When my parents were born (one in the dying moments of the Quit India Movement, the other just a year before independence), Indians could expect to live for under 30 years on average (life expectancy of the poor being much lower) and there was practically no middle class. The literacy rate was 16% (8% for women). A starving, divided, destitute country began its Tryst With Destiny.
By the time I was born some 3 decades of mostly “Nehru misrule” later, life expectancy was 51 years, the literacy rate was ~50% (30% for women), my father was a (rare for that time) post-graduate, and my mother was a (rare for that time) graduate. Secure salaried work, a small but elegant house in a Tier 2 city, a scooter…that was how far a person born in Karachi who migrated to India just before independence and was orphaned in infancy had come. Under “Nehru misrule”. Soon thereafter, we were nestled in leafy and quiet Malleswaram in Bangalore in a neat 3BHK house and owned a 4-wheeler (an elegant Morris Minor bought 2nd hand. Or was it 3rd hand?).
By the time my own kids were born (both at the zenith of India’s growth in the 2003 to 2007 period), I was a triple post-graduate and my wife was a double post-graduate…quite the norm and nothing spectacular, and Malleswaram was neither quiet, nor affordable. Life expectancy was now 64+ years and literacy stood at 76% (55% for women). Not only did a middle class exist, but it was divvied up into the lower-middle, the middle, and the upper-middle so that each consumer class could be appropriately targeted by the plethora of brands that were at our disposal. Till this point, barring 6 years of BJP rule and a couple of years of meandering coalitions (which did not do too badly, mind you), the “cursed and corrupt Nehru-Gandhi family had held sway over the country, robbing India of her dignity, and the people of their right to prosperity!”.
The institution I completed my first post-graduate course from was set up in 1949, immediately after independence through an act of Parliament under Nehru’s plan of developing the workforce that India needed to move forward. This was followed by the setting up of CSIR, IITs, BARC, IIMs, AIIMS, ISRO, and many such institutions under “Nehru misrule”, each of which continue to either serve public interest or build careers, or both.
Apart from my anecdotal story, here are a just a few of the stark macro developments that happened in the period between 1951 and 1969 (period till 5 years after Nehru’s death, which can safely be taken as the period of continued influence):
- 70% increase in consumer goods industries, which is a respectable for that time Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 3% (for those who say Nehru focused only on capital goods!)
- 4x growth in intermediate goods production like steel, paint, plywood, pipes, tubes, etc. That’s an 8% CAGR, something even Modi would envy!
- 10x growth in output of capital goods like like buildings, machinery and tools. That’s a 14% CAGR, something even Modi will not boast he can achieve. No, not even on a nominal basis!
- The Green Revolution, which was the 1st (and genuine) Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative (remember, 14mn tons of food had to be imported between 1947 and 1953 to feed the population). Yes there are folks who say Nehru focused on industry, not agriculture. And that the Green Revolution happened after his death. Consider this: the Green Revolution was not a switch thrown by someone. Apart from the specific steps initiated during Nehru’s lifetime, an important contributor to the Green Revolution was the land reform aggressively pursued by Nehru, which ended Zamindari.
Consider that this growth came about from a starting position where 90% of equipment required to make ANYTHING had to be imported. By the time I was born, that percentage had fallen to 8%! By the time my kids were born, India was exporting vehicles and launching satellites for the world!
Apart from this, on the democratic front, universal suffrage was implemented forthwith. In comparison, the US of A, a much larger and older democracy, could or would not implement universal suffrage till the 1960s. Even in 2020, black voters were susceptible to both disenfranchisement and intimidation. More starkly, American women got the right to vote a 130 years after the 1st presidential election! A 130 years! Besides one person one vote, federalism was committed to deeply and truthfully in India. This despite the fact that one giant of a man held sway over every person in the country (long before the Modi wave, all of India was a Nehru tsunami!).
So the starting position was one of disadvantage, to put it mildly. India was already committed to the paths of sovereignty, equality, and democracy. Hence, industrialisation and growth at any cost, needs of the hour though they were, could not be forced down people’s throats like China did. What India attempted – industrial transformation with democracy – was thus unique. So much so that it offered a model to many of the newly independent colonies of the world. This obsession of Nehru’s with ends AND means perhaps came from Gandhi and his commitment to HOW we win freedom. If Mr Amitabh Kant laments that this commitment to democracy came at the cost of growth then we should seriously worry about the intellect of the people heading policy-making bodies (yeah, yeah; I know Niti Aayog is only a PR agency!). Besides, Mr Kant would do well to know that the same democratic principles brought his lord & master to power. Twice.
Here, we hit the argument professed by the ‘nothing happened for 60 years lot’ of why didn’t India grow like Singapore. That such narratives are still held on to is surprisingly in itself – I don’t think that’s an argument worth getting into considering the size, scale, background, and constraints India faced at independence and for years after. All things considered, the statistics and achievements above show we achieved a little more than “nothing”.
Nehru’s biggest mistake was not his commitment to socialism, or China. It was his spawn. Indira was made the president of the INC in 1959, well before Nehru’s death; she was clearly being groomed for a leadership role by him. The fact that she was not made the PM right after his death is a testament to Nehru, his party, and the times he lived in. Indira was authoritarian and is directly responsible for many of the economic ills we face today. Sanjay was even worse. Rajiv was inept and is directly responsible for many of the communal ills we face today. Modi, meanwhile is both authoritarian and inept, a most dangerous combination that perhaps only North Korea would know something about.
Considering Nehru’s image, the genuine love people had for him, his aura, and his obvious capabilities, would India have been better off with Nehru as a benevolent dictator? I mean, considering the statistics, the lack of any real competition within the Congress, the lack of any competition for the Congress itself, and the passing away of Gandhi soon after independence and Patel soon thereafter, he could have been forgiven for assuming that holding onto as much power as possible and directing policy individually was the best course of action for India. But then, THAT wouldn’t have been Nehru.
The ultimate tribute to Nehru the democrat comes through the bizarre action of Indira Gandhi in ending the Emergency and calling elections in 1977. There was no need for that move when she was well entrenched and was considering (according to some accounts) bringing in a presidential form of government, with her at the helm. While she may have grossly misjudged her popularity by reading what the heavily censored press wrote about her, there are some who believe that Nehru’s genes and his influence on her forced her hand, leading eventually to her defeat. Mock this theory, but before that consider this: after Operation Bluestar, her Sikh bodyguards were removed because they were considered a security threat. So innate was her commitment to secularism, imbibed by her father, that she reinstated them on the basis that someone’s religion cannot be cause for removal. In hindsight, for her, it was a poor decision but one she took knowing the risks.
Nehru’s vision of India was one of enlightenment. Modi’s vision of India is one of obscurantism. We started well, then decided to tear up the user guide and proceeded with our tryst with despondency. I’ll keenly look out for the update that my children and grandchildren put up to this piece.