Twenty-five years after economic reforms began, we need to reawaken the Vaishya force.
To back our country’s political and military might with economic clout over the next few decades, all we need is one last reform: get out of its way.
It has been manipulated politically, with credit taking on one side and conspiracy mongering on the other. It has misled an entire generation of economists, some of whom see it as a silver bullet for all problems economic and others as a system that will finally implode. It has been worshipped and condemned by the illiterate, depending on which side of the beneficiary bandwagon they stand. Its proponents claim it destroys the vices of autarchy, suspicion and control and blesses the virtues of consumption, growth and trade. Its opponents assert it magnifies inequalities, pushes the capitalist agenda, makes our country subservient to economic imperialism, fattens the purses of the wealthy minority and exploits the poor majority.
All are right. None are right.
And everyone is missing the point.
Outer changes in the rules of business accomplish nothing. At best they may, as they have over the past 25 years, sweeten the crust of society; the insides will remain bitter. It is not through an external tinkering that the objective of freeing the Indian entrepreneurs to experiment, grow, create wealth and fail will be accomplished. India needs more. The source of economic power lies elsewhere, in an invisible spiritual force.
Neither good nor bad, neither virtue nor sin, neither black nor white; this force is like the wind, the tides and the rotation and revolution of the earth. Deeper than the politically inspired surfaces, higher than the heavens where the gods of economics thrive, wider than the expanse of complex markets, the force driving reforms is an omnipresent and omniscient reality that rediscovered slivers of its omnipotent might only 25 years ago. Under political, economic and social assaults, first by the Mughals and later by the British, this force had withdrawn from the consciousness of the nation. Or maybe, it was the other way around.
For reforms to deliver India, we need a new revival, a fresh approach, a more rooted, more grounded transformation—perhaps a spiritual revolution. We need to bring back the consciousness of wealth in all its forms. We need to stop spitting at our entrepreneurs, our wealth creators, our organisers of society. We need to respect our Vaishyas, the arm of society that expresses its swadharma—own becoming—through professions and crafts, industry and trade, wealth creation and philanthropy.
Before I am crushed by the sullen and insufferable might of those who reject this idea simply because the caste system as they have understood is the epitome of all evil, allow me to finish this paragraph. The Vaishya is an entity whose being or inner nature is guided by the ability to bring various arms of knowledge, material and men together and organise them towards new enterprises, thereby increasing the sum of its parts. While money is a sweet byproduct, the joy of the Vaishya comes from building, organising and creating. Importing ideas that have been successful elsewhere and expecting them to work the same miracle here is laziness of thought, speech and action. The Vaishya, like the Brahmin, the Kshatriya and the Shudra, is a complex network of consciousness.
Cynics might not like it; they may not accept it, but India was once the world’s largest economy, commanding a GDP share of 32.9 percent in 1 CE, according to The World Economy: Historical Statistics. This share of world GDP had fallen to 24.3 percent by 1500 CE and three years after getting its independence from the British, had collapsed to 4.2 percent. The major blame for this humiliating debacle was the fall of the Kshatriya force from our country, following which an enfeebled nation was plundered serially by invaders from the West.
No doubt, if a nation gives up on itself, allows itself to decay, and uses “spiritual pursuits” to hang its inertia on, we can’t blame conquerors for devouring it. But despite our freedom, if we continue to revel in the shackles of poverty, reject a revival and continue to do what has been handed down to us from an imperialist constitution of control, it is clear that there are larger forces at play, forces that go beyond political choices and economic systems. That India’s GDP share fell further to 3.1 percent by 1973, a quarter century after Independence, stands testimony to that receding force.
And reforms? Well, there is little causality between reforms that began in 1991 and outcomes. Today, despite the heady economic growth over the past decade, a relatively open economy of 25 years and an overall sense of prosperity, India’s share of world GDP stands at 2.8 percent—lower than what it was in a closed economy in 1973, lower than what the British left us with. Which means, there is more to India’s economic insignificance than meets the eye, more work needed in fields beyond equations, perfect markets, trickledowns.
The real reason for India’s economic implosion is that as a collective consciousness, we look down with contempt at our Vaishyas, even as we celebrate the Vaishyas of the West (the Googles, the Wal-Marts, the Chevrons) and the East (the PetroChinas, the Alibabas, the Gazproms). The Vaishya capacity does not reside in business schools creating armies of managers or in the play of mathematical equations driving finance minds. Education barely even scratches the surface of this skill. It’s something deeper.
Because we shun this Vaishya force, the only pride we have is in jugaad, or small-time innovations, that help individuals or communities. As a result, the energies of our Vaishyas are scattered, showing up in fits and spurts, in petty deals and over putrefying politics. As a collective, we have spiritually shamed our wealth creators as two-bit small-time rats, building burrows between tunnels of wealth or worse, blindly following pathways discarded by the West and the East. We have placed the royal seal of corruption on them. Instead of facilitating them, we have created a system, an infrastructure, where they meet organised friction at every boiler, every financial deal, every step of the way.
Culturally, we are happy to be vice presidents in mid-sized companies, but ashamed to be creators of small enterprises that could become large in a decade, the current surge and collapse of the startup ecosystem notwithstanding. Want proof? Study the matrimonial pages. Independent India’s soul needed economic dynamism of the Vaishya to power the celebration of freedom. What the political establishment did instead was to turn economic activity into a crime and the Vaishya into a criminal, ironically feeding off this “criminal” even as we kick him in the face.
