Home > 2017 > Tribute to Nirupam Sen

Mainstream, VOL LV No 29 New Delhi July 8, 2017

Tribute to Nirupam Sen

Tuesday 11 July 2017


Nirupam Sen, 70, who passed away at a New Delhi hospital on Saturday (July 1, 2017) after having suffered a stroke followed by kidney failure, was truly an epitome of integrity and fearlessness in Indian diplomacy, qualities that are becoming increasingly rare these days.

A brilliant student of St Stephen’s Collage, Delhi, he joined the Indian Foregn Service in 1969 and served in Indian missions in Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest, Oslo, Sofia, Colombo. His most important assignment was in New York where he served as the Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations in 2004. He was in Moscow in 1991 when a coup took place to oust Mikhail Gorbachev from power. Nirupam correctly forecast that the coup would be shortlived. He, of course, could not predict the demise of the USSR by the year-end.

His views were outspokenly Leftist in essence and he was a keen proponent of Left unity for democratic advance. He spoke at the introduction of a series of lectures by eminent Leftist economist Prof Prabhat Patnaik to observe the centenary of the October Revolution and his speech was acclaimed by one and all as he had outlined the project for assimilating the gains of the October Revolution in today’s conditions for a global Left resurgence.

The Hindu (July 3, 2017) noted: “...he featured in Wikileaks which revealed that his deputy in the Permanent Mission told a US diplomat that South Block had given him the power to override Mr Sen in view of his lack of sympathy for US global policies.”

He leaves behind his wife and two sons. His father, distinguished intelligence officer D. Sen, passed away some years ago.

While remembering Nirupam on this occasion, we are reproducing two pieces he wrote in Mainstream recently—one on Jawaharlal Nehru and his vision on May 31, 2014 on the 50th anniversary of our first PM’s death, and the other on N.C. on June 27, 2015 on the latter’s 17th death anniversary—for the benefit of our readers.

Nehru’s Vision, its Development and Dismantling

This subject can be adequately addressed only in a full book. In a short article I can only highlight some features of relevance to our times. Shortly after Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary in 2013, the President of the Indian National Congress condemned Nehru’s “character assassination”. This became possible because her Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, had first assassinated Nehru’s vision and legacy.

Nehru’s vision of India’s development and the policies he adopted are rooted in our freedom struggle. Independent economic development needed zamindari to be abolished, planning, the Mahalanobis model and public sector to prevent the domination of metropolitan capital, streng-thened by the assistance of the Soviet Union. Because land reform was not pushed vigorously, the massive expansion of demand for wage goods and the political support of the peasantry, both of which could have made the Mahalanobis model self-sustaining, did not happen. Distor-tions were introduced by imports of luxury goods. Scarcity of foreign exchange and foodgrain imports became inevitable. Whether because of the mobilisation of the freedom struggle or because the bourgeoisie was not strong enough (the Gramscian idea of passive revolution) it had to protect precapitalist economic classes. Protec-ting the rural petty producers and reining in the tendency to primitive accumulation became the vital features of our agrarian policy. Modern industry and science and technology, so central to Nehru’s vision, are the foundation of such strength as we have today. Somewhat reducing conspicuous consumption and inequalities was part of the striving towards a “socialist pattern of society”.

On December 4, 1947, Nehru said that “ultimately foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy”. He had read Marx and would have been familiar with the famous passage on the relationship between base and superstruc-ture, which has become a cliché without ceasing to be classical. Our independent (non-aligned) foreign policy would not have been possible without the economic policies he adopted, without a measure of self-reliance. One should not interpret this relationship in literal or reductionist terms. Foreign policy belongs to the superstructure which, as Gramsci argued, develops a life of its own. This is true, for instance, of civilisational links. Nehru, in his Glimpses of World History, writes eloquently of the closeness between Indian and Persian civili-sations. Today, it is sometimes forgotten that in the period 1950-59, India, a weak developing country, notched up major foreign policy successes in Korea, Indochina, assistance from the USSR, some assistance from the USA and preserving the status quo in Kashmir, while witnessing the development of only minimal relations between China and Pakistan. There-fore, there was no failure of policy. In 1962, there was a massive failure of Nehru’s diplomacy and statesmanship. Instead of establishing forward posts, China could have been engaged in pro-longed diplomatic negotiations till the Cuban Missile Crisis was over and we had arrived at a clear understanding with the USSR and built up our military strength. We paid dearly for this diplomatic failure but modern-day commen-tators underestimate the strength of our legal case on the border and the price, admittedly immeasurably smaller, that the Chinese pay today as a result of the Sino-Indian subacute hostililty.

