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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 47, November 15, 2014

Nehru’s Striking Relevance for Our Times

Sunday 16 November 2014


by Nirupam Sen

Nehruvian Economic Philosophy and its Contemporary Relevance edited by Ranjit Singh Ghuman and Indervir Singh; publisher: Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh; pages: 295; price: Rs 495.

We live in a time of the continued dismantling of the Nehruvian model that began in 1991. As economists like Atul Kohli have shown, its essence was a radical shift in economic policy in favour of the corporate rich. They steadily got the wealth and self-confidence to try to capture the state completely. The ideas of our age (including those in the media), as Marx foresaw, are the ideas of our ruling class. A stunning instance of this is that even intellectuals of the stature of Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen can write a four hundred page book on economic welfare in India called, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, and make, in the entire book, only one brief reference to primitive accumulation, and that too in a footnote! Clearly the uncertain glory is not India’s but Jean Dreze’s and Amartya Sen’s.

Against such a dark background, that a book like Nehruvian Economic Philosophy and its Contemporary Relevance can appear at all is a remarkable event. It is also timely. The economic boat launched in 1991 is rapidly entering a stormy sea and those wishing to chart an optimal course will find this book of great use. The book is a collection of papers presented at a seminar on this subject during September 28-30, 2012. Well-known and talented economists and other social scientists address five themes: the Nehruvian vision of Independent India; Contours of the Nehruvian Economic Philo-sophy; Nehruvian Development Model and the New Policy Regime; Nehruvian Perspective on Economic Diplomacy and National Security; Human Development in the Nehru and post- Nehru Era; Nehru and Sectoral Development. T.K.A. Nair, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Adviser, addressed the seminar. I do not know if he sat through the deliberations. If he did, he either learnt nothing or promptly forgot what he learnt. The seminar could have made a difference, but did not. It could potentially have been a turning-point, but history did not turn. The policy change did not come.

This is a review article. In its short span, I cannot do justice in any depth and detail to the full richness and variety of the book and may have to leave, without comment, some issues like health and education. The book shows how the Nehruvian economic philosophy was rooted in India’s freedom struggle. A peasantry, desperately poor, mobilised against the British. The society was divided by caste and religion; the economy suffering from stagnation, inequality, regional disparities and the pumping out of the economic surplus. The colonial economy inevitably led to de-industrialisation. Nehruvian planning, a strong public sector and strategic controls ‘quickened the economy’, industrialised the country, developed science and technology, reduced inequality and streng-thened independence. It was one thing to develop the Nehruvian vision and quite another to dismantle it, as Dr. Manmohan Singh did. This reversal carried the danger of a reversal of real independence and a re-imposition of some aspects of a colonial economy, mainly sharper inequality and de-industrialisation.

Planning and a public sector were instru-ments for achieving a socialist pattern of society. The volume includes at least one major critique from the Left. While its conclusion on the failure to achieve certain objectives is accurate, it is important to place Nehru’s heroic effort in its historical context, as another paper in the volume does. In this sense, these papers comple-ment each other. Nehru’s economic radicalism was first opposed by Sardar Patel and after his death several socialist objectives were subverted by landed interests in the Congress party and the bureaucracy. This is equally true in the case of radical land reforms. Any civil servant can tell us how Plan targets were undermined by the system of incentives and disincentives, introduced by the Finance Ministry through the Budget, that worked in a contrary direction. Nevertheless, great things were achieved not just in the economy but in society. One need only compare the Nehruvian society with the commercialisation of sport, degradation of culture and disintegration of values that comprise our neoliberal society with its selfishness, greed, brutality and the obsessional pursuit of mere pleasure.

Landed and corporate interests were not strong enough to impose their will on the state. In any case, the Nehruvian state with its planning mechanism and the public sector, besides Nehru’s own socialist convictions, ensured this. This protected petty producers and checked primitive accumulation. The reversal of all this since 1991 unleashed primitive accumulation and, in many tribal areas, civil war: if this process intensifies in future, then the mined iron ore-polluted waters that eddy through the forest will be full of floating corpses that our society will neither have the compassion to save nor the decency to bury. One of the papers is incidentally right in stating that rent-seeking is on a much greater scale under the neoliberal than under the Nehruvian model. But this analysis should trace the logic of transferring assets from the poor to the rich, of primitive accumulation and the rent seeking involved in transferring scarce resources for a song.

