Gandhi and the Swadeshi Project
On the eve of the 141st birth anniversary of MK Gandhi, I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacy of his economic ideology. Gandhian economics did not outlast Independence by too many days. During the freedom struggle, plenty of lip service had been paid to his ideals of sarvodaya, swaraj and swadeshi. Soon after swaraj had been acquired, however, it was decided that the path to sarvodaya would pass through a brand of swadeshi that Gandhi would have difficulty recognizing.
Nehru inherited from Gandhi the fierce desire to be self-reliant. Nehru’s India would not be content with political independence but would also demand economic independence and self-sufficiency. But somewhere, dazzled by the bright lights of hydroelectric dams, world-class engineering colleges and space projects, Nehruvian swadeshi lost touch with the Gandhian notion of individual self-sufficiency, based on the village republic.
A lot of ink has been spilled on how Nehru failed urban India. His import quotas and controls denied wealthy Indians the best of Western consumption, the license-raj choked the rise of the Indian entrepreneur, and the prohibition of foreign capital constrained rapid technological advances. I find this characterization of Nehru symptomatic of the urban obsession of policy-makers, academics, the media and people like you and me. Maybe a more open and capital-friendly approach would have positioned India better today and maybe it wouldn’t, but Nehru’s greatest failure was the abject neglect of the countryside. In doing so, he set the urban standards by which Indian development would be judged for the next 60 years, and, indeed, continues to be judged today.
Gandhi would probably be horrified at contemporary India. The central government is struggling to engage with demands for swaraj (or azaadi if you will) from different parts of the country. Swadeshi is a thing of the past: the Gandhian notion died with Gandhi while the closed and regulated Nehruvian economy was firmly booted out by another Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, twenty years ago. As for sarvodaya, well, somewhere between farmer suicides and forced evictions on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, we’ve lost sight of that that particular ideal.
But the Gandhian ideology is, at least in spirit, as important today as it was all those decades ago and for the first time in several years, policymakers are sitting up to listen. The next ten years must be the decade of the rural economy. Not in the narrow sense of the Green Revolution but through a vision that reaches out to all of the rural poor. This vision must encompass the improvement of agricultural productivity, providing social security nets to the rural poor, making food a universal right, and integrating the countryside with the Great Indian GDP Growth Engine. The hundreds of billions of dollars that are projected to pour into infrastructure cannot only create glitzy new airport terminals or autobahn-like sea-link roads. Rural development demands investment in irrigation and storage facilities to reduce the continuing reliance on rainfall, on transport and communications, and on the expansion of financial services in the vast disconnected reaches. Rural empowerment, on the other hand, implies a stronger committment to strengthening the institution of the panchayati raj.
Gandhi would probably consider this belated interest in rural development a betrayal of his core ideas anyway. The economic system of khaddar and charkha could well be stuck on another planet as far as the global economy is concerned. Nonetheless, reversing the neglect of rural India is a significant first step towards ensuring that even if swadeshi remains a relic of the past, the legacy of sarvodaya endures.