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Management lessons from India's freedom fighters

Last updated on: March 05, 2008 20:09 IST

Sandeep Kumar Singh is a man on a mission.

He chucked his lucrative job as vice president (sales & marketing) at Sahara News and decided to become an author with his book, Business of Freedom.

Singh's mission began when he realized that the new generation had little or no knowledge about our freedom fighters. The ignorance is more so when it comes to their managerial qualities.

So he has come up with a unique concept in his book Business of Freedom which he feels can help management students learn about managerial qualities of India's freedom fighters.

As many as 5,000 individuals contributed Rs 100 each to get the book printed and every contributor will get an acknowledgement as well as a copy of the book. The book is slated to hit the stands in the last week of March.

Singh has earlier worked with advertising majors like R K Swamy BBDO, Hindustan Thompson Associates, ORG-Marg, SAB TV, ETC and research company A C Neilsen.

In an interview with Assistant Managing Editor Syed Firdaus Ashraf, he speaks about his book, his thoughts on the freedom movement, and the nation's freedom fighters

Firstly, how the did the book come about?

There was always a thought in my mind -- that India has been a part of the Agriculture Revolution and a part of the Information Revolution as well. . .  then how come it missed out on the Industrial Revolution.

While exploring the above, I came across the statement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. While speaking at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, on December 5, 2006 he said: ". . . there should be an Indian model of management too. Even as we learn from the West and the East, we must try and evolve our own paradigm of management education based on our social and cultural attributes."

When I read this statement from as illustrious a person as the prime minister, it set me thinking. How is it possible that one of the oldest civilizations with a hoary tradition of gathering and dissemination of knowledge and well evolved skills of imparting education could lack in indigenous management thoughts?

This book is the result of this restless churning of thoughts.

What is the subject of your book? Could you explain it to our readers?

Some of the best slogans / punch lines written almost a century back still ignite passion among us Indians. For example, 'Inquilab Zindabad' (Muhammad Iqbal), 'Vande Mataram' (Bankim Chandra Chatterjee), 'Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it' (Lokmanya Balgangadhar Tilak), Give me your blood, I will give you freedom (Subhash Chandra Bose),' et cetera.

Some of the best organized events till date are the Dandi March, the bomb explosion by Bhagat Singh in the Legislative Assembly without killing anyone, etc.

In the book, I am comparing the thoughts of freedom fighters with the thoughts of management gurus. My intention is not to say that one copied the idea from the other, but to explore the 'science' and the 'art' of management. Science will remain universal, but art has to be contextual.

I am also not suggesting that there is nothing to learn from the West. All I am saying is that there is lot to learn from our freedom fighters and thought leaders of the 19th and the 20th centuries, leave aside our scriptures.

What motivated you to write this book?

Initially, I wrote an article on 'managerial learning from leaders of the Independence movement.' I sent the article to various newspapers, but none replied. I sent emails to almost 800 management institutes offering to conduct free lectures on the above subject, but -- again -- none replied.

Then, I thought of writing a book, but it struck me that it might meet with the same fate if I were to search for a publisher. The cost of printing the book on my own made this idea impractical. I had already spent a huge amount on books for research.

I had read the book, The Story of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial by Eknath Ranade. The Vivekananda Rock Memorial was built by collecting money from various sources. The most important source being money -- Re 1, Rs 3 or Rs 5 -- collected from 3 million people.

As I absorbed the significance of this idea, I got enchanted with it and thought of collecting Rs 100 each from 5,000 people to print the book.

In return, the individual would get a copy of the book as well as an acknowledgment. I discussed the idea with some friends and they put in their contribution immediately. Now, I was stuck! It was not possible for me to return the money and say that I had dropped the idea. I then designed an e-mailer and started forwarding it to my friends asking for Rs 100. I was surprised to receive even up to Rs 11,000 from individuals whom I didn't even know.

Some, from overseas, asked their friends to give it to me on their behalf. All the money sent to me was purely on trust. As they say, 'the world conspires to make you successful.' I have experienced this myself.

Those who want to contribute can get in touch with me on sandeepconsultant@rediffmail.com or 99671 35000.

In your opinion, why did India miss out on the Industrial Revolution?

After going through the works from the year 1800 to 1950 (management as a concept also started along with industrial development during the same time), I concluded that India, to a great extent, missed out on the Industrial Revolution because most of the available talent in India put all its energy into the Independence movement, sacrificing all else in the process.

