Indian economic liberals may find both M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru wanting vis-à-vis the ideology of economic liberalism. But their story highlights a rich dialogue of ethics and dharma, responsibilities and rights, and the roles of individual, community and the state. There is a deep layer of disagreement between the two which reflects a clash of two civilizations—an Indian ethic reflected in Gandhi’s thought versus a Western one that India’s first prime minister had embraced.

Socialism was a global fashion in the first half of the 20th century and was even stronger in the British Commonwealth than in other parts of the world. Much of India’s leadership was already sold on to some variant by the 1930s, more so its intellectual leaders, be they Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Abul Kalam Azad or even Subhas Chandra Bose. This large-scale embrace by the Congress leadership was not a post-independence phenomenon when Nehru had unbridled leadership. And so India must stop blaming him for the socio-economic losses sustained due to state control of the economy for much of post-independence years. We must stop blaming Nehru because they would have occurred anyway, with or without him.

Newly independent India needed to be delivered from its tattered past marked by colonial and feudalistic exploitation and humiliation. In Nehru’s modernity, India saw an ability to negotiate confidently with both, the regressive forces internally and oppressive forces externally. Whether it was reservations, large industry, planning or the Non Aligned Movement, both modernity and state intervention went hand-in hand. So a socialist state is not Nehru’s gift to India, but what is, is the notion that socialism and the state are unsurpassed tools of making a tired, exploited and humiliated people into a modern, self-confident, progressive nation. That notion has unfortunately not gone away whatever economic policies governments of today may profess.

Gandhi was without doubt a resolute figure less taken in by the intellectual fashions of the day. His instincts derived his own sense of the self and an inherent dislike of use of force by the state. It was not socialism that Gandhi disliked, but the use of force by the state that socialism demanded. Others such as Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari and Rajendra Prasad were also less taken in by socialist ideals prevalent then, being more steeped in realities of India than untested intellectualism. But they did not have the wrapping of modernity nor the ability to counter Nehru.

With Gandhi’s death, India lost its strongest voice for intellectual autonomy and a deep faith in individualism. But his sense of individualism was not the same as understood in Western traditions of economic thought. For him, individual ethics and morality were a key precondition. In Gandhi’s missives to Nehru, and the latter’s silent response, we can decipher a deep silent dialogue between the two.

The core of this silent debate has to do with the importance of personal morality and the creation of a social milieu that supports such behaviour. Today, it may be considered to be an impossible objective but Gandhi’s vision was predominantly that. All other elements—swadeshi, swaraj, Khadi, panchayati raj, enlightened anarchy, etc.—were rooted in this element. A key element of his thought rested around swadharma or individual responsibility.

While Gandhi was dreaming of a utopia where the individual was so responsible that there was little need for a strong state, Nehru was imagining another where the state would create a fair and prosperous world for all. While Gandhi wrote about self-realized individual responsibility when he held forth on redistribution through trusteeship, Nehru created a mechanism forcing the individuals and businesses to conform to a state determined planning process.

While we can attempt to categorize the two as either left or right of centre, this could not have been an important issue to either. For Nehru, India needed to be rebuilt as fast as possible, only then could the least privileged expect to be free. Development or vikaas would have been far more important to make India free. For Gandhi, freedom came from within and therefore his inherent distrust of the state action. Nehru used whatever tools his Western education exposed him to—greater role of the state in production and planning. Gandhi had different spiritual masters in his dharma, and responsibility and ahimsa were its driving forces. There could have been no meeting point.

Is either of the two leaders relevant to 21st century India? I would argue in the affirmative. Gandhi was an independent thinker trying to evolve a radically different political economic logic, but one that was rooted in the society and economy of the country. Nehru was a persuasive leader who stood for modernity unlike any other during his time. Each was partially successful.

Gandhi had chosen an end that seemed impossibly far away. And Nehru was more effective in creating the tools of change than change itself. And both failed in what they set out to do. Finally, where might India look for inspiration? Not in the past, nor outside India, but perhaps within.

Published as part of a series on the book Liberalism In India: Past, Present And Future published recently by Centre for Civil Society. The book is a collection of essays written in honour of the late S.V. Raju.

Laveesh Bhandari is an economist and heads Indicus Foundation.

Close