The concept of ‘trusteeship’ that Mr Manmohan Singh reiterated 30 years ago when he presented the reforms budget of 1991, needs to re-assessed.
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When the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh presented the first budget of the Congress-led government headed by Narasimha Rao 30 years ago, it was welcomed heartily by “industry captains”. It was a speech which ushered the new economic reforms centred on privatisation, liberalisation, and globalisation. It was a speech which put the country irretrievably on a course which spelt disastrous consequences for the people.
If today, the gulf between the rich and poor has widened further, the number of billionaires has grown phenomenally and workers and farmers are staring at the abyss of unemployment and bankruptcy, the reforms had no small hand in these developments. The fact that he was an internationally renowned economist was used to lessen the harshness of the reforms on the common people when he said ‘the people must be prepared to make necessary sacrifices’. And they have been doing that for the past 30 years while the big business houses have made merry. The extreme miseries that the people of our country have been put through during the last 15 months of the Covid pandemic, the totally avoidable deaths, the unprecedented job losses, and crisis in the farm sector are all an irrefutable testimony to the utter devastation that the reforms initiated 3 decades ago have caused. It is no longer anybody’s guess whom Mr Manmohan Singh’s budget served.
Thirty years ago, the government unveiled a program of major changes in policies, laws and regulations relating to trade, investment, and the public sector, broadly in line with the prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF. It was a radical departure from the earlier Nehruvian model of socialist pattern of development. But it was not a departure from the concept of ‘trusteeship’ that the Congress leadership had adopted in 1947 in order to lull the people into the mistaken belief that now they have a ‘mai-baap’ sarkar – a government that cares for its citizens like its own children, which would wipe out the tears from every eye and vanquish poverty and unemployment.
Mr Manmohan Singh reiterated this concept again while delivering his budget speech through this long but succinct paragraph.
‘For the creation of wealth, we must encourage accumulation of capital. This will inevitably mean a regime of austerity. We have also to remove the stumbling blocks from the path of those who are creating wealth. At the same time, we have to develop a new attitude towards wealth. In the ultimate analysis, all wealth is a social product. Those who create it and own it, have to hold it as a trust and use it in the interest of the society, and particularly of those who are under-privileged and without means. Years ago, Gandhiji expounded the philosophy of trusteeship. This philosophy should be our guiding star. The austerity that Gandhiji practised and preached is a necessary condition for accelerated economic development in the framework of a democratic polity. The trusteeship that he prescribed for the owners of wealth captured the idea of social responsibility’.
The idea of trusteeship could not have been expounded in a more lucid manner. What this meant was that the people should live an austere life so that the ‘wealth creators’, the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis and Adanis would be able to achieve great heights. Due to their large heartedness a part of this wealth may trickle down and benefit the common man!
This notion of State as a trustee is alien to Indian political theory. When a State acts as a “trustee”, it justifies all its activities, its constitution, its institutions, its superstructure in the name of the people, while actually working for the benefit of a handful of monopolies and big capitalists.
During the medieval period in Europe, kings and queens foisted their arbitrary rule over the people in the name of the ‘royal prerogative’. This phrase meant that a king had a right over his people to extract their products and taxes and though he had no obligation towards them, people could hope that he would also ensure their prosperity and security. The concept of ‘trusteeship’ is not far removed from this. It is only a kinder sounding version of the medieval concept.
The concept of trusteeship was advocated by Edmund Burke, a British MP, in the 18th century and actively supported by John Stuart Mill. According to this conception, people do not know how to govern themselves. The best that they can do is to elect representatives for “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, and his enlightened conscience”. Once elected, the representatives will act in “public interest” according to their conscience and not “sacrificing to your opinion”, meaning that they need not be accountable to the people. The same concept applies for the State which will supposedly act in public interest and according to its conscience in governing the people. This was the concept which the British colonialists used to justify colonialism calling it “white man’s burden” and “moral superiority”.
Reiterating this concept with respect to the colonial domination of India, John Lawrence (Viceroy of India, 1864-69) said “We have not been elected or placed in power by the people, but we are here through our moral superiority, by the force of circumstances, by the will of providence. This alone constitutes our Charter to govern India. In doing the best we can do for the people, we are bound by our conscience and not theirs”.
