Author and commentator Gurcharan Das elaborates on exploring the concept of desire, talks about the promises the Modi government has kept and its failures, including silence on incidents like lynchings, says lack of an alternative means he may return to power, and advises the Left to engage with Hindutva advocates.
Why Gurcharan Das?
After focusing on Artha or economic well-being in India Unbound, and exploring Dharma or moral well-being in The Difficulty Of Being Good, in his latest book, Kama: The Riddle Of Desire, the third of a trilogy, author and commentator Gurcharan Das reflects on emotional well-being of the country through what he calls a ‘fictional memoir’. A Harvard University graduate, Das was the CEO of Procter & Gamble India and later managing director, Procter & Gamble Worldwide (Strategic Planning). In the mid-’90s, he took early retirement to become a full-time writer.
PRATIK KANJILAL: Is there an overriding idea that runs through your new book, Kama: The Riddle Of Desire?
My book India Unbound was on the economic wealth and prosperity of the country. The next one (The Difficulty Of Being Good) explored Dharma — it was on the moral life of the country. I was commenting on contemporary India and its moral failures. This third book deals with the emotional life (of the country). When I read The Indian Express, I read about the political and economic life of the country, but we tend to ignore the emotional health of the country. In fact we sweep it under the carpet. This kind of repression, in my view, is not good because it perpetuates patriarchal stereotypes. The book is a very personal, intimate story. Kama can only be discussed in the form of a story, and the book is actually in the form of a fictional memoir. You can’t talk about desire, sexuality and jealousy except through a narrative.
The driving force for all of us is to live a purposive, happy life and (Sigmund ) Freud gave the best explanation of how to do that — ‘If you want to be happy, you have to love the work you do, and love the person you live with’… Frankly, I think the ancient ‘Trivarga’, which begins in the Rig Veda, gives a sense of the goals of life (comprising Artha, Dharma, Kama), rather than a monolithic idea that happiness consists of unifying yourself with God. In today’s civilisation, we also have another overwhelming goal, which is money. We are a commercial civilisation. The subtext or idea of the book essentially is going back to the classical notion of Trivarga, and maintaining a balance between the goals of life.
PRATIK KANJILAL: You write that the world has been a battleground between those who see kama as the driving force of the universe and those who see it as a distraction from the other goals of life. You also mention Nehru and Gandhi at some point, to illustrate the distinction.
The meaning of kama is desire, and pleasure. Desire is what you seek and pleasure is what you end up with… Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, where desire is associated with the original sin, with guilt and shame, in the ancient tradition in India, from the Vedas onwards, the authors recognised desire as the source of action —you wouldn’t wake up in the morning if you didn’t feel desire. It is also the source of creation and the animating principle of the cell, which would wilt without desire. The word in Sanskrit is ‘Prana’. And it is also the source of procreation. Ours is the only civilisation that elevated Kama to a goal of life. In fact they created a god called Kama.
PRATIK KANJILAL: And so we are happy as a civilisation?
At least we recognised it (kama) instead of brushing it under the carpet. Why have we turned prudish today?… But frankly, we had Kama pessimists right from the beginning. What in a sense is unfortunate is that the last goal of life, ‘Moksha’, has overwhelmed the other goals, and we lost that balance that we had — the balance of the Trivarga.
PRATIK KANJILAL: But we see a tremendous disequilibrium these days, ‘India Unbound’ seems to be full of libido unbound, and that has become a social problem. It assumes the status of a political problem at times. Governments are threatened by it. What do you think has happened?
The fact is that we have lost that balance. Among the young people, however, this balance is being restored. When I mentioned Gandhi and his influence… Gandhi was preaching celibacy because he had been influenced by (Leo) Tolstoy, unfortunately. And, Tolstoy was a nasty fellow in the way he treated his wife. His novel The Kreutzer Sonata was banned in Russia because he preached that even in a marriage you have to practise celibacy.
Kama Sutra, which was written in the Golden Age — the Gupta period — has a chapter which says a woman desires an attractive man in the same way a man desires an attractive woman. But after some consideration, the matter goes no further… Kama Sutra is not a book about sexual positions… there is a chapter on that too… but really Kama Sutra is a book on manners, on how to be successful in society, especially with the opposite sex. Kama Sutra says, first, don’t talk about yourself, talk about her; second, don’t speak in Sanskrit, speak in her language, speak in Prakrit. Finally, it says, if you are kissed, kiss back.
