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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 47 New Delhi, November 14, 2015

The kind of India Nehru Wanted

Monday 16 November 2015, by Girish Mishra

Pandit Nehru, after his tour of the Western world and of the Soviet Union, realised that the socialist orientation of the nationalist vision was indispensable for making political independence in the future more than a symbolic affair and he was hopeful that even the Indian National Congress, which was conservative in its outlook, would look favourably towards the socialist ideal. He saw the commonality of interests among “the peoples of Asia and Africa struggling for freedom” and “the worker of the West“ and “imperialism was the common enemy to be fought ceaselessly and rooted out before a better order could be established”.

The problem with which he now started grappling was the nature or kind of socialism to be adopted in India. What would be its various contours? How should it relate itself to the Indian situation and reality? Should it be just a carbon copy of socialism being established in the Soviet Union or would it be different in its texture?

He went around the country, explaining his ideas and vision. On March 18, 1928 he addressed a group of the youth who believed in the following three things, namely, (a) complete independence for India, (b) religion to remain a purely personal matter and must not be allowed to interfere with political, economic and social issues, and (c) equal opportunities for all irrespective of caste, class and wealth.

Nehru went round the country, telling people and the Congressmen particularly about the importance of independence and the necessity of relating India’s fight for freedom to the establishment of a new international order. He told the All Bengal Students Conference:

“National independence and perfect freedom to develop on the lines of our own choosing is the essential requisite of all progress. Without it there can be no political, economic or social freedom. But national independence should not mean for us merely an addition to the warring groups of nations. It should be a step towards the creation of a world commonwealth of nations in which we can assist in the fullest measure to bring about cooperation and world harmony.”

The international order of this kind, however, could not emerge as long as imperialism remained intact and exploited weaker countries. Political independence was necessary but it was only one constituent of the ultimate goal, other constituents being social and economic emancipation and development without any discrimination. In India, for centuries a big segment of the population had been deliberately suppressed and denied all opportunities of growth and advancement in the name of religion and so-called ancient practice. Besides, all over the country millions of working people were deprived of the fruits of their work and were made to lead a life of poverty and misery. This situation would not change unless “a system which produces poverty and misery” was replaced by a socialist system. “If your ideal is to be one of social equality and a world federation, then perforce we must work for a socialist state....” “...socialism is the only hope for a distraught world today.”

All through his campaign for complete political independence and socio-economic transformation of India, he lashed out at attempts to glorify poverty and tell the poor that they should not care for happiness in this world but for the kingdom of heaven. He tried to drive home the point that poverty was not a good thing, but an evil which needed to be uprooted lock, stock and barrel. The poor required neither pity nor charity, but wanted to be rid of their poverty and the system which gave birth to it. This was possible only when a socialist system suitable to India must be established.

Nehru’s new thinking was reflected clearly in an article “Swaraj and Socialism”(The New Leader, August 11, 1928), in which he posed the question: “What are we aiming at? What manner of country should we like India to be?”

To answer this question, it was necessary that one looked beyond the boundaries of the country and see the changes which were brought about by the industrial revolution in Western Europe. It was a matter to be lamented that “many of us, regardless of what is happening all around us, still live in the ancient past. Some want the Vedic age, others a reproduction of the early days of Islam. We forget that our ancient civilizations were meant for different conditions ... India will only progress ... when she discards the myths and dogmas of yesterday in favour of reality of today.” He referred to the example of Russia which had been marching on the path of its socio-economic transformation without taking recourse to the capitalist system which in the West had led to imperialism. It was imperialism which was responsible for existing colonial exploitation, unequal terms of trade and wars.

Obviously, India’s socio-economic moderni-sation could not be realised by following the path of capitalism which “necessarily leads to exploitation of one man by another, one group by another. If, therefore, we are opposed to this (British) imperialism and exploitation, we must also be opposed to capitalism. The only alternative that is offered to us is some form of socialism.”

Thus, “As a necessary result of this decision, we must fight British dominion in India, not only on nationalistic grounds, but also on social and international grounds.”

Nehru was aware of the phenomenon which nowadays is known as “neo-colonialism”. “Britain may well permit us to have a large measure of political liberty, but this will be worth little if she holds economic dominion over us.” Political freedom without a self-reliant economy was meaningless and not worth trying for. “We may demand freedom for our country on many grounds, but ultimately it is the economic one that matters.”

What we have seen above makes it abun-dantly clear that Nehru believed that India’s fight for independence had to be related to other countries’ struggle for liberation. India could not overlook what was happening outside. Secondly, India must give sufficient thinking to the socio-economic transformation once independence is achieved. Thirdly, the present government is banking mainly on FDI. It has forgotten what international rating agency Moody’s has said. Obviously, you cannot go ahead while there are forces within the nation working towards communal divide in the country. 

The author, a well-known economist, used to teach Economics at Kirorimal College, University of Delhi before his retirement a few years ago. He can be contacted at gmishra@girishmishra.com