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Speeches at the Conference

Inclusive Democracy and People's Empowerment : The Legacy of Jawaharlal NehruProfessor Aditya Mukherjee, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru
International Conference on
Nehru’s worldview and his Legacy: Democracy, Inclusion and Empowerment
17-18 November 2014, New Delhi

Inclusive Democracy and People’s Empowerment:
The Legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru

How India was ‘Imagined’ by the Indian National Movement

The Indian nation, or India as we know it today, was ‘imagined’ by the modern national liberation struggle, or the Indian national movement, which emerged in the second half of the 19th century to overthrow British colonial rule. It is this struggle for independence, which created the ‘idea of India’ (a phrase used by Rabindranath Tagore.)  Since its formation in 1885 the Indian National Congress took on the leadership of the Indian National Movement right up to independence in 1947, bringing under its umbrella various strands of the movement with different political emphasis but all wedded to a common core, which was the ‘idea of India’.

The manner in which the architects of India's liberation struggle 'imagined' India was perhaps unique at that time. While the emerging nation states in Europe were increasingly trying to create homogenous societies often involving "the destruction of regional languages and cultures" involving considerable violence, the Indian nation was imagined to be one which would celebrate diversity. The flourishing of each of the region's numerous, often ancient, languages, religions, tribal cultures, etc., would contribute to the making of the Indian nation rather than be an obstacle to it. The early nationalists quite consciously saw the making of the Indian nation as a process and not an event, and even called India a "nation-in-the-making", and understood their own role as that of carefully nurturing and furthering the process.

A short overview of how the Indian national movement imagined India is in order before we evaluate the contribution of one of its tallest leaders Jawaharlal Nehru, in carrying forward and giving concrete shape to that imagination. It is also in order because today that very idea of India stands very severely challenged.

There were three basic elements in the Indian National Movement’s ‘Idea of India’. First, democracy and civil liberties were to be the basis on which the Indian nation was to be built. The struggle against colonialism was a struggle for the democratic rights of the Indian people.

1See Tadd Fernee, Enlightenment and Violence: Modernity and Nation Making, Sage, 2014, (volume 15 of the Sage Series in Modern Indian History) for a brilliant comparison of the nation making effort in Europe, India, Iran and Turkey. See also Pankaj Mishra, “The Western Model is Broken”, The Guardian, 14 October 2014.

Democratic rights for all in a multi-lingual, multi-religious country necessarily meant that the country would be secular and inclusive of all sections of society. Secularism, in the sense of complete inclusiveness  (not only acceptance but celebration of diversity) and democracy went in hand in hand. One was not possible without the other. Jawaharlal Nehru thus always spoke of Secular- Democracy.

Just as in the case of inclusiveness the Indian experience deviated from the dominant European model, so in the case of democracy.  Adult franchise was the call made by the Indian nationalists by the end of the 19th century, and Independent India made it an integral part of its Constitution adopted on 26 January 1950! Adult franchise, particularly franchise for women and the lower sections of society generally emerged in the Western nation states with a considerable lag even after the adoption of democratic institutions.

Second, given the fact that the process of nation-making in India was deeply rooted in the struggle for independence from colonial rule, sovereignty or independence and anti-imperialism became a founding principle of the Indian nation. Independence and sovereignty were also seen as possible only if there was independent economic development based on industrialisation, a task that furthermore had to be performed with democracy. Here again there was a striking difference with the process of nation- making in Europe, which was generally associated with the rise of capitalism and indeed the colonising of other peoples of the world. Also, as a rule, industrialisation occurred in Europe, particularly in its early phase, without democracy.

