In a land simultaneously ancient and modern, the land where the concept of Mahakaal or deep time was first articulated, it is not unexpected for the politics of the day to recall history. But in the field of economics, the marginal utility of the past diminishes rapidly when regression reaches a certain point, because the economic systems of those times were pre-modern and bear little relevance to our economy. Economists generally hesitate to draw inferences even from the medieval period, when large parts of the world were dominated, regrettably, by robber barons and mad monks. To venture all the way back to Harappa, whose politics and economy can only be inferred from the archaeological record, takes courage. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has shown her mettle in her Budget speech, going where no economist has dared to go before.
But her speech brought glad tidings to the obscure field of the study of the Indus Valley inscriptions. The epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan spent his life trying to decipher the script of the lost language, and the Finnish researcher Asko Parpola has spent four decades of his career in the quest. Their tiny community would be overjoyed to learn that the words sreni, sethi and poddar have been deciphered, and have been used in a Budget speech to lay claim to the ancient roots of Indian mercantile energy. They, the specialists, must necessarily be overjoyed because it would be news to them, as inspiring as earlier reports of transplant surgery and flying machines in ancient times. And the Left must be devastated at the discovery of the word sreni. It is one of the markers of caste, and it must be galling to find the ancient provenance of the system established.
The ancient texts provide popular reference material for policymakers, especially Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Kalidasa and the Thirukkural. However, some relevant texts are unfairly ignored. The game of dice in the Mahabharata constitutes a hostile takeover bid. Dandin’s Dashakumaracharita offers advice about the economics of courtesanship, which bears favourable comparison with the content of modern marketing courses. The frame tale of the Vetala Panchavimshati (the oldest recension is in Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara) begins with a humble tribute transmuting into gemstones, a process that would gladden a finance minister’s heart. If we must consult the ancients on matters of the fisc, let us hear the full gamut of the voices of the past resound in Parliament.
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