Jagdish Rattanani & Sudarshan Iyengar
he growing influence of large and powerful business conglomerates continue to raise concerns, not only in India but across the world. Suspicions have risen high these days in the age of the overwhelming influence of Facebook and Google but they go back many years. Woodrow Wilson, noted for his agenda against business lobbies in the US, said it more than a century ago: “No country can afford to have its prosperity originated by a small controlling class…Every country is renewed out of the ranks of the unknown, not out of the ranks of those already famous and powerful and in control.”
India has seen its own explosive rise of business conglomerates, and the attendant suspicions that they inevitably evoke among the ordinary people. The Ambanis in general and Mukesh Ambani as the head of the Reliance Industries group in particular are among the top houses that get named often, either as examples of high achievement or as a class that controls more than it should. Now, even Ambani has spoken of the uneven benefits of economic reforms, saying that “the disparity is neither acceptable nor sustainable.” While celebrating growth and announcing that “India’s time has come,” the business leader wrote recently of the “common goal” of Mahatma Gandhi’s Antyodaya or the idea of welfare and well-being reaching the last person.
Gandhi and unbridled GDP growth appear to meet in this vision, offering a unique combination of Antyodaya and Antilia, the famously chronicled $2bln family skyrise where the Ambanis stay in luxurious opulence.
There is of course a fundamental clash between the two but can the gulf be bridged by the “Ambani thinking,” loosely a metaphor for development models that have reached us where we stand today and are being pushed on a faster track? Or is Gandhi being appropriated, his commanding ideas and powerful lexicon subsumed by the offer of delivering on the ends if you allow the business class the luxury of using any means? The questions have to be seen in the light of the nexus between the State and big business, each protecting, supporting and enabling the other, all of it entrenched and regularised within the democratic framework.
Gandhi of course was not against wealth creation. Yet, he would use the word “thieves” for those keeping anything more than their need. In Gandhi’s words: “I am no socialist and I do not want to dispossess those who have got possessions: but I do say that, personally, those of us who want to see light out of darkness have to follow this rule … If somebody else possesses more than I do, let him. But so far as my own life has to be regulated, I do say that I dare not possess anything which I do not want.” (Selections from Gandhi by Nirmal Kumar Bose)
In this approach, Antilia and Antyodaya cannot go together. Yet, damning the former cannot create space for the latter. In a complex subject that spans the moral, the material and indeed the spiritual, it is best to steer clear of mixing two ingredients that are inherently unmixable. The cocktail that emerges will please no one, however enticing the colour or the promise. In fact, each standing on its own is heady stuff – one a model of instant gratification focused on the outer and the other a model of long-term fulfilment focused on the inner.
The thrills of modernity, the promise of a GDP-delivered nirvana, and an economy built on endless consumption makes for a captivating ride. It has given us jobs (for a few) and selective infrastructure upgrades on which ride fast cars, instant cash and super AMOLED screens full of AI-driven ads. It comes with its side effects – anxiety, stress, frequent crashes, plunder of the environment, rising inequality and violence embedded in every aspect of living. This is heady alright, if the nation were to argue that we never had enough and now we get all the stuff at home, ordered on Amazon.
On the other hand, stands the combination of a bania and a sage in the personality of Mahatma Gandhi, resolute in his thinking that the above is a path to doom. This is the path of self-emancipation, of inner growth, of character that lives with the ideals of Narsinh Mehta’s eternal song, “Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye, je peed parayi jaane re” (Only that person is the lover of the Lord, who understands the pain of another). Here is the original minimalist, long before a movement by that name began anywhere. This is heady in a deeper sense, and meant only for the true seekers, not for the faint hearted.
Across the world, the perils of the GDP ride are becoming clearer even to those uninitiated in the lessons of Mahatma Gandhi. Climate change, the pollution in our oceans, the rising frequency of pandemics and growing inequality seen even in the most ‘developed’ of nations mark the bitter harvest of which Gandhi had warned long, long ago.
The truth is that India turned away from the path of Mahatma Gandhi not today but long, long ago. The policies of privatisation and liberalisation in the 1990s meant a sharper turn in that original direction that we set for ourselves. With a new party at the helm, even as the original policies of the Congress come in for criticism, the turn in the direction is the same – sharper, faster and further away from Mahatma Gandhi, now overtly so.
There was a time it was said that the policies of liberalisation were dictated by the IMF and the World Bank. Then, what was dictated became the native language and we immersed ourselves in it and took to it seamlessly. In that sense, Dhirubhai Ambani’s original words: “To think small is unbecoming of an Indian” celebrated material dreams that were always there but never came to be articulated in those words.
Now, as the Western model totters, as the world searches for a new path, it is India that is caught in a dark alley from which it will find it hard to come out unscathed.
Across the globe, the turn against the way the modern-day growth model works is gaining momentum. As the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote in the IMF’s Finance & Development issue just when the pandemic struck: “We have an economy rife with market power and exploitation…We need a comprehensive rewriting of the rules of the economy.”
Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Sudarshan Iyengar is the former Vice-Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, the university founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. Views are personal. ©The Billion Press.