Re-imagining India

Devaki Jain

Egypt and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have given ideal coordinates to locate the argument of this paper.

Egypt is warning us that gross inequalities as well as the clearly visible accumulation of wealth and privilege by a few, and that too supported by the state, does anger and disturb civic order. When this question of comparison was posed to our Prime Minister in his audience to the TV channels on 16th February, he said our democracy offers enough valves to express dissatisfaction, so there is no fear of such strong anti- state uprisings.

But all analysis shows that the violent and armed conflicts in tribal areas, the anarchy in many places is due to tangible injustice, the abrogation of the rule of law, the denial of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. As some critics say, a dysfunctioning democracy.

There is palpable tension everywhere in India at the inequalities and the idea that the middle class is driving the economy. Bribery and corruption, robbery and social violence apart from suicides are increasing. While few who read this article will agree with this view, Aravinda Adiga’s “The White Tiger” in my view, captures this phenomenon so accurately, it is blood curdling. It is not flea biting flea but flea killing the dog.

But Tahrir Square is not only about mass mobilisation to overthrow a government, it is sending some other telling messages, which in my view can in fact revive India, revive the legacies of its “elders”. There is an assertion, from Tahrir Square of what can be called the Egyptian identity extended perhaps to an Arab cultural, philosophical intellectual identity. The flip side being a rejection of what is called the western, which seems to extend beyond western culture to what can be called the western mode of building progress 

According to the scenarios painted by some Arab analysts, “we are therefore witnessing a planetary digital revolution which announces the end of the Western consumerist colonisation of the Arab world, which considers the poor as useless creatures to be wiped out like flies. According to this scenario, all US-backed Arab oil dictators will collapse soon”. 

This affirmation of earlier identities is an old story – somewhat similar to the efforts of nations, which have been colonised to reaffirm their pre-colonial cultural intellectual characteristics. 

Like some of the leaders of freedom struggles in other countries, Gandhi when rejecting the colonial masters also rejected their notions and strategies for progress. When asked by a British journalist whether he would like India to have the same standard of living as Britain, he replied that considering that such a small island had to exploit half the globe to have this living standard, there were not enough globes for a big country like India.

Revolting against the exploitative nature of the build up of the West’s industrial and technological strength, Gandhi argued that Indian ideas in Indian conditions were necessary to relieve the masses from the burden of economic oppression in the shortest time, with tools and techniques that were labour-absorbing and used minimum capital and energy. He was also, perhaps, one of the first to understand the nature of roving capital, and how it cannot only exploit for self-advantage the resources of the colonies, but also subordinate the mind of the colonised and gain partners among them.

We are therefore well placed, in reconsidering our development and economic progress roadways. Growth and surplus, it is being argued is the necessary condition for removal of inequality and poverty. But as Amartya Sen has said in his recent article ‘Growth and other concerns’ in Hindu (14th February 2011), “there are so many elements of arbitrariness in any growth estimate (the choice of prices for weighing is only one of the problems,…), but also because the lives that people are able to lead — what ultimately interest people most — are only indirectly and partially influenced by the rates of overall economic growth”

Further how the GDP figures are generated, as well as its composition, from what economic areas and how, is in itself an issue, which many economists including Prof Stieglitz have raised.

Is it possible to generate the same growth rate of GDP from other sources and in other ways? Can the demand generated by say millions of incomes at the lower end of the economy, be an engine of growth and to some extent relieve the managers of the economy from generating surplus for social spending? In other words can distributive justice be built into the growth path? It would not seem impossible but it certainly would need abandonment of the current over-the-top belief in corporate and FDI-led growth. Gandhi had constructed the bubbling up theory of growth, to challenge the trickle down theory, which is now operating.

The Bubbling Up theory argues that the process of removal of poverty can itself be an engine of growth, that the incomes and capabilities of those who are currently poor has the potential to generate demand which in turn will engine production, but of goods that are immediately needed by the poor which are currently peripheral in production. The oiling, then, of this engine will bubble up and fire the economy, in a much more broadbased manner. Unlike export-led growth, it will not skew production and trade into the elite trap, which is accentuating disparities and creating discontent.