Third, the nationalist vision of India had a pronounced pro-poor orientation. While many in the national movement even believed in the socialist ideal, the minimum consensus from the right to the left was around an egalitarian, pro-poor social ideal. The founding fathers of Indian nationalism, people like Dadabhai Naoroji, M.G. Ranade, Surendranath Bannerjee, R.C.Dutt, all made the removal of poverty, which they analysed as a product of colonial exploitation a central objective of the struggle against colonialism.2

A very important and distinctive feature of India’s national liberation struggle was that it was a prolonged movement, lasting nearly a century, and was based on the mass of people, millions of them, making it perhaps the greatest mass movement in world history. It was not a coup or a revolutionary overthrow organised by cadre- based ‘professional revolutionaries’ or ‘guerillas’ or a ‘revolutionary army’. The fact that the Indian national movement was a prolonged mass movement meant that the three basic ideas of the movement, a commitment to a secular and inclusive democracy, sovereignty and anti-imperialism and a pro-poor orientation went deep down into the minds of the Indian people and became hegemonic ideas. This meant that the independent Indian state, which was a product of this movement, had to undertake the task of nation-building within the parameters of these basic ideas. This is because the post-revolutionary state inevitably bears the imprint of the ideology, strategy, methods, social base and ideals of the movement of which it is a product.

2See Bipan Chandra, Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1966.

Jawaharlal Nehru was among the most important leaders of the Indian national movement (after Mahatma Gandhi) who gave shape to the ‘idea of India’ and was responsible for carrying that idea to millions of the Indian people. India was very fortunate to have a galaxy of very tall leaders thrown up by the Indian national movement who performed this task shoulder to shoulder with Nehru. However, the challenge of implementing the vision of the Indian national movement in the newborn Indian nation state, after independence in August 1947, fell largely on the shoulders of Jawaharlal Nehru. An assassin, promoted by the Hindu communal stream, which did not share the idea of a secular democratic India, removed the pre-eminent leader of the national movement, Mahatma Gandhi, within six months of independence. Sardar Patel, who had stood firmly by Nehru’s side in steering the republican constitution to its goal post through many winding paths, and had unhesitatingly cracked down on the forces responsible for the Mahatma’s murder ¾banning the RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the key organisation of the Hindu communalists, and sending 25,000 RSS workers to jail¾had also died by late 1950.

It was left to Nehru as the first Prime Minister, who remained in office for 18 long years to nurture the infant Indian state, and bring it to maturity. In the following pages, I will seek to outline how Nehru undertook this stupendous and in many respects historically unique task of creating a modern democratic nation state in a plural society, left deeply divided through the active collusion of the colonial state; of promoting modern industrialisation within the parameters of democracy in a backward and colonially structured economy; of finding the balance between growth and equity in an impoverished, famine-ridden country; of empowering the people and yet expecting them to tighten their belt for the sake of the nation as a whole; of promoting the highest level of scientific education, a field left barren by colonialism; in short, of un-structuring colonialism and bringing in rapid economic development but doing it consensually, without the use of force, keeping what has been called the “Nehruvian consensus” intact in the critical formative years of the nation. A Herculean effort was needed to achieve this complex task and Jawaharlal Nehru rose to the occasion putting everything he had into this effort, in the process leaving behind a legacy not only for the Indian people but for all the peoples of the world oppressed by colonialism who were striving to liberate themselves of their past, but in a humane and democratic manner.

Building a Secular Inclusive Nation

The period 1946 to 1952, from the time Jawaharlal Nehru took over as the head of the Interim government till he as Prime Minister led independent India into its first general election, was the phase when the very 'idea of India' was tested against the most overwhelming odds. Independence was accompanied with the partition of the country and widespread religious communal violence. It was a holocaust-like situation where an estimated 500,000 were killed and millions were turned homeless (nearly 6 million refugees poured into India) in a spate of communal hatred and violence. The result was one of the largest transfers of populations in human history in a short span of just a few years. In the midst of all this, the tallest leader of the fledgling Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the nation, was felled by an assassin's bullet, an assassin who was put up to challenge the very 'idea of India' the Mahatma had lived and died for. In this atmosphere of hatred and violence, guiding India to its first democratic general election based on complete adult franchise appeared to be a nearly impossible task. But Jawaharlal Nehru took the challenge head on and with indomitable energy saw India though its worst ever crisis at its very moment of birth as a new nation. It was, in the words of an Indian historian in a recent study, his "finest hour".3

