Traditionally, festivals are occasions to celebrate common beliefs, and to bond over mutual interests.

Likewise, auctions bring together buyers and sellers with common interests, and the ultimate goal of mutual benefit.

So, with all the celebrations and excitement we see around the yield from coal, telecom, and memorabilia, it would not be amiss to say, it is festive season for auctions in India!

The Government is ecstatic over the idea of raking in huge returns from corporate houses competing for vital national resources that are in short supply; and the Finance Minister is smiling because it helps him to manage the fiscal deficit.

The media is abuzz with excitement around the telecom spectrum auction and the resultant bonanza for the Government; my friends on Twitter, gleefully ask, what I now think, of my “Zero Loss” statement.

But has anyone asked, what do the telecom majors think about the auction?

For the telecom companies, these bids are a matter of survival, and being too far invested to lose out now. They’re bidding high because their lives depend on it, not because they want to make the treasury rich or make the finance minister happy.

Anyone with a rudimentary sense of economics and business will tell you, increased infrastructure and material costs, will increase the cost of the end product, big or small.

For example, every rupee extra a chaiwalla pays for his dukaan, doodh aur chai patti, will always come out of your, the grahak’s wallet.

The story is similar with coal, which has even more long-tail economic implications than spectrum. In an energy-deficit and infrastructure-challenged nation, coal is like water, or gold – depending on how you look at it.

Either you make it flow easily to those who can harness it for the larger good; or sell it at a premium and hope that the common man will somehow benefit from it.

Are we so naïve to believe, that the auction winners will, out of the goodness of their hearts, absorb the additional cost they’re now burdened with, and not make plans to collect it from their end consumers?

Now my critics will jump in here and point out that I am going down the same argument path again, to reiterate my earlier stand on the matter.

My question to them is: Do the basics of economics not apply, just because they’re being highlighted by “a politician”?

Does logic become void, simply because it comes from someone in Government, or in Opposition?

As a nation, we need to pause and separate the person making statements, from the statements they’re making. We need to reflect on the facts, the economics, and of course, the politics of the matter.

But never mind that.

Let’s pause and reflect instead, on one of the most curious of all recent auctions – of memorabilia; a monogrammed suit, to be precise.

We have the wonderful specter of a Gujarat businessman gaining access, again through an auction, to a pin-striped monogrammed suit that caught the attention of the world by giving warmth to a 56” chest! The auction winning bid, was close to a million dollars!

The significance of this auction cannot be minimized, as it has with one drop of a hammer, surpassed the earnings from the sale of memorabilia of truly great statesmen of the past!

For example, in April, 2012, a pinch of soil and blood stained blades of grass from the place where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 was sold in London for merely around US$ 7,500.

The 70 year old school teacher who put it on the block, waited patiently for good returns from the auction of the soil and blood, along with his rare collection of letters written by the Mahatma, his spectacles, his books, gramophone, and a foldable charkha. The teacher hoped that sale of the memorabilia would fetch enough to set up his dream antique museum. Unfortunately, the auction didn’t get him what he expected.

Even across the seven seas, a collection of several items, including a lock of hair of another father of another nation, Abraham Lincoln, was also sold for a mere US$ 0.8 million!

Mahatma Gandhi won us freedom with the moral courage that shook the foundations of the Imperial Empire. Abraham Lincoln was instrumental in forging the path of a Nation by preserving the Union during the Civil War and emancipated slaves. Both died at the hands of assassins. Both sacrificed their lives for generations to come, and yet their memorabilia did not fetch the kind of price that the branded monogrammed suit fetched.

This makes me wonder: Is our national pride linked to the here and now? Is our philanthropy directly proportionate to immediate fame and rewards?

Is the businessman from Gujarat waiting for opportunities to acquire more items, including coloured waistcoats and stylish kurtas, to set up a unique museum in the future?

If that is the case, can we channelise the sentiment for a larger good?

What if the Gujarat auction was an all India auction with competitive bidding like in coal and telecom sectors?

I am sure, enthusiastic businessmen would have lined up to offer a much higher price, which could have paved the way for truly cleaning the Ganga! After all, US$ 0.8 million is just not enough, but is almost literally, a small drop in the larger ocean of funds needed to cleanse the Holy river.

Memorabilia of great leaders like Gandhiji are national treasures. They remind us of their service to society and the milestones they achieved during their lifetime.

Mahatma’s glasses, his sandals and the charkha represent the simplicity of a man who took on the British Empire, and led our people to freedom from colonial rule.

I guess, the Gujarat businessman will remember his prized possession for the historic visit of President Obama to India and the informality of the discourse of great breakthroughs that it achieved.

Whatever be the Gujarat businessman’s motivation, I hope, it sets a trend.

Perhaps this is a great way of funding public projects, and getting our sluggish economy to move. You can kill two birds with one stone.

Perhaps there are others like the Gujarat businessman, waiting in the wings to buy politicians’ vests, shirts, and kurtas. Maybe even some expensive pens and signature watches.

We could have the Finance Minister, in his next Budget Speech, refer to this innovative way of funding public projects! He can provide a roadmap for such auctions and transparency in conducting them, as his government promises to do inevery aspect of governance.

Maybe we can involve the business community and conduct spot auctions? A standing committee could be set up involving the CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM to design such auctions so that they can become a regular feature for public good.

For posterity to remember, we could even allocate space in Delhi for a museum of such memorabilia – where people can line up and feast their eyes, on the sacrifices made by those in power.

Yes, it would be great if we can extend this festive season of auctions to a year-round affair. In the case of memorabilia auctions, high bids will truly be philanthropic in nature, and the money can be used to benefit the people of India directly.

There would be no input costs to absorb, no overheads to pass on to the consumer. Unlike with spectrum, coal, and other natural resources, where only time will tell who gains, and who pays eventually.

 


note: prices indicated for the auction of Mahatma Gandhiji’s memorabilia, are taken from published media reports.