Two weeks ago, we were coached in “Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance)” by the head of a government, which ironically places disinvestment high on its economic agenda and believes in opening up the country to hundred percent foreign direct investment. This could either be lip service or it might be because nations show a general tendency of leaning towards Socialism, when faced with a crisis. The Coronavirus Pandemic has propelled us all to re-evaluate what our priorities are, reopening the debate between wealth and welfare. It has made us reconsider if the sole existence of wealth in an Economy directly translates to welfare, development and social reform for all of its citizens or if it is the contrary.
The pandemic, like any other crisis before it has been able to reveal the cracks and the faults within the capitalist order. As of now, countries like Denmark, Norway and Finland seem to fare better against the corona virus, than countries which follow pure capitalism. Closer home, the success of the state of Kerala with its firm roots in democratic socialism does make us wonder if what India needs is not a Gujarat model but maybe a Kerala model. Through remembering the former Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru on his 56th Death Anniversary, we make an attempt to look at the influence Socialism has had on India’s nation-building process.
The most authentic way to learn about Pt. Nehru’s life is by analysing the legacy of intellect, left behind by him via his writings. In his historical account of India, is enshrined his vision for it— he writes: “India is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision” and at the same time he lets his reader know that he dislikes thinking about the Indian masses in terms of a theoretical abstraction as telling his reader: “The people of India are very real to me”. The Discovery of India to him, is the discovery of its people— undertaken through the rediscovery of India’s past, substituted by the understanding gained during his travels.
The election campaign of 1936-37, sprang upon him the chance to travel from Khyber Pass to Cape Comorin, bringing him into contact with the Indian masses who came to him with his troubles of poverty, debt, taxes and police harassment. While recollecting the election campaign of 1936-37, he makes a conclusive mark about his travels in Discovery: “the unity of India was no longer an intellectual conception for me, it was an emotional experience which overpowered me.” Concern about the state of the Indian masses of British India is evident in his books and letters. Although, Nehru was no mere critic, his writings are full of ideas and solutions; which is why his writings can be looked at as prescriptive texts: as through his writings, he continues to speak to Indians, generations-after, passing on his vision from one generation to the next.
The 1920s and the 1930s represent the rise of Socialism and Leftist ideologies in Indian History. A study of Marx and Lenin produced a powerful effect on Nehru’s mind, who visited Moscow in 1927, along with Motilal Nehru to participate in the tenth anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution. Within the Congress, Nehru and Bose came to form a group of young radical leaders who were Socialists, but operated from within it, creating an integration between Gandhi, Marx and Indian culture.
Jawahar had little confidence in Religion; to him Science and Marx appealed, however he was never unquestioning neither of Marx nor of Gandhi’s doctrine who was almost a mentor to him, he counted on ‘scientific inquiry’ and ‘scientific temper’— something he tried inculcating in the nation and the people he governed; so while Nehru accepted the fundamentals of the socialist doctrine, he was convinced that life was too short to lose in an ideology. Rationality appealed to Pt. Nehru plenty and drew him into the doctrines of Marxism.
Moreover, Socialism appealed to Nehru because socialism was considered to be the direct contender of Imperialism, due to its opposition to Capitalism, that had Imperialist ties; and appeased to right-wing Fascism. Socialism according to him, did not need to follow expansionist policies as Socialist economies could be made self-sufficient and lack the initial impetus that causes empires to start expanding, as surplus wealth does not build up into a few hands. Nehru’s natural aversion to capitalism came from the understanding that Britain’s free trade capitalism had meant drain of wealth for India as the East India Company would use the revenue collected through taxes from Indians to buy raw material for cheap from peasants, for the purpose of export to Britain, which would be used up in their infant textile industries.
Thus, Britain industrialised on the wealth of its colonies and while it imposed protective barriers on Indian textiles in order to protect its newly growing industries, choking the demand for Indian textiles, India was forced to do away with its protective tariffs on Britain’s finished goods. Henceforth, the Indian cottage industries were nipped in the bud and India would be disabled from industrialising. As homespun cloth could not compete with the low prices of machine-spun cloth in the markets, India was reduced to being an exporter of raw material for its colonial master.
Therefore, when in 1929 capitalism faced its first major rough patch and Britain, alongside the Weimar Republic and USA became the hardest hit nations by the economic crisis, Nehru was certain, that though capitalism survived through continuing exploitation in the colonies, he described what he was witnessing, as the last moments of the capitalistic order— which he commented was “grievously sick all over the world” with hardly any chances of recovery. He wrote: “a social order only disappears after it has run its course and grown to its fullest extent”. In accordance with this was his belief that, the capitalist world which worked on the credit system and at the center of which were finance capitalists— bankers & industrialists, involved in a process of amalgamating their wealth together and creating monopolies to capture markets; had failed to pull through the crisis and could not go on in the same way after 1929, without at least a few serious amends. It was ultimately state intervention in the economy via President Roosevelt during the years of the Great Depression, which saved the US economy.
