Book Review

Making Gandhi a capitalist

The book is filled with such contorted and convoluted interpretations of Gandhi, so as to forcefully pin a “free market capitalist” label on him

Literature | BOOK REVIEW | Mahatma Gandhi

Praveen Chakravarty
October 11, 2021

Book cover

Economist Gandhi: The Roots and the Relevance of the Political Economy of the Mahatma

Economist Gandhi: The Roots and the Relevance of the Political Economy of the Mahatma

Author: Jaithirth Rao

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 256

Price: Rs 599

Gandhi is a capitalist. The Mahatma, though renowned for his austerity and romanticisation of villages, is as strong a proponent of capitalistic wealth creation as the founding father of free market economics, Adam Smith.

This startlingly contrarian description of Gandhi in media articles as a curtain raiser for a new book Economist Gandhi by Jaithirth Rao would understandably pique one’s curiosity. I decided to buy and read the book.

The book opens with a candid confession by the author: “I have tried to maintain as partial a position as possible and selectively quote Gandhi to argue that we should look at the Mahatma as a seminal thinker in market capitalism”. This troubling disclosure sets the framework for the author to make some audacious claims about Gandhi’s economic ideology.

The book is meticulously researched and cited. Though the title is Economist Gandhi, it covers a wider ambit of Gandhi, the lawyer, philosopher and educationist, and is well written. But where the book falls woefully short is in convincing the reader of its titular claim of a capitalist Gandhi.

The author makes the following claims for the following reasons: Gandhi was not an anti-capitalist, apparently because he was close to big industrialists such as Bajaj, Birla, Scindia and so on.

Gandhi supported wealth creation because he said, “amassing riches is despicable if it is not spent usefully”, which apparently must be interpreted as support for amassing wealth in the first place. Gandhi advocated performing one’s duty without heeding its consequences, in direct contrast to the fundamental tenet of capitalism that argues consequences (incentives) shape human behaviour. But apparently Gandhi’s ideal is meant to serve as a warning for modern-day business executives who are “obsessed about the share price of their company at the cost of good quality product or service” which then affirms Gandhi’s capitalistic embrace.

The book is filled with such contorted and convoluted interpretations of Gandhi, so as to forcefully pin a “free market capitalist” label on him.

Nowhere is this attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole more apparent than in the author’s struggle to draw parallels between Gandhi and Adam Smith. The central economic idea of Smith espoused in his classic The Wealth of Nations is self-interest (“It is not from the benevolence of the baker, butcher or brewer that we get our dinner but from their own interest”). In contrast, Gandhi’s central belief was the renunciation of “self interest” for the “larger interest”. The author admits to this blatant contradiction in their economic beliefs. But in his obstinacy to highlight parallels between the two greats, he resorts to Smith’s philosophical ideas of an “impartial spectator” and “man’s natural desire to be loved and lovely” in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to compare favourably with Gandhi’s notions of the “small voice within” and “goodness of the self”. While that may be true, the book was supposed to be about similarities between the economist Adam Smith and the economist Gandhi, not the philosophers in them.

The book acknowledges the recording in popular history of Gandhi as an anti-industrialist and an avid champion of small-scale work, as evidenced in his support for spinning using a charkha vis-à-vis industrial weaving. But perplexingly, the author argues that this is not reflective of Gandhi’s bias against big industry. Instead, by encouraging “spinning using one’s fingers and hands”, apparently Gandhi lays emphasis on skill development and human capital, an important production factor in economics and thereby proving that Gandhi was a capitalist!

Though Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj amply reveals his disdain for automation and factories, the author claims astonishingly that Gandhi was not against machines, since he praised the invention of the sewing machine, used factory produced loudspeakers for his public meetings, addressed people on radio and ran printed newspapers!

The foundation for the book’s argument of Gandhi’s “neo-liberal economics” lies in “trusteeship” — the Gandhian notion that we are merely trustees of God’s wealth and not its owners. It argues that trusteeship is also the cornerstone of capitalist economies that manifest as “fiduciary” duties of a modern corporation and, hence, Gandhi supported capitalism. The book makes a giant leap of extrapolation in claiming that Gandhi would have agreed with Apple’s recent refusal to part with its customers’ data to the US government since it was acting as a “trustee” of its customers.

When Gandhi exhorts the rich to not obsess over inheritance, the author conveniently interprets it to mean that Gandhi was against inheritance taxes. The book extends Gandhi’s warnings against the power of a strong State to crush weak individuals, to mean that Gandhi believed in a small and diminished State, a neo-liberal economic dogma. When Gandhi urges the poor to “work and raise themselves rather than plundering the wealthy”, he was apparently speaking against the poor being dependent on state welfare, another neo-liberal doctrine. The book refers to Gandhi’s phrase “grinding pauperism” multiple times to highlight that Gandhi believed fervently in poverty eradication, which is true, but selectively interprets it to imply that Gandhi was a strong votary of the capitalistic notions of poverty alleviation through economic development and wealth accumulation.

I can empathise with the author’s yearning to appropriate and portray the great Mahatma as a champion of neo-liberal economics, at a time when it is arguably facing its gravest ideological crisis. But the cognitive dissonance between the author’s desire and his supporting arguments is too wide and stark. The deliberately contrarian portrayal of Gandhi as some champion of free market capitalism in the book’s marketing efforts turned out to be a mere click-bait. While we have heard of putting words in one’s mouth, Economist Gandhi is an entire book put in Gandhi’s mouth!

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