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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 28, New Delhi June 30, 2018

Ideological Transformation

Saturday 30 June 2018, by D. Bandyopadhyay


My Journey from Marxism-Leninism to Nehruvian Socialism: Some Memoirs and Reflections on Inclusive Growth by Dr C.H. Hanumantha Rao; Academic Foundation, New Delhi; Price: Rs 1295/-.

A supple mind does not stick to a rigid formulation on any socio-economic issue. Ground realities change. Hence, except for a frozen mind, theories reflecting the real situation also have to undergo change. Mathematical rigidity would make these theories non-applicable. John Marshall wrote his masterpiece on economic theory in simple English. He added a mathematical formulation only as an appendix. Hence, the title of Dr Rao’s book clearly indicates this ground reality.

The core of the book, appears to me, is in the Chapter 2 entitled “From Marxism-Leninism to Nehruvian Socialism”. Communists are generally highly doctrinaire. Come what may, they tend not to budge an inch from their doctrine. Confessions of Dr Rao about how he become a Communist are quite revealing. He writes: “As a child from a landlord family, I frequently saw villagers and domestic servants being treated roughly, often cruelly, by landlord families... my brother once explained that it arises from the power and wealth these landlord families enjoy.” (p. 35) This explanation rattled the mind of young Hamumantha Rao and it left a lasting imprint on him. What surprised, nay, shocked him was the practice of the Communist leaders going to Moscow and meeting Com. Stalin on matters which they could easily solve after local consultation. The then slogan of the CPI member that “this freedom is false—Yeh Azadi Jhuti Hai” confused him. He candidly writes: “Proletarian Dictatorship first became a reality in the special circumstances of the Soviet Union after the October Revolution, but turned into a perpetual one-party rule. This continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union.” (p. 39) On the downfall of the Soviet regime he comments the demise is explained basically by the failure of the Soviet system over a long period to get rid of its authoritarian and isolationist or inward looking traits to become an open and democratic polity for deriving full benefits from changes in technology and institutions which became major sources of growth in Western economies. Interestingly, thanks to their openness and democratic institutions, these countries, especially in Europe, learnt a great deal from the socialist countries on the need for achieving social equity and matured, in course of time, as strong welfare states which contributed to the survival of capitalism from periodic crisis. (pp. 41-42) What impressed me is the intellectual openness with which he criticised the doctrinaire close mindedness of the Communist leaders. Talking about his Marxist colleagues at the Delhi School of Economics, he comments: “....They were unwilling to examine the relevance of some of the basic premises of such theories to the socio-economic conditions in India in a changing world. Surprisingly, a few of them even after spending a number of years on assignments abroad and getting exposed to different streams of thought, returned with the same mind-set. Such instances speak as such about the power of such doctrines, embraced when young, as the closed nature of the mind-set imbibing them.” (p. 42)

Incidentally, in the post-WW-II almost half of the world had Communist Parties of some form or the other in power. Surprisingly, and shockingly (to them), they collapsed like houses of cards a little later. Rigidity of centralised control, which led to this spectacular rise, was the reason for its devastating collapse.

In the Soviet process, planning was treated as a strictly technocratic exercise. Popular participation was not only not allowed, it was considered a useless and improper interference by those who are not competent to deal with such a complex and difficult technical matter. Hence, in the Soviet Union planning was treated as a highly technical matter in which there could be no popular participation. Thus, the Soviet system, in spite of some remarkable contribution to the development of the country, just collapsed with a loud thud. Dr Rao clearly points out the fundamental difference of this with the Indian system. He praises Mrs Indira Gandhi for it. He states: “It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that the greatest contribution of Indira Gandhi in the field of economic planning was to make the whole planning process relevant to the common people of the country, whose expectation and enthusiasm were aroused and whose active involvement in the movement for social justice became real. (p. 59) Development without destruction became the guiding principle of planning.... Denudation of forest slowed down.... clearance of development projects from environmental angle mandatory....” (p. 59)

