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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 23, May 28, 2011

Nehru’s Vision of Building a Modern India and its Complete Negation since the 1990s

Thursday 9 June 2011, by Girish Mishra


Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 42 (April 1-June 30, 1958) edited by Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee; Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Teen Murti House, New Delhi; 2010; pp. 922; Rs 100.

Jawaharlal Nehru, throughout his days of the freedom struggle, was among a small band of leaders who strove not only for the country’s liberation from the yoke of colonialism but also had a socio-economic vision of independent India. In fact, he was the inheritor of the intellectual legacy of the visionaries from Rammohun Roy and Dadabhai Naoroji to Mahatma Gandhi, as it appears from the works of Prof Bipan Chandra. In his presidential addresses from the Lahore session of the Congress onwards, we find Nehru’s great endeavour to develop this vision and make it intelligible to the people at large. He struggled hard to concretise it during his leadership of the National Planning Committee of the Congress. It is no exaggeration to say that it was these efforts of his that attracted the toiling and exploited masses to the Congress. Archival records and private papers show that Gandhiji always stood by him and it was his support that enabled Nehru to weather the attacks and difficulties.

In brief, Nehru was for building a modern industrialised independent economy in India after achieving independence. This was to be based mainly on the country’s own natural resources, capital, labour and domestic market. He withstood all attempts by vested interests to make India remain a low level agriculture-based economy. Talks of ‘comparative advantage’, ‘small is beautiful’, ‘creation of employment oppor-tunities in plenty’, etc. were heard. Many indigenous and foreign ‘experts’ tried hard to dissuade Nehru from embarking on his vision of building a modern industrialised economy, but he saw through the game and stuck to his vision. By and large, the Congress stood by him.

After the trauma of the partition was over and some stability was brought in the country’s economic affairs, the real task began with the launch of the Second Five Year Plan, based on the Mahalanobis model. The 1956 Industrial Policy Resolution defined the role and place of a vibrant public sector. An ever-expanding private sector was to be there but working within the contours laid down by the Industrial Policy Resolution and under the guidance of the Planning Commission.

The emphasis was on the removal of inequalities in the society as well as regional imbalances so that social unity and geographical integrity of the country were strengthened. Market forces were subordinated to these needs. More-over, all efforts were to be made to keep the multiplier effects largely within the confines of the country. Infrastructures were built and the impediments like outdated agrarian relations were sought to be removed.

In the course of these efforts, Nehru and his party and the government faced enormous difficulties and resistance from vested interests, both domestic and external. The volume under review contains ample number of documents to underline this.

It is not possible to look into each and every document, yet we can glance through a few. To begin with, Nehru has been often accused of ignorance of the realities and problems of rural India. This accusation has been hurled by the blind followers of Charan Singh and Ram-manohar Lohia. If one glances through the very first document in this volume, one will realise how untrue this accusation has been. On April 3, 1958, Nehru, while laying the foundation stone of the building of the Punjab Legislative Assembly at Chandigarh, said in the course of his speech: “I feel that there should be three fundamental things in every village. One is a village panchayat, the second is a village cooperative and the third is a village school. The panchayat is meant for political work, the cooperative is the economic pillar of rural life, and the school is for imparting education. I have not mentioned other essential things like hospitals. But these three things are most important and we must establish them in each village without much pomp and show, and with simplicity. Classes can be held under the trees and teachers should be well paid and respected in the villages. After all, it is the teachers who mould the children and are the most important individuals in society. They are bound to have an influence on the children and if you want that the children should grow well, the teachers must certainly be good.”

He was convinced that the cooperative move-ment was indispensable for India’s development. It would lead to economising the use of resources and binding the people together. His inaugural address to the third All India Cooperative Congress made it clear that he was not only convinced of the need for the development of the cooperative movement in the country but was also aware of the problems and difficulties faced in its working. He reminded the audience of his commitment to the cooperative movement though he had no practical experience of its running. He had emphasised the importance of the cooperative movement as far back as 1929 in his presidential address to the Lahore Congress, though it was only in 1948 that the commitment to it was incorporated in the constitution of the Congress.

He reminded his audience: “… even as … struggle for political freedom developed, it became obvious that political freedom by itself was not enough. It had to have a social content in it, it had to go towards economic freedom. In the ideological sphere there have been great controversies, great movements, and I am not going into that question. But one thing seems to be progressively accepted and admitted by large numbers of people, and that is that a purely acquisitive society is not good enough, that is, a society based chiefly on acquisitive principles is not good enough under modern conditions (emphasis added). The State begins to interfere, therefore, to curb the tendencies of the acquisitive society.“

WHAT a complete right about turn his party has made since the 1990s! With the adoption of the neoliberal approach, acquisitiveness has come to dominate our society and the consequences that have followed include massive corruption, gene-ration of black money and siphoning away our wealth to, what Nicholas Shaxson calls in his recently published study, Treasure Islands, tax havens. White-collar crimes have proliferated and the mafia has come to have influence on state affairs.

Nehru underlined, time and again, that it was the duty of the state “to bring about equality of opportunity, not absolute, but broadly speaking, and to diminish the tremendous differences which exist between various groups. Well, in doing so the state has naturally had the tendency to interfere. It had to. Sometimes, that interference may have gone a little too far according to the opinion of some people and even invaded the freedom of the individual a bit too much. No individual has, of course, absolute freedom in these matters. They are all relative. But if we value individual freedom, as many of us do, how are we to find a balance between keeping that individual freedom and at the same time getting out of the clutches of an acquisitive society where individual freedom only rests in theory, not in practice?”

Those who have been propagating the lie that Nehru betrayed Gandhi by ditching his basic teachings must glance through his speech at the inauguration of the Mahatma Gandhi College, Trivandrum on April 24, 1958. It vividly demons-trated his deep understanding of the Mahatma as a person and his ideas. Of course, they had disagreements over a number of issues but there remained a deep attachment to each other. That is why Gandhi declared Nehru as his best disciple. To quote Nehru, “Gandhiji represented… in the modern age that link and that basic thought that would give it tremendous strength. Of course, it was something, on the one hand, adapted to the modern age and, on the other hand, having its deep roots in India’s conscious and subconscious self, something that has survived all this time, something that has kept India going in spite of every disaster.”

At another place, referring to Gandhi, Nehru reminded his fellow countrymen: “Gandhiji taught us equality. He taught us that we had no business to ask for independence or freedom if we exploit or suppress any of our own people.”
Similarly, his comments on Gunnar Myrdal’s book Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions are worth reading and pondering over. To give just one comment, “In richer countries, economic progress and rising level of income mean more elbow room for everybody and helps ideals of rational generosity. When people are better off and have greater security they feel freer to give up privileges. Policies thus result in greater equality and democracy becomes more firmly based as it develops.

“In poorer countries, opposite trend [is,] which is inimical to growth of democracy.

“On a low level of economic development, competitive forces in the market will by circular causation, constantly be tending to regional inequalities, while the inequalities themselves will be holding back economic development and at the same time weakening the power basis for egalitarian policies.”

He came out heavily against surrendering to laissez-faire and curtailing the role of the state. Strangely enough, this is what has been happening in India since the 1990s and the protagonists of this line of thinking, day in and day out, swear by him. In fact, they have successfully accomplished a non-violent silent counter-revolution by consigning Nehru’s ideas to the dustbin but, maybe, history will take its revenge as happened in several countries where neoliberalism has been fast losing its hold.

Dr Girish Mishra, 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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