Annam Bahu Kurvita

Times of India, Delhi, June 05, 1998
The BJP Budget: Swadeshi Talk, Videshi Thought
by Sidhdharth Varadarajan

[This article is not a review of this book, but is based largely on the analysis and quotations from the book.]

The secret is finally out. For all the BJP’s claims of being a party with a difference, a party rooted in Indian thought, the Vajpayee government’s first budget is as steeped in Anglo-American economic theory as the budgets of its Congress and UF predecessors. Critics have panned the budget for being “directionless”. It main weakness, however, stems from the BJP’s unwillingness to make a break with the direction the Indian economy has taken since 1947, and especially since 1991.

As the Economic Survey for 1997-1998 has documented, the economy of today is in a virtual recession. Industrial growth has declined to 4.2 percent and agricultural output is actually falling. Farmers wracked by indebtedness are committing suicide in various parts of the country. Poverty and unemployment continue to stalk the population and the spectre of inflation is making a reappearance. Health, education and sanitation remain outside the reach of most Indians.


How different the situation is from Valmiki’s description of Ramrajya: “There is happiness and cheer all around …All are well-nourished …All are without disease …No parent witnesses the death of a child …Fire causes no disasters. No living being ever drowns in water …Fevers hold no fears. Nobody has to worry about hunger.” Instead of tinkering with tariffs and taxes in order to please powerful lobbies how wonderful it would have been if an avowedly nationalist party in the 50th year of India’s freedom had turned to ancient Indian wisdom on economic matters in order to establish some approximation to Ramrajya. Unfortunately, the BJP has not proved up to the task.

Anglo-American political economy – which considers economic hardship and crises to be mere troughs in a never-ending cycle – believes in leaving mattes to the market. The state should cut expenditure to a minimum and citizens must fend for themselves. Indian wisdom, on the other hand, holds the state responsible for the well-being of the people. ‘Pradhanam kshatirye karma prajanam paripalanam’, says the Yajnyavalkyasmrit – looking after his subjects is the primary responsibility of the king – and the same doctrine is amplified in virtually every Indian treatise on kingship and polity from the Vedic times down through Kautilya, Tiruvalluvar and Abul Fazal to the insurgents of 1857.

Perhaps the most lucid elaborations of rajadharma are those contained in the Mahabharata. Bhishma asks Yuddhishthira in the Shantiparva: “Have you ensured that the cultivators are not reduced to deserting the country because of the exactions imposed by you? … Always arrange for the welfare and livelihood of those who have no resources, those who have no one to look after them, those who are afflicted by old age, and those who have lost their husbands.” For kings who ignored their obligations, Bhishma was pretty blunt about what steps the praja were entitled to take. There is a celebrated passage in the Anushasanparva which, if repeated today, would certainly render the sage a prime accused before a TADA court.

This is not to suggest that the kings in the past actually adhered to the exacting standards of rajadharma. Not is it anyone’s case that our ancients left behind formulae with which all problems of contemporary society can be solved. But who can deny the universality of, say, the Taittreya Upanishad’s exhortation to all would-be rulers: annam bahu kurvita. Tadvratam. ‘Endeavour so that there be great abundance of food. That is the inviolable discipline of mankind’.

The rise of European political and economic theories in India after 1885 and the consolidation of various political tendencies based on them – Congress, Socialist, Hindutva – pushed indigenous political and economic wisdom to the background. There is nothing surprising about this. Over the years, powerful economic interests have emerged which have no enthusiasm for a rajadharma where the king “becomes the eyes of those who cannot see, the legs of those who cannot walk” (Padmapurana).

Abundance of Food

If ‘swadeshi’ means looking after the interests of large swadeshi monopolies by the imposition of import duties, the waver of penalties for corporate and excise tax evasion, and the proposed sale of public assets to them at low prices, then Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha has done his ‘patriotic’ best. Domestic industry is thrilled and investment banks have already begun toting up the precise amount each industrial house is likely to gain. Prominent among the gainers: Reliance, Bombay Dyeing, Bajaj etc., and also ITC, which has saved several hundred crore through the ‘samadhan’ tax scheme, a virtual VDIS through the backdoor.

The logic of Mr. Sinha’s budget is that a bonanza to big industry will lead to growth and prosperity for all. Consequently, he has not made any particular effort directly to improve the life of the common man. Food security and public investment in rural infrastructure – which should be the cornerstones of any government’s economic agenda – get short shrift. The so-called “50 per cent hike in educational outlays” has also turned out to be an eyewash, with most of the increments due to increased salaries at higher education level. The teachers’ pay hike is long overdue and it is good that the budget has provided for it. But it is inexplicable that no grand effort has been made to provide primary, secondary or adult education to more. Or health care.

Praja Excluded

Although the outlay for agriculture has been increased by 58 percent, allocations are far too low to reverse the decades of neglect the sector has been subject to. In the Sabhaparva, Narda asks, “Have you ensure that in every part of the lands large irrigation tanks have been constructed, that these are brimming with water, and that agriculture is not left at the mercy of the gods of rain alone?” Though Mr. Sinha acknowledges that only 37 percent of our cultivable land is under assured irrigation, he has not taken adequate measures to bring about a change. Without a massive increase in public investment, credit alone will not encourage farmers to invest in watershed development.

The BJP should realise that when hundreds of millions of Indians are excluded from meaningful participation in it, the Indian economy is bound to be affected. Some 30 million consumers do not make for much of an economic base. Unless the praja is brought into the picture, the country will lurch from crisis to crisis. No imported theory, whether Keynesianism or Thatcherism, liberalisation or protectionism, will be of much use. Before there can be truly swadeshi policies, there must be swadeshi thought.