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Volume XLIV, No.47

Nehru and Socialism

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by C.N. Chitta Ranjan


The relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru remains undiminished today. In fact, his ideas and approach to political, economic and social issues are more relevant now than even in his life-time.

It is necessary to state this basic truth and assess the continuing validity and vitality of his approach, because some who unabashedly use his name seek to project him as a pragmatist rather than as the firmly committed socialist that he was.

It is the fashion these days to say that socialism is a vague term, that it is a slogan, that there is no precise definition of what it means. This is essentially the argument of the believers in the status quo, of those who are afraid of radical change that will either hurt their own interests or destroy their pet theories.

It is no doubt true the despite his massive personal popularity and the power at his disposal in the government and in the party, Jawaharlal Nehru could not put into practice many of the ideas he spelt out regarding the radical changes, social and economic, that our society required. But this must be seen in the background of the dilemma he faced as an honest politician committed to socialism on the one hand and to democracy on the other. Rightly, he saw no contradiction between the two, for, who can deny that true democracy is the only viable basis for genuine socialism and that without advance towards the goal of socialism democracy will be bereft of meaning?
Nehru would not discard the democratic processes or bypass the democratic institutions in order to put his ideas into pratice. In our context, with a long history of feudalism, caste hierarchy, religious divergence, multiplicity of languages and customs, in fact of stratification of society in a variety of ways, it has not been easy to correlate tradition and change, to work out a viable compromise between the best of cherished values and the urgency of eliminating social and economic inequalities. Jawaharlal Nehru realised that revolution in our situation had to be by consent and could not be by imposition. He admired the Soviet achievements and accepted the ultimate ideals of Marxism, but he did not make a secret of his reservations about applying the same methods in the case of our country.

In an underdeveloped nation with many layers of development within itself, both vertical and horizontal, and with a variety of vested interests wielding tremendous influence and extremely articulate, the difficulties involved in bringing about radical changes by consent were obvious enough. Yet the alternatives to the democratic system are so risky and unpredictable that he would not lightly discard his faith, even if this meant a visible, often frustating, slowing down of the process of change.

Nehru’s acceptance of political democracy was not unqualified. “I am perfectly prepared to accept political democracy,” he said, “only in the hope that this will lead to social democracy.” He was clear in his mind that political democracy “is only the way to the goal and is not the final objective”. He saw clearly that if profound economic changes did not take place fast enough, the political structure would be rendered unstable.

If political or social institutions stand in the way of such change, they have to be removed.

Socialism, whose essence is the removal of poverty and establishment of equal opportunities if not of equality in the strictest sense, has necessarily to suit the conditions of each country, and Nehru’s constant effort was to bring about changes without destroying the fabric of Indian society, even if certain parts of that fabric were to be replaced.

Nehru saw the socialist society as some kind of a cooperative society, in which each individual would give of his best and would find full scope for his own development. The very first step had to be the ending of the profit motive of the acquisitive society to which we are accustomed. The dilemma he faced was the result of his desire to avoid a violent upheaval that could have disastrous consequences for future generations of our people and to take the maximum number of people along with him on the new path. This was no easy task, for the vested interests in the acquisitive society which he wanted to end were entrenched in the party and in the administrative apparatus which had necessarily to be his major instruments. Also, it was these interests which were active during the freedom struggle, and even more in the years of freedom, and they were able to create the illusion of democratic functioning without active participation by the masses of our population who were to gain by the changes Nehru envisaged.

Once Nehru said that two contradictory and conflicting processes could not go on side by side. That unfortunately is what has been happening. The Directive Principles contain a broad outline of the kind of socialist society envisaged, but the many amendments to other chapters of the Constitution that have been necessited have brought out the dichotomy in thinking that characterised the Constitution-making body. On another plane, the formulation of the concept of “mixed economy” representated on the one hand the “half-way house” Nehru thought of and on the other the ability of the vested interests to keep “two contradictory and conflicting processes” going on side by side, a situation Nehru did not desire. It is no coincidence that the “mixed economy” in operation has resulted in a strengthening of the monopoly and big business houses, and a consequent tightening of their hold on the administrative apparatus. If corruption has increased and the public sector has not been enlarged and strengthened to the extent it should have been, this is because of acceptance of the “mixed economy” as something of a “half-way house”.

