The Economy and Economics of MK Gandhi’s Style

Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud converses with Inter-Actions about how understanding and promoting Gandhi’s ‘economy’ might be our pluralistic country’s way to true socioeconomic freedom and cultural rejuvenation.

LILA: Gandhi used a simple, direct language that clearly communicated a vision of future rooted in the social and cultural capital of the country. How did Gandhi understand Political Economy?

Tridip Suhrud: There is a misconception that Gandhi’s readings were mostly of theological or spiritual material. The truth is, Gandhi was especially well read in political economy. His intellectual engagements were wide-ranging, and his reading choices were deeply connected with his own lived experiences. His life as a lawyer in South Africa brought him in close contact with various types of livelihood methods, and offered him a profound understanding of the socioeconomic implications of agriculture, mining, indentured labour, migration, unemployment, public debt etc. To add to his insights, he read and researched. In South Africa, he was among the first to analyse coolie labour and migration in the context of plantation economy. In the context of the coming of railways to South Africa, Gandhi learnt various aspects of infrastructure creation. As his clients included those who engaged in cross-border trade, he knew how trade relations worked. All these experiences helped Gandhi evolve his language as well as his vision.

LILA: What is the pedagogic scope of Gandhi’s language and style in this regard? How can the academia effectively draw from Gandhi today to develop a way of articulating organic developmental ideas and connect with the larger public?

TS: Gandhi’s point of departure from contemporary political economists is that he did not see the discipline as devoid of the concerns of ethics and religion; these were fused in Gandhi. The ethical within the economic realm was Gandhi’s predominant concern. For him, equitable distribution of wealth, universal access to livelihood, dignity of labour etc had to be arrived at through ethical mediation. His ideas regarding these were intensified by his reading of Ruskin’s Unto This Last.  Gandhi’s language in his Gujarati translation of Unto This Last reflects his beautiful reading of Ruskin. He uses translation as a means to create new meanings and renders the main idea there as Sarvaodya – welfare of all. Nonetheless, he does not make it obvious; he lets the enhancement of ideas run as a latent stream in the text. Gandhi’s language brings into focus the responsibilities of the state as well as the wealthy towards the creation of a new economic and social order. In his writings that narrate the teleological movement of Sarvodaya, Gandhi presents the enlightenment of the wealthy as a milestone. He clearly says that the wealthy should appreciate themselves as trustees of wealth and not owners or philanthropists. Their trusteeship should find ways of using wealth for the greater common good. This idea makes good ecological sense, as it envisages trustees of wealth as trustees of the earth as well – their trusteeship would conserve the earth and its resources for future generations. The academia should open themselves to this idea, and discuss it.  

Over time, there has been a devaluation of Gandhi’s economic thought; it is largely deemed unfit for the modern times. But the truth is, Gandhi’s ideas on growth and development can indeed help us turn Economics on its head and move it in a more fulfilling direction. If we follow Gandhi’s language, we would realise the urgent need to shift the focus of the discipline from the wealth of nations to their poverty. It will help us see that the primary responsibility of the discipline is to understand the dimensions of poverty – the various impediments to growth, deprivation, public and private debts, lack of decision-making capability of the poor. If economists place poverty at the centre of their attention, it will radically change both comprehension and policy. Then, Ecology will become the central concern of Economics, not in terms of any SWOT analysis, but with regard to finding a language to develop Ecological Economics as a subject of deep study. Then we will move towards what J.C Kumarappa and Gandhi called ‘Economy of Permanence’, which should not be confused with the contemporary notion of sustainability.

LILA: What is the State’s role in bringing about an ‘Economy of Permanence?’

TS: In Gandhi’s view the responsibility of the State is as important as the trusteeship of the wealthy. The state should adopt legislative and administrative mechanisms by which the interest of the last person is secured. The state’s socially or politically affirmative actions should include decentralisation of institutions. He envisioned a tripartite movement with the trustees of wealth, the decentralised state, and the last person collaborating to create a new order of things. The language of the ‘economy of permanence’ articulates what is possible and what is desirable. It asks questions such like ‘Is this type of consumption or production desirable?’ It urges the citizens to participate in the moral debate on the distribution of wealth.

LILA: How would this debate impact the public in general and the academia in particular?

TS: It will change the nature of want. Then Economics will no longer be an amoral study. Its vocabulary will be informed by ideas like aparigraha (non-attachment) and asteya (non-stealing). Aparigraha is the attitude that helps one lead a simple life. But when extended to language, it indicates the sparseness of language, the economy of words, which Gandhi practised. It stops one from getting indulgent and becoming attached to big words and vacuous talk. It gives one the daring to speak plainly, directly, without adornment. Asteya is the practice of not stealing, and it urges one to consume only what one needs. Whatever one does not need may be given away to others who need it. Further, one contributes one’s labour every day towards production; any fruit eaten without the contribution of labour is stolen food, says Gita and Gandhi laboured this point ceaselessly. The term leads one to understand the true meaning of dignity of labour. If such a vocabulary is built by the discipline of Economics, then its recommendations of policy would be founded on the vision and considerations of Antyodaya – the rise of last person. It will ask what a policy or economic action is doing to the last person, who is very often a Dalit, a woman, an Adivasi, a Muslim, a child. And when the last person is given attention to, Sarvodaya would have already arrived among us. I have a feeling that Swadeshi has been given more attention so far as a term and an idea; it is time for us to put our focus on Sarvodaya.