To liberate the India that we have today from the multiple legacies that she is encumbered with, such as the iron administrative frame [often seen as a valuable gift from the Raj], the centralist economic policy making structures, the overarching powers of ideas from what can be called Eurocentric or Anglo-Saxon spaces, will be difficult. 

However thanks to the global financial crisis and now the anxieties related to the reappearance of those ghosts, the spaces have opened up for rethinking economics and governance. Further from everywhere, North and South, there are illustrations of initiatives where people would like to keep some control over their spaces. In other words moving away from dependence on peaked power/central systems – the lessons from the Lehman Bros bankruptcy tsunami. 

Social and other networks are also creating that centrality of not only communication but also production and consumption. The commons are coming to legitimacy as efficient through the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. 
This affirmation of local economy was part of what Gandhi had in mind. Gandhi suggested that production and consumption should be proximate and based as far as possible on local resources, “the first concern of every village republic will be to grow its own food crops and cloth”. To provide dynamic institutional underpinning to operationalise these ideas on the ground, Gandhi held that a unified political and economic strategy was required. This entailed the creation of an institution in the political realm, “village republics,” to ensure that every adult had an equal share of political power as well as the duty to be an active custodian of political freedom. Swaraj - self-rule, was applied at all levels: Hind Swaraj - self-rule for India; Gram Swaraj - self-rule for the village; and Swadharma - self-rule for the individual. One could suggest that this was similar to or the same as affirming individual rights. 
However when we suggest that Gandhian ideas are relevant it is not sufficient to merely present a particular conceptualisation of Gram Swaraj. It is well established that particular mode of institutional framework would not work in the world of today. There is too much on the table for this idea to be revived in its purist form. But what can make sense is to reinvoke and question the overall adoption of something called modernity, socialist or capitalist, based on ideas that enabled colonialism such as central systems, or global markets and roving capital. 

An arrangement for deepening democracy and deconstructing economic and administrative power was put into place by the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution. Generated from the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, and taken forward by Rajiv Gandhi, it had evolved after much reflection and understanding of the current world. It could in fact be the tool with which India could re build itself into a people-led economy.

But however much its proponents strive, the Juggernaut of centrism continues, the collusion between civil servants and politicians against the sharing of power and decision-making is shocking .The latest entrant is the cash transfer to BPL starting with the subsidies, and also being proposed in other social sectors. Will this be done by the elected gram panchayats? 

When the mandate of the 73rd Amendment was to transfer cash i.e. funds belonging to schemes to the district and lower levels of governance, it does not happen. But despite this denial of transfer of the three Fs as it was called, the locally elected system is criticised for being non-functional, or corrupt.

Instead of having to deal with so many peoples marches and anti-project confrontations, if the Gram Sabha could be the arbiter of the entry of any land acquiring project, any road or mining plan, there would not only be peace but protection of interest, in land, in forests, in water -apart from in building food granaries locally to be able to feed locally.

Retail in food it is being argued needs the international retailers and their investment to make the farm to consumer efficient. There was a time when cooperatives who were not overpowered by bureaucratic controls could do this and did do it .The Cottage Industries Emporium is one such illustration of marketing from a dispersed community. Cold chains, and storage does not need FDI and Walmart, it can be part of the rural infrastructure, the MNREGA projects and our people can be the organisers. The dabba wallahs of Mumbai have proved the ability of efficient delivery in the most challenging circumstances, so too can farmers and wholesalers and retailers move our farm to the consumer. The 3 tier governance structure, called the Panchayati Raj Institutions, offers the hub for such economic endeavours.

Decentralisation is a negative term. We need to replace it with the idea of deconstructing power and thus reconstructing India from the lower rungs of economy, of administration, of capability. This is a possibility and would heal the fissures and also mitigate the evils of centralised power, which in turn invites scams and deviations, as accumulation does tempt.

Yes, this is Gandhi’s time and he had worked on a free India, which also gave freedom from basic disabilities to all Indians, what he called the second freedom movement.

He is relevant and can usher in the re imagined India. It is so reassuring that the pioneer of Indian industry J R D Tata said, “I do not want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country.” 

Devaki Jain is best known for her work on development, South Asia, and feminist economics

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of INCLUSION. Comments are welcome at

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