NEW DELHI — Serious social tension roils here and there across the globe. Gaps between poor and rich rarely seem to shrink and in most places continue to enlarge. The fairest assessment of economic and informational globalization (the greatest pretender as an income gap-narrower since orthodox Marxism) would suggest it may be adding more fuel to the fire than anything else.

In India, especially, a blind man can see what is happening. The poor are to be found almost everywhere you go, even and especially in this mammoth nation’s capital city. Fortunately, Manmohan Singh has anything but deficient eyesight. Educated at Punjab and Oxford universities in economics, he senses a gathering storm — a kind of global political warming in the sociological rather than the meteorological sense.

Singh, India’s deeply intellectual prime minister, offered an extraordinary speech recently before an enormously well-fed audience of Indian industrialists that, in another era, might have been dismissed as maudlin Marxism. But Singh is no more a Marxist than Alan Greenspan, the former U.S. Federal Reserve system chairman whose public expression of concern around the same time about China’s overheated economy sent shivers down the spine of world markets.

In his speech, Singh, a deeply serious man with a cerebral IQ probably twice that of most national leaders, expressed concern not about the possible crash of financial and equity markets but about the possible crash of national political legitimacies. Speaking of India in particular, Singh offered the kind of penetrating critique of capitalism that other national leaders should take to heart.

The turban-topped economist asked his audience (and by implication the world) whether self-satisfaction about unprecedented wealth, as is being enjoyed in India itself these days, is wholly justified in the oppressive presence of diminished equality. All but begging the business community to show more social responsibility by investing in and caring for workers as much as profits, he proposed that companies put a lid on excessive and odious compensation and benefits for top executives, especially when it was obvious that many people are nearly starving in the streets.

The exhibition of a philosophical dimension at the top of Indian politics is not considered grandiose puffery or vulgar grandstanding, but rather as an inheritance and indeed responsibility derived from the grand tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, the George Washington of India, and Jawaharlal Nehru who is arguably the nation’s Thomas Jefferson and its first prime minister.

We do have enough for our needs, Gandhi would often say, but not enough for our greed. His disciple Nehru would often echo the thought, once putting the issue to Indian youth this way: “What shall it profit you to get your empty degrees and your mess of pottage if the millions starve?”

It was into this rich dialectic tradition that Singh stepped. But he did not jump off the cliff into the utter madness of rank socialist prescriptions. Nehru had tried almost all of them — from centralized planning to state capitalism — and almost every one of them failed. In his life he raised the right questions, but in his career he came up with the wrong answers.

But the social and humanitarian norms underlying Nehru’s philosophy remain deeply embedded in India’s soil. It may be glorious to get rich but not if that process breeds more poor. If excessive, clumsy government intervention stymies economic growth without reducing inequality, then who does possess the tools to ameliorate the problem? It is none other than those who have the wealth; and so it is the rich who must help the poor — far more than ever.

Singh carefully sought to pull out one example to make his point accessible to more than professional economists and hard-driven businessmen. He chose one of the true Indian cultural untouchables: the lavishly extravagant wedding so prevalent among the wealthy.

“Such vulgarity insults the poverty of the less privileged,” he told the businessmen. “We cannot afford the wasteful lifestyles of the Western world. Conspicuous consumption must be reduced.”

The prime minister is suggesting that a philosophy of systematically caring for those who have less is probably the best way to make sure that all of us will continue to have more. India Inc., as the nation sometimes refers to itself these days, is currently having a banner year — bouncing around at the 9 percent or so economic-growth level. This puts it on China’s level, which is remarkable in itself.

The prime minister, like any good CEO, worries about trouble that might be just around the corner even as the present bounty seems unending. Wealth can trigger social and political unrest at the same time that it produces numbers over which economists salivate. The paradox of economic wealth is that it can impoverish societies by depriving them of legitimacy — the necessary social capital required for stability, continuity and progress. Singh’s speech may be the most important one given by a major national leader so far this year.

UCLA Professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

For related reader feedback:
Effects of social disparity

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.