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Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 19, April 30, 2011

Wiping Out The Nehruvian Legacy

Tuesday 3 May 2011, by Girish Mishra


Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru’s entry into Indian politics, there have been continuous attacks not only on his ideas and outlook but also on his personal and private life. This campaign still continues even 47 years after his departure from this world. This is because of his outlook and thinking.

As is obvious from his writings and speeches, despite divisions of caste, religion, language, region, living style and so on, India had been one and its first priority was to liberate itself from the shackles of imperialism in order to build an independent, self-reliant, modern industrialised economy and a secular polity.

Throughout his life, Nehru stood for scientific temper and forward looking vision. He opposed all kinds of superstitious and divisive views and practices. Under the leadership of Gandhi, he learned to work among the masses and unite them to achieve first independence, and then build a modern nation. He did not succumb to the religious and neo-colonial propaganda and vilifications. To cite one example, he remained firm as the chairman of the National Planning Committee of the Congress during the late 1930s when not only vested interests from India and abroad but also some conservative leaders attacked him for his advocacy of planning, industrialisation and so on. His association with the labour movement was frowned upon. From the declaration of complete independence to drafting the important socio-economic resolutions of the Congress sessions from Karachi onwards, his imprint is found in all such documents. It was not without reason that he presided over the destiny of the biggest mass movement in the world, that is, the Indian National Congress, and the supreme leader, Mahatma Gandhi, anointed him as his successor who was, after Gandhiji’s departure, to speak the Mahatma’s language and carry forward that latter’s legacy. Attempts were made and a malicious propa-ganda was continuously carried on to depict him as an alien in his outlook not caring for the so-called Hindu ethos and culture. Some quarters charged him of betraying the Gandhian ideas and advocating modern industry, but his mentor fully backed him at crucial moments even though he did not hide ideological differences with his successor. Notwithstanding the claims in certain quarters that Gandhi was having second thoughts on his decision to nominate him as his successor, there is no evidence to this effect.

His unfinished task was carried forward by his daughter Indira Gandhi. After her assassi-nation, things began changing though her ideological and political opponents and the forces, both domestic and foreign, had been openly declaring their aim of taking the country and its economy and polity onto a completely different path. Before we talk of this and its genesis, let us see what a recent book, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction by Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy of Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (Oxford University Press, 2010), says:
In the first period, India’s economic course was plotted by two dynamic leaders—Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. … Nehru chose a democratic-socialist middle way between the capitalist West and the communist Soviet bloc by rejecting both Western ‘liberal’ economic ideas such as free trade and entrepreneurial individualism and Marxist-Leninist form of authoritarian collectivism. Promising to safe-guard India’s national sovereignty, the charis-matic Prime Minister championed a ‘mixed-economy’ approach, which placed the principal means of production into the hands of the state with the expressed goal of ensuring an equitable distribution of nation’s productive output. … Nehru envisioned an India where economic state planning and democracy were seamlessly reconciled. This vision inspired a series of govern-ment-led Five-Year Plans based on a command-and-control model that focused on developing heavy industry and manufacturing. The private sector was to be subordinated to the state and business licences were only issued for purposes that met the government’s planning objectives.

There is no denying the fact that vested interests tried their best to subvert this scheme of development. Indian business houses took licences but did not implement them in order to maintain scarcity and reap huge profits. Licences were issued for setting up industrial units in backward regions but with the connivance of corrupt bureaucracy and politicians, they were set up elsewhere. Aurobindo Ghose, in his excellent doctoral dissertation completed at the Delhi School of Economics, brought this out clearly. Thus, Nehru’s objective of reducing regional imbalances in order to cement national integration was subverted.

Nehru’s efforts to bring about meaningful land reforms and agricultural reorganisation, too, were not allowed to succeed. Big landlords, with the help of the then Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party and a section of his own Congress party headed by Charan Singh, did their best to sabotage his moves. The famous Nagpur Resolution of the Indian National Congress about agrarian reorganisation was not allowed to be implemented. Thus socio-economic inequalities in the country not only remained but also got aggravated with the passage of time. The root of what we see as the Maoist movement lies in that.

His successor, Indira Gandhi, continued his socio-economic scheme and strengthened it by nationalising banks, curbing the MNCs, doing away with the privy purse, a relic of India’s colonial days, and introducting programmes to alleviate poverty. Whatever certain prejudiced quarters may say and deride the achievements of the Nehru-Indira period by summing them up as the “Hindu Rate of Growth”, the fact remains, as testified by Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subra-maniam, that the foundation of the present high rate of economic growth was laid during this period.

One must not forget the plight of the Indian economy and the problems created by the colonial rulers while departing. In brief, the economy was stagnant and whatever small industrial sector existed was dominated by British capital. Department I of the industrial sector was meagre but geared mainly to meeting the needs of transport and civil engineering. India produced just one million tonnes of steel and 1.5 million tonnes of pig iron. Heavy machines, machine-tools, aluminium, power transformers, electric motors and heavy chemicals were produced in very negligible quantities. The output of the petroleum products was just 0.2 million tonnes.

