Nickeled & Dimed

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By Aagya Mehta

In contrast to the traditional Gandhian ideology, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, was a true economic modernist with radical ideas. He was one of the few leaders who appeared to be open to modern industry. He believed that rapid industrial expansion was the route to elevate the masses as opposed to domestic household production. Economic modernization and growth were viewed as vital factors for India to achieve self-reliance after decades of foreign dominance when Nehru became Prime Minister.

It was at this point that the actual Nehruvian model began to emerge. As expected, a considerable emphasis was placed on industrialization, with the government playing a key role. Many economists believe that the Soviet experiment’s success played a significant effect in this choice. Nehru desired that the public sector dominate commodities production so that India might build the strength to withstand any attack on its independence. Another important duty of the government was to assist in private-sector funding in the absence of deep financial markets.

The Nehruvian model, with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, played a crucial part in shaping India into what it is today. In the five decades leading up to India’s independence, the country’s economic progress had slowed to a halt. Between 1952 and 1965, the Nehruvian approach enabled India to reach an average growth rate of 4.09%, resulting in an economic boom. Since deindustrialization began in the late Mughal period, this was the first time that industry began to be perceived as playing a major role in the economy. Fundamental components of the Nehruvian model, such as a relentless focus on capital accumulation and strategic depth in the industrial structure, continue to impact many policy decisions.

The objectives Nehru stated on the eve of India’s independence should be recalled for evaluating how far these reforms diverge from the Nehruvian paradigm after nearly three decades of economic reforms. On the eve of India’s independence, Nehru articulated the fundamental aims of ending poverty, ignorance, sickness, and inequality of opportunity. These goals were important to Nehru not just for their economic usefulness, but also for their own sake. However, at the height of India’s liberalisation effort, the welfare state was seen as a roadblock to the country’s globalisation. The Nehruvian rationale of looking at economic development as necessary for human welfare was completely abandoned as higher economic growth became the ultimate goal. As a result, economic changes marked a shift from the Nehruvian model of economic development. The importance of the state in economic regulation is now largely acknowledged on a worldwide scale. This needs a reconsideration of Nehru’s economic growth approach. 

Nehru served as Prime Minister for seventeen years, a considerable term for a Prime Minister but a little period in the history of a country. Twelve of these years are known as the core years since they are when the foundations for a robust economy and modern nation were laid. There is no comparable example, not even in the Soviet Union, of a country on the move in which the dams were built, the steel plants were operationalized, five IIsT and four IIsM, Punjab Agriculture University, and the G. B. Pant Agriculture University were established, and India began producing modern cars, aircraft, and warships. It would be commendable if the Modi government could achieve even a quarter of this in the solitary topic of cleansing the Ganga. In terms of Nehru’s accomplishments, I consider them miraculous.

Nehru was said to as a strong socialist whose development model was the Soviet planning system. Apart from being a Brahmin who claimed to be agnostic, if not atheist, but who preserved his Brahmin intellectual outlook until the end, Nehru was undoubtedly upper class by birth. He wasn’t a doctrinaire Marxist or a revolutionary socialist. He may be classified as a London School of Economics-style Fabian Socialist. He could never be a Stalinist tyrant because he was a democrat who believed in parliamentary democracy in the British way. He chose a planned economy because he had no other choice, not because he was a devout follower of dialectical materialism.

More than five decades after his death, a  good deal of Nehru’s legacy looks intact — and yet highly contested — as India marches into the twenty-first century wearing many of the trappings of Nehruvianism. India has drifted away from many of Nehru’s ideals, as has the rest of the developing world for which Nehruvianism previously spoke (in different ways). As India enters its seventh decade of independence from the British Raj, a revolution has occurred that, while still unfinished, has fundamentally altered Nehruvian notions about postcolonial nationhood.

Nehru’s legacy in India is built on four pillars: democratic institution-building, ardent pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home, and a non-alignment foreign policy, all of which were vital to a concept of Indianness that is fundamentally being challenged today.

Today, it is common to criticise Nehruvian socialism as a corrupt and inefficient regime that doomed India to a long period of low growth. I do not disagree that the socialist model as practised in India has evolved with many defects over time. But at the heart of Nehru’s socialism was his belief that in a country marked by tremendous poverty and inequality, government policy must prioritise the welfare of the poorest, most disadvantaged, and most marginalised citizens. Building systems of public ownership and State management of national resources, as well as strengthening the nation’s economic power through government intervention, were the greatest ways to do this in his day.

Critics of Nehruvian socialism claim that it enslaved progress under the control of the state. Few will deny that India’s growth has been hampered by our overly process-oriented and frequently rent-seeking bureaucracy. However, the Nehruvian state-provided India with capabilities that it lacked and that the private sector would not have been able to provide. 

The Nehruvian model’s largest fault, according to critics, was its aversion to foreign trade. There were no export initiatives in the model, and the emphasis was solely on import substitution, i.e. Make in India. Because of Nehru’s tendency to wrap the economy in a cocoon, India was unable to take advantage of the rising global economy and had to rely on foreign help.


India’s politics (from the dominant Congress system to a proliferation of regional parties to the dominance of the newly ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party), economics (from a controlled “socialist” economy to a thriving free-enterprise system), trade (from protectionism to globalisation), and social relations (from a rigidly hierarchical caste system to a more egalitarian policy affirming opportunity) have all undergone significant changes in recent years.

Any one of these changes may have triggered a revolution in another country. However, we have had all four in India and have absorbed them and made all of the changes work because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, maintained by a bigger vision of India, an India that protects the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for variety. That was Nehru’s vision, and now it has come true.

Whether or not we agree with what he stood for, his legacy is ours. We owe a great deal of who we are now, both for good and for bad, to one man.

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