Thursday, November 1, 2007

Boycotts: Gandhiji’s Forgotten Weapon

In pre independence India, I read in history books that Mahatma Gandhi organized the boycott of foreign goods both as an act of defiance to the British as well as to give a boost to the local Indian economy by promoting the use of Khadi and other indigenous products. I wonder why that potent weapon has gone into disuse. When Gandhiji first gave a call to boycott foreign and mostly British goods particularly textiles, the effect was potent enough for him to make a trip to the Lancashire mills and spend time will the mill workers on his next British trip. He felt duty bound to explain to them why he was doing what he was doing and his gesture was well appreciated.

I have been thinking of this gesture and its relevance more for two reasons. Firstly but not most importantly, I have been reading a lot about Ashok Todi, the father in law of the hapless Rizwanur Rehman and how he apparently used his wealth to purchase access to the powers that be in the police establishment to kill the marriage of his daughter Priyanka to a man he considered way beyond his class and means. Of course the CBI is investigating as to whether he killed any thing more than just the marriage of his daughter, so it would not be wise to speculate on that for the matter for now.

Among the facts that came to light during the whole media coverage of the episode was that Mr. Todi is the man who owns the Lux Cozi brand of hosiery products. No one till now knew much about the Todis but the brand was fairly well known because of the fairly strong advertising campaign that it ran and the fact that celebrities like Sunny Deol used to endorse the product. In a way, it could be said that but for the brand that he owned, he would have been just as another businessman accused of a crime as many businessman often are and public interest might not have been so sustained.

This is not just plain hypothesis. The Kolkata based Telegraph indicates that in this festival season, the sales of Lux Cozi have dipped in their sales indicating a wide spread loathing for Todi, his brand and that entire he represents. The 200 crore brand has suffered losses in sales as people have voluntarily chosen to shun the product and switch to some other make. According to a hosiery dealer, “The timing has been bad for them and the poor show in the past month is bound to affect their balance-sheet”.

The other scenario where I thought a boycott might be relevant is in the entry of the giants into the organized retail sector. We keep hearing of a lot of discontent about the entry of these big players into organized retailing and what it might do to the mom and pop stores that flourish currently in every neighborhood. The concerns may often be valid and part of the battle is being fought in the political battlefields and this is fine. But there is another kind of battles which concerns me. This battle is being fought by vandalizing shops, smashing window panes and enforcing forcible closure of these shops.

Now no one really knows how much public support these agitations really have. It does not take long for a bunch of goons to shut down establishments and bring things to a standstill. But if these agitations have any popular base or support, why not political parties or social organizations having a mass base come forward to encourage boycott the products sold from these shops and force a natural closure than resort to wreckage and aggression.

Gandhiji in his time had an aim not very different in mind when he called up the Indians of his time – both elite and the commoner alike to shun the products of organized retail and don Khadi. But his methods of a boycott of a product backed with sound reasoning and a viable alternative proved eminently successful and Khadi products retain their relevance, albeit as a niche product till this day. But today unfortunately, all we can think of if we wish to oppose some thing is to reach for stones to throw and property to destroy. The weapon that once was so effective is not uneven unsheathed today, let alone tried for its efficacy. But I suppose that it is a lot easier to pick up a few stones and smash shop frontages than walk from village to village and educate people about what they should and why with motifs and examples that connect and make sense. It is simpler to break a few bones and get what you want!

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