LILA: How we can translate this vision into organisational structures?

TS:  The first step towards this is to focus on the creation of co-operatives, which symbolise decentralisation, empowerment, citizens’ control of decisions, collaboration rather than competition. These should be co-operatives of primary producers. Tribhovandas Patel and Verghese Kurien understood the importance of giving technological, infrastructural and managerial advantage to primary producers through the formation of a large self-governing co-operative. The primary producers thus need to be enabled through state-of-the-art technology and services. In Gandhi’s vision, unlike the popular belief, management and technology are at the heart of economic thought, and not absent. Economics must privilege co-operation and move towards dispute resolutions. Gandhi was not envisaging any labour-capital conflict; he wanted the distance between labour and capital to be shorter, conflicts to be resolved. This is where language plays an important role – we need to create an atmosphere for equal dialogue between labour and capital and think about the future not just of the rights of labour but also of the responsibilities of capital. The differences are not irreconcilable. The 1917 formation of Majoor Mahajan Sangh was an example of a union where labour and capital were envisaged to come together, meditate and mediate for a greater common future.

LILA: How would we persuade the academicians to move their discourse towards this in a collective manner?

TS: It is apparent to the academics. We know that economics focussed on wealth produces large scale disenfranchisement, forced labour and migration, hunger, lack of non-linear opportunities etc. This is all evident from the economic data available to us. It is high time we used this data and rethought the very purpose of the discipline. We must now think seriously about reason of the very existence of the discipline.

LILA: How can political will be gathered around the implementation of this thought?

TS:  We have certainly made some great steps towards enabling India. We are no longer in the same place as we were during independence. But, we cannot also deny that so many people today are facing hopelessness. While we make advancements in wealth creation, a number of individuals do not see a future for themselves in that developed India, they don’t see themselves contributing to it, participating in it. It is at an unreachable distance. If a significant part of our population feels there is no hope, we need to recognise this as a problem to be resolved. This problem arises from our undue attention on wealth creation. Of course, creation of wealth is not to be frowned upon – that is not my intention. But if creation of wealth is accompanied by large scale deprivation, if it is unsustainable, there should be no illusion that we have reached a crisis, a situation where certain modes of production and certain modes of market predominate to the detriment of others. There is a pulverising trend in India, an urge to pulverise everything. This has stemmed from capital primarily serving the self-interest of certain people and spaces. Crony capitalism thrives. But, it is heartening that people are beginning to question all these, there is more awareness now. Further, institutions like the Reserve Bank of India have become aware, and are thinking of remedial measures. But, this awareness has to be translated into corrective measures. Institutional mechanisms have to be created to ensure public good. There cannot be arbitrary distribution of public resources – the public should not be disabled from understanding what is happening, either. What is available to us is our right to demand. We demand. We have to demand in more diverse and creative ways.

LILA: As a Gandhi scholar do you think we can develop a middle idiom that stays clear of what is used by both Gandhi bashers and Gandhi worshipers to objectively understand and discuss the practical adaptability of Gandhi’s ideas for our times? 

TS: Let us accept, the so-called ‘Gandhi bashing’ comes from various sites. It could be because of genuine disenchantment with Gandhi’s ideas, or from a partial understanding of his life and works, or it could be ideologically motivated. The fact is, all these reasons co-exist. The common factor here is, while bashing him up, we don’t engage with him. We dismiss him. What we must remember is that his concerns might have been misplaced or misguided, but there is no denying that he thought deeply, worked tirelessly.

On the other side, there has always been a State sponsored Gandhi. And this Gandhi is invariably worshiped, and this worship is characterized by amnesia. The general attitude is to remember him only occasionally, and there is satisfaction in invoking him. Gandhi Jayanti is a good occasion for remembrance. Jan 30 is bad because it rakes up memories of a certain act. This state-sponsored Gandhi is the big brother of the institutional Gandhi, who sits in places where mere invocation is sufficient. All these have turned Gandhi into a harmless, literally toothless entity, and have robbed him of his edge.

The critics of Gandhi who dismiss his relevance for today must understand that it is not Gandhi’s burden to be relevant in our times. We killed him, and he is not with us. The responsibility of making him relevant, if needed, lies with us. Let us look at this – do we have the same expectation of another leader like Churchill? We constantly keep looking towards Gandhi – Why? He cannot provide us with all the answers!

Whenever there is discontent in us about the state of the society, whenever we are unhappy about the violence, hunger, lack of justice around us, we think of Gandhi. If after so many years of Independence, we still do not have a just society, an ethical society, a happy society, then we are unfree. And, we need teachers. Real teachers. Gandhi is one such teacher. One of them, mind you. Not the only one.

