Resistance, Suffering and Leadership: The Political Lives of Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi - POLI6860

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This module is not currently running in 2022 to 2023.


PO686 explores the political biographies of three icons of 20th and 21st century politics: Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. All three have arguably changed the course of history not just in their home countries, and we will be studying how their lives brought them to the forefront of the historical struggles which they came to represent. In particular, we will be looking at how they came to make the personal commitment to engage in these struggles and how they came to accept and deal with the sacrifices that their involvement entailed. We will be particularly interested in the self-understanding of these figures as political actors. Did they intend or plan to have the impact they had? Or did political fame catch them by surprise? Did they understand themselves as political leaders, and if yes, what notions of leadership did they develop as part of their political struggles? How did they understand the resistance they offered to colonial oppression, racial discrimination and oppressive military regimes? What were the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of their resistance? What influenced them to offer this resistance? How did they reflect on their acts of resistance? What gave them the courage they needed in order to offer this resistance? And what were their methods? Were the means of their struggles appropriate for achieving their ends? What was the role of violence in these methods?

Apart from asking questions about their political lives and the impact these lives had on world history, we will also be able to ask more general questions about political reality itself: Can individuals really affect the course of national and world history? What enabled these figures to have such an impact? Personality? Charisma? Luck? Or were the circumstances such that anyone in similar positions could have provoked change? In fact, how did these figures relate to the world of politics? For example, was Gandhi a 'politician'? Did they have the impact they had because they stood in some sense ‘outside’ conventional politics? And also what does it say about us, about our political present, if we today revere these figures as icons of righteous resistance? Why is there a Nelson Mandela building on Campus? Why is his picture in the Rutherford Dining Hall? What is it that we admire in Mandela? And is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi failed to live up to our expectations enough to justify her recent fall from grace? These are just some examples of the kinds of questions we will discuss in PO686.


Contact hours

Total Contact Hours: 22
Private Study Hours: 128
Total Study Hours: 150

Method of assessment

A1-poster: 20%
Essay – 2500 Words: 40%
Exam: Two Hours: 40%

Indicative reading

Jad Adams, Gandhi: Naked Ambition (London: Quercus, 2010)
Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), available as e-book
Justin Wintle, Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Prisoner of Conscience (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013)

Mohandas Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth (various editions, e.g. Penguin Classics, 2001, also available as an e-book from the Templeman Library)
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (various editions, e.g. Abacus, 1995)
Aung San Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope, Conversations with Alan Clements (London: Rider, rev. ed. 2008)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

Upon successful completion of the module, students will:

be familiar with the political biographies of Gandhi, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi,
be familiar with the key political issues which dominated Gandhi's, Mandela's and Aung San Suu Kyi's lives,
be familiar with the processes of vocational clarification and the evolution of the self-understanding of Gandhi, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi as political actors,
be familiar with theories and principles of leadership, and be able to analyse and explain how they apply to concrete examples of political leadership,
be able to conduct a focused, comparative study of political biographies,
have a good understanding of 'political biography' as a method in political science and be able to critically evaluate the limits and potential insights of this method.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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