Thursday, November 22, 2007

Nehru's India

I am currently reading Ramcharan Guha's India After Gandhi, a comprehensive historical account of the modern indian nation state. I have not finished reading it, for at 700+ pages this book is no sunday afternoon light read; it is a book quite ambitious in its scope and extremely detailed in its research. It will surely rank as one of the most important books on the history of modern india. I am still around the 200th page but so far what has caught my eye and the imagination is the detailed account of the early events immediately after independence. The partition of India and the consequent large scale violence are fairly well-documented episodes in history. What is less well-documented and consequetly less well-known is the enormity of the task that the leaders of the new-born nation faced in building a united india. There was the enormous task of convincing 500+ princely states to give up their hereditary privileges and be part of the secular, democratic india; there was the matter of drafting a new constitution; there was the dispute of Kashmir and then there was the task of uniting a nation that was perhaps the most culturally diverse nation-state mankind had ever known. The task was enormous, perhaps the most arduous nation-building exercise ever undertaken, but as Nehru- the principal nation-builder- put it ," We are small men and the cause in front of us is great, but since the cause is great, some of that greatness will fall upon as well."

Nehru was right about the magnitude of the task, but he was self-deprecating while referring to himself as a small man. Great causes need great people to achieve them, and Nehru was exactly the sort of a man this exercise needed. He was India's equivalent of Thomas Jefferson and possessed many of the same qualities the great founding father of democratic ideals did.
He was a master orator, staunch nationalist, committed to secularism, a tireless worker, a wonderful writer and a gifted statesman. During his 14 years as Prime Minister- he strengthened India's democratic institutions, founded modern India's great educational institutions, propelled India towards its irreversible march on the path of a modern, secular, democratic republic and most importantly strengthened the idea of India and democracy in the minds of poverty-stricken, illiterate millions prone to violent outbursts in the name of caste, religion and language. He was a worthy heir to the Great Mahatma and successfully realized many of the ideals that Bapu himself envisaged.

Nehru was a giant of a man and if it were not for men like him India may not have even existed for so long. The fact that India has managed to survive despite proclamations to the contrary among many a great experts- prominent among them being Sir Winston Churchill- and not only it has survived, but despite enormous odds, its march has steadily been forever upwards. India's successes in its short history have been impressive but given its potential not truly spectacular, it could certainly have achieved much more. Many among Indians have blamed Nehru and Gandhi for India's failures in achieving more, they have painted Nehru as a flawed politician who in his hunger for power plunged India into communal chaos and then with his failed economic policies kept India into the darkness of poverty whereas if they had followed American capitalist system India would have been much better off, they argue. To the proponents of the first assertion, I say read your history first but for the second their is much fodder for thought. Nehru got a lot of things right in his tenure as Prime Minister but what he got disastrously wrong was in following the socialist, central planning model to the latter. However, for the critics of Nehru , it would help to have a little historical perspective. Central planning and socialist economy were the zeitgeist of post World War II years. Certainly, indians were justified in distrusting capitalism as they were at the receiving ends of western capitalism for a century or two, but as it were unbridled capitalism was out of favour even among the western economies. Post Great Depression, Roosevelt's New Deal and World War II, 'everybody was a Keynesian' meaning a believer in the policy of active government intervention. Free markets were viewed with distrust even in the bastion of capitalism- America and most economists agreed that active state planning is necessary for better economic development. In fact, P.C. Mahalanobis , architect of India's five year plans, actively sought the advice of western economists for India's economic policy decisions. The only lone voice of some standing who still advocated free markets at that time were great economists and future Nobel Laureates- Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Of course, now we know who was right and who was wrong but this we only know with the benefit of hindsight. Nehru's policy actions at that moment were exactly those that any good economist would have recommended. The only lesson that we can draw from this is that even the greatest of men can not do everything right, they are human too. This is no reason to castigate Nehru for he truly was one of the greatest leaders of modern human history. The ones we should truly be blaming are the subsequent generation of leaders who failed to see the changing paradigms and failed to embrace free market capitalism even when the writing was on the wall. If a person of the stature of Nehru was still around during the 70s , I am convinced that India's economic history would have been very different.

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