COOMI KAPOOR: In India Unbound, you gave a title to each phase of the economy since Independence that you dealt with. What would you name the phase that started in 2014?
I wrote a new introduction to India Unbound in 2014. Narendra Modi had just completed his campaign and it looked like he was going to get elected, and he got elected. In those days, you could feel it in the air. And the sense I got is that when you think of contemporary Indian history, there are three big milestones. One was 1947, when we got our freedom. But we soon lost that freedom in the ’50s with the command economy that we created, with the mixed economy and planning. We began to get economic liberty in 1991 and that project is still unfinished. The third stage, I believe, is 2014. Deirdre McCloskey, an economic historian, while explaining the industrial revolution in the West, said that one of the most important things that came out of it was ‘bourgeois dignity’. In other words, the middle-class suddenly got a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. And I think what Modi was promising, and why he got elected with such majority, was that his rhetoric was the rhetoric of bourgeois dignity.
What happened after 1991 was that the middle-class expanded. The middle-class in India, which was about 10 per cent in 1980, has become about a third of the country. And another third of the country, is what Modi called the neo-middle class or the aspiring middle-class. And it is a combination of these two — that’s two-thirds of the country — that elected Modi. He promised vikas and other things and it added up and ultimately we voted in the chaiwallah. The chaiwallah is the middle-class aspirer.
Now, I don’t think Modi has quite delivered achche din. There have been some good things, inflation has come down. Of course, it has been helped by the oil price decline for three years. Once I was in the room when a person said (to Modi): ‘Oh you can’t take credit for that, it was just luck’. And Modi’s answer was, ‘Would you rather have an unlucky PM?’.
SANDEEP SINGH: When you say that Modi hasn’t delivered, what comes to your mind in terms of issues?
His three big promises were that he would fight corruption and bring it under control, fight inflation and provide jobs; vikas was a code name for jobs. The fact is that inflation was running double-digit and it has come down to a very reasonable level. Also, putting everything up online brought the 30-point jump in the ‘Ease of doing business’ category in the last World Bank survey. Measures such as self-attestation; it was one of his first actions. It was an idea that came from the UPA. In 2014, Modi said that from now on you won’t need to get attestation by a gazetted officer or a notary, you will self-attest. That, I think, is the underrated aspect of Modi’s achievement, putting everything up online. This will go down as a positive legacy.
The GST is a gamechanger. It started badly, but to the credit of the people in the Finance Ministry… For the first time I saw Finance Ministry people reacting every week and doing something that will make it friendlier to the customer. Then there is the Bankruptcy Law. The Insolvency law is excellent. It will have a major impact in solving the twin balance sheet problem.
If you ask me, his big mistake was demonetisation. Demonetisation has been in the news because the RBI came out and told us that all the money had come back. The long-term positive of this is that it is not just that it came back but that it can be tracked. It is now in bank accounts. And more than a third of those funds were contributed by 2,000 taxpayers — like 37-38 per cent. So what you have done in fact, is that you have made the black money white. I would call that a positive benefit.
But why it is a mistake is that the cost was too high. You don’t treat your people that way when 85 per cent of your transactions are in cash. You don’t punish your people like that. So for me, it’s not just an economic failure, but a dharma failure. It was a moral error. It’s not just the queues that we stood in, people lost their jobs. We don’t have good numbers to tell us how many jobs but common sense tells you that you don’t cause that pain. It was perhaps the biggest blunder of this government, which has actually done fairly good things.
As to whether Modi will get re-elected or not, I’m not a forecaster, but I suspect that the TINA factor will weigh in, meaning ‘there is no alternative’. In fact, my wife asks who else do I vote for? I can’t vote for Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee, so who am I going to vote for? I think the dharma sankat of the Indian voter is partly that.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Given your corporate sector experience, your idea of dharma, how much does the corporate sector in India follow its own dharma?
The obvious job of the corporate sector, of a person in business, is to make money and profits. But you have to make profits within the confines of the law. Now, the one thing that has changed is that more corporates are scared — scared partly of Modi, like most government servants. The only thing I would say here is that a lot of the corruption of before 1991 has gone away.
