Misleading Gandhigiri: When a Mutant Class Switches Off
Switching off mobile phones for a day will not stop India Inc from endorsing Narendra Modi as PM AN ONLINE petition to observe 30 January 2009 as Cellular Silence Day has been doing the rounds. Drafted by Ranjan Kamath, a filmmaker, it is addressed to Messrs Ratan Tata, Sunil Bharti Mittal and Anil Ambani — prominent Indian industrialists with a global presence who need no introduction. The petition seeks to give voice to the billion-plus Indian Davids who are dismayed by the endorsement of Narendra Modi as future prime minister by the three 'corporate Goliaths'. That Modi — who inspired and abetted the massacre of over 2,000 Muslims in the 2002 pogrom — is the darling of the unscrupulous corporate world, is not surprising.
Gujarat is a state where Kalinganagar-style shootings do not happen (12 dalits and adivasis were killed in police firing on 2 January, 2006 in Orissa while protesting a Tata Steel project); where Singur-style protests won't be witnessed even when 1,100 acres are given away for a song. Before expressing "revulsion" at their "endorsement of Narendra Modi", the petition of the Davids humours the Goliaths: "I am proud of the brands you represent that have made India proud. I am one of the burgeoning Indian middle-class that share your aspirations of mutating India from indolent elephant to thundering tiger."
The petition has over 3,000 signatures featuring several prominent Indian public intellectuals, academics, publishers, artists, writers, lawyers and many who would call themselves 'secular' in that quaintly Indian, holdall way. The petition is being promoted on Facebook pages, email lists, and other social networking sites. To be counted as a 'progressive' person, one had to sign up. On one page of the petition, ICICI Lombard solicits for insurance. On another page, a Tata housing ad featuring Kapil Dev pops up. Befitting.
There are two reasons why we should not sign the petition and join this fellowship of the selectively righteous.
First, it assumes that the model of corporate growth that the Tatas, Ambanis (the heirs of the Polyester Prince Dhirubhai) and Mittals stand for and their brands make most Indians proud. The petition, despite being drafted after the Satyam fraud unspooled, willingly overlooks corporate irresponsibility on several counts. If Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani, Kumaramangalam Birla and Sunil Mittal had not endorsed Narendra Modi, would their style of corporate capitalism be any less culpable? What do we do with Ratan Tata who was recently batting for Dow Chemicals — Dow, that had purchased Union Carbide for $9.3 billion as a wholly-owned subsidiary; Union Carbide that was responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that left more than 15,000 dead and 1,50,000 disabled? When Dow refused legal or moral liability for the Bhopal disaster, Ratan Tata, as chairman of the Industrialist and Investment Commission, wanted the $46- billion chemical giant to be absolved of all liabilities. He even wrote letters to the then Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, the PMO, and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia pleading Dow's case. Protestors in Bhopal sought to boycott all Tata products. This was not a switch-off-yourmobiles- for-a-day kind of boycott.
If Ratan Tata could seek to absolve Dow of any culpability in the killing of 15,000 and the 'legacy issue' of the 1984 disaster, why would he remember Gujarat 2002?
In the 1990s, conscientious consumers sought to boycott Eveready batteries produced by Union Carbide. Eveready's retort was the 'Gimme Red' ad campaign — celebrated for being ahead of its time. The brand has thrived, and Amitabh Bachchan was roped in as brand ambassador in 2006. Eveready is said to hold a 47 percent marketshare of the Rs 1,500 crore dry cell battery market.
Let's look at the material reasons for Ratan Tata's love for Narendra Modi. Tata Motors gets a soft loan of Rs 9,570 crore at a negligible interest of 0.1 per cent to shift the Nano project to Gujarat. Repayment is deferred for 20 years. In all, the Modi Government has offered over Rs 30,000 crore in sops to Tata Motors. So Ratan Tata says, "You are stupid if you are not in Gujarat." Martin Macwan, a human rights campaigner in Gujarat, compares this with the compensation offered to Dalits who have been forced to do manual scavenging. To quit the profession and seek an alternative livelihood, the state offers them a rehabilitation package — a bank loan of Rs 80,000 at 11 percent interest. Stigmatised Dalits, forced into a subhuman occupation for generations, are asked to pay hundred times more interest for a pittance of a loan. With which they sometimes open a tea stall. From which no one would drink tea. India officially has 7,70,338 manual scavengers and the state is the biggest employer.