It must be said that Jawaharlal Nehru fully realised the difficulties inherent in seeking radical change through democratic processes.

I think it is possible to establish socialism by democratic means provided, of course, the full democratic process is avail
able. (emphasis added)

There has been mass awakening as never before in our history, and despite massive illiteracy our people have demonstrated their capacity to reject what is against their interests. But the real problem is that the democratic process is not yet fully developed, and the people have only limited choice. The limitations imposed by our circumstances, both historical and man-made, have helped both the urban and rural vested interests to twist the democratic process to suit their own ends which are diametrically opposed to the interests of the masses.

In thinking of a form of socialism suited to our national needs and national genius,Nehru envisaged a limited place for the private sector, but he was quite clear about the framework.

In all that counts, in a material sense, nationalisation of the instruments of production and distribution seems to be inevitable.
The question is whether there can be a step-by-step approach in this matter. Our experience with the takeover of the wholesale trade in foodgrains shows that partial measures in dealing with production and distribution of essential commodities can defeat the very objective. The fate of the land reform measures has shown that an administrative machinery that is not geared to the task can work havoc. The continuing importance and influence of the big business houses must be seem as the direct result of the failure to involve the people at the grassroots level more and more in the processes of planning, production and distribution.

It is possible to find fault with Jawaharlal Nehru for not having made the maximum use of his popularity to force the pace of change, but to do so is to overlook the historical forces that had shaped him and the historical circumstances in which he had to function, apart from his own commitment to the democratic processes as well as to the instruments at his disposal. It is debatable how much more he could have achieved in his life-time, but it is indisputable that he laid firm foundations for the kind of society we want to build in this country. It is for us and for future generations to build on these foundations.

Nehru was conscious that the Indian Revolution would be long and arduous, for he said: “Leaders and individuals may come and go; they may get tired and slacken off; they may compromise and betray; but the exploited and suffering masses must carry on the struggle, for their drill sergeant is hunger.” If the social and economic burdens of the masses “continue and are actually added to, the fight must not only continue but grow more intense”. The masses would ultimately assert themselves, and of this he had not the least doubt. It was his hope that the political parties and the administrative apparatus would help the masses to assert themselves and secure their rights. He was quite clear in his mind that a leadership that failed to take the masses nearer the goal of socialism would be thrown aside, and the mass upsurge in 1969 following the elimination of the Syndicate from the Congress would appear to bear this out, even if only in a very limited sense.

Nehru said:
We have to plan at both ends. We have to stop the cumulative forces that make the rich richer and we have to start the cumulative forces which enable the poor to get over the barrier of poverty.

The planning process unfortunately has not gone on the way he had intended it to, and this is where the two main instruments on which he had to depend come in.

Nehru wanted the services to “cease to think of themselves as some select coterie apart from the rest of the people”, and he rejected people with the “coat and necktie” mentality. In other words, he wanted a new type of administrator to emerge, who could identify himself with the common people without effort and who would not become either a tool in the hands of vested interests or a self-seeker without a conscience. Unfortunately this kind of change has not come about; on the other hand, the expanded administrative structure has careerists and self-seekers in many key positions. This has to change.

As for the other instrument, the Congress, it may now be in better shape than in Nehru’s time, but what he said about Congressmen remains relevant.
Congressmen should make the organisation strong and effective. Use of money for boosting individuals in the organisations is extremely undesirable. Bogus members should be weeded out. Those in the organisation for whom the Congress is not an instrument for serving the country, who serve themselves and exploit it for their own ends…should be turned out.

He wanted the party to be a mass party, constantly in touch with the people and reflecting their aspirations, constantly struggling to end social and economic injustice. Some changes have taken place in the party in recent times, but it is still far from being the kind of instrument for change that Jawaharlal Nehru wanted it to be. It is to be hoped that the new forces at work within the Congress and the mass consciousness that has developed in the country will make it so.

Our aim and our problems were succinctly summed up when Jawaharlal Nehru said:

Socialism is the inevitable outcome of democracy. Political democracy has no meaning if it does not embrace economic democracy. And economic democracy is nothing but socialism. Monopoly is the enemy of socialism. To that extent it has grown during the last few years, we have drifted away from the goal of socialism.

That is something for all of us, and particularly for Congressmen, to ponder over.

(Mainstream, November 17, 1973)

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