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Mahatma Gandhi turns one hundred and fifty-one today. Even now he is an omnipresent force: the voice of unity, of peace, and of reason – in many ways the Mahatma is still alive. Gandhi is a role model and an ideal to billions of people even today, and his enduring legacy of non-violence, dedication, and leadership continues to inspire.

Every year, across the world, on the 2nd of October, the Mahatma is remembered and cherished for all of these reasons. Yet there is also an often overlooked economic legacy that Gandhi left behind, and perhaps this 2ndOctober may be a fitting day to remember that.

To begin with, it is important to remember that Mahatma Gandhi was not an economist. Even though he was a scholar, his economics was characterised by a simple, humanist approach – to him the sophistication and complexities of statistics mattered far less than the on-ground realities of the rural landscape. Development for Gandhi was not a process that was carried out by the poker-faces in Delhi who had been to Oxbridge, but instead was simply the very visible upliftment of poor people in villages. One of the most baffling aspects of Gandhi’s economics, which is sometimes termed as Gandhian socialism, is its paradoxical nature. Gandhi left no stone unturned in asserting his romanticized and often exaggerated view of a swadeshi, rural-driven India: he spoke and wrote with the idealism of philosophers; yet he augmented, and even defended his views with the confidence and well-researched pragmatism of academics and economists. To some extent, Gandhi did formalise his socio-economic beliefs in several publications, and many of his learned followers did seek to build a branch of economics that would be as established as any other field of study. As a result, there are rules, systems, and various other typical, formal paraphernalia that can be used to define Gandhian economics as an academic subject. But that is one of the reasons why it is a largely understudied and often dismissed subject – because it is inherently different from all other kinds of economics. Gandhian economics does not follow the assumptions that are characteristic to the subject of economics; its essence lies in Gandhi’s humanism and his many musings that are now construed as a philosophy. Which is why it is important to look at Gandhi’s economics as a guiding set of principles, or a bunch of moral constraints – studying it as one may study indifference curves or marginal revenues and gross domestic products is perhaps practically impossible (and unnecessary). Gandhi himself said that to him ethics and economics were indistinguishable.

That is why Gandhian economics is built on an entirely different base: it does not concern itself with rationality, it does not obsess over dynamism or industry – it is instead a philosophy that is focussed, above all else – on the achievement of social justice. In any economic context that would sound like a doctrine of the far left, but Gandhi’s quest for social justice was worlds apart from leftist thinkers; his social justice was characterised by non-violence, a veritable mixture of duty-liberty-choice, and decentralisation. Unlike the often scarily despotic and violently propagandist, authoritarian left that was emerging in his time, Gandhi’s socialism was both novel and different. His economics was intertwined with the virtues of Indian society – work was worship, the human value of simplicity was the greatest attribute, and the vagrant, western lures of materialism and luxury were all to be avoided. He did not advocate a seizure of the means of production, he was actually far more radical: he advocated an abolishment of the means of production!

Gandhi was disgusted by western industry; he was deeply influenced by a lot of post-industrial revolution literature, and viewed technological advancement with great suspicion. He believed that economic development would instead be built on human values in a labour-surplus nation like India. That is why he repeatedly pressed upon the use of uncomplicated means in villages to produce indigenous products – a sentiment central to his national agenda of Khadi. While the use and support of domestically produced cloth was an important political movement during the independence struggle, Gandhi believed that such movements were necessary for India’s economic resurgence even after the nation would be free. According to him, it was an Indian’s duty to reject produce of western industries and espouse the cause of home-grown produce by buying and using it. Seeking better quality and luxury using foreign material while poor people in one’s own country suffered was morally abhorrent – and that was a principle Gandhi lived by all his life.

‘In a country of poor men, I must live like a poor man’ he said. It is truly difficult to find an economic philosophy, that in its genesis, is so deeply and consistently dedicated to equality for all. Perhaps that is the most admirable trait of Gandhian socialism: it was not a set of theories brainstormed and typewritten in a room, or published in journals; it was in fact – not a theory at all. It demolished all privilege and elitism: it was not about other people or the masses or the public, it was simply what Gandhi lived by, every single day of his life. That is also why Gandhian economics could never survive at a large-scale level.

Even though he strongly opposed the import of material that could be produced in India, Gandhi was not blind to some specific benefits of the modern world. For instance, he did recognise the need for adopting useful technology in medicine and in coal plants for power generation. Gandhi did not speak at great length on his conservative beliefs about necessary scientific advancement; his economics was adaptable and dynamic enough to welcome something new that bettered lives significantly – but usually nothing more.

