers that include India, Azerbaijan, and Vietnam
I remember asking a visiting Israeli leader Shimon Peres (one time the world’s oldest head of state), at a reception at the Prince of Wales lawns at the sprawling Taj West End in Bangalore a few years, the secret of Israel’s tech superiority. “Fear,” I remember him telling me. “When you have so many enemies ringing you, you have no option but to innovate.” What can that be for India today? And how can that be deployed to make India a world superpower?
Swami did not mince words when he spoke about how colonised world was exploiting India. “People of foreign countries are turning out such golden results from the raw materials produced in your country (India),” he once noted, “and you, like asses of burden are only carrying their load.” How does this reflect on the millions who are deployed in the world’s back offices that populate our so-called silicon valleys? How can we replicate the successes of academia-industry ecosystems of Stanfords and Harvards in our own backyard?
Once, Swami challenged a disciple to don the hat of an entrepreneur even if it was on a small scale. But when he backed out, developing cold feet, Swami ticked him off harshly remarking he had no shraddha. That is, no faith in himself. Without it, there was no material or spiritual advancement, he warned.
Four, the Modi government should invest big on education. Like a reformer, he must steer the first meeting of the HRD ministry and simply give them a realistic, achievable target like his counterparts would have done in the US, UK or even Israel. Doctoring history books – every government does it – to suit the left, centre or the right will not help India become a hotbed for innovation or a forceful engine of progress. There must be, to use a cliché, a paradigm shift for India to catch up with the West.
Swami, even though he was just 39 when he died, emphasised the role of education in nation-building. Not narrow minded, sectarian schools of thought that lumpen elements will take advantage of but recreating the Oxfords, the Cambridges, the Harvards, the Stanfords et al. His thoughts on education, “… to me the very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of fact… I would develop the power of concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will.”
There were Indian kings who were major benefactors in the field of education like the maharaja of Mysore kingdom (who gave almost 400 acres of land in Bengaluru to set up the Indian Institute of Science). In June 1894, Swami wrote to the maharaja of Mysore, “The one thing that is at the root of all evils in India is the condition of the poor… the only service to be done for our lower classes is to give them education, to develop their lost individuality…” The value of human lives, the idea of leveraging human capital, has been underlined by 18th century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith.
And, five, this is the time for everyone to become dasaya dasa (servant of servants and must accommodate a thousand minds) to achieve jagat hitaya (common good). As a sense of uneasiness prevails among various groups in India today, from the north to the south, to the west to the north east, among faith groups and minorities, among the haves and the have nots, among the gau rakshaks (cow protectors) and the chowkidars (watchmen) enforcing their brand of Indian nationalism and patriotism, Swami encourages everyone to work for the common good, jagat hitaya. That transcends one’s personal benefit or goals.
That is why in his 1893 Chicago address, Swami Vivekananda exhorted against “sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism”. Even at that time of history about 150 years ago, the traumatic triumvirate, had drenched the beautiful earth with the blood of the innocent, kicking nations into despair.
In a note of caution that is relevant for India even now, charged as we are, here is Swami again: “Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.”
Rarely in recent times does a nation get a lowly tea-seller from an oil-presser OBC community to architect the future of a 1.3 billion people of the world’s largest democracy for a second five year term, from 2019-2024: Narendra Damodardas Modi, 69, will also get to oversee the 150th death anniversary (in 2022) of India’s greatest spiritual export to the West, Swami Vivekananda, and the 75th anniversary of India’s liberation from the British raj in his second innings. As it is, the government is running its Sankalp se Siddhi (attainment through resolve) program from 2017-2022.
Modi, and others in the leadership seat in the private and public spheres, must quickly seize the opportunity to be the reformer our India desperately needs. Swami Vivekananda could dive deep into the reservoir of his soul and say that he was a “greater reformer” than others during his time because he was a man had “met starvation face to face for 14 years of his life, who has not known where he will get a meal the next day and where to sleep…” That is why he said he could not be intimidated so easily. And that is why he said he will go for root-and-branch reform method.
And that is exactly the method that our Prime Minister must follow now. Root and branch not uproot and blanch.