“In a gentle way you can shake the world.” An Indian flag flutters in a rare breeze outside the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Dehli. At its heart is the Ashok Chakra, the eternal wheel of the law of Dharma or righteousness. It denotes motion; an India that must move and go forward and is particularly fitting on this day, as heads of state gather in the hotel for the fourth annual BRICS summit.
The Indian flag by law is to be made of khadhi, a hand-spun cloth of cotton or silk, popularised by Mahatma Gandhi as he boycotted foreign materials. Gandhiji was not just a torchbearer for independence in 1947, but an idealist whose teachings have embedded into the Indian fabric, quite literally.
The collapse of communism in 1989 preceded the successes and subsequent crisis of the capitalist world, which we are yet to awaken from. Famously when a reporter asked him what his message was, Gandhiji replied “my life is my message”. Placing stronger weight on his teachings can inform existing debates in contemporary economics.
The Gandhian principle of Swaraj was centred around achieving economic self-sufficiency. Reliance on the British Raj entrapped India from self-empowerment. By encouraging the use of Indian resources and materials in his Salt March in 1930 and by championing khadhi; he envisaged an India that could develop on its own terms, and sustainably so.
The BRICs summit in late March 2012, paints a broader picture. Alongside China as a front-runner for global emerging countries, India has arisen to the offshoots of globalisation; international integration and interdependence. Accounting for over 50% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), its service sector is driven by information technology outsourcing and the growth of India’s ‘knowledge-economy.’ It is India’s means of offering itself to global service, as well as its means for growth.
Alongside growth there have been maladies. Inequality and poverty have been by-products of India’s rapid growth period. For Gandhiji equality would arise from ahimsa, non-violent mediation. Self-sufficiency is not ordered as a hierarchical political society; Gandhi would have each individual governing themselves by ahimsa, through which societal ‘laws’ or ways of living become naturally enforced.
Gandhian self-sufficiency would not have allowed the pursuit of material worth to precede spiritual and societal development- that would not be sustainable. His ashram concept enveloped a society that produces its own food, clothing and means of living whilst enhancing personal development. Grass-root charities and NGO’s (non-government organisations) place these at the core of their values. The change derives from the individual. This is akin to the works of British economist E.F. Schumacher who popularised the phrase ‘small is beautiful.’ He saw over-concentration on technology and output as dehumanizing.
“It’s easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich,” asserts Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s minister for education in a BBC interview in 2012. At the very centre of modern economics are the assumptions that a rational economic agents are attempting to maximise their wants subject to a finite constraint. A Gandhian agent would place emphasis on self-reliance, maximising their spiritual well-being subject to ‘plain living’. Since 1971, Bhutan has rejected GDP which effectively measures an economy’s output, for a new measure; gross national happiness (GNH). The fundamental pillars of GNH include sustainable development and preservation and promotion of cultural values, “we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the well-being of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world” added Powdyel.
The heavy role played by the global banking system channelling money across the world, enhancing the search for profit would not have been part of Gandhiji’s vision. It reflects the pursuit for material worth beyond one’s necessity to survive. It portrays a society that values people by their monetary worth; by the car they have, by the house they own. Gandhiji’s vision of trusteeship would prefer production and innovation to be determined by social necessity and not personal greed.
As the summit ends, the wheels of these economies continue to turn. Brazil prepares to be host to the world, Russia flexes its resources, India ponders the power of its youthful economy, China grows toward superpower status and South Africa raises its voice. As the free market ‘trickle down’ attempts to filter below, the work of development economics, in part, informed by Gandhiji’s teachings works its way up.