The Ambanis have always loved Modi. Since Dhirubhai's days, they have actively colluded with right-wing Hindu religious leaders in Gujarat such as Ramesh Oza and Murari Bapu. Meera Nanda notes in her forthcoming book that while Modi granted 85 acres of land close to the Porbandar airport to Oza's Sandipani Vidyaniketan — a temple-'rishikul' complex, a school for rishis — Dhirubhai Ambani provided the financial resources for raising the building.
The second reason to oppose this rather unintelligent petition endorsed by the 'secular' intelligentsia owes to its poor understanding of ethics and politics. The petition concludes with the plea that "India Inc adopt an ethical, compassionate path to wealth creation rather than the single-minded pursuit of the bottom-line." If only these industrialists had not endorsed Modi as prime ministerial material, it appears the rest of their pursuits of wealth are justifiable, for they "make Indians proud". Crucially, the petition seeks inspiration from Mohandas Gandhi. The underlying assumption, rather received knowledge, is that Gandhi stood for an ethical, compassionate approach to wealth making. This erroneous perception owes to mythmaking about Gandhi, the saint.
Celebrated today as an anti-imperialist icon owing to his role in the anti-colonial struggle in India, and also for his critique of industrialisation propounded in his Hind Swaraj (1908), Gandhi was essentially a social conservative. This was BR Ambedkar's main charge against Gandhi for his endorsement of caste and varnashrama dharma. But let us focus here on Gandhi's swarajist economic policies and his collusion with the conservative industrialists of his time. Gandhi's friendship with Ghanshyam Das Birla (1894-1983) was a mutually beneficial affair. Birla was a source of limitless finance for Gandhi. In a letter to Birla on 10 January 1927, Gandhi wrote, "My thirst for money is simply unquenchable. I need at least Rs 2,00,000 — for khadi, untouchability and education. The dairy work makes another Rs 50,000. Then there is the Ashram expenditure. No work remains unfinished for want of funds, but God gives after severe trials. This also satisfies me. You can give as you like for whatever work you have faith in." As Sarojini Naidu sardonically noted, it cost a lot to keep Gandhi poor.
IF THE local Congress office today arranges quilts when Rahul Gandhi and UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband decide on some poverty tourism in a Dalit ghetto, such window-dressing was the task of the Birlas when Mohandas Gandhi decided to occasionally spend time in 'bhangi' bastis. Margaret Bourke-White, the Life photojournalist who chronicled Gandhi, notes that half the residents of the ghettos were moved out, and the huts prettified before Gandhi's visit. Dinanath Tiang of the Birla Group rationalises the improvements in the Dalit colony to White thus, "We have cared for Gandhiji's comfort for the last 20 years." Cooked food for Gandhi would also be sourced by the Birlas. Gandhi believed it was "the Brahmin's duty to look after the sanitation of the soul, the Bhangi's that of the body of society." It was such reasoning that made him describe scavenging as the "most honourable occupation" and the bhangi "while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty. In other words, he would not dream of amassing wealth out of it." It was this patronising attitude and hypocrisy that made Ambedkar fume, "The special feature of Gandhism is to delude people into accepting their misfortunes by presenting them as the best of good fortunes."
Since the petition calls for a token one-day boycott of telephone and Internet services provided by Tata, Mittal and Ambani, we need to recall Gandhi's call for the boycott of British products, especially the use of cloth made in Britain's mills. While he propagated the use of hand-spun cloth, he beat a retreat when this advocacy conflicted with Birla's interests as an owner of mills.
