Do you have a hero? I know it’s a strange — and slightly corny — question to ask. But for all of the last month, ever since the fuss about the Bharat Ratna first began, I’ve been trying to work out why there’s such a shortage of heroes.
The jewel in the crown: A hero is not merely someone who is successful.
Take politics for example. There are many politicians I admire. But would I regard them as heroes? Probably not. I like movie stars but it’s a long time since I treated an entertainment celebrity as a genuine hero or heroine.
Then there’s the difference between admiring somebody’s achievements and treating them as true heroes. Almost everybody must respect what Sachin Tendulkar has achieved: he’s probably the greatest Indian cricketer in history. But while we respect and admire Sachin, is he necessarily a hero to most of us?
The same is true of business people. India has witnessed many genuine success stories. We know of people who have come from modest backgrounds and gone on to create business empires worth billions of dollars. We admire their enterprise and some of us may even wish to learn from their experiences. But do we treat them as heroes? I’m not so sure.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that it’s not enough to be successful to be a true hero to people. At any given time, the world is full of successful people. There will always be multimillionaires, presidents and prime ministers, sports legends and movie and pop idols. Few of them ever become heroes.
So what quality distinguishes a hero from somebody who’s merely successful? My answer may sound curiously old-fashioned and almost boy scout-like but I think it’s true: When we look for heroes, we look for selflessness.
We admire Sachin but he made his runs for himself and his team. He made no great sacrifices for the sake of society. We like Shah Rukh Khan, an outstanding actor and a truly bright individual. But Shah Rukh has never denied that he’s in this for himself. He came to Mumbai to become a star, not to help the world. So it is with politicians. Some, like Manmohan Singh for instance, are truly remarkable men, able to withstand the temptation to be petty or greedy. Others like L.K. Advani for instance took moribund political parties and turned them around. But they did all this in pursuit of their own advancement, to further a political agenda or because, as politicians, it was part of their job description to get to the top of the greasy pole that is their profession.
My guess is that it’s not enough for a hero to be honest (we take that for granted) or talented (god gave him the talent) or even very successful. To be a true hero you need to do a little bit more than everybody else in ways that offer no benefit to yourself and work for the greater good of society.
It’s not such a novel concept. Think of Superman. Why is he a superhero? Not because he has heat vision or can fly to the moon but because he uses his powers for the good of society. It’s the same with modern-day heroes. We regard Mahatma Gandhi as one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century because he placed his own life at the service of his people, not because he had a following of millions.
Judged on those criteria, the modern world is depressingly short of heroes. The freedom struggle threw up some genuine heroes; not just Gandhiji but also Jawaharlal Nehru who turned his back on a soft upper-class life and spent years in jail in pursuit of an ideal—one that actually worked to the detriment of the lifestyle that he and his family enjoyed in the heyday of the Raj. Sadly, modern Indian politics offers us few figures who compare with the legends of the independence movement.
Even global politics is a bit of a wasteland. I tried thinking of heroic figures in the international arena and the only name I could come up with was Nelson Mandela. In Mandela’s case, the achievements and sacrifices are on par with Gandhiji’s. He spent nearly two decades in jail and yet, when he was finally released, was entirely free from bitterness. The only reason that South Africa was able to make the transition from apartheid to a multi-racial society with peace and harmony is because Mandela put his own hurt to one side and allowed his goodness to drive the process.
If you apply the same rules to business then it’s not difficult to see why J.R.D. Tata was such a heroic figure to so many generations of Indians. Like all industrialists, JRD was in the fray to make money for his group. Unlike many industrialists, he was astonishingly successful. But that’s not what made him a hero. His true virtue lay in his complete unwillingness to pay bribes, to bend the rules, to damage rivals or to inveigle himself into the licence-quota-permit Raj. Despite remaining true to the values on which the Tata group was founded, JRD managed to keep the empire growing in an era when the crooked flourished so easily. Plus of course, there’s the Tata tradition of selflessness: the bulk of the group’s profits go to charity and many of India’s greatest educational and social institutions owe their genesis to Tata funding.
Our memories of J.R.D. Tata probably explain why middle-class India reacted so emotionally to the Nano and by extension, to Ratan Tata. We admired Ratan for the achievement—a car that the global automobile industry said could never be made at that price—but we liked him more because he made this breakthrough while remaining true to Tata traditions. Plus there was the key factor: He didn’t need to make the Nano. It’ll never be the most profitable Tata enterprise. He did it because he thought that everybody who rode a scooter deserved to be able to afford a car.
Finally, it’s not mere achievement that determines heroism. True heroes are people who go a little further, who do much more for society even if it sometimes means that they do less for themselves.
Tell Vir who your hero is at firstname.lastname@example.org