The “Gandhi Conclave” in Patna on April 10 and 11 commemorated the centenary of Gandhi’s visit to Bihar in 1917 in connection with the Champaran Satyagraha, which, for the first time, lent a mass character to the Congress-led freedom movement in the country. At a time when the country is enveloped by clouds of helplessness, the conclave underlined how Gandhian strategy has a non-violent solution for almost every problem confronting the world.
Two conclusions can be drawn if one approaches Gandhism in a simple manner. One, Gandhi appears compulsively antediluvian; two, he was not bound by standard frameworks. The period when he wrote Hind Swaraj was probably Gandhi’s most negative phase, though the text should be treated as a critique of India’s de-industrialisation by colonialism. From 1919, after the successful Champaran Satyagraha, Gandhi scripted the Swadeshi Movement which gave a foundation to domestic industrialisation. He was possibly the first Indian to underline that the development and emancipation of the country required concurrent dialogues with the colonial state, civil society, the market and corporate sector.
Apart from the Patna conclave, two books I read inspired me to revisit Gandhi’s philosophy, specially its economic dimension — How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reason For World’s Hunger by Susan George and Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns To Untax The One Percent by Isaac William Martin. George makes three seminal points: One, the Third World War will be over water; two, the consumption of cereals by pets in the First World is higher than by human beings in the Third World; three, four Earths would be required if the Third World emulates the First World’s consumption pattern.
Martin’s book is about the counter movement of the rich for tax holidays and their demand of removing all financial fetters. He writes on the “tax day, April 15, 2010 hundreds of thousands of Americans turned out to rallies around the United States to protest against taxes and big Government… offered forthright defense of capitalists and the rich using grassroots tactics of the poor”.
I revisited two basic Gandhian economic principles after reading the two books. One, the limitation of wants: No maximisation technique is enough to satisfy unlimited wants, and social interest outweighs self-interest. Production should be mindful of the earth’s capacity. The unbridled use of natural resources will lead the world towards disaster, as prophesised by George. Two, the concept of “trusteeship”: With the idea of market-centric development under mammoth multinationals assuming hegemonic proportions, there is a need to appreciate this concept.
Even though Gandhi promoted Indian capitalism as a spin-off of the Swadeshi Movement, he was aware of the monstrous consequences of capitalism. Just before his assassination, Gandhi finalised the “practical trusteeship formula”, which would have transformed the “present capitalist order of society into an egalitarian one (in which) an individual will not be free to hold or use wealth for selfish satisfaction”.
Liaquat Ali Khan, the finance minister of the interim government in 1946 under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru, held similar views. He not only introduced 91 per cent income tax in the maiden budget of the interim government, but also instituted a commission to investigate ill-gotten accumulation during WW II. G.D. Birla, who was in the visitor’s gallery of Parliament when the budget was presented, not only walked out but organised fortnightly strikes of the stock exchange in protest. India’s top industrialist and closest comrades of Gandhi rallied to demand Khan’s ouster from the cabinet.
Partition and Gandhi’s assassination meant that the principle of trusteeship and equity-centric taxation never got full play. Today, we pride ourselves on having the third highest numbers of billionaires when we also have the highest number of poor in the world. The “Gandhi Conclave”, I hope, will bring back Gandhi’s ideals on the centrestage, nationally and globally. Unless the counter movement of the rich is stalled, the world won’t have authentic economic democratisation.