What does a dark, gaunt, semi clad Indian have in common with a fair, corpulent Englishman? Pretty much nothing at first glance.
One, an individual born in India in 1869 who rose to the pinnacle of Indian history by dint of his endeavour, political acumen and a strong sense of justice. The other, a hardnosed, brusque individual born in 1874 who shaped and led Britain from a point of no return to a spectacular victory. It is evident by now that I am referring to two of the greatest names in world history – namely Mahatma Gandhi & Winston Churchill. It was while watching the movie The Darkest Hour last evening that I stumbled upon the underlying connection between the two men.
As mentioned earlier, it is not immediately apparent that the two leaders in question have anything in common, apart from the fact that their nations’ destiny were interwoven with each other at various points in history. Indeed, Gandhi and Churchill were contemporaries in tumultuous times and had certain qualities that defined them and were thus responsible for shaping the destinies of their countries.
Specifically, the traits they had in common were an indomitable spirit, the ability to rouse people into action, an iron will and a deep, unquenching love and desire to liberate their motherland.
The Mahatma’s indomitable spirit was evident right from his days in South Africa where as a young lawyer he espoused the cause of equality from which the movement for equal rights took shape. It was this powerful spirit which laid the foundation for his quest for freedom from the British yoke, albeit in a peaceful manner. Gandhiji’s spirit was never more in the limelight than when he went to jail on numerous occasions and suffered the beatings and vilification of the British Raj, for having dared to take on the might of the Empire. Around 7500 kms away, Churchill’s indefatigable spirit was also working its magic in the UK.
Due to an ineffective Prime Minister, the government was in disarray and the British people were staring at an inglorious defeat, one which threatened to destroy their morale. Hitler’s army was on a rampage and both France and Belgium had capitulated to the dictator’s brute force. It was only a matter of time before the German juggernaut would overrun the whole of Europe and the pennant with the dreaded swastika would flutter on English soil.
However, Churchill’s pugnacious character rebelled at the thought of negotiating and meekly surrendering to the Nazi might. While his war cabinet was unanimous in seeking a truce with Germany and avoiding the “unnecessary massacre” of thousands of British soldiers, Churchill agonised about whether he was doing the right thing by seeking a compromise. But his inherent psyche was one of defiance, of not surrendering to the Germans and it was this mental resolve which buttressed his courage and conviction that a fight to the finish was the only way to Victory.
The second major quality that both men shared was the ability to rouse their people. Gandhiji’s innate ability to mobilise an entire sub-continent and fan the flames of patriotism into a raging fire that engulfed the British Empire is now legend. It was this ability to connect with people on a national scale and to transfer his tenacious hunger for an independent India onto the Indian collective that was the Mahatma’s forte. Gandhiji worked tirelessly to ensure that Indians gave up their servile attitude and rose to fight the British might. His speeches and actions from his days in jail to Satyagraha and the Dandi march were all designed to alight a nationalistic fervour in a country that was used to being subjugated.
Back in England, Churchill was imbued with the same fervour of rousing his people from a similar servile slumber and rising against German military might. His speeches were designed to encourage, uplift and galvanize the British people to action, towards a fight to the finish and to dispel any notions of surrender. Like Gandhi, Churchill too used his oratory skills to uplift the morale of the British people. His iconic address to his people to fight on the beaches and fight on the seas, ignited the flame of resistance among them and transformed that flame into a raging fire that would ultimately consume the might of the German empire.
The third common thread uniting the two giants was an iron will. Both Gandhiji and Churchill had large reserves of will power, which they used with devastating effect to achieve their aim. Gandhiji’s will was a potent reminder to the British that they could ignore this small weak looking man at their own peril. No amount of prison time or lathi charges were sufficient to quell his fighting spirit and an indomitable will. A will that would not be subjugated and rose in defiance, in ever increasing proportion, as the atrocities against the Indian people increased.
Churchill also bore an uncanny resemblance to Gandhiji in as much as an iron will was concerned. His pugnacity also derived itself from a fortified will which refused to believe that the war was over and the British were defeated. He dispelled the gloom pervading the country by constant exercise of his determination to overcome the defeatist forces of pessimism and the inherent cowardice of his generals while battling a world war. Churchill’s steely resolve was what kept him going when all his ministers were against him and the king was having second thoughts about electing him as the prime minister.
Lastly, but equally crucial was the fact that both leaders had an undying love for their motherland. Churchill wrestled with his conscience time and again as the country teetered on the edge of a humiliating defeat and came up with a brilliant plan to evacuate his soldiers from Dunkirk. He agonised over every action he took and weighed it against the simple rule of whether it was the right thing for the country. His love for England was what drove him to consistently rebuff the naysayers and forge a resurgent Britain’s comeback to the European arena.
Gandhiji’s love for India was equally strong and his desire to see India become self sufficient and economically powerful was based on this deep love for his nation. His love for India shone through like a beacon whether he was exhorting his countrymen to burn foreign clothing and take up khadi or whether he was commanding the British in a gentle yet firm voice to leave India alone and yield to her sovereignty.
In the end, it appears quite strange that these two leaders from quite disparate cultures drove their agenda based on shared values. Although polar opposites in appearances and cultures, their minds held a strange congruence of thought leadership which resonated with the world and continues to reverberate until today. Or maybe it is not so strange after all, because once the layers of nationality, culture and physical differences are peeled away, what remains is a core of fortitude, resilience and undying patriotism which is the hallmark of all great leaders.