A spiral of religious sectarian violence engulfed India in the run-up to Independence and Partition. It began with the Great Calcutta Killings as a result of Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in August 1946, barely a month before the Interim Government led by Nehru was set up in September by the British as a prelude to the handing over of power. The very next month, in October, large scale violence erupted in Noakhali, a remote district of Bengal with the Muslim League government that ruled the province doing precious little to stop it. As a reaction to the violence against Hindus in Calcutta and Noakhali, large scale violence against Muslims broke out in neighbouring Bihar, spreading like wildfire, for the first time in rural areas.

Gandhiji immediately rushed to the villages of Noakhali on 6 November 1946 to take on the most difficult task of trying to contain communal violence with a hostile Muslim league government in power in the province. The top leader of the national movement spent the next four months, till 4 March 1947, walking on village paths and sleeping in huts in hamlets in this virtually unreachable, remote corner of India at a time when the complex negotiations for the transfer of power were under way! This showed the utmost importance Gandhiji placed on fighting communalism. Nehru on his part rushed to Bihar, and between 4 to 9 November 1946, along with virtually the entire top leadership of the CongressSardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Acharya Kripalani, Jayprakash Narayan, Anugraha Narain Singh and many others toured the affected areas, determined to stop the violence immediately. "One by one, he (Nehru) brandished all the weapons in his armoury, the coercive power of the state, the prestige and ideals of the freedom struggle, the prestige and reverence for Gandhiji, his own personal prestige, and much else" to bring things under control. He put his own life at stake and declared immediately on reaching Bihar:

"I will stand in the way of Hindu-Muslim riots. Members of both the communities will have to tread over my dead body before they can strike at each other."5

By the 8th of November things were under control in Bihar.

3See Mridula Mukherjee, “Jawaharlal Nehru’s Finest Hour: The Struggle for a Secular India”, Studies in People’s History, Vol.1 No. 2, 2014, and Mridula Mukherjee, “Communal Threat and Secular Resistance: From Noakhali to Gujarat” Presidential Address (Modern India), Indian History Congress, Malda, February 2011, for a detailed discussion on how the Indian nationalists led by Nehru and Gandhiji met the communal challenge in this period and what lessons can be learnt from it for the present. This section relies heavily on the above two works.
5Speech at Biharsharif, 4 November 1946, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (hereafter SWJN),

Series 2, Vol.1, 1984, p. 57.

Independence came with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into East Punjab and Delhi and large-scale violence ensued in this region.  On his Independence Day speech from the Ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi on 16th August 1947 he made it clear that communal strife will not be tolerated and that India will be a secular state and not the mirror image of Pakistan, a Hindu state. He declared:

'The first charge of the Government will be to establish and maintain peace and tranquility in the land and to ruthlessly suppress communal strife…. It is wrong to suggest that in this country there would be the rule of particular religion or sect. All who owe allegiance to the flag will enjoy equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of caste and creed."6

The very next day he was in Punjab and in the first few weeks after independence he was more in Punjab than in Delhi. Again, in a broadcast to the nation on the 19th of August 1947, he asserted in no uncertain terms:

"Our state is not a communal state but a democratic state in which every citizen has equal rights. The Government is determined to protect these rights."7

Barely had the communal situation come under control that Mahtama Gandhi was assassinated. Nehru was very clear that "this assassination was not the act of just one individual or even a small group… behind him lay a widespread organisation" and he made it clear that the organisation he was referring to was the RSS.8 In fact he saw it as an effort to change the very nature of the Indian state by seizing power. In his letter to the Chief Ministers on 5 February 1948 he did not mince his words:

"It would appear that a deliberate coup d'etat was planned involving the killing of several persons and the promotion of general disorder to enable the particular group concerned (RSS) to seize power. The conspiracy appears to have been a fairly widespread one, spreading to some of the states."9

