Gandhi’s ideas are still relevant for India’s economic progress
The single biggest failure of India’s development story so far has been the persistence of jobless growth. A development path in the Gandhian mould would undoubtedly have accorded top priority to eliminating this social scourgeopinion Updated: Oct 06, 2017 09:36 IST
This year marked the 148th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. In addition to being the unrivalled moral presence who led India’s freedom movement to its final denouement Gandhi had a number of important ideas on the issue of the management of India’s nascent developing economy. It would not be incorrect to say that for politicians of all hues it has become ritualistic to publicly extol his thoughts on such occasions, and then proceed to precisely do as they please the very next day, till the next important occasion associated with the savant’s name comes by where they again speak some more in memory of the great soul.
If Indian politicians at least ritualistically remember the contributions of the father of the nation, the tribe of Indian economists, fairly large today in numerical strength, does not feel compelled to exhibit any such routine fervour. That is possibly because among the formally trained economists in the post Independent era there has at best been only a limited appreciation of Gandhi’s economic formulations. In the course curricula of most Indian universities Gandhi’s economic thoughts have hardly found any major mention in recent decades.
Even in the heyday of Gandhi’s omniscient presence during the 1930s and ’40s, his economic formulations had only a limited following. JC Kumarappa was one major associate of Gandhi who not only coined the term ‘Gandhian economics’ but also advocated some of Gandhi’s core ideas in the sphere of village and cottage industries. For all his special affection for Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi was unable to bring him around to his core economic formulations. At different times and in different contexts, Gandhi had also been unable to impress Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and BR Ambedkar as well.
Nehru had been a convert to Fabian socialism fairly early on in his intellectual career and he fundamentally believed that the answer to India’s poverty lay in rapid industrialisation. The other feature was his unwavering belief in planning, which for him was the key instrument to bring about social transformation. This went against Gandhi’s core belief system. Gandhi was essentially a methodological individualist who believed that it is only an individual who can be held morally responsible for his or her choices. For him the idea of State planning went against this basic tenet.
Gandhi was not a trained economist and, therefore, had not been exposed to the writings of Smith, Ricardo, Mill and Marshall. All his economic formulations were the result of his intimate understanding of the condition of India’s toiling peasants, factory workers and the common man and woman. His first major thoughts on economic matters were contained in his Hind Swaraj which was written on a sea voyage from London to South Africa in 1909, when he was 40 years of age. This was a sharp critique, a tirade, against Western civilisation and machinery. This pamphlet was regarded as seditious enough to be proscribed by the British government.
Gandhi knew that India lived in her villages and one of the key ideas that he advocated was to place the maximum emphasis on developing villages as self-sufficient republics. The other issue that was foremost in his scale of importance was to provide gainful employment to each and every one of the teeming millions of India. His advocacy of the charkha was but a concrete demonstration of how an able bodied individual might gainfully expend his/her labour power. The single biggest failure of India’s development story so far has been the persistence of jobless growth. A development path in the Gandhian mould would undoubtedly have accorded top priority to eliminating this social scourge.
Of the several important elements in Gandhi’s formulations there are two that deserve special mention. First, a fundamental tenet in Gandhi’s economic formulation was the idea of limitation of wants. This was the precise obverse of the entire project of both classical and contemporary economics which is essentially focussed on unremittingly expanding the goods space to satisfy seemingly unlimited human wants. It is possible to hold the view that it is this Gandhian idea that is ultimately consistent with ecological sustainability in the decades and centuries to come.
A second major element of Gandhi’s thoughts has to do with the focus on the well-being of the poorest member of society. The notion of the ‘daridranarayan’ was an integral part of his moral approach with which Gandhi had been familiar from his childhood, and from the study of the various religious texts that he had undertaken through his adult life. In January 1948, days before his assassination, he jotted down what is today known as Gandhi’s ‘talisman’, which poignantly opens with the words: ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest man.’
Nearly a decade later, American philosopher John Rawls was to advance the view that the welfare of a society ought to be judged in terms of the well-being of its worst-off member. This was a sharp critique of the dominant utilitarian calculus which had hitherto been the basis of welfare economics, and was to permanently alter the discourse of the subject. It is significant that in Gandhi’s ethical understanding of economics, serving the poorest of the poor had always been an intrinsic moral imperative.
Pulin Nayak is formerly director, Delhi School of Economics
The views expressed are personal