Gandhi thought seriously about the state and society, justice in a broad sense, good life, and all that. If we think that we need some lessons in these, Gandhi is one of the people we can go to. In good times, Gandhi is someone we easily forget. When times are bad, we turn to Gandhi. Is he our friend in times of distress? Indians, including those who are otherwise disenchanted with him or intolerant of him, have always seen him so. When we find more people asking about Gandhi, it is a sign that India is passing through a difficult time.

LILA: You were part of a Gandhian Institution. How do you see the roles of such spaces?

TS: Gandhian institutions have a special responsibility considering that they have a special affinity towards the man and his ideas. They should realise that Gandhi has been ritualised, that their understanding of him is based upon rituals, and that they measure someone’s goodness with respect to her adherence to these rituals and not to the spirit of Gandhi. They have all the time resorted to a cliched dismissal of all critiques of Gandhi, instead of intellectually engaging with the critiques. They house unimaginative museums and libraries that are inaccessible and dirty. Their discussion is not about ideas – not even about Gandhi’s own ideas – but about something else. I have not yet figured out what that something is. I wonder, what this anti-thought mode is which Gandhian institutions have taken to.

Gandhian institutions must realise that their worship does not help Gandhi grow in our times. In his own time, he lived the active life of an intellectual surrounded by some of the finest minds of the world. He has to be engaged with. His critics also have to be engaged with. If a critique emerges – say, a feminist or Dalit one – or if someone points a finger at Gandhi’s secularity or refer to his racial inadequacy, why should the Gandhian institutions get so nervous?  Why can’t there be a recognition that there could be legitimate unease with Gandhi’s ideas. Why can’t Gandhi fall short? His perfection is not what he told us of, it is our construct of the person, and so we have to deal with it ourselves.

LILA: How do you think we can communicate effectively with the public about recognising and making alleviation of deprivation our primary economic goal, when economic pursuits and goals are today largely defined by capitalist and consumerist industries? 

TS: I think the society has no illusions about the language which will communicate best to them. We must understand the significance of the vernaculars. Consider this, the economic life and politics of the citizens are articulated in vernaculars. It is only policy making that happens within the academic framework. All of us who are pushed on to the fast track have experienced competition as a life-corroding phenomenon. We all know that, and we will be relieved to get out of this. So if we communicate clearly, the public will listen. But the real problem lies in academics and its structures, where there is no hearing space for certain ideas. There are zones of deafness in mainstream economic discourses.

LILA: Do you think there is a transformative role that study of Gandhi’s language can play in the society today? If you would envisage an academic /public movement for that, how would you describe it? 

TS: I would not worry too much about this. The academia always tends to seek validat

ion. But, disciplines such as Sociology, Economics, Literature should necessarily develop the ability to understand what people are saying. It is heartening that Political Science has begun to understand our society. All disciplines have to acquire that ability to appreciate what people think, and how they behave. Do we have the wherewithal to do this? Do we even feel the need? If that is not our consideration – it ought not be – we have just one set of answers. If we think one of the roles of the academia is to both guide the society and the state and lead them to understanding, we must know how people articulate their fears and aspirations. If we understand what is impeding our quest to be able to do that, we will acquire the capacity for a different language practice.

LILA: In this age of advanced technology, how would you reflect on the future of Gandhian Studies vis-a-vis technology? How do you think Gandhi would have responded to our times what language would he have used? 

TS: A bright future, I would say. I do not know about Gandhian Studies, but I know that deep studies of Gandhi are happening within different discipline, in diverse fields. Gandhi is studied towards enabling empowerment, creation of public spaces, architecture… Of course, Gandhian institutions are blissfully unaware of this. I would say, they have outlived their time. Today, Gandhi is best served intellectually from outside. What is the best thing that we can do? To share our resources and technology is such an aid there. While I was there, I tried to do it in the Ashram – it needed to share its archives with the world, and it was important to create a tech-enabled environment in the Ashram. Today, anybody who wants to read Gandhi or about him does not need to come to the Ashram. We must understand preservation of Gandhi in the sense of not hoarding but sharing. There should be a flow of information and good communication. He was still different from us in that he insisted on talking about ideas. Ideas are uncomfortable, they cause dissonance, they make you think. Gandhi makes us think in interesting ways even when we quarrel with him.

See, Gandhi saw himself as someone who communicated. Since 1904, there was never a time when he did not run a printing press or journal. He used telegram… all technology available to cultivate the minds of people. What Gandhi was objecting to, and was uneasy about, was not technology per se, but technology becoming the measure of human worth. If we use technology thus, we will end up with dangerous social considerations. Gandhi wanted us to be aware of this. He wanted us to have a more nuanced understanding of this. We cannot let all issues of governance, health, education, goodness, virtue to be technologically determined. He objected to such technological determinism. We are just beginning to understand that unease in these times.

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