It was a threat to the very 'idea of India' as a secular country and Nehru was not about to let it succeed. With the full support of his Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, he banned the RSS and put 25,000 of its activists in jail. Even when the ban on the RSS was removed in July 1949, after it gave written assurances that henceforth it would function only as a cultural organisation and have nothing to do with politics, he warned the chief ministers of the fascist nature of RSS and the threat of their renewing their activities.10

Nehru’s commitment to the secular ideal and his prescient understanding of the grave nature of the threat from the communal fascist forces is evident from the manner in which he converted the first general elections of 1951-52 into a virtual referendum on what was to be the nature of the Indian state. He made the fight against the

6SWJN, Series 2, Volume 4, p.2.
7SWJN, Series 2, Volume 4, p. 9
8Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers (hereafter LCM,) 5 Feb 1948, Vol. 1, p. 56
9Ibid. p.57
10LCM, 20 July 1949 and 1 Aug 1949, Vol. 1, pp. 412-13, 428.

Communal political groups his central objective and campaigned relentlessly for realising the secular vision of the Indian national movement. "He travelled nearly 40,000 kilometers and addressed an estimated thirty-five million people or one-tenth of India's population. The result was that in a peaceful fair election held within years of the holocaust like situation and extreme arousal of communal frenzy, the communal parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, the newly formed Jana Sangh, and the Ram Rajya Parishad won between them only 10 Lok Sabha seats in a house of 489, and polled less than six per cent of the vote." It was a stunning achievement and a fitting tribute to the Indian national movement.

The communal threat was pushed back for decades to come.

It was unfortunately not extinguished.

Building Democracy

For Jawaharlal Nehru, democracy and civil liberties were absolute values, which could not be compromised for any goal however laudable, be it planning, economic development or social justice. This impacted critically on how these other goals were sought to be achieved. "I would not," declared Nehru, "give up the democratic system for anything."12 In this he was reflecting faith in a non-negotiable core of the Indian national movement, democracy and civil liberties, best expressed by Mahatma Gandhi in his inimitable idiom: "Civil liberty consistent with the observance of non-violence … is the foundation of freedom. There is no room there for dilution or compromise. It is the water of life. I have never heard of water being diluted."13

Apart from seeing democracy and civil liberties as essential values in themselves Nehru strongly believed that a country as diverse as India could be held together only by a non-violent, democratic way of life, and not by force or coercion. Only a democratic structure that gave space to various linguistic, religious, cultural, political, and socio-economic trends to express themselves could hold India together. Almost, as if anticipating the danger faced by the nation today, he said:

"This is too large a country with too many legitimate diversities to permit any so-called 'strong man' to trample over people and their ideas."14

He was careful not to allow himself to fall prey to populism or plebiscitary/majoritarian democracy at a time when he, after Gandhiji’s and Patel’s death, towered over the Indian political spectrum and could easily smother opposition to himself and his policies. He correctly saw that the heart of democracy lay in

11 Mridula Mukherjee, see f.n. 3 above.
12 Karanjia, The Philosophy of Mr. Nehru, p.123 quoted in Bipan Chandra, “Jawaharlal Nehru in Historical Perspective” in The Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India from Marx to Gandhi, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2012, p. 136, emphasis mine.
13 Harijan, 24 June 1939, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 69, p. 356, quoted in The Writings of Bipan Chandra, Op.cit., p. 169, emphasis mine.
14 Karanjia, op.cit., p.139, emphasis mine.

respecting difference of opinion, even if it be that of a minority. He said on 2 June 1950, before the first general elections:

"I am not afraid of the opposition in this country and I do not mind if opposition groups grow up on the basis of some theory, practice or constructive theme. I do not want India to be a country in which millions of people say "yes" to one man, I want a strong opposition."15

