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Rediscovering Gandhian Socialism

I came across a news article in which the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared, “For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Gandhian socialism is what we want to achieve and make society free of exploitation and full of opportunities.” I was surprised because Narendra Modi’s right-wing party is perceived as a pro-capitalist, pro-corporate, anti-communist and anti-Nehruvian in the opinion of many left-wing news media. And yet, Vajpayee says they want to make India a socialist society. Let’s discover what he meant by Gandhian Socialism.

Socialism has too many variant meanings vastly differing from each other. The usual meaning is that the state (i.e., government) should own the industry and capital (instead of the workers or private individuals). However, we can define Gandhian socialism by what it is not:

Though socialism is seen as left-leaning, Gandhian socialism is right-leaning, as we shall see below. Gandhian Socialism is a “revivalist” type of socialism which emphasizes entrepreneurship and self-reliance. He based it on the philosophy of social ethics, such as non-violence and trusteeship as propounded by Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Bhagavad Gita among others. He argues for:

  1. An egalitarian society
  2. Economic equality
  3. Equality of opportunity (not equality of outcome!)

An Egalitarian Society

It means the elimination of invidious distinctions between person and person, the haves and have-nots, wealth and poverty, prosperity on the one hand and pauperism on the other. We should reduce disparity and bring all people in the society to a level of equality as far as possible and socially desirable. Reduction of inequality establishes social justice and promotes other human values like fraternity and fellowship.

However, he did not overlook the natural or biological inequality between different individuals and the differences in their physical capabilities, and intellectual calibre. Equality does not mean that all are expected to perform the same role in the society. Whether one is engaged in physical labour or intellectual labour, the each have their due importance in the society and all individuals engaged in different types of socially necessary labour must occupy an almost equal status in the society. The rich and the poor, the employer and the employee, the young and the old, men and women, may perform different duties, depending upon their intellectual and physical capacity, their inclinations and preferences in the context of social needs. As Gandhi wrote: “In the individual body the head is not high because it is the top of the body nor are the soles of the feet low because they touch the earth. Even as members of the individual body are equal so are the members of society. This is socialism.” In fact, this is the interpretation of the cātur-varṇa system of the Purusha Sukta of Rig Veda which expresses the idea of radical unity in diversity.

Thus the Gandhian concept of socialism puts at its core equality of all individuals or equal status of all in spite of the natural or biological diversities and diversities in respect of the functions they perform in the society.

Economic Equality

In a society suffering from economic inequality the rich classes dominate over the poor by making use of their superior economic power and deprive the rest of the society of their liberty, thereby making fraternity impracticable to attain.

Gandhi argued that economic equality is more fundamental than political equality. Political equality or each person having one vote in the matter of determination of public policy has little practical significance when the vote of the poor is bribed away for a few bags of rice. He says, “The basis of socialism is economic equality.” Reducing the economic gap between them and making the poor richer and the rich poorer was considered the very essence of Gandhian concept of Swaraj or Socialism.

However, Gandhi was a pragmatist and rationalist. It is not a concept of absolute economic equality between all individuals having no rhyme and reason to justify such a measure. The emphasis is not so much on equal distribution but on equitable distribution of economic welfare depending upon the absolute and essential needs of each individual. Economic equality did not mean that each one shall have literally the same amount of goods and commodities; on the other hand it meant that every body should have enough to satisfy “his natural needs and no more.” One man may require a quarter pound of wheat for his bread but another may need a pound; both should be in a position to satisfy their needs. Yet, “Let no one justify the glaring difference between the prince and the pauper by saying that the former needs more.”

Does it mean that the rich should give away their hard-earned money? No. Instead he felt that each person must earn his absolute minimum wage in exchange of hard days’ labour. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Gandhi was prepared to tolerate certain amount of economic disparity on the grounds of varying needs of different individuals but the difference should not be glaring. Besides, the basic needs of all must be satisfied first before the claim of any individual for difference with respect to economic advantages can be socially sustained. As he felt: “Every one must have a balanced diet, a decent house to live in, facilities for the education of one’s children and adequate medical relief.”

He also realised that payment of equal wages for all varieties of work of equal duration irrespective of the quality of work and the quantity of output will weaken one’s initiative, creativity and efficiency. The society may suffer from economic stagnation. Accordingly he said : “My idea of society is that while we are born equal, meaning that we have a right to equal opportunity all have not the same capacity. It is in the nature of things impossible. Therefore some will have ability to earn more and other less. I would allow a man of intellect to earn more. I would not cramp his talent.” But the bulk of one’s greater earnings must be used voluntarily for the good of the society, just as the income of all earning children goes to the common family fund.

Equality of Opportunity

For ensuring equality of social status, and economic equality, equality of opportunity holds the key. “What a man makes of his life, depends on two things – his qualities and his opportunities. Society cannot determine his qualities but it can determine his opportunities and it is here that the principle of equality has its application.”, said the Socialist Union. People with varied natural ability or talent may react differently to the same opportunity. Some may take full advantage of the situation and others may fail to grasp it. Prosperity or adversity may depend upon the way the opportunities are exploited by different persons; yet from the side of the society there should be no lapses.

Gandhi said : “The bhangi is or should be on a par with the Brahmin in all social relations. There is no reason why he should not, other things being equal, occupy … the president chair.” In the context of socialism, equality of opportunity implies something different from the ordinary concept of “equality of opportunities to all.” Those who are physically or mentally deficient require special attention and care. He believed that the untouchables, the socially suppressed and exploited classes, needed special attention and liberal grants to raise their status socially and economically. However, he failed to clarify when to stop giving these “liberal grants” so that these grants are not exploited beyond their utility.