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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: The underrated negotiation genius

Today, as we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, a customary question that hangs over our heads is that of his relevance.

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: The underrated negotiation genius

Six years since Ban Ki-moon, the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, invoked Mahatma Gandhi in his address— to insist on the strength of a peaceful negotiation over a war in the battlefield, in order to achieve a political solution in Syria— a lot has changed in the world and a lot has remained the same.

Syria— which has witnessed a displacement of roughly over 5.7 million people and deaths of over 20,000 children—stands wrecked even as the

“ISIS stands defeated” according to a tweet by the US President Trump.

Conflicts, around the world, since that address of 2013 has anything but ceased. There has been a civil war in Yemen and Libya. Thousands have lost and continue to lose their lives owing to clashes in Ukraine, Burundi, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mozambique, Colombia, Venezuela, Egypt, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the places where there is a temporary peace, people are not shying away from inviting themselves to hostilities. Bullying, expressing desires—such as wiping each other off the face of this earth— to provoke a threat even close to a nuclear war is not uncommon. We are no safer than we were. We certainly are no happier than we could have been.

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Today, as we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, a customary question that hangs over our heads is that of his relevance. Does the man—who Dr Martin Luther King thought was inescapable if humanity is to progress— offer an answer to the conflicts of this day and age? I would argue that he does; and, perhaps, his is the only answer we need to amble out of the conflicts of this day and age.

The world that we live in is obsessed with finding one final solution to all its problems. The ultimate one big solution. Such as constructing the wall?!

The Mahatma, though, thought & worked differently. He understood human beings and the complexities in their needs. He understood that a compromise—like an organism— comes into being from the engagement between people who eventually learn to care about it by the virtue of being its creators. The history of this philosophy begins in South Africa, where in a gentle way Gandhiji was trying to shake the world.

Dada Abdullah, Gandhi-ji’s client, was suing his cousin Tyeb Seth, in a dispute that was ruining both their lives. Gandhiji convinced both the parties to settle the dispute through an arbitrator. The case was decided in favour of his client. On coming to know that the amount that Tyeb Seth has to pay,  would render him bankrupt, Gandhiji persuaded Dada Abdullah to get paid in instalments.

Negotiation for him, therefore, was not a technique of manipulating the opponent but a way of life. While he protested for years, in South Africa, to get the government to concede his demands, he never distanced himself from the negotiating table. And, finally, through a series of negotiations reached an agreement in favour of his people.

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Gandhiji came to conflicts with a positive outlook and therefore was able to enable a process where parties recognised each other, built relationships and consequently could endeavour to legitimise a mechanism of respect for each other’s place under the sun.

After his homecoming, the national movement in India immensely benefitted from his ability to incorporate negotiation and compromise within his philosophy of Satyagraha. The Champaran Satyagraha, Ahmedabad Mill strike, Civil Disobedience Movement are true embodiments of this conflict-resolution philosophy which is also reflected in his writings. “A Satyagrahi,” he wrote in Young India, “never misses, can never miss a chance of compromise on honourable terms”.

Hatred was an alien to his philosophy.

In 1921, during the non-cooperation movement phase of India’s freedom struggle, Lord Reading—who had succeeded Lord Chelmsford as the new Viceroy— invited him for a meeting. Soon, a legion of impassioned followers raised serious objections to it and made them known to the Mahatma. In his reply, Gandhiji said, “We may attack measures and systems. We may not and must not attack men”. He met the Viceroy.

“It is the acid test of non-violence that, in a non-violent conflict,” he wrote in Harijan, “there is no rancour left behind, and in the end, the enemies are converted into friends”

We have to re-cultivate the Gandhian philosophy of conflict-resolution in our lives. We have to re-learn from it that ability to convert enemies into friends. I make no bones about the fact that it won’t be easy or immediately achieved in full measure. And, that some would call it “easier said than done”. Some things, nevertheless, in life, need to be said first to have it done.

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Our immediate victory, today, lies in the investment of kick-starting a process where the world gets convinced about the desire of finding one’s happiness in that of the other.

We have seen enough walls already. The conversation that we need today has to be about homes. Gandhi remains, hence, our hope for happiness.

“Remember,” as we must, the author Stephen King has told us, “..hope is a good thing.. and no good thing ever dies.” Mahatma Gandhi remains relevant. He would always be.

For it’d never be too late to give peace and love another chance.

Chandan Karmhe is a Chartered Accountant and an alumnus of IIM- Ahmedabad. He tweets at @chandankarmhe

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