Planning and the public sector addressed regional disparities and strengthened national independence, but behind it all were larger national and social objectives. There is profound insight in Nehru’s letter of December 22, 1952 to the Chief Ministers to which I have not found any reference in these papers: “Behind the plan lies the conception of India’s unity...The more we think of this balanced picture of the whole of India and of its many-sided activities which are so inter-related with one another, the less we are likely to go astray in the crooked paths of provincialism and communalism.” Thus, secularism is rooted in a definite socio-economic structure. The progressive dismantling of this structure since 1991 has inevitably weakened the foundations of secularism. There is here, a lesson for the Left. If one fights only against communalism, communalism triumphs; if one fights only against casteism, casteism triumphs; if one fights only against imperialism, imperia-lism triumphs. Therefore, the struggle against communalism has to be part of a struggle for a different economic structure; the struggle against caste oppression has to be part of the class struggle; the struggle against imperialism has to be part of a struggle for a radical and alternative socio-economic order.

The book does detail the ravages of neo-liberalism but overlooks the logic of the Nehru-vian rearguard action. Since Dr Manmohan Singh had dismantled the Nehruvian model, it had to be resurrected as an adjunct and an approximation. Since the Planning Commission had ceased to be Nehruvian and become neo-liberal, its non-governmental double had to be invented. This was the National Advisory Council. While the political weight of the CPI-M was felt, this Nehruvian rearguard action succeeded and paid political dividends in 2009. Once this weight was removed, neoliberalism reasserted itself: Dr Manmohan Singh and the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council delayed and diluted its recommendations. Allocations for the MNREGA became inadequate. The Food Security Act was introduced only at the fag end in 2014. The day before polling for the Rajasthan Assembly elections in 2013, fuel prices were increased. Before the Assembly polls in Delhi, a limit was imposed on subsidised gas cylinders used per family. The March 2014 Budget cut expenditure—the first to be cut was the social welfare expenditure—by 0.8 percentage points. The government did not spend even the Rs 14,36,169 crores allowed in the 2013 Budget. The truth, therefore, seems to be the opposite of what Sanjaya Baru claims in his The Accidental Prime Minister. The problem is not that Mrs Sonia Gandhi made Manmohan Singh a puppet, but that she left him free; not that she intervened, but that she did not intervene; not that she interfered often, but that she did not interfere often enough. Today the Insurance Bill, the proposed divestment of public sector companies and public sector banks, the proposed amend-ment of the Land Acquisition Act, so-called labour reforms, restrictions on the scope of the MNREGA and abolition of the Planning Commission are all a logical continuation of Dr Manmohan Singh’s policies.

One of the papers presciently draws our attention to the Nehruvian relationship of foreign policy and economic policy. However, it does not place this in the context of its Marxian and Gramscian antecedents, and does not draw the conclusion that the reversal of the Nehru-vian economic model since 1991 will ensure that, till this economic reversal is itself reversed, there will be a broad continuity in the new foreign policy consensus forged since then, though there may be nuantial differences at the margins in terms of greater or lesser dignity or decisiveness.

Neoliberalism may be reaching an impasse and the only way out in future may be an up-dated and more radical Nehruvian model. In this short space it is not possible to elaborate or pursue this argument. In spite of the breakup of the USSR and the rise of oligarchic capitalism in Russia, it has not been possible to bury Lenin, the creator of the modern Russian state. When the Russian state is celebrated, the Red Army is invoked. So also Nehru is a part of the flesh, blood and marrow of India and cannot be dethroned. In any case, as Andre Malraux once said, there are statues on which one does not spit.

A noted diplomat (now retired), Nirupam Sen was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.