Our Debt to Jawaharlal Nehru

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nehruShortly after the death of our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in New Delhi on 27 May 1964, the renowned Bertrand Russell wrote an article bearing the same caption as the present piece. Therein he had presciently noted: “Illiteracy and poverty, disease and ignorance, a great subcontinent to govern, severe differences between Muslim and Hindu, many score languages and varied cultures reflecting a tendency towards a breaking up of the Union — all of these serious political facts could have induced him to say that they were too difficult to permit the rule of democracy with its instability.

“Had Nehru made this decision, it is doubtful that the rule of law or of representative institutions would have any chance among the emergent nations. Had this decision been made, the varied and rich Indian culture would be subjected to uniform control in the name of security and political unity…

“I do not think that the ease with which he might have taken more tempting paths is understood. I do not believe his greatness is fully appreciated, but I have every confidence that if mankind is allowed to survive — he will be recognised in a manner adequate to his stature.”

That Nehru played a pivotal role in laying, on the one hand, the basis of a vibrant self-reliant economy and, on the other hand, a non-aligned foreign policy that found expression in both Panchsheel at the Bandung Conference (1955) and the Non-Aligned Movement (the seeds of which were sown in 1960) is well known. But the painstaking manner in which he went about strengthening the planning process, secularism and democracy in the country was something extraordinary. By democracy was meant both parliamentary democracy and democratic socialism — for democracy, in his opinion, was essential while striving to transform the country from a backward dependent State to a modern self-sufficient nation at peace with itself and the world at large.

Sumit Chakravartty | Editor, Mainstream
Sumit Chakravartty | Editor, Mainstream

Therefore, he wrote to the chief ministers from Ranikhet on 28 September 1953: “Democracy has meant political equality. It means also a progressive economic equality. Our professed aims are to develop a society where there are no great differences and where opportunities come to all. Any vested interests and vested privileges do not fit in with such a plan of society. And yet, even our Constitution and more so our economic and social structure and customs, protect many kinds of privilege and vested interest. There is some justification for them in the context of history, but we must always remember that they are anachronisms and constant irritants to the people… I have no doubt that these relics of old privilege will have to go. The question is whether we have the wisdom, as a people, to solve this problem peacefully and cooperatively.”

This was his “Basic Approach” and he penned an article by that title for The AICC Economic Review (15 August 1958). By “basic approach” Nehru meant the “basic approach of peaceful means” while considering the “economic aspects of our problems”. In this article he laid emphasis on three points. One, that ‘democracy and socialism are means to an end, not the end in itself’—the good society we aim at cannot be constructed by ignoring and/or sacrificing the individual. Two, the individual must be offered the ‘opportunity to develop, provided the individual is not a selected group, but comprises the whole community’; in other words, “the touchstone… should be how far any political or social theory enables the individual to rise above his petty self and thus think in terms of the good of all”. And three, while violence needs to be eschewed, “in a poorly developed country, the capitalist method offers no chance” — “it is only through a planned approach on socialistic lines that steady progress can be attained though even that will take time”; however, “as this process continues, the texture of our life and thinking” will gradually change.

In 1933 he wrote Whither India? in which he declared: “Whither India? Surely to the great human goal of social and economic equality, to the ending of all exploitation of nation by nation and class by class, the national freedom within the framework of an international cooperative socialist world federation.”

But he also strongly believed that while the “philosophy of communism helps us to understand and analyse existing conditions in any country, and further indicates the road to future progress”, it would be doing “violence and injustice to that philosophy” if one were to “apply it blindfold and without due regard to facts and conditions.” He thus laid stress on the peaceful and democratic path of transformation, and in this he was backed by Lenin’s insightful observation that there could be no socialist revolution without “an all-round, concrete revolutionary struggle for democracy.” (It is a different matter that the one-party State established by Lenin in Russia after the 1917 October Revolution gradually transformed into a totalitarian entity where democracy and individual freedom were ruthlessly smothered primarily under the Stalin dispensation and that ultimately resulted in the collapse of both the communist state and the USSR at the fag end of 1991.)