The Indian movement from the rigid and doctrinaire stance in the planning process to a more liberalised and open economic regime, as described by the author, makes a highly delightful reading. As a serving civil servant, I had had a close look at it both at the State and at the Central levels. Civil servants of my generation had this rare opportunity. Dr Rao’s book in the 4th and 5th chapters vividly describes this process. Civil servants a generation earlier to ours and those who followed us worked in different settled systems. But we had to move from one system to the other and often we had to take part in very small measures in the process. It is almost like the old clonial civil servants who took part in the transition of the administrative system from the colonial era to the post-independent regime. Of course, it was not that sweeping as the Ashoka Lions replacing the crown. Looking back in my old age, in my late eighties, I can say, it was a rare opportunity not only for me but all those belonging to our generation. The author puts it very neatly. He says: “In retrospect. I attribute this slow perception partly to the ideological hangover from my adherence to Marxism-Leninism since my student days. Second, my specialisation in and dedicated application to the study of a particular subject like agricultural economics meant inadequate attention to the study of macronomic issues and policies.” (p. 79)

Such a bold confession about one’s own scholastic inadequacy could be expected only from a real scholar. It reminds me of an English saying that “the more one knows, the more one becomes aware of one’s lack of knowledge”. It is like Newton’s picking up a pebble on the shores of a vast ocean of the unknown.

At his heart Rao remained a confirmed socialist, notwithstanding subsequnet changes in ideological nuances. His critique of the effects of economic reforms remained as strident as before. He writes: “The rise of the GDP in the wake of the reform led to the bulging of the middle class in the country, the upper echolons of whom are generally wedded to the philosophy of free market economy and insensitive to the plight of the poor and the destruction of their livelihood on account of unregulated exploitation of natural resources.” His basic adherence to socialism comes out boldly when he concludes his “epilogue” of chapter 4. Mentioning about the growing concern the world over about the inequalities of income and wealth, he concludes; “They thus point to the continued relevance of Nehruvian vision in the post-Nehru India. For the core of this vision is equitable development through appropriate state intervention in a mixed economy within a secular and democratic polity.” (p. 89)

As a theoretician in economics he has a facile pen. His thumbnail sketches of some of the notable economists are delightful reading. Since I had personally known many of them, I enjoyed reading them. Professor Dharam Narain advised his students, not to rush for publication when a paper is ‘ready’ but instead place it in the drawer for a week or two and read it again for possible revision before it is sent for publication.

I followed it myself, though I am not a frequent writer. But I had a peculiar experience. Being forgetful by nature, I just forgot about the paper. My paper maturing in wood. But being non-acholic in character it refused to do so. When after sometime I wanted to get it back, I found insects had nibbled at it, resulting in my rewriting the paper. Thus a good advice of a regular writer had a destructive effect on me.

Most of the short pieces in the book are not only inherently brilliant but constitute gems of a mature writer’s thoughts. I would not like to deprive an avowed reader the pleasure of reading them direct. To indicate about the gems that are available in these pieces I shall just quote from his short piece on the feminisation of agriculture. He writes: “Feminisation of agriculture is largely a consequence of male labour in household taking up non-farm work.... Since feminisation of agriculture is a major challenge, it calls for strong policy initiatives, right from the national level for dealing with issues such as strengthening land inheritance rights for women, of endowment property rights on houses built with public assistance, improving the literacy level and awareness among women farmers, measures to lighten the burden of their household work and sensitising the agriculture support systems, including credit institutions, about the needs of women farmers and, in particular, inducting women in large numbers agricultural extension system to assist women farmers.” One wonders what items have been left for other researchers.

The book is so interesting in its theme and style of presentation, that once one starts reading one cannot leave it till one has finished it. Yet it is not a Conan Dolye’s detective novel. For an astute researcher to acquire this style of presentation is a rare phenomenon. I hope and trust this book would be liked both by researchers and lay readers.

The reviewer, who was a member of the Rajya Sabha (2011-17) representing the Trinamul Congress, is a former Secretary to the Department of Land and Land Reforms, Government of West Bengal and an erstwhile Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance and in the Ministry of Rural Development. Thereafter he served as the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank at Manila, Phillipnes.

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