Gandhi’s most romantic yet also most structured ideal was that of the Indian village. Swaraj and Swadeshi were nationalist terms that connoted the economic virtues of self-reliance and commercial independence. But in Gandhi’s mind – they were also representative of the economic autonomy of the village model. Every village was to be made self-sufficient, and this was not to be achieved through external planning, but simply by allowing villagers to do what they did best. This is where Gandhi’s belief in individual liberty and personal choices took centre stage – let the handloom weaver weave, let the charkha spin, let the farmer grow the crops he believes are suitable, let the basket-maker make his baskets. But there was also the important concept of socio-economic duty that would act as a facilitator for economic liberty: regressive practices were to be banned, zamindari and caste system were to disappear, and women were to lend a helping hand in the fields and work everyday.

The Gandhian model was obviously rooted in the pursuit of better lives, but Gandhi thought that it was heinously materialistic to believe that better lives simply meant higher incomes. His aim was to achieve better lives for villagers through the dismantling of archaic, feudal structures of ownership, the abolition of harmful norms, education and sanitation, and the consistent practice of being detached from central governance. A lot of such Gandhian social enterprise was built on the assumption that people would be ready to engage in the process of rural development voluntarily – perhaps that was its biggest flaw. While social reform is necessary to facilitate equitable economic development, it was painfully evident that the idea of nationhood and even the Mahatma’s clarion-call for simplicity did not induce rich rural landowners to change their ways. Yet, as a strategy, Gandhi’s mastery of simple means of production did wonders wherever he lived – in Champaran, Wardha, Sabarmati, for instance: the Mahatma’s presence had a profoundly positive impact on the successful revival of the rural economy.

However, the decentralisation that Gandhian socialism proposed was rejected almost immediately (and perhaps rightly) after his death, with the establishment of the planning commission and many central authorities. Even after all accomplishments and successes of these institutions are considered, it is impossible to deny that they suffer from the systematic flaws that Gandhi pointed out in his sermonic musings. When discussing an independent Indian economy, Gandhi’s principal argument for regional autonomy was that the people of a particular region knew their surroundings and weather better than anyone else – which is why they were to be trusted for planning and executing infrastructural developments on their own land. The British had introduced an English homogeneity in infrastructure and industry, and Gandhi believed that did more harm than good. Uniformity and standardisation were not to be sought in economic development, especially in a nation that was home to conditions and people that were so radically different from one another.

Perhaps Gandhi’s beliefs about rural autonomy were impractical because he was too liberal with them. They may also have been slightly contradictory and pre-emptive; but these problems do present themselves even today. India has disproportionately developed massive economic clusters in regions the British used extensively for manufacturing and export, and cities (often capitals) in states have emerged as industrial hubs only because of administrative ease. Infrastructural development in villages is still a disjointed, incomplete, and often tragic tale. Emphasis on local empowerment and decision-making has increased only in the last few years.

Gandhi’s economic ideologies are immersed in romanticism and may even be interpreted as well-expressed products of blind idealism. Gandhi himself often identified the basic practical impossibilities present in so many of his doctrines. But there have been multiple points in India’s growth story when his beliefs have had an impact. Many honours graduates of the Gandhian school of economics were part of the first few union cabinets, and they attempted to inculcate elements of Gandhian socialism in several early economic policies. Since Gandhian economics was built on unbridled idealism and was unapologetic of its humanist nature, its persistence in its true form at the macro-level was impossible. As India has grown and developed and changed, Gandhian socialism has either been distorted and made into something unidentifiable by some political movements, or has lost its traction and been left on the fringe. But that Gandhian socialism is what the often-didactic students of Gandhi sought to articulate – they believed they could make a lasting scientific social science out of what was essentially a well-developed socio-economic philosophy.

The most distinguishing feature of Gandhian economics is that it is built entirely on the human element – that is its defining speciality, and perhaps that is what we should remember. Gandhian economics is about people. It is primarily a set of moral beliefs, and only secondarily is it a set of economic theorizations. Perhaps that is why it should be a part of economic education, and 2nd October 2020 is a good day to remember it. We live in a turbulent world that defines itself by being easily measurable: we are fully focussed on tracking the spread of a disease, the lives it has taken, the money it has devoured, and the livelihoods that it has destroyed – we have figures and numbers for them all.

On this 2nd October, let Mahatma Gandhi’s economic philosophy remind us that these numbers represent real people, real lives, real humans. That economics, no matter how advanced, no matter how theoretical and complex – is still always about people.

By Parth Kulkarni


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