Just after 1954 (given the Sino-US hostility) Jawaharlal Nehru was offered by the US perma-nent membership of the UN Security Council. This is well documented. From Dean Rusk’s memoirs one can draw the inference that just after 1954 a message was sent that the Ameri-cans will help India become a nuclear weapons power. Nehru rejected both permanent member-ship of the UNSC and nuclear weapons status because he saw clearly that one cannot become a great power through the good grace of somebody else and neither of these two things is worth having as somebody’s client. Nehru’s was a Janus-faced nuclear programme, moving seamlessly between different dimensions and steadily towards thorium reactors, while being anchored in a pioneering, imaginative and intense campaign for nuclear disarmament.

Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi strengthened and developed Nehru’s vision. While radical land reforms could not be carried out, the technological success of the Green Revolution, investment in agriculture, nationali-sation of banks (that made possible rural credit), agricultural extension services, continued protection of petty producers and ‘Garibi Hatao’ strengthened the agrarian sector and made dependence on PL-480 foodgrains a thing of the past. Indira Gandhi nationalised coal mines which liberated five lakh miners from de-facto bonded labour besides conserving a scarce resource since its extraction was now for use rather than profit.1 Rajiv Gandhi carried forward the Nehruvian scientific and technological revolution in computers and software as well as the Nehru campaign for nuclear disarmament (with imagination and skill).

However, the anti-Sikh riots on his accession to power in 1984, like the short stint of the Emergency under Indira Gandhi (1975-77), was a blot on the Nehruvian vision. The state of the Emergency temporarily negated the essentially democratic dimension of the Nehruvian vision but Indira Gandhi herself very soon negated the negation by holding free elections and paid the price for this departure from the Nehruvian vision, in terms of a decisive defeat and a brief imprisonment.

Though Indira Gandhi carried out peaceful nuclear tests, she retained all the features of the Nehruvian vision while adding an element of recessed deterrence. Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi rapidly built India’s conventional military strength and when the Chinese probed in 1967, they got a bloody nose. National interest, military necessity and the defence of human rights came together in the liberation of Bangla-desh when all institutions of the government were galvanised and worked as one with massive popular enthusiasm and support. At that time we were a rising world power. Such a foreign policy is inconceivable without the economic model in which it was anchored.

 The dismantling of the Nehruvian vision began rapidly and by conscious design in 1991 when Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister and Manmohan Singh the Finance Minister. The control of the strategic points of the economy in Nehru’s days had solidified by 1975 into what is popularly but inaccurately called the licence permit raj. A debureaucratisation of the economy, even a measure of internal liberali-sation, was required. Both Indira Gandhi from 1980 and Rajiv Gandhi from 1985 did some of this but this was very different from Dr Man-mohan Singh’s wholesale liberalisation, privati-sation and globalisation (external liberali-sation)—LPG of the Washington Consenus which involved the total dismantling of the Nehruvian vision. Even in the Republic of Korea which he admires, some companies with a global profile and cutting-edge technology were in the public sector. The state ensured a competi-tive environment and had a central role in the intermediation of credit. In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dominance of inter-national finance capital made it easier to dismantle the Nehruvian vision. The macro-economic indicators, in 1991, were good. There was a payments crisis but the IMF conditiona-lities were deliberately accepted to provide a cover for this dismantling. It was a classic case of using a difficulty to implement what Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism. Economists like Dani Rodrik and Atul Kohli, sympathetic to the so-called Reform, have cogently demonstrated that it involved not just the unleashing of market forces but tilting the entire balance of economic forces and, more importantly, the state in favour of the corporate sector. This gave the corporate sector the resources, the strength and eventually the self-confidence to attempt to completely control the state.

The preferred model of the corporate sector is capital intensive and essentially jobless growth. At the same time, primitive accumu-lation, transferring scarce natural resources and assets to the rich corporates, was unleashed. As a result, as the UNESCO report on “Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India” showed, internal migrants finally comprised one-third of India’s total population and at four hundred million comprise half the total population of global internal migrants. This unemployment (which ignored the aspirations of India’s youth) and the sea of internal migrants finally engulfed and drowned the Indian National Congress. Inflation, as a result of neoliberalism, only made the waves of this sea more angry and turbulent.

The Left, during UPA -1, was the real defender of Nehru’s vision. It was able to mitigate and check (through quantitative caps etc.) some of neoliberalism but could not modify its foun-dations. In 2005, India had the votes to push through the resolution on the UN Security Council’s permanent membership. It was not put to vote in order not to annoy the USA and jeopardise the July 2005 Indo-US joint statement which provided the outlines for the Indo-US nuclear deal. This deal ultimately involved our vote against Iran in the IAEA which complicated our relations with that country and our ability to deal with post-nato Afghanistan. It has meant an attack on democracy and an assault on environmental biodiversity (in Jaitapur). This is apart from the huge wastage of resources and destroying the Nehruvian character of the nuclear programme as well as seriously retarding progress towards the thorium reactor.

In a report to the AICC at Haripura in 1938, Nehru cautioned:

An attempt to drive out the Left, if successful, would be fatal, for it represents a vital part of the movement without which it would lose much of its flair and become increasingly wedded to petty reformist activities. It would spread confusion in the mass mind, more especially among the peasantry, and thus weaken the Congress.

