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Volume XLIV, No.51

Gandhi in 21st Century

by Bharat Jhunjhunwala

Tuesday 24 April 2007


Dr Manmohan Singh claims the heritage of Gandhiji. He travelled in the rail compartment from which Gandhiji was thrown out in South Africa with much fanfare. But is he following the policies suggested by Gandhi? Gandhi was a strict proponent of economic sovereignty of the country. His thinking can be best understood by comparing with that of Dadabhai Naoroji and Jamshedji Tata.

Naoroji advocated the policy of growing within the unjust economic order imposed by the British. In 1901 he wrote in Poverty and Un-British Rule in India: “There was not the slightest necessity that India should suffer in order that England might gain. If only the right policy were adopted India could be made prosperous, and at the same time England would reap ten times the benefit that she now had from that connection... If (the Indian people) were in a position to buy £ 1 worth of British products per head per annum it would equal the amount of British exports to the whole world at the present time. Let India be placed in such a position and they would be utterly unable to supply all her wants.” Naoroji’s view was that British rule over India could be mutually beneficial if only the British increased the purchasing power of the Indian people. Gandhi did not accept Naoroji’s suggestion. He said that Indian rule was more important than increase in purchasing power. Gandhi did not compromise with the British because India was weak. He forged new weapons like Satyagraha to fight the tyranny of British capital.

Not Manmohan Singh. In an interview to soon after taking over as Prime Minister, he admitted that the international economic game was that of power. But he went on to say that the powerful Western countries set the rules of that game. He felt that India did not have the capability of changing those rules. Instead she should try to benefit from the available world economic system as the East Asian countries had done. Dr Singh wants to avoid confrontation with the injustice of the world economic system and wants to secure whatever benefits are possible within the unjust world order. Thus he does not raise issues such as the removal of patents regime from the WTO. His government is willingly giving away India’s wealth to the United States in the unnecessary accumulation of forex reserves. The United States, strengthened with Indian money, opposes India’s claim to a permanent seat in the Security Council and also India’s candidate for the post of Secretary General. He follows Naoroji rather than Gandhi. To paraphrase Naoroji’s quote above: “There is no necessity that India should suffer in order that the West might gain. If the Indian people were in a position to buy more Western products it would help the West become prosperous as well. Let India be placed in such a position that the West would be utterly unable to supply all her wants.”

At nearly the same time Jamshedji Tata was singing songs in praise of the British rulers of India. According to his biography published by the Publications Division, speaking to the Parsee community he said: “By their peculiar position (the Parsees) have benefited more than any other class by British rule, and I am sure their gratitude to that rule is, as it ought to be, in due proportion to the advantage derived from it.” The gratitude to the British rulers was to be determined by benefits received by the Parsi community. There was no sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice involved here. Tata did not mind the exploitation of India by her British masters as long as the Parsis benefited from the British rule.

Gandhi, of course, thought differently. His primary concern was the welfare of the entire people of India, not just a small wealthy section such as that of the Parsis. He vehemently wanted India to throw out the British rule so that the people could set their own destiny. Once there was a lively debate between Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi. Tagore opposed Gandhi’s demand of Swadeshi saying it mattered little to the people of India whether they were exploited by Indian or foreign businessmen. In reply Gandhi pointed out that the fruits of the Indian businessmen’s profits fell on the soil of this country while the fruits of the profits made by foreign businessmen fell on other lands. While recognising the selfishness inherent in the profit-motive of the businessmen, Gandhi sought to make them work in the interests of the people while leading them against British capital.

Not Dr Manmohan Singh. He is ever pleading with foreign companies to come and make profits in India and he guarantees that there will be no restriction on repatriation of profits. Just as Jamshedji Tata thanked the British rulers for the profits made by the Parsis, similarly Dr Manmohan Singh thanks the WTO for the profits made by the multinational companies in India. It is argued that the circumstances have changed and Gandhi’s policies have to be adjusted to the current times. There is merit in this argument. We are independent today and our economy is growing at eight per cent per year and our companies are making inroads into the world markets. But we cannot change the fundamental objectives and premises that Gandhi stood for. If at all, this newfound strength of the Indian businessmen should be used for the furtherance of the objectives set by Gandhi who did not want the Indian people to be exploited by British capitalists or Indian businessmen to exploit other countries. He wanted free movement of ideas and technologies across the borders. Thus he said he wanted to keep his windows open for ideas from foreign lands but the doors shut.

The correct model of globalisation, according to Gandhi would be to make available free flow of knowledge and ideas. Rules should be made to force big companies to give out information in public good rather than to protect their monopoly. The use of current knowledge for public good was more important than the generation of new knowledge the fruits of which would be uncertain. The Gandhian perspective in the WTO would be to seek loosening of the TRIPS agreement.

The objective of the economy, according to Gandhi, was to secure self-respecting work for the people. He did not want the people to be made dependent on charity doled out by the government as under the National Employment Guarantee Scheme. He advocated the use of Khadi to provide employment to the people.

Not Dr Manmohan Singh. He is giving full freedom to the big companies to first destroy the livelihood of the people. The use of harvesters has taken away the jobs of the agricultural labour at the most lucrative time of harvesting. Excavators have reduced demand for labour in construction and cable laying. Power looms have killed the handlooms. Gandhi would have nothing of this.

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