The sesquicentennial (150th) birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on October 2 was half-heartedly celebrated in New Delhi and with even less enthusiasm in the rest of the country. With the passage of time and post-independence India’s academy dominated by communist, socialist and left-liberal intellectuals, the epochal contribution of Gandhi to the freedom movement and the essence of his legacy to independent India — a free markets and private enterprise ideology, steadfast ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (self-sacrifice) — has been buried under a mass of trivia, particularly his advocacy of supplementary self-employment (charkha) and sanitation and hygiene (swachhta).
The most important ideological legacy of the Mahatma, a barrister with formidable powers of reasoning, was his belief in enlightened capitalism, an ideology he incorporated into his concept of ‘trusteeship’. In his view, free markets and free enterprise were not evils, but natural and organic to the history of the subcontinent. Therefore throughout the freedom struggle, Gandhi had without embarrassment, respected and relied upon capitalists and businessmen such as G.D Birla, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Sarabhais and the Tatas among others, who had succeeded in establishing large industrial conglomerates in the teeth of opposition from the British government, to fund the freedom struggle.
Gandhi believed India’s businessmen who had non-violently suffered and sacrificed to build their business empires, could be transformed into enlightened capitalists who would multiply their wealth and spend it as trustees of the country’s poor and downtrodden. Yet immediately after he was assassinated in 1948 and his most ideologically allied disciple Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel died two years later, with encouragement from Jawaharlal Nehru, a woolly idealist, the State was hijacked by communists, socialists and left-liberals foolishly enamoured with the Soviet Union.
As a result, the inorganic Soviet-style centrally-planned economic model under which money-guzzling public sector enterprises manned by business-illiterate bureaucrats and babus, was grafted onto the body politic of free India. In the process, business and industry leaders who had funded the freedom movement and were poised to capture Asian and perhaps Western markets were demonised as greedy, exploitative capitalists to be pilloried and bound up in red tape. The outcome of post-independence India’s foolish left turn has been disastrous. For over four decades, the economy remained mired in the Hindu rate of growth (3.5 percent) per year even as the country’s population tripled because of paucity of resources for public education.
Today, the popular image of the Mahatma is of a religious mystic and do-gooder remembered for his idiosyncrasies, food fads and zeal for cleaning toilets. A prophet not without real honour, save in his own country.