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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 23, May 31, 2014

Jawaharlal Nehru: The Architect of Modern India

Sunday 1 June 2014, by Barun Das Gupta

Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi’s second-in-command in the country’s freedom struggle and the architect of post-independence India, passed away fifty years ago on May 27, 1964. His contributions during the freedom struggle and as the first Prime Minister of India are manifold and are worth recalling.

It was he who put India’s freedom struggle in the international context. He explained to the then Congress leaders that India’s struggle was a part of the worldwide struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

It was Nehru who conceived, in the thirties of the last century, the idea of economic planning. It was at his instance that the then Congress President, Subhas Chandra Bose, set up the National Planning Committee of the Congress, with several sub-committees under it, on December 17, 1938.

It was Nehru who evolved free India’s foreign policy. The policy had three distinct features: not getting involved in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union; treating the socialist world led by the Soviet Union as India’s friends; and pursuing an independent foreign policy of anti-imperialism and consoli-dating the unity of the Third World countries, most of which, like India, had just thrown off the yoke of foreign rule.

Years before he became free India’s Foreign Minister, Nehru became the ambassador-at-large of the country, still struggling for freedom. During a visit to Berlin toward the end of 1926, Nehru came to know that a Congress of Oppressed Nationalities would be held at Brussels in February next year. He persuaded the Congress leadership to nominate him as the party’s representative to the Brussels Congress.

There he came in contact with the Communist and Socialist leaders from the European countries. He realised that fascism was on the ascendancy in Europe and it would inevitably drag the world into another World War. In between, he had visited Moscow to participate in the tenth anniversary celebrations of the October Socialist Revolution. He came back from Brussels and explained the international situation to the Congress leadership and impressed upon them the imperative of opposing fascism. He also told them that fascism could not be fought without fighting imperialism. Nehru’s distinct imprint is quite visible in the Congress Working Committee’s ‘Quit India’ resolution of August, 1942. It said:

Whereas the British War Cabinet proposals by Sir Stafford Cripps have shown up British imperialism in its nakedness as never before, the All-India Congress Committee has come to the following conclusions:

The committee is of the opinion that Britain is incapable of defending India. It is natural that whatever she does is for her own defence. There is the eternal conflict between Indian and British interest. It follows that their notions of defence would also differ.

The British Government has no trust in India’s political parties. The Indian Army has been maintained up till now mainly to hold India in subjugation. It has been completely segregated from the general population, who can in no sense regard it as their own. This policy of mistrust still continues, and is the reason why national defence is not entrusted to India’s elected representatives.

Japan’s quarrel is not with India. She is warring against the British Empire. India’s participation in the war has not been with the consent of the representatives of the Indian people. It was purely a British act...

What happened next is history. Immediately, Gandhiji, Nehru and all the senior Congress leaders were arrested and imprisoned. That was the starting point of the ‘Quit India’ movement.

The concept of planning that Nehru envisaged as early as the 1930s, found concrete shape in the setting up of the Planning Commission in March, 1950. In Nehru’s vision, India’s would be a ‘mixed’ economy in which there would be place both for public and private enterprises but the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy would be dominated by the public sector. Earlier, in January that year, the Constituent Assembly had ratified free India’s Constitution which, in its Directive Principles of State Policy, stated, inter alia¸ that “The State shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals, but also among groups of people...” [Article 38(2)]

Later, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, as the Prime Minister, included the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. Now all these are in the danger of being undone.

 Indira Gandhi also pushed through several Acts in Parliament to prevent unequal competi-tion by big monopolies, to protect jobs of workers and arbitrary closure of industrial enterprises by the owners. The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, etc., were passed.

Neither Nehru nor his daughter trusted the US imperialists, nor did they seek any ‘strategic partnership’ with them. Even in the wake of the humiliating military defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru resolutely refused to accept an American ‘umbrella’ vis-à-vis China.

Nehru’s concept of a ‘mixed economy’ was very different from the ‘free market economy’ that Manmohan Singh foisted on the country in 1991 in the name of ‘economic reform’. Nehru built up the public sector with public money. Some of these came to be known as the prestigious ‘navratna’ companies. Since 1991, the Congress under Manmohan Singh’s leader-ship started pulling down the pillars of the edifice Nehru had patiently built over the years by transferring the ownership of profit-making PSUs to private industrialists. The private sector was given a free hand to mess up the economy. The public distribution system was allowed to dystrophy. Garibi Hatao became a cruel joke at the hands of the Yojana Bhavan bosses. They could reduce the number of below-poverty-level people at will by defining, re-defining and re-re-defining the parameters of poverty every now and then.

India’s transition to a modern industrial country was based on the foundations that Nehru built and which he called ‘the temples of modern India’. The assets that he created have been recklessly squandered away by the Congress Government under Manmohan Singh. Inevitably, the party and the government are now being made to pay for it heavily.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the politician, had the rarest of the rare quality of looking upon himself with the cold and detached objectivity of a historian. In 1937 there was a proposal to make Nehru the Congress President for the fourth time. A month before the Congress session, an article titled Rashtrapati (as the Congress President used to be called those days) appeared in the November 1937 issue of The Modern Review, the prestigious journal edited by Ramananda Chatterjee. The author, writing under the pseudonym ‘Chanakya’, argued passionately against Nehru being made the Congress President for the fourth time because, the writer feared, Nehru could turn a dictator.

Men like Jawaharlal with all their capacity for great and good work are unsafe in democracy. He calls himself a democrat and a socialist, and no doubt he does so in all earnestness, but every psychologist knows that the mind is ultimately a slave to the heart and that logic can always be made to fit in with the desires and irrepressible urges of man. A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy.

The article began with a pen-picture of Nehru. The three opening paragraphs are worth quoting in extenso:

‘Rashtrapati Jawaharlal ki Jai!’ The Rashtrapati looked up as he passed swiftly through the waiting crowds, his hands went up and were joined together in salute and his pale hard face was lit up by a smile. It was a warm personal smile and the people who saw it responded to it immediately and smiled and cheered in return.

The smile passed away and again the face became stern and sad, impassive in the midst of the emotion that it had roused in the multitude. Almost it seemed that the smile and the gesture accompanying it had little reality behind them; they were just tricks of the trade to gain the goodwill of the crowds whose darling he had become. Was it so?

Watch him again. There is a great procession and tens of thousands of persons surround his car and cheer him in an ecstasy of abandonment. He stands on the seat of the car balancing himself rather well, straight and seemingly tall, like a god, serene and unmoved by the seething multitude. Suddenly there is that smile again, or even a merry laugh, and the tension seems to break and the crowd laughs with him not knowing what it is laughing at. He is godlike no longer but a human being claiming kinship and comradeship with the thousands who surround him, and the crowd feels happy and friendly and takes him to its heart. But the smile is gone and the pale stern face is there again. Is all this natural or the carefully thought out trickery of the public man?

It was only much later that it came to be known that the author was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself writing under the pseudonym “Chanakya”.

A democrat to the core that Nehru was, the thought never occurred to him of “sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy” and turning a dictator.

The Congress of today has practically disowned the legacy of Nehru. It has rejected his philosophy and ideals. It has replaced his policy of anti-imperialism by deliberately opting for a close and deepening ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States.

But for all that, Jawaharlal Nehru has left his indelible footmarks on the sands of time. 

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.