He consciously nurtured a robust opposition through a free expression of ideas in the press and in other critical institutions of a functional democracy, such as the parliament. The respect he gave to the parliament and parliamentary practice and code of conduct, right up to his death, was legendary and could be an abject lesson to our present parliamentarians. He took great care to institutionalise the cabinet system of government. Not only did he not usurp all powers to himself, he refused to give in to the tendency among many of his colleagues to leave important policy decisions to him. C. D. Deshmukh, who was Finance Minister in Nehru's cabinet from 1950-56, recorded in his autobiography that "Nehru as head of the cabinet was gentle, considerate and democratic, never forcing a decision on his colleagues..."16

Nehru’s respect for difference of opinion and opposition was legendary.  A small anecdote is illustrative.  Dr Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, once recalled at a book release function at his residence his experience as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (1985-87). Perusing through old files belonging to the Nehru period, he found that Nehru was very upset with his officials when he discovered that  his instructions that the draft Plan documents prepared in the 1950s, particularly the Second Plan (which put forth the Nehru–Mahalonobis model) be sent out worldwide for opinion, were followed by the documents being sent essentially to people who were likely to agree with him! Fuming at what he thought was a complete waste of effort, he insisted that they be sent to people like Milton Freidman of the Chicago School who were most unlikely to agree with the Nehruvian perspective.

An even more telling example of Nehru respecting opposition and his conviction that India should not countenance any tendency towards the emergence of a ‘dictator’ or any one ‘strong man’, was a critique he wrote of himself under a pseudonym at a time when he was at the peak of his popularity. It was as if he was warning himself and the Indian people at large against any such tendency emerging in himself and in Indian politics! Elected President of the Indian National Congress for two consecutive years, he wrote an article (using the pseudonym Chanakya) titled ‘Rashtrapati’ or ‘President’ in a popular journal  in October 1937, warning:

“Men like Jawaharlal with all their capacity for great and good work, are unsafe in a democracy…. A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy. He might still use the language and slogan of democracy and socialism, but we all know how fascism has fattened on this language…. He has all the makings of a dictator in him—vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well defined purpose, energy, pride, organisational capacity, ability, hardness and with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and the inefficient…. His over-mastering desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build anew, will hardly brook for long the slow process of democracy…. Caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar?"17

15 Speech at Trivandrum, 2 June, 1950, in The National Herald, 3 June 1950. Cited in S Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, A biography, Vol. 2, 1947-1956, p. 68, emphasis mine.
16 C.D. Deshmukh, The Course of my Life, Delhi, 1974, p. 205
17The article was published in The Modern Review of Calcutta in November 1937 in the name of Chanakya with the title "Rashtrapati", See SWJN, Series 1, Vol. 8, pp. 520-523.

The article further went on to argue that all talk of electing Jawaharlal for a third term should be set aside as it may lead to his thinking of himself as "indispensable, and no man must be allowed to think so." "Let us not spoil him by too much adulation and praise. His conceit is formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars."18

Nehru was warning himself and his people against any compromises with democracy and civil liberties. While he succeeded in great measure in himself sticking scrupulously to the democratic path and in making the democratic path a part of the common sense of the Indian people, the dangers he was alluding to have not lost their salience for India today, half a century after the end of the Nehru era.

Development with Democracy and Sovereignty

If maintenance of sovereignty and democracy with civil liberties were two non-negotiables bequeathed to Independent India by the Indian national movement, then all efforts at post-colonial transformation in India had to occur within these parameters. However never before in history was the process of transition to industrialism or the process of primitive accumulation of capital accomplished along with democracy. The Nehruvian attempt at industrial transformation with democracy was thus a unique attempt. Nehru was deeply conscious of this and often spoke about it being an uncharted path, "unique in history".19