When Dr Manmohan Singh signed the Indo-US nuclear deal and broke with the Left, he signed the death warrant of the Congress party. The wages of forgetfulness inexorably lead to political death.

(Mainstream, May 31, 2014)


  • The neo-liberal panacea of auctioning the coal blocks, while it would shrink the space for kickbacks and increase government revenues, is no solution. The Nehruvian vision, as developed by Indira Gandhi, can be updated to make the local communities share-holders in the limited profits of public sector extraction of coal while putting the entire economy on an alternative energy path (with the use of renewable energy). This would protect local livelihood and ways of life and conserve coal reserves because these revserves would be for use and not for the widespread object of seeking internal and external profits.

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Nikhil Chakravartty, Our Contemporary

This month is Nikhi Chakravartty’s death anniversary. I have known very few journalists (perhaps my personal, idiosyncratic application of Lenin’s dictum: “Better fewer, but better”). Nikhil Chakravartty was among these few. I discussed some domestic and foreign policy issues with him often and, very occasionally, visited him at his Kaka Nagar flat. For me, too, the red door was intellectually welcoming, reassuring and opened to the Left. For him too, as for Robert Burns, “the rank was but the guinea stamp, a man’s a man for all that”. His modesty and simple lifestyle were integral to a democratic outlook, open to all who had something to say: as he once told somebody: “One has to travel by bus to be close to the masses.”

As a Marxist, he reflected real Marxism: a commitment to the empowerment of the poor and to socialism as the realisation of true freedom; a holistic approach to political, social, economic and international issues and an unflagging and unwavering struggle for his ideas and beliefs. He praised and wrote on the best of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and the Left, but never hesitated to oppose them when he saw that they were profoundly mistaken. Since this month is also the anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency, one recalls his opposition to the Emergency and his break with his party, the Communist Party of India, for supporting it. He staunchly opposed press censorship. As I remember him, his commitment to the poor is vivid in my memory. Once, when discussing something, I quoted form memory some lines from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. He was so struck and moved that he asked me to repeat the lines: “It is not just this second hand, hand-me-down capitalism, ridiculous and doomed...but the inability of our rulers to establish vital links with the poor of our country, with the bruised heart that throbs so painfully at the core of the nation’s being.” Perhaps, he was attracted by the fact that these words encapsulated his own deepest convictions. Today there are reports of some trying to buy the Padma Bhushan. Nikhil Chakravartty declined it in 1990. He may have said that this was because a journalist should be independent (in any case relevant in a time of Murdochisation of the media and its control by corporate interests). But I am convinced that he was instinctively rejecting what was to come, in increasing measure, from the year after: reification and the ravages of the neoliberal market.

On foreign policy, I would show his contemporary relevance by a single example. In 1962, he did not hesitate to condemn the Chinese aggression or criticise those sections of the Left who seemed to be supportive of the Chinese. He also joined issue with the USSR for its tilt towards China. He wrote a series of forthright articles and an eloquent open letter to the leaders of the Soviet Union. The international constellation, then, was roughly similar to what exists today: the Chinese intruded and then attacked across the border; the USA was seemingly friendly but of little operational strategic assistance; the Soviet Union (Russia) was generally not unfriendly, but more definitely supportive of China. Nikhil Chakra-vartty’s anti-imperialism and defence of our independence and our non-aligned policy remained undiminished. He could foresee (like Nehru) that the Soviet Union would change its position and only a truly independent and non-aligned India could achieve cooperation with USSR and an honourable future compromise with China. He would have had little time or patience with what can only be described as ‘the lowest common denominator of a set of particularly vulgar fractions’ that passes for much foreign policy commentary today, a random recent example being Shyam Saran’s review of Raja Mohan’s latest book in The Indian Express (June 20, 2015), where we find these ‘gems of the purest ray serene’: “enlightened self-interest, unencumbered by ideological preferences” and “multi-alignment, as against non-alignment”. With his sharp clarity of vision, Nikhil Chakravartty would have seen that self-interest is only class interest and, therefore, by definition, unenlightened and ‘multi-alignment’ and being ‘unencumbered by ideological preferences’ are simply Orwellian doublespeak for aligning with the USA. In its fullness, this policy was inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh, an observation which N.C. would have wholeheartedly endorsed had he been alive and amongst us today.

Nikhil Chakravartty was a doughty opponent of corruption, sadly contemplating India becoming increasingly, in Somerset Maugham’s phrase, a ‘sunny country inhabited by shady people’. In his language, as in his life, there was no striving for phrase-making, for purple patches. His style was clear, logical, direct and effective. As we have seen, he was neither afraid to attack the Right, nor was his style cramped by criticism from the Left. He was a man of ideas, a man of conviction and a man of honour, but above all a real communist, humanist and intellectual. He is needed today more than ever before.

(Mainstream, June 27, 2015)

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62