In short, the talent of that period opted for the 'business of freedom' rather than for the 'business of profit.'

You have stressed on the phrase 'business of freedom' vis a vis the business of profit. Can you explain the rationale? Fighting for freedom cannot be a business because it is a selfless cause. Why then do you use the word 'business'?

The word 'business' has recently acquired a negative connotation. This was not always the case. In ancient India doing business came with social responsibility. It is only now that modern business has started exploring Corporate Social Responsibility.

In India, businessmen were always active in the freedom movement. Cooperative banks were set up to fight the British money lending system.

Take, for example, V O Chidambaram Pillai. He was a noted lawyer, trade union leader and the first to unveil an indigenous Indian shipping service that sailed between Tuticorin and Colombo. He got into the shipping business to provide for a level playing field to Indian businessmen. This was considered a crime by the British who sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In the India of those days, business was not a word that carried negative connotations. I have used the term 'business' as an activity. . .

What comparison of thoughts did you make between management guru and freedom fighters?

I will like to share one example here. Lal Bhadur Shastri had identified the 'core competence' of India -- a concept coined by management guru C K Prahalad for corporates. 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan' perfectly clears the check list which will qualify it as the right analysis of the core competence of India, i.e. Bharat.

Core competence is a well-performed internal activity that is central, not peripheral, to a company's strategy, competitiveness, and profitability. Often, core competence results from collaboration among different parts of an organisation. Typically, core competencies reside in a company's people, not in its assets on the balance sheet.

Core competence gives a company a potentially valuable competitive capability.

Lal Bahadur Shastri also extended his philosophy and resulting action to the common people through his slogan 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan,' which is now better known and accepted as the 'bottom of the pyramid' -- another phrase coined by C K Prahalad.

When you did your research did you find out what kind of strategy these leaders had in terms of doing business if and when India achieved freedom?

Will like to share two examples, of two other freedom fighters. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, while speaking on the principle of national planning at the Industries Ministers' Conference in Delhi on October 2, 1938, said: "It is needless for me to point out that with the problems of poverty and unemployment looming so large in our national life today; the question of utilizing all our resources to the best advantage of the nation has assumed enormous importance How then shall we tackle this formidable problem? Necessary works have to be organised and a large proportion of the village populations have to be diverted to industrial occupations."

"India is a country with resources similar to those of the United States. Her mineral wealth and other natural resources are superabundant. What is wanted is their systematic and organised exploitation by us in the best interest of the nation. Every country in the world that has grown rich and prosperous has done so through the fullest development of its industries. At this stage I should like to make it perfectly clear that there need not be a conflict between cottage industries and large scale industries. Such conflict, if any, arises out of misunderstanding. I am a firm believer in the need of developing our cottage industries, though I also hold that we have to reconcile ourselves to industrialization," he had said.

Madan Mohan Malaviya, speaking during Twenty-second National Congress at Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1906, said: "In purchasing a piece of cloth manufactured by a countryman of mine, I have often felt and am feeling now, that I am helping to obtain at least a morsel of food to enable him to live. The yarn may have come from a foreign country, but the labor he had bestowed upon it, will surely enable him to get a portion, half the price or one third or some portion of the gain in order to feed himself and those that depend upon him. When you find such terrible suffering around you, when you find the drain so great and the income of the people so small, their resources so poor, I say, it is a religious duty cast upon every man of healthy feelings to promote, to the utmost extent, the production of Indian manufacturers by giving them preference, wherever he can find them, over foreign commodities, even at some sacrifice."

He further said: "Time has come when capitalists must be induced to come forward to invest money in introducing machinery, in trying to produce manufactures just as they are produced in foreign countries. The educated men and men of capital must combine to bring about the growth of Indian industries."

Did our freedom fighters have any strategy to promote free enterprise in free India?

Looking at the statements of Madan Mohan Malavyia and Subhash Bose. I think they would have encouraged free enterprise while keeping Indian interests intact.

Can you explain why Nehru was so fascinated with Socialism and adopted Fabian socialism system in India rather than promoting business houses and private enterprise? Did you do some research on this point?

No, I did not cover anything like this in my research. But I believe circumstances at an impressionable age mould a persons thinking. Pandit Nehru's innings in Britain – when as a student he got in touch with Leftist thinkers and absorbed the ideas of socialism – would surely have ignited such romanticism in him. He was an idealist and I am not surprised that these ideas appealed to him.