Price of Be­ing Nehru

In­dia’s first Prime Min­is­ter should be un­der­stood in the con­text of his times, not ours

The Day After - - CONTENT - By AMit KApoor

Very re­cently, whole world wit­nessed the BJP-Congress spat over Ne­taji Sub­hash Chan­dra Bose. Iron­i­cally, both par­ties were not try­ing to pay trib­ute to the Ne­taji but were try­ing to es­tab­lish what their re­spec­tive par­ties though about the NehruNe­taji ri­valry dur­ing their times. While BJP was try­ing to pay re­spect to Ne­taji with a vow that it would help Ne­taji to get his due, which Congress Party never gave him. Congress saw this as a BJP’s at­tempt to down­size Pan­dit Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s aura and im­age in In­dian pol­i­tics. Ideally, rather at­tack­ing BJP, Congress should have urged coun­try­men to un­der­stand Pan­dit­jee in the con­text of his times, not ours.

It would hardly be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that his­tory is a liv­ing re­al­ity in In­dian so­ci­ety. Ev­ery day mil­lions across the coun­try be­gin their day with Bronze age chants and pep­per their con­ver­sa­tions with Iron Age epics — an ex­pected out­come in a so­ci­ety that has a fair claim to be­ing the world’s old­est con­tin­u­ous civ­i­liza­tion. The ob­ses­sion with his­tory also some­times goes to ridicu­lous ex­tremes as it dis­torted by politi­cians, who reg­u­larly make hy­per­bolic, un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims like the ex­is­tence of satel­lite tech­nol­ogy and nu­clear weaponry in an­cient In­dia.

The most re­cent brushes with his­tory on the po­lit­i­cal front have been in the form of at­tempts to mag­nify or di­min­ish the stature of per­son­al­i­ties of the past. An ef­fort on th­ese lines with re­gard to the legacy of Jawa­har­lal Nehru, free In­dia’s first Prime Min­is­ter, has gen­er­ated im­pas­sioned con­ver­sa­tions in the me­dia. Nehru has of­ten been at the re­ceiv­ing end of his­tor­i­cal re­proval. Dur­ing such times it is in­struc­tive to re­visit John Rawls, a moral and po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher in the lib­eral tra­di­tion, who had cru­cial in­sights to of­fer on how to as­sess his­tor­i­cal fig­ures.

An im­por­tant ar­gu­ment that Rawls makes is that the gi­ants of the past should be un­der­stood in the con­text of their times rather than ours. The ben­e­fit of hind­sight is usu­ally an un­fair van­tage point to pass judge­ment on the ac­tions made by peo­ple in the past. Nehru is an ap­pro­pri­ate case in point. The stance he adopted on the eco­nomic front is of­ten put un­der the scan­ner for the reper­cus­sions they had on the long run. Af­ter all, the in­fa­mous Hindu rate of growth at which In­dia ex­panded un­til the 1980s had its ori­gins in the planned econ­omy that Nehru set up af­ter in­de­pen­dence.

But what is of­ten over­looked is that the Nehru­vian ap­proach was by no means unique at the time. The idea that the state could plan to meet each and ev­ery de­mand and need of its ci­ti­zen had quite a few tak­ers in the post-War era, even if it might seem ab­surd to­day. In fact,

Nehru had in­vited the best and bright­est econ­o­mists of the time to In­dia for in­sights on the vi­a­bil­ity of a planned econ­omy. I.G. Pa­tel re­calls in his mem­oir how a se­ries of econ­o­mists -- Gun­nar Myrdal, Rag­nar Frisch, Jan Tin­ber­gen, Oskar Lange and Richard Good­win -- came to In­dia with a def­i­nite view that de­vel­op­ment could be plot­ted and planned till the last mile.

Even the busi­ness com­mu­nity in In­dia favoured the idea of plan­ning -- at least in the first decade fol­low­ing in­de­pen­dence. The econ­o­mist John Ken­neth Gal­braith, who served as the US Am­bas­sador to In­dia un­der the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion, once pointed out: “The In­dian com­mit­ment to the se­man­tics of so­cial­ism is at least as deep as ours to the se­man­tics of free en­ter­prise … It is reg­u­larly averred by the govern­ment and, in­deed, by nearly all ar­tic­u­late In­di­ans. Even the most in­tran­si­gent In­dian cap­i­tal­ist may ob­serve on oc­ca­sion that he is re­ally a so­cial­ist at heart.” Such in­cli­na­tions are hard to fathom in the post-Soviet world.

The mis­take of the In­dian po­lit­i­cal class lay in per­sist­ing with the model even af­ter its fail­ures and in­ef­fi­cien­cies be­came ap­par­ent. By the mid-1960s, the crit­i­cism of planned de­vel­op­ment was hard to miss. Gun­nar Myrdal penned a telling ac­count on the fail­ures of de­vel­op­ment, “Asian Drama”, in which he re­marked that “In­dia’s promised so­cial and eco­nomic rev­o­lu­tion failed to ma­te­ri­alise”.

The ar­gu­ments of free mar­ke­teers led by Mil­ton Fried­man were also be­com­ing dom­i­nant in the field of eco­nom­ics at the time. A few East Asian economies -mainly South Korea, Tai­wan, Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore -- be­gan open­ing up their economies af­ter be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned with the cen­tral plan­ning model. They adopted a unique ap­proach of state-led cap­i­tal­ism with a sub­stan­tial ex­por­to­ri­ented fo­cus. Over the next few decades th­ese economies en­tered a sus­tained high­growth phase that pop­u­larly came to be known as “the East Asian mir­a­cle”.

There­fore, In­dia’s con­tin­ued fas­ci­na­tion with the sta­tus quo be­comes hard to de­fend af­ter Nehru’s death. In­stead of evolv­ing with the times, In­dia be­came an even more closed and tightly state­con­trolled.

The gen­eral fail­ure to con­tex­tu­alise the eco­nomic legacy of Nehru has made him an un­fair tar­get of the his­tory wars that are in­creas­ingly tak­ing place in to­day’s po­lit­i­cal arena. There have been other vic­tims of th­ese de­bates as well. It is cru­cial that in th­ese di­a­logues Rawls’ rea­son­ing be fol­lowed and sweep­ing judge­ment with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight be avoided. When his­tory is dis­torted to be used for par­ti­san bat­tles, the peo­ple risk los­ing their touch with the past and with it a sense of com­mon­al­ity and be­long­ing.

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