There have been a number of leaders (since 1991) who have contributed to reforms. But what they have all failed to do, including Modi, is that nobody has bothered to sell the reforms to the people. People get the impression that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Nobody has told people the distinction between poor market and poor business. No businessman wants competition. At heart, every businessman is a monopolist. Competition is an irritation. It is the market and competition that disciplines businessmen and that’s what the reforms are all about. So if you are pro-market, you are pro-competition. If you are pro-competition, then you are actually for the aam aadmi. The costs come down when you compete, the quality of products goes up, and eventually everybody gains.
Margaret Thatcher used to say I spend 20 per cent of my time doing reforms and 80 per cent selling the reforms. And that’s what we thought Modi might do. His rhetoric, ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’, was this. But he has not done it either. So what do we do? We continue to reform by stealth and India grows at night when the government sleeps.
RAVISH TIWARI: Why do you think Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee are not options?
I’m proud of our democracy, but the same democracy has put us in a situation where we do not have an opposition and we need one. At one point it did look like we had two political parties — a party of the Right and a party of the Left. Now the fact is that we have a problem in the Right. All the Right parties have this problem. There are people are socially to the Right, and there are people who are economically to the Right. I would consider myself economically to the Right. But I am socially to the Left. I hate all this business of nationalism and Hindutva and stuff like that. And I think a lot of people like me, who would have voted in 2014 for Modi — not BJP, but Modi — because of his rhetoric, they felt…
In an interview, Walter Andersen (author of RSS: A View to the Inside), who analysed 400 speeches of Modi, said that for every time he uttered a word like ‘Hindutva’ and suggested polarisation, he uttered ‘vikas’ 500 times. So he must be the greatest actor in the world. He tweets three times a day, so the simplest thing would be, whenever a lynching occurs or anything nasty happens, he could easily tweet. He doesn’t have to alienate his constituency, but as a statesman, he can say that we believe in law and order and this is not acceptable behaviour. Frankly, those people who voted for him are also asking this question.
We expected Modi to do something transformative, introduce some of the big bang reforms. But he has turned out to be just like the others, a timid reformer and moderniser. So the incremental reform has continued. Even when he reforms, he wants to keep it hidden. The banking crisis was a great opportunity that we lost. A real reformer would have tackled that. Why should our hard-earned money be used to recapitalise these rotten banks?
PRATIK KANJILAL: So what would your next book be about?
I would like to write a story of the ‘life and times’ and in the process revisit the idea of India. The last great text on the idea of India was Nehru’s Discovery of India. He was in jail, we did not have our freedom. It is a good book. It is still one of the more exciting visions of India, and both Sunil Khilnani and Ramachandra Guha have elaborated on that vision. But 80 years have passed. Communism has collapsed and the mesmerising hold that the Soviet Union had on Socialists during Nehru’s time… has also been discredited. We have moved on to another economic ideology.
I think it is an important time to write the book because Hindutva has hijacked the agenda of our past and we have to really bring it out in a friendly way. The problem with the Hindutva people is that they hate the Left because the Left has contempt for them… visceral contempt. Machiavelli says that the best way to engage with your enemy is with a smile. So it is important to understand the errors that people like (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar and the others made, and bring those out with a smile. One of the problems with the Hindutva people is that their English is not very good and therefore, partly, they don’t get into good universities. If you don’t get into a good university then you don’t understand modernity, the rules of evidence that science depends on. The Left is happy to fight for the Dalits but if somebody disagrees with you, like a Hindutva guy… You may think he is talking rubbish, but you don’t have to tell him that, for the sake of civilised discourse. It is important in a democracy to have a proper dialogue. Right now it is not (happening).
I think every generation should revisit the idea of India. I would like to revisit that idea — A Rediscovery of India.
COOMI KAPOOR: In your corporate career, your first success was the Vicks VapoRub. Can you tell us about that?
I was the first brand manager of Vicks VapoRub. Vicks VapoRub was created by a chemist in North Carolina, named Richardson. That’s the family that started Richardson Vicks that became Procter and Gamble later, worldwide. We did a survey with housewives and mothers, and 87 per cent of them believed it was an Indian product. The other interesting thing is that when I was the CEO of the company, there was terrible price control, the chemist and drug association threatened a ban on us. At the time, the head of R&D saw the formula of Vicks VapoRub and said all the ingredients in it were Ayurvedic. So we decided to re-register Vicks VapoRub as an Ayurvedic product… Later, as a result of it becoming an Ayurvedic company, all the (price) controls went away, including the control of having to sell only through chemist shops. There were only 60,000 chemist shops (at the time). Within six months we were selling at 1.5 million kirana stores and the business took off.