For the seventeen years, that Jawaharlal governed India as a Prime Minister, he kept India and its people bound together and reconciled the doctrine of Socialism with that of Nationalism in the context of India. He felt that Socialism and Nationalism were compatible as within the Soviet Union were 182 nationalities that were allowed to retain cultural autonomy and attain education in their vernacular language, this introduction of considerable freedom and lack of uniformity, non-imposition of a particular kind of culture, curbed separatist tendencies within the Soviet— working successfully to an extent as after the disintegration of the USSR it were the Central Asian nations within the USSR found it the hardest to let go, even though they had little in common in terms of culture with the rest of the satellite states in Europe but had benefited economically and socially due to ties with Soviet. Within this model, Jawaharlal Nehru felt that he could locate answers to the “minority problem” and uniting a nation as diversified as India.
Having said all that, the most admirable trait in his personality remained his habit of reinventing himself. He did it throughout the early years of his political career and even while functioning as India’s first prime minister, as is reflected in his inability to identify with the writings of his past self. His intense commitment to democracy and social justice and his aversion to opportunist leaders who betray their masses, is evident as he reflects upon the membership of the Second International which constituted past leaders who all went on to occupy high positions in governments and became head of states by exploiting their positions and later abandoned their creed of Socialism, once it had served them. Nehru is empathetic in his approach and blames failed leadership that climbs to the top on the ideals and the sacrifices of the suffering millions.
Although a radical socialist during the days of his youth, he matured throughout his political career to become an accommodated leader who was ready to work out differences through compromise. The politician Syama Prasad Mukherjee held a post in his cabinet even though Nehru and he may not have seen eye to eye on every occasion. He worked out a middle ground between state-owned monopolies and private-monopolies by implementing a mixed-economy model and handing out licenses to industries owned privately. He encouraged replacing foreign imports with domestic production, which was essential taking into consideration the fact that the Indian economy had been choked by years of colonisation and drain of wealth, which stopped indigenous industries from cropping up.
Alongside major state-controlled enterprises and cooperatives, he encouraged the growth of small-scale industry and implemented a policy of protective tariffs on foreign imports, to encourage domestic production and consumption allowing these infant Indian industries to flourish, without being obscured in the competition of a free market. The in-elasticity of Indian finished goods had always been a colonial legacy and Nehru utilised state intervention in the Indian Economy to bring it out of the initial rut it had been in after the colonisers left.
His trusted that economic change should necessarily follow political change and saw Economic Planning as crucial in the development of nations, locating the crisis of the Great Depression in the lack of economic planning in the western democracies. Nehru had been impressed with USSR’s development after the success of the Five-Year Plans for which he wrote: “the Five-Year Plan has completely changed the face of Russia. From a feudal country, it has suddenly become an advanced industrial country”, and because he saw it as a fitting model, he sought to implement it in his own country too, that hadn’t just industrialised and modernised Russia but had lifted millions out of poverty, given them jobs and promoted scientific inquiry and technological advancement.
Whatever may be the complains of Nehru’s critiques, there is sense in realising that his economic reforms were suited to his time and revived the economy. The exports increased gradually and India showed growth at 4 percent, which had been a breakthrough keeping in mind the circumstances. While there is a lot of controversy in the Indian economy regarding disinvestment presently, in the context of a newly independent nation, a dominant private sector that is only concerned with turning profits and not public welfare could not ensure better services but would instead rake up prices and employ as less labor as possible in order to cut costs and make as much profit as possible.
Public sector enterprises on the other hand, were not concerned with just turning profits and were required in order to provide employment as well as provide goods and services for consumption within an economy at a rate that could be affordable to the masses. Setting up private-sector enterprises in an economy without first raising the purchasing power parity within the economy through social reforms and tax regulations would not have made much sense back then.
Pt. Nehru’s inclination towards Socialism was a legacy of the national movement, its foundations were laid by the Moderates and then subsequently implemented in the Swadeshi Movement, the message of swadeshi was revived by Gandhi and Gandhi’s vision was ultimately implemented through Nehruvian Socialism. He took Gandhi’s message to a world level by implementing it in his politics and within his economics— the import substitution industrialisation mission is not lost on us when we consider that the message for swadeshi had been embedded in our national movement. Nehru advocated for peace and cooperation among nations, so that mutual development shall be possible and there had also been debates about disbanding the Indian Army in order to comply with Gandhi’s message of non-violence.
No matter which direction we forge into, we find the spectre of Nehru’s work and vision. Even in an India that seems to be quickly moving away from its Socialistic ideals since 1991, Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas hold relevance. They are the reason why we continue to have subsidized travel in the railways, low-cost but quality education in public universities and low-cost healthcare that is affordable to many. Had the Indian economy completely developed along the trajectory of the US economy, higher education would become impossible in India without raking up student debts and affordable healthcare should be a distant dream.
The mixed-economic model saved us from receiving a huge blow during the 2009 Global Economic Recession that delivered a large blow to economies that depended on banking system & credit. India has a naturally tendency to lean towards the tenets of Socialism in times of crises, economic or otherwise, which reaffirms why our goals should remain firmly socialist, so that we can guarantee equity for all, in terms of quality of life, which is why maybe it isn’t time to bid adieu to Nehruvian Socialism completely, just yet.
Maria Uzma Ansari is a student pursuing History from Jamia Millia Islamia.
edited by: Yusuf Aziz