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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 48

Nehru’s Economic Philosophy

Sunday 16 November 2008, by V K R V RAO


Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is not only a great patriot and one of the great sons of India, but also a great son of the world who played a significant role in the achivement of freedom for the colonial countries in both Asia and Africa. Even before he became Prime Minister, when he was in the Interim Government, he arranged to convene the Asian Relations Conference in early 1947, where he brought together all the sovereign and non-sovereign nations of Asia, and helped to build up an Asian personality and anti-colonial posture. It was chiefly by his efforts that China was brought back to the comity of nations. He was also responsible for the organisation of the Non-Aligned Group of Nations, which continues to play an important role in influencing both the colonial and non-colonial countries, to follow a path of discussion, consultation and conciliation for resolving their disputes. The non-aligned movement has now grown to include more than 100 nations and is successfully playing its role as a promoter of peace. The world has recognised his contribution and counts him among the few who played a successful role for peace and conciliation, in both his own country and the world at large.

But the prime tribute that we pay him is to commemorate what he did for his own country. While Gandhiji earned for himself mass support for political independence, Nehru got political independence linked up with economic independence, abolition of unemployment, and the raising of the standard of living of the mass of people, most of whom had been sunk in poverty. He linked up the Indian national movement with the global anti-colonial movement. He saw the Indian movement for independence as a part of the worldwide stru-ggle against colonialism and gave encouragement to the nationalist movements abroad. While he publicly proclaimed his personal adherence to the socialist path, he was not prepared to force his personal views on the Congress, which included in its membership many persons who were more moderate in their economic views. He recognised that it would not be possible for a body constituted as is the National Congress, and in the present circumstances of the country, to adopt a full socialist programme. But he lost no opportunity to proclaim his views on the relevance of the socialist path to India’s economic freedom. He brought in an economic note at the Lahore session of the National Congress which proclaimed its objective as attainment of full independence. While he did not force his views on the Congress for reasons already explained, he lost no opportunity to express his own personal views at Congress meetings and went on stressing the economic aspect of political freedom and the need for taking special note of the economic interest of the masses after India became independent.

Even after India gained independence and he became the first Prime Minister of the country, he did not force his socialist views on the country, as he wanted to take the country along with him, and he recognised that he would have to move gradually towards the acceptance of socialism by his people. Thus, in practice, he played a moderate role in the implementation of socialist programmes, but he lost no opportunity to get the Congress to accept a near socialist ideology. Thus he had the Avadi session of the Congress pass a resolution supporting the acceptance of socialism and later got Parliament also to accept a similar resolution. But as Prime Minister he did not go for any full-fledged programme of socialist economic development. His socialism was pragmatic rather than dogmatic, and he wanted to take the people along with him gradually to the acceptance of socialist ideology, rather than precipitate a domestic civil war by its hasty introduction. It was only towards the fag end of his life, a few months before his death, that he succeeded in having the Bhubaneswar session of the National Congress adopt his style of socialist ideology. It was during that session, held in December 1963, that the Congress amended Article 1 of its constitution and declared that
The objective of the Indian National Congress is the well-being and advancement of the people of India by peaceful and constitutional means of a socialist State based on parliamentary democracy, in which there is equality of opportunity and of political, economic and social rights, and which aims at world peace and fellowship.

While he did not accept the socialist creed of the Marxist variety adopted both by Russia and China, for which they had to use violence, he got the country to accept a fairly radical programme of progressive land reforms and gave the country a political democracy with full adult franchise. His socialist ideal was tied up with the securing of economic independence for the country, and programmes for reaching out to the masses for their economic betterment.

Nehru’s role as a socialist was constantly overshadowed by his need to function as a nationalist and abide by the leadership of Gandhi for the termination of British rule in the counry. His socialism was also identified with the development of individual personality and the maintenance of human dignity. His major role in the implementation of socialist programmes was the institution of the Planning Commission in 1950, a body entrusted with the task of mobilising the country’s resources to go in for industrialisation that would bring self-sustenance and acceleration by concentrating on capital industries and an infrastructural framework for a socialist economy.