The Congress party accepted this European notion of trusteeship and gave it an Indian colour. Gandhi said “Real socialism has been handed down to us by our ancestors who taught: ‘All land belongs to Gopal, where then is the boundary line? Man is the maker of that line and he can therefore unmake it.’ “Gopal” literally means shepherd; it also means God. In modern language it means the State, i.e., the People. That the land today does not belong to the people is too true. But the fault is not in the teaching. It is in us who have not lived up to it. I have no doubt that we can make as good an approach to it as is possible for any nation, not excluding Russia, and that without violence”. Thus, Gandhi suggests that the State and people are the same, and the people are not yet mature to take care of their affairs.
The Indian Constitution also spreads the notion that the Indian state will act as the trustee of the people. But it does not explain the glaring point that a trusteeship can exist only with the consent of those in whose interest it was purportedly created it in the first place.
One of the members in the Constituent Assembly, Dr J.A. D’Souza commented on the issue of trusteeship in these words. “A hundred years ago when Burke, referring to the imperial control of England over her Indian Empire, applied to It the doctrine of trusteeship. He declared that as soon as the child India comes of age the trusteeship must end. The question therefore arises: Has India not come of age? Is India still a minor? When I cast a glance along the first benches of this great Assembly, I note that there are great personalities who could play the role of a Churchill or a Roosevelt or a Stalin and not only play the role but even go one better. This is so far as the top ranks of the citizenhood of India is concerned. What about the lowest ranks, the ryot in the villages? If our leaders were to go now to the ryot, who some years ago was steeped in abysmal ignorance in regard to his rights, privileges, and needs, and speak to him of independent India, he would turn round and ‘tell them: “if you are unable to achieve this for us, we shall do so on our own”. He realises that it is due to him. He knows it is his birth-right”. In other words, he meant that Indian citizens have come of age and that they are entirely capable of governing themselves without a trustee above them..
The comments of D’Souza on the concept of trusteeship is even more valid today, 71 years after the Constitution of India was adopted. Is it not anachronistic that even in this modern age people are deprived of power under the pretext that they are not fit to rule? Even a couple of years back, the PM Narendra Modi invoked the concept of trusteeship through the ‘Mein bhi Chowkidar’ campaign, where he tried to convince people that all the people are ‘chowkidars’, that is, care-takers of the country.
The reality is just the opposite. People are extremely marginalised in today’s society. The fact that the government could repeatedly implement policies and legislation that are inimical to the interests of the people such as demonetisation, labour laws and the farm bills and deploy draconian laws such as UAPA and the Sedition Act against them, reveals the extent of marginalisation of people from deciding the day to day affairs of the country. The political role of the people stops with just voting for this or that party. Once a party establishes its rule, the claims of the ordinary masses are completely ignored while the claims of the monopolies and big business houses get top priority. People do not have the right to question their elected representatives for their actions, or lack of it. They have no mechanisms to revoke laws inimical to their interests, let alone make new ones.
In fact, “trusteeship” introduced into Indian political thought by the colonialists is a retrograde step from ancient Indian political concepts like Rajdharma– laws or rules set for the rulers in the context of ensuring proper administration of the entire kingdom. “The king should be like a mother to his subjects and should be willing to make any sacrifices in their interest. He should possess all the qualities of a mother, father, preceptor, protector and also the attributes of Gods like fire, wealth and death towards his subjects. It was stated in the Mahabharata that a king who does not protect his subjects, is a thief and that he would attain hell after his death”. On the contrary, Trusteeship, while it enjoins people to have faith in their rulers and wait for benefits to “trickle down”, does not codify the duties of the rulers and the penalties for not carrying them out!
For India to become a modern democracy such outdated concepts as ‘trusteeship’ which were designed to lull people into false confidence, cannot be allowed to prevail. The concept of Trusteeship in fact is part of the unfortunate colonial legacy. It has become most urgent for the people to demand constitutional guarantees for their democratic rights and demand for a fundamentally new political process that politically empowers people and puts them in the centre-stage of decision making. It is imperative in a modern democracy that the people are sovereign; they cannot permit sovereignty to be vested in the hands of a coterie or a cabinet or even a Parliament which rules ‘in their name’.