Supporting this disgrace were our thinkers, who have neither read Arthashastra and Bhagwad Gita nor cared to understand the governance systems that originated from India. The intellectual push, if that, was towards becoming another Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, another Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, another America in the 1990s and 2000s, another China today. While India’s aspiration jumps from one economic fantasy to another, depending on what the world outside dictates and labels as “success”, we remain a nation trying to copy—the cats keep climbing higher. So, we embraced the Socialist Model post-Independence. That failed in the mid-1980s, and we were left rudderless, so we clasped the next option, the Capitalist Model. Nervously, and under pressure from the US- and Europe-dominated multilateral agencies, we “reformed” our economy in the early-1990s.
But ideologies of multilateral agencies are fleeting and subservient to the needs of their owners, not any absolute. The same agencies, when prescribing macroeconomic solutions for their “owners”, effortlessly shifted goalposts—from controlling fiscal deficits at any cost to Third World nations of the East to ignoring them when the global economic crisis began from and hit the West. The reform they prescribed to Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand in what is known as the Asian financial crisis of 1997, for instance, was to reduce government spending, cut fiscal deficits and allow insolvent financial institutions to die. But when it came to the American economic crisis of 2008, sweetly labelled a “global” economic crisis, a very different prescription followed—“too big to fail” banks that had consciously created the crisis were supported by the government, and their executives paid outrageous bonuses, leading to the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the 99 percent cry. In just a decade, the rules of the game, as well as the ideologies, behind them changed.
That’s because the rules were set by the West, for the West and, therefore, are of the West. There is nothing wrong with a nation or a group of nations acting together to do what they want to. The problem is expecting that what works in one cluster of consciousness will work as efficiently in another. Our inability to reach for and excavate the Indian way in general and support the Vaishya consciousness in particular further weakened this force.
Intoxicated by the surface lexicon, the “reformed” intellectuals condemn the nationalisation of banks in India (it was wrong, no doubt) in 1969, but applaud at effectively the same action in the US (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) and UK (Northern Rock) in 2008. Clearly, our intellectualism has no bearings. Our Brahmins, quoting the experience and knowledge of the West, are devoid of honesty or scholarship. To clarify: while there is nothing wrong with knowledge, Eastern or Western, there is something spectacularly wrong in blind copy-pasting of ideas, without being conscious of the cultural reality of nations—parroting celebrated economists does not an intellectual make.
What is known as “reforms” is increasingly sounding like borrowing ideas of the West, allowing India to be their economic laboratory and Indians their guinea pigs. Uncertain about our own bearings, unclear about our cultural contexts, unconcerned about the impact of economic policy on 1.2 billion people, a small group of politicians, bureaucrats, economists and intellectuals have thrust imported policies down our throats. Some of these have worked, no doubt—India is today among the world’s top 10 economies, it is the world’s sixth largest car market and the second largest smartphone market. But most haven’t—we are ranked 120th out of 164 in per capita income, less than three percent of our population pays taxes, 725 million of us live on less than $3.10 per day.
An atmosphere of subjugation, a paradigm of the supremacy of the petty inspector, a labyrinth of outdated laws meant to control rather than serve India ensures that talent flies out—the swabhava of the Indian Vaishya finds his swadharma outside India. As a nation, we have tied down our Vaishyas in chains of tamas, a condition of lethargy and inertia. We are satisfied by survival. Not for us the towering heights of an economy overflowing with dynamism, enterprises, jobs. Worse, those who do create large-scale projects and hundreds of thousands of jobs are condemned, not celebrated.
We need to rediscover and execute the “Indian” way. That can come only from our spiritual moorings, not from aping the aspirations of others. Better to follow one’s own law of works, however badly, than another’s, however well, says the Bhagwad Gita. We frittered away the energies of our Vaishyas in the first 44 years of our Independence through a top-down command economy of control that effectively legislated and institutionalised inertia, numbing our consciousness, nudging us into becoming efficient clerks and managers. When we did stand up to change, through reforms in 1991, we did not offer them a zero base but only trapped them in policies alien to our soul towards benchmarks that mean nothing to us.
As a collective consciousness, for far too long, we have smothered the dynamic force of the Vaishya. We have seen its outcomes as a nation that remains poor despite all packaging to the contrary. We may be the fastest-growing economy today, but choke under the weight of social indicators. Even though India is the world’s second-most populated nation, our businesses have no scale, our Vaishyas work in the shadows. Those that do are seen to have got there through treachery, not parishram, or hard work. They need to be dismissed and destroyed. Even the charity of our Vaishyas that changes the lives of millions is not good enough.
We need to change this. And the first flush of that change—but only the first and delicate flush, remember—is visible. There is a growing wealth consciousness. It will be catalysed by a technological hyperjump that reaches the innards of our nation and grants access to the Vaishyas, now marooned on an island with no connections, their talent smothered by our contempt, in geographies we can’t identify on a map.
The English-speaking chatterati will not get it, busy as they are with their pretty selfies, secure in the wealth they’ve been able to amass, smug in their little protectorates of condominiums and spewing out venom at all things Indian. The Vaishya revolution will begin from the bottom. It will expand from the very soul of our nation, from beings who may not be educated but know, who may not have access to finance but will build, who may not seek wealth as an end but will create.
The Vaishya is not a person, a community or a group but a conglomeration of spiritual proclivities, a state of being, a force of organisation. Not every being can harness this force; else, anyone with money would have created successful enterprises. You need special skills to allow this force to run through you—like the Brahmin with the force of calm, self-control and tapasya harnesses knowledge; the Kshatriya with the force of heroism, resolution and fighting leads dynamism; and the Shudra with the force of service ensures stability. Together, they form a societal ecosystem.
The Vaishya force lies depleted in India and thrives in the West as well as the East. To reawaken this force, this Shakti, this ability to organise resources and create wealth, to bring the prosperity that every Indian deserves by right into every household, to back our country’s political and military might with economic clout over the next few decades, all we need is one last reform: get out of its way.