Home / Opinion / The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru

It is ironic that Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister one day before the 50th death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi epitomizes the most potent challenge to the Nehruvian consensus that has dominated national discourse. He explicitly tried to build a different narrative during the election campaign by talking about a range of other nationalist leaders from Vallabhbhai Patel to Krishna Shyamji Varma.

Nehru is today more likely to be remembered for his failures rather than his achievements—especially his monumental miscalculation on China and the obsession with state planning that eventually choked the Indian economy in a maze of controls. Nehru could have done better with the realism of Patel as well as the free market instincts of C. Rajagopalachari by his side, but the former died too early while the latter drifted off towards lonely dissent.

Nehru was one of a stellar generation of patriots who turned their backs on lucrative careers to fight for political freedom. He shared with them a strong belief in the civilizational unity that held India together despite centuries of foreign rule as well as frequent episodes of political chaos. His Discovery of India does not have too many original insights but is suffused with this idea of civilizational unity. The challenge to the nationalists was to craft a new nation state in such a country at a time when arch imperialists such as Winston Churchill argued that India was not a country at all.

The Nehruvian project was essentially about nation building. He sided with the modernists rather than traditionalists such as M.K. Gandhi who believed that a new India could be built in its moribund villages. Nehru realized that India could hold its own in the world only if its citizens developed a new national identity that went beyond the old tribal loyalties, build modern industry to give its economy strategic depth rather than stay happy selling plastic toys to the world, and a new scientific outlook that was suitable for an ambitious nation. What followed were steel mills, big dams, research laboratories, the space programme and new universities. Even non-alignment should be understood as an attempt to maintain strategic autonomy in the Cold War world rather than some vacuous hope.

The economic strategy was quite correctly based on the assumption that India cannot overcome the scourge of mass poverty without faster economic growth. Such acceleration needed asset creation through a higher national savings rate. The Nehruvian plans have no place for subsidies; his governments ran tight budgetary ships. It is a lesson for contemporary governments as well, especially those that have laid claim to the Nehruvian heritage.

The initial strategy paid off. India experienced an economic boom in the Nehru years, coming after many centuries of stagnant national income. Yet, there was much damage over the longer term. Nehru left behind an economy that eventually suffocated because of excessive controls. India ended up with a high-cost industrial sector protected from global competition. The lack of exports meant that India grew dependent on foreign aid to fund essential imports for its economic modernization. The relative neglect of food and other consumer goods fed inflation as money incomes grew.

Nehru was not alone. Many other leaders of the former colonies followed a similar development strategy, even someone like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. It was only in the 1960s that countries such as South Korea began to switch their economic strategy. India failed to do so. In fact, a few years after Nehru died, Indira Gandhi responded to economic crisis with political populism rather than economic reform. That was when the problems began to multiply. It is worth speculating what Nehru would have done once the limitations of the old strategy became obvious by the end of the 1960s—a question P.V. Narasimha Rao had once asked his detractors within the Congress.

Nehru helped put together the basic building blocks of a new India. He was the socialist who laid the foundations of capitalist India, the sort of dialectical googly that history throws up every once in a while.

Are Nehru’s ideas relevant in modern India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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