Dear Minister, ‘common good’ can’t be what suits a few

A shift in power from the government to those who control means of production, financial institutions, media and large corporations is quite visible. Sanctimonious speeches can’t replace solid steps

FM Nirmala Sitharaman presenting Budget 2021 in Parliament
FM Nirmala Sitharaman presenting Budget 2021 in Parliament

V Venkateswara Rao

Several Twitter users who had predicted that the Finance Minister would quote Thiruvalluvar in her budget speech were not disappointed. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the Union Budget for 2021-22, quoted the Tamil poet and said, “A king or ruler is one who creates or acquires wealth, protects and distributes it for the common good.”

Penned by Thiruvalluvar, this was taken from his classic Tamil text consisting of 1,330 short couplets of seven words each, divided into 133 chapters.

Earlier, former Finance Minister P Chidambaram had also borrowed the words of the Tamil poet while presenting the Interim Budget in 2014. “Vel Anru Venri Tharuvathu Mannavan,

“Kol Athuvoom Kodaathu Enin” (Not the spear but the sceptre swayed with equity, alone gives the ruler victory), he had then quoted. According to media reports, Chidambaram began quoting Thiruvalluvar as far back as 1996, when he took over as the Finance Minister for the first time.

Thiruvalluvar, commonly known as Valluvar, was a celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known as the author of Thirukkural, a collection of couplets on ethics, political and economic matters and love.

While there is no exact information on the timeline of his life, it has been speculated that his work Thirukkural can be dated back to 450-500 AD. Thiruvalluvar has been compared to global thinkers such as Plato and John Milton. He was known to be a Jain but both Buddhists and Shaivites claim him as their own.

In 2020, the Indian economy contracted more than any other big economy, pushing farmers, informal sector workers, small businessmen and lower-middle class people back into the poverty net.

While listing out the country’s annual incomes and expenditures, Sitharaman took refuge in the words of Rabindranath Tagore: “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark” (from ‘Fireflies, A Collection of Aphorisms’). Nirmala Sitharaman expressed that this moment in history is the dawn of a new era for the country, where India is well-poised to be the land of promise and hope for the world.

Sanctimonious speeches filled with abstract couplets do not rhyme with the people’s daily challenges. The hard fact is that neither wealth is being created, nor it is getting distributed in an equitable way for achieving the ‘common good’.

In the year before the pandemic had struck, Indian economy grew just at 4%, the despised ‘Hindu Rate of Growth’. During the year of the pandemic, Indian economy is estimated to shrink by about 8%, the highest rate of contraction among the major economies. It is a well-known fact that the economic disparities are on the rise, unemployment is rising and monopolies are flourishing while small businesses are decaying.

In philosophy, economics, and political science, the common good refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community or alternatively, what is achieved by citizenship and collective action. Thiruvalluvar wanted such ‘common good’ to be ensured by the medieval- era kings. The present-day democracies too have the same responsibility bestowed on them.

Successful societies should be built around common good. It is a society that believes in individual pursuit, intellectual accomplishment and financial reward only regulated by what is beneficial for the common collective good.

Such a society cultivates a common good with equality of opportunity for all - a society where the health and welfare of all is sacrosanct. It is the government that decides and regulates the progress and ambitions of society. We need a government that is subservient to the common good of the people.

Unfortunately, all over the world, we are experiencing a shift in power from the government to those who control the means of production, financial institutions, the media, the rich and the privileged and large corporations.

Working for the common good implies that we work to create the social and political conditions for many different people to thrive within a common space. We need organizations and governments that pursue the triple bottom line of profits, people and the planet - and not just profits alone.

There should be an equilibrium between free markets and effective regulation. The free market requires the stability and regulatory framework offered by a stable state. Far from being in an adversarial relationship, both spheres are deeply interconnected. This is often the criticism that is leveled at both modern political and economic institutions.

The seeds of an unusual saga of ‘common good’ were sown in Narendra Modi’s own state of Gujarat, more than 75 years back. Angered by the unfair trade practices, the farmers of Kaira district approached Sardar Vallabhai Patel under the leadership of their local farmer leader Tribhuvandas K Patel. He advised them to form a cooperative and supply milk directly to the Bombay Milk Scheme instead of through Polson Limited (which did the same but gave them low prices).

Formed in 1946, Amul is a cooperative brand managed by a cooperative body, the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (GCMMF), which today is jointly owned by 36 lakh milk producers in Gujarat. Amul spurred India’s white revolution, which made the country the world’s largest producer of milk and milk products. The Amul type of co-operative model of economic development, rather than the Ambani-Adani type of private ownership, are better suited for the ‘common good’ of Indian people and needs to be replicated in all other sectors of the economy.

The ‘mixed-economy model’ led by public-sector investments, envisaged by the forefathers of our nation was also meant to be an instrument to achieve ‘common good’ and needs to be preserved, protected and perused by the present-day regime as well.

‘Common Good’ also lies in taxing the minimum number of people but collecting the maximum amount of taxes, rather than the vice-versa. Vilfredo Pareto, a renowned economist, had propagated the theory almost a century ago that 80% of the wealth in any society is held by 20% of its people.

This principle got international acclaim as ‘Pareto Principle’ or 80:20 Rule. Measures intended to rope in the maximum number of people into the tax net may not necessarily achieve ‘common good’. Measures intended to collect the maximum taxes from the 20% of people and freeing the balance 80% people from the tax net will lead to more equitable wealth creation.

(V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional. Views are personal)

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