ALTOGETHER, I would say, India must be profoundly grateful to him for the way in which he converted a purely political movement for independence into an economic movement for a socialist society, though his socialism was of a different kind from Marxist socialism and precluded the use of violence, advocating instead the retention and development of human individuality. Ultimately, Nehru stressed on individualism along with socialist ownership of large scale industries and the infrastructure required for a big industrial nation. In fact, recent happenings in the socialist countries of the USSR, China, Poland and Hungary lend support to the belief that Jawaharlal Nehru had in individual enterprise. Whether India will continue Nehru’s experiment of a socialist society with a mixed economy and the room for individual enterprise along with a vibrant and dynamic public sector, only the future can tell. I feel optimistic about the retention of Nehruvian socialist ideals through which there could be continuous collaboration and interaction between the public sector and the private sector, socially regulated individual enterprise and peaceful methods for socialist change.

The great legacy that Nehru has given to the country is in regard to secularism. He recognised from his very entry into politics, that in a multi-religious society like India, equal treatment to all religions, equal respect for all religious, absence of conflict in the name of religion, and stressing the points of unity found in all religions, should form the basis of secularism. This was the secularism that Nehru advocated for the country, and his secularism was also linked up with the socialist ideals which he had been placing all along before the country, while in power and also when he was not yet in power.

I think that in the tribute we pay him on the hundredth anniversary of his birthday, we must make clear his personal acceptance of socialist ideology. The statement that he made in the 1936 session of the Congress at Lucknow needs to be re-stated as, in my opinion, it has even greater relevance now to India’s peace and prosperity because of the divisive tendencies that are growing in the country, and the recourse to violence that is accompanying it. I now quote from his Lucknow Congress Presidential address:

I am convinced that the only way to the solution of the world’s problems and of India’s problems lies in socialism and when I use this word, I do so not in a vague humanitarian way, but in the scientific economic sense. Socialism, however, is even more than an economic doctrine, it is a philosophy of life and as such it appeals to me. I see no way of ending poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation and subjection of the Indian people except through socialism, that involves vast and revolutionary changes, the ending of vested interests in land and industry as well as the feudal and autocratic Indian States system; that means the ending of private property except in a restricted sense, and the replacement of the present profit system by a higher ideal of co-operative service. It means ultimately a change in our instincts and habits….. Socialism is thus for me not merely an economic doctrine, which I favour; it is a vital creed which I hold with all my head and heart. I work for Indian independence because the nationalist in me cannot tolerate alien domination. I work for it even more because for me it is the inevitable step to social and economic change. I should like the Congress to become a socialist organisation and join hands with the other forces in the world which are working for the new civilisation.

I have chosen to highlight in my tribute, Nehru’s contribution to India’s economic development, but we as Indians, have to remember him for many other aspects of his contribution to the country. Among these is his great faith in political democracy, and the constant respect that he gave Parliament, for his decorum and dignity, and for having full discussions and his willingness to abide by Parliament even when he did not agree with it personally. He was an ardent patriot who made himself available to the masses for whom he developed an almost mystical affection, and who abundantly returned his affection such as no political figure, with the possible exception of Gandhiji, received from the Indian people.

He was constantly laying stress on India’s composite culture and traditional values stremming from Indian philosophy and his acceptance of the Vedantic position, which is acceptance of universal brotherhood and service of man as the highest activity open to him.

No tribute to Nehru can be complete without referring to the contribution he made to the growth of science and technology in India. While Nehru took great pride in India’s ancient civilisation and maintenance of her traditional and universalised values, he was very upset by the sway of ignorance and superstition, sectarianism and lack of scientific spirit. He, therefore, called upon the country to cultivate a scientific attitude. Not only did he bring in science for the intellectual growth of the country and its economic development by establishing a large number of scientific research institutions, he also lost no occasion in his public speeches in laying stress on the need for a questioning and critical spirit, and a scientific approach to the variety of problems that are confronting India and the world.

I think our best tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru is to carry on his socialist and secular mission. Poverty, economic dependence, communal conflicts etc. are to be treated as enemies if we want to implement his legacy. In fact, Nehru’s legacy is not only for India, but for the whole world. The socialist Nehru, who transformed himself under the influence of Gandhiji, has bequeathed the legacy which we should implement in India and also work for its acceptance and implementation in the rest of the world.

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