The 7 habits of highly effective Maharajas - Hindustan Times
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The 7 habits of highly effective Maharajas

Sep 14, 2022 09:11 PM IST

Raja Tanjore Madhava Rao was the foremost Indian statesman of the 19th century. He left behind a set of lectures on the seven principles that every individual in a position of responsibility must follow. A brief outline follows

Few in contemporary India recognise the name Raja Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao. This is a tragedy, for Rao was the foremost Indian statesman of the 19th century. Between 1858 and 1883, Rao had the unique distinction of serving successively as dewan to the maharajas of dewan , Indore, and Baroda. In each instance, he was lauded for transforming moribund regimes into Model States where wealth and well-being grew by leaps and bounds, and corruption and lawlessness were strictly curbed.

Between 1858 and 1883, Raja Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao had the unique distinction of serving successively as dewan to the maharajas of Travancore, Indore, and Baroda. In each instance, he was lauded for transforming moribund regimes into Model States (WIKICOMMONS)
Between 1858 and 1883, Raja Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao had the unique distinction of serving successively as dewan to the maharajas of Travancore, Indore, and Baroda. In each instance, he was lauded for transforming moribund regimes into Model States (WIKICOMMONS)

Even fewer today are aware that Rao left behind lectures summarising the principles to which he credited his success. These lectures were delivered in 1881 when Rao was tasked with educating the then-17-year-old maharaja of Baroda, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad. Their purpose was to show Sayaji Rao how he could best fulfil his raj dharma. To make his subjects truly happy, the dewan contended, the Gaekwad ought to replace erratic personal rule, which was the norm in princely States, with impartial and capable public institutions. To this end, Rao painstakingly laid out the “science” or rules of creating and managing such institutions.

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But it would not be enough for the Gaekwad to simply build courthouses or manage Baroda’s finances. Rao’s long and varied experience had revealed to him that there was also an “art” to ruling effectively. A person in a position of authority needs to manage human frailties — and especially his or her own limitations. And so, Rao interspersed his remarks on public administration with delightful hints on worthy personal conduct. Sayaji Rao “cherished” these lectures in particular and had them printed so that he, and his officials, could always recall the lessons they contain.

So, what do these lectures teach? They give every individual who occupies a position of responsibility — be they maharajas, mantris (ministers) or managers — seven pieces of advice about respecting their limits.

The first is to value practical experience. Though Sayaji Rao knew how to write with his right hand, Rao observed, were he to try writing with his left hand, he would do a poor job. “Mark the immense difference arising from want of practice,” the dewan cautioned his eager ward, “and let it restrain overconfidence resulting from theoretical knowledge alone”.

The second is to be open to argument. Those in positions of power will always be subject to “criminal flattery”, Rao warned, but they should never make the mistake of believing they know everything. They ought to consult freely with “practical persons” to verify their conclusions — and change their views when proven wrong.

The third is to know how to take counsel. Decision-makers who want to be truly well-informed ought to treat advisers and subordinates with “due respect”. They must allow them to express their opinions freely in private, and refrain from speaking ill of them “behind their backs”. They especially must not disrespect them in public.

The fourth is to inspect character. A decision-maker will invariably encounter individuals who wish to take advantage of them. These individuals will try to tear down advisers who stand in their way and, therefore, must be guarded against. A simple way to identify such “intriguers”, Rao says, is to quietly observe whether an individual talks more about persons than policies, uses heated rather than measured language, and prefers innuendo to reasoned deliberation.

The fifth is to employ judicious compromise. In public life, Rao observes, “the exercise of one good quality has often to be controlled by other good qualities”. For instance, firmness is an important value, but a leader must also consider the consequences of being too strict or inflexible. Hence, much depends on weighing competing interests carefully rather than capriciously. This is so much the case, Rao observes, that statesmanship is ultimately a series of good compromises.

The sixth is to study greatness. Since it takes time and experience to refine judgment, those who want to avoid making painful mistakes ought to examine how individuals of “acknowledged eminence” handled the “difficult or intricate matters” they confronted. This is best accomplished by observing these individuals at close quarters. But when this is unfeasible, decision-makers can cultivate their judgment by reading biographies that portray fine examples of prudence.

The last piece of advice is to balance work and rest. The demands placed on those in positions of responsibility may lead them to overwork and demand from their subordinates more than what is humanly possible. This is wholly counterproductive, Rao cautions, because exhaustion invites worry and anger, and, thereby, impairs good judgment, which is the very essence of governing well.

This brief outline cannot do justice to the fluency and clarity of Rao’s ideas. But, hopefully, it will persuade those in positions of power, whether public servants or business executives, to seek out his marvellous lectures. Our booksellers do a brisk business in self-help books written by marketeers better at speaking than doing. In the wise old dewan’s lectures, contemporary Indians will find something more authentic and valuable: Deceptively simple advice from a man who did much and spoke little.

Rahul Sagar is Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi. This essay draws on his new book The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government.The views expressed are personal

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