The non-negotiable commitment to democracy meant that the necessary 'surplus' required for investment in order to facilitate the transition to industrialism could not be raised forcibly on the backs of the Indian working class and peasantry or on the basis of colonial surplus appropriation as happened in other countries in the past.20 Nehruvian state intervention and planning was to be consensual and not a command performance. The path of extracting surplus out of agriculture through land tax or forced collectivisation; of forcing surplus out of labour though slavery, indentured labour and in the absence of organised trade union rights or of forcing surplus out of other people through collection of tribute from colonies, was not open to India. While during colonial rule, the Indian peasant often ended up handing over more than half of his gross produce as land tax and rent, after independence a democratic regime based on popular will meant that not only was there no tax, or surplus extraction through other forms from agriculture (on which an overwhelming majority of the Indian people were dependent), but a net transfer of income to agriculture occurred through state subsidies. Also, trade union rights to the working class were guaranteed from the very beginning and were exercised vigorously. Of course, the question of appropriating colonial tribute from other countries did not even arise. In fact, even after Indian independence, Nehru remained a relentless champion of liberation movements against imperialist domination in other parts of the world.

19See e.g., Minutes of the fourth meeting of the National Development Council, New Delhi, 6 May 1955, File No 17(17&/56-PMS in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 28, p.371. See also my "Introduction" in Aditya Mukherjee, ed., A Centenary History of the Indian National Congress, Vol. V, 1964-84, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2011, emphasis mine.
20See Aditya Mukherjee, "Empire: How Colonial India made Modern Britain", Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLV, No 50, 11 December 2010 for a detailed discussion of how colonial surplus appropriation aided the process of primitive accumulation in the West.

Similarly, the non-negotiable commitment to sovereignty meant that the transition to modernity could not be accomplished with foreign aid, foreign capital or foreign intervention in any manner that would make India a junior partner of any advanced country, however powerful it may be. The imperative of maintaining sovereignty was a natural pointer towards non-alignment in the post World War II Cold War situation where the world was divided into two power blocs. The policy of non-alignment in other words was as much a function of the strategy of economic development chosen by India, as it was a product of the Indian national movement’s commitment to world peace and sovereignty of nation states.

Nehru and the early Indian planners had correctly understood that political independence was of little value if it could not be used to acquire first economic and then intellectual independence. At independence, because of the nature of colonialism she was subjected to, India was almost completely dependent on the advanced world for capital goods and technology for making any investment. It produced virtually no capital goods. In 1950, India met nearly 90 per cent of its needs of machines and even machine tools through imports. This meant that despite political independence, it was completely dependent on the advanced countries for achieving any economic growth though investment.

This was a neo-colonial type situation, which needed immediate remedy. And this is what the famous Nehru-Mahalonobis strategy tried to reverse by adopting a heavy industry or capital goods industry based industrialisation. During the first three Five Year plans (1951-65), industry in India grew at 7.1 per cent per annum. This was a far cry from the de-industrialisation process of the 19th century and the slow industrial growth between 1914-47. More important, “the three-fold increase in aggregate index of industrial production between 1951 and 1969 was the result of a 70 per cent increase in consumer goods industries, a quadrupling of the intermediate goods production and a ten-fold increase in the output of capital goods.”21 This pattern of industrial development led to a structural transformation of the colonial legacy. From a situation where, to make any capital investment in India, virtually the entire equipment (90 per cent) had to be imported, the share of imported equipment in the total fixed investment in the form of equipment had come down to 43 per cent in 1960 and a mere 9 per cent in 1974, whereas the value of the fixed investment in India increased by about two and a half times over this period (1960-74).22

21A. Vaidyanathan, “The Indian Economy Since Independence (1947-70)”, in Dharma Kumar, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. II, Delhi, 1983, p. 961, emphasis mine.

This was a major achievement and, as it considerably increased India's autonomy from the advanced countries in determining her own rate of capital accumulation or growth, it created the key condition for non-alignment or relative independence from both the power blocs. In my understanding no amount of diplomatic finesse could achieve and sustain the objective of non-alignment without the economic basis of relative autonomy having been created. It was this un-structuring of the colonial structure which was to later enable India to participate in the globalisation process with considerable advantage to itself.

As India at independence did not have a sufficiently large indigenous private sector to take on the massive task of developing capital goods industries, the only other option was to develop it through the public sector. The option of basing the development of this sector on foreign capital did not arise as the Nehruvian consensus was that sovereignty would be achieved only if its industrial development was primarily built indigenously and was