In 1928, when Gandhi complained that people were buying mill-produced khadi mistaking it for homespun, Birla read this as a veiled criticism of his mills and riposted, "Do you not think that you are unnecessarily exaggerating the results of the khadi propaganda? You could find this out yourself if you send hawkers with mill-made as well as shuddha khadi who may ask some villagers to select their choice after explaining the latter properly about the quality as well as the price of the cloth, I have not the least doubt that if you made the experiment you will find that 90 per cent of the consumers will pick up the cheaper and more lasting of the two stuffs. Mill khadi is popular because people find it cheap, durable besides it being swadeshi make."
Leah Renold, an American scholar who has examined Gandhi's relationship with GD Birla, says Gandhi did not wish to precipitate the issue for he was financially dependent on Birla, his patron, in whose palatial Delhi home Gandhi stayed for over 25 years. She says, "Gandhi never allowed the khadi issue to become an object of contention between himself and Birla. Instead he found a place for mills in the khadi movement." In 1930, Gandhi wrote to Birla, "I am convinced that the boycott will be successful only through khadi. This does not mean that the mills have no place in the scheme at all. The mills can have their deserved place by recognising the worth of khadi. The conception of God envelopes all Gods."
The swadeshi industrialists whom Gandhi blessed would conveniently betray the 'nationalist' cause of the Congress when it suited them. Following the Quit India movement of 1942, Indian business leaders, including JRD Tata and GD Birla, submitted a memorandum to the Viceroy saying, "We are all businessmen and therefore we need hardly point out that our interest lies in peace, harmony, goodwill and order throughout the country."
Ambedkar's indictment of Gandhism was severe. Drawing our attention to "Gandhian attitude to strikes, the Gandhian reverence for Caste and the Gandhian doctrine of Trusteeship by the rich for the benefit of the poor," he characterises Gandhism as "the philosophy of the well-to-do and the leisure class." It is not surprising that Gandhi, whose poverty was a costly act sponsored by Birla, is someone the
conservative classes in India look up to time and again. Bourke-White's investigations revealed that workers in Birla's mills had genuine grievances — their demand for a cost of living bonus to meet rising prices was met with gunfire and rifle butts. When the workers petitioned Gandhi in December 1947, he merely forwarded their letter to Birla. Bourke-White, on visiting Birla's mills, found the conditions to be appalling and wonders in her book Halfway to Freedom (1949) why Gandhi would not visit the mills and verify for himself. The mightiest of Davids was sitting in the comfort of cushy bolsters in the palace of a Goliath — Birla House. Thinking of which, the petition insults our intelligence even with the myths it evokes, forcing us to use the dangerous David (Israeli) versus Goliath (Palestinian) similie at a time when Palestine has witnessed a brazen terror attack by Israel.
IN THIS SENSE, the online petition is a genuine tribute to Gandhi and his endorsement of gestural politics — a guiltexpiation exercise that is essentially Gandhian. The drafter of the petition says, "It is not an easy task for us to keep our cell phones and Blackberries switched off for an entire day on January 30, the 61st anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. However, it ought to be sufficient to get the message across to corporate India that we will not tolerate the endorsement of fascists as future prime ministers."
This is a post-Munnabhai tokenism, no different from SMS polls or candlelight vigils sponsored by television channels. Would this consumerist class, proud of its Blackberries and broadbands, attempt a complete boycott of Reliance/Tata/Mittal products? A true boycott is what the African-Americans led by Martin Luther King effected for over a year, from December 1955 to December 1956, known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott against segregation in buses. This boycott seriously affected the profits of not just the public transport system but the entire economy. In India, the Dalits can barely dream of a similar boycott, for they are themselves subjected to social and economic boycott by caste Hindus if they assert their humanity.
Only a class that has some economic clout can effect a serious boycott. Would the signatories to the petition be willing to create a Montgomery-like crisis for our homegrown capitalists? How many would not buy a Nano since its low price-tag is going to be heavily over-subsidised by Modi and perhaps cross-subsidised by the 11 percent rate of interest that rehabilitated manual scavengers are forced to pay? Corporate capitalism and religious extremism ain't strange bedfellows. As they copulate, they produce a mutated class that deludes itself into believing that observing cellular silence for a day would be just enough sacrifice.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 4, Dated Jan 31, 2009