There was almost complete absence of modern technical education. There were only a small number of engineering colleges, catering mainly to civil works. The facilities for mechanical and electrical engineering teaching existed at a limited number of places. The credit goes to Nehru and Indira for opening up and developing institutions of modern technological education. They set up modern scientific labs. Without their vision and efforts it was impossible to dream of a double-digit rate of growth.

IT must be remembered that they were aware of what economists like Keynes had called ‘multiplier effect’. In other words, they wanted, as far as possible, to base the Indian economic development on domestic capital, domestic market and domestic labour so that the fruits were not ‘drained away’, as Dadabhai Naoroji had found as a major cause of India’s poverty.

This was not liked by foreign capitalists and their allies here. Nehru and his scheme of development were derided. His scheme was termed quixotic and against the Ricardo-Heckscher-Ohlin-Samuelson theory of comparative advantage. He was asked to give up his strategy of import substitution and not to indulge in erecting tariff barriers to protect the infant industry. It appeared that these people had forgotten their own past and what American leader Alexander Hamilton and German economist List had said and done. The unholy trinity (IMF-World Bank-GATT) was pressed into service to put as much pressure as possible to take India away from the Nehruvian model. The CIA-funded individuals and organisations contributed as much as they could to this campaign. As ill luck would have it, the Forum of Free Enterprise, and lobbies inside the Congress (a la D.K. Rangnekar’s Bokaro—A Story of Bungling) failed. Certain misguided Gandhians lashed out at Nehru and his successor for betraying Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals by giving up the ‘small is beautiful’ dictum and going in for modern industries. Certain people penetrated into the administration while some others descended from America to lend their might to this campaign. Among them the prominent ones were L.K. Jha and Gurcharan Das. A Socialist like Asoka Mehta came over to the Congress and lent his might to the group trying to change the scheme. There is no denying the fact that they did succeed to an extent and they could bring in, what Arvind Panagariya calls, ‘liberalisation by stealth’ during 1984-91.

The governments of Morarji Desai, V. P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar during their tenures made such a mess that the USA and the unholy trinity could successfully force the Narasimha Rao Government to go in for, what Jagdish Bhagwati calls, ‘reform by storm’. In fact a peaceful, non-violent neoliberal counter-revolution began and gathered speed to wipe out the Nehruvian legacy lock, stock and barrel. It is interesting to note that there was no resistance of any consequence though there were some feeble voices. The neoliberal counterrevolution was triumphant. Consider its elements and see how effectively its perpetrators dumped Nehru and whatever he stood for into a ditch. Its elements are: doing away with the so-called licence-permit raj; opening the doors of the domestic market for imports; effecting exchange rate liberalisation and making the rupee fully convertible; going in for foreign direct investment; making no discrimination between foreign and domestic enterprises; privatisation of public sector enterprises; and putting no emphasis on the removal of regional imbalances and economic inequalities. Thus, to quote Steger and Roy, “it was essential to terminate ‘outmoded’ commitments to Nehru’s economic nationalism.” In 1991, it was declared “with gusto French novelist Victor Hugo’s line that ‘no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come’, the new Finance Minister promised to realise his neoliberal vision by building on his country’s vast and cheap labour markets, its growing number of educated but unemployed, professionals, and its considerable resources.”

The inevitable consequences of this strategy like mounting economic inequalities, widening regional imbalances, rising provincial, casteist and linguistic chauvinism, growing incidence of corruption, scams and lawlessness, strengthening of the Maoist movement and the prevailing sense of insecurity are there for everybody to see. Religious fanaticism has been raising its head, be it in Gujarat or Orissa or elsewhere.

Besides, consistent attempts to sully the personal image of Nehru and his descendants have been witnessed all these years. Several times he was termed as an alien in approach and culture to this holy land called Bharat. Lohia hurled derogatory words and Morarji Desai, on becoming the Prime Minister, tried hard to banish the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library from its location at Teen Murti House, minute scrutiny was made of the activities and mode of funding of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, every inch of Indira Gandhi’s farm house on the outskirts of New Delhi was dug up for unearthing her ‘black money’, she and her family were harassed in the meanest possible way, certain capsules, carrying the names of freedom fighters, buried by her Education Minister, were unearthed in order to ‘show her partisanship’, and then came the Shah Commission to enact a drama to malign her. History, obviously, did not take kindly to all these attempts and their perpetrators have gone into oblivion.

Yet no lessons seem to have been learned as is evident from a concerted attempt to initiate steps that can ultimately destroy the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, an excellent centre of research and study. Old people who are still around can tell how Indira Gandhi and people like Padmja Naidu, B.K. Nehru, P.N. Haksar etc. had devoted their time and energy to build it. At present, as reports indicate, a propped-up non-secular politician, heading the committee managing it, and a journalist masquerading as a great historian and public intellectual are spearheading this campaign to change its character and orientation. One does not know whether they will succeed but one thing is certain: history will not pardon them. One may look at the fate of the A. N. Sinha Institute at Patna, founded with Jayaprakash Narayan as its mentor—it had become a virtual barat ghar (marriage halls) during Janata Party-RJD dispensation.

The author, a well-known economist, used to teach Economics at Kirorimal College, University of Delhi before his retirement a few years ago. He can be contacted at

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