The Mahatma’s Mantra

The paramount figure of India’s independence movement and great spiritual leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or as we popularly know him Mahatma Gandhi, gave us a mantra to rely upon in most turbulent times. “Whenever you are unsure about your actions, close your eyes and try to imagine the face of the poorest person you have come across. And then decide whether your action will make his life better. If it does, it is the right path.” More than 60 years since his death, the mantra continues to guide us and our nation. Nehru closed his eyes and saw that building large government factories and dams will help his poorest man. Indira Gandhi closed hers and thought that starting mega public spending schemes will help hers. Her son Rajiv followed her mother and increased the already large subsidy bill at the expense of government financial position. When it came to V P Singh, he sought to help his poor by extending the affirmative action system. The legacy continues to the day with the Raj Thackreys and Mayawatis, all closing their eyes and coming up with even fancier ideas to help their poors.

Emboldened, I dared to close my eyes yesterday. For few moments everything was dark before going to bed. I didn’t mind it that way either as I was anyways about to sleep, but then reminded myself of the exercise and tried to come up with some poor face. So wierd, the face of one of my hot classmate came (let me clarify, not at all poor, but very beautiful), but quickly brushing it aside to focus on the task at hand, I tried harder. After years of journey back into the time, the face of an unknown man I once saw on one of the trips to my village flashed across. I remember I was with my mother in a horse wagon (or “tanga” as they call it) when I saw this bearded, dirty, scantly clad man walking behind us and picking up any pieces of food he might find on the road. And I also remember I asked my mother then, “why is he so poor?”, the answer of which is clearly lost in the ‘forgotten’ section of my memory. So here I was with my poor man and then the phase II began – does what I do help him in any way?

I trade currencies, I trade domestic currency debt of Asian governments, I trade convertible bonds. How on earth can it possibly help my man? I am a product of the capitalist society based and thriving on inequality. I am a product of India’s liberalization and globalization story authored by the then finance minister Mr. Manmohan Singh (who is current prime minister also) and the then prime minister Mr. P V Narsimha Rao. The very system I work in will cease to exist the day my man becomes equal to me. If everybody is equal, there will be no motivation left to operate the financial markets. Am I working against the Mahatma’s mantra then? Should I ridicule and immolate myself in the burning fire of guilt? So is there really a merit in the socialist ideas originally proposed by Marx and later ranted by our Lalus of India or Chaves’ of Venezuela and Kim Jongs of Korea?

The communist/socialist regimes around the world do not show a good success record of Marx’s socialist ideas. Most have perished (the Bolsheviks) or are impoverished (North Korea, Bolivia, Venezuela). Lets not call China a communist country as its current economic model is definitely not what Mr. Marx must have had in mind. But it may be too harsh to write off his ideas simply based on the failed implementations we see around. The implementations we saw around the world over the centuries might be mere distortions as what may plague any great movement – be it political or religious – running over centuries. (Perhaps no better example of this greatness being distorted is Hinduism but this is not the appropriate context to discuss it.) Lets give our Mr. Marx the benefit of doubt here and turn the question around to ask – is the capitalist system working against my poor?

Capitalism derives itself from the concept of incentivising a man’s greed. Each man is free to do whatever he wants and the system incentivises him to do that. Greed, even though we learnt in our primary schools that is bad, is properly rewarded. The system encourages each man to further his own well-being and hence create an unequal society. But this is the key – at least he strives to create more. And in the process, a summation of such individual efforts, creates an overall more wealthy society. The distribution of this wealth may be unequal – with more being in your hands than in mine – but overall wealth is generated. If one of my friend decides to start a factory to become rich, he cannot operate it alone. He will hire his ‘poor men’ to work there and part of his wealth will trickle down. They might not become his equals, but at least will be better off than living in a society ranting ‘socialism, equality, socialism again’ and preventing my friend from starting the factory should he become rich and thereby destroy the equality equilibria which the society has grown so accustomed to. We witnessed it for over 4 decades following the independence. If Mr. Manmohan Singh had not departed from the politically lucrative socialist ranting which brought our country to the verge of bankruptcy in early 90’s, I, my friend, would have been writing the government services examination for some 11th time and you, instead of reading this blog on your laptop, would be employed as a compounder in some government hospital driving ‘Humara Bajaj’ (if you would have been lucky enough to get one after 7 years of waiting) while your wife would be at home cooking food on the LPG which you managed to get after months of waiting and bribing the delivery guy. Inflation would have reached 18,000% as happened in some Latin American countries and the India as we know of today as the growth story would have been an abysmal, failed nation living on peices of aid from rich capitalist dogs or their agencies like IMF and World Bank. And probably after failing for 11th time, I might have gone back to my village to work on my ancestral land where my 4-5 brothers would already be working – after having failed themselves. What could I have done then to improve the life of my poor man?

Reflecting back, I am proud to say that I am a product of a deep rooted capitalist wave which saved my country from decades more of utter poverty and will one day put it on the center of global economy. I am proud to be in the category of ‘unequals’ so created so that at least now I have the opportunity to make a difference to my poor man’s life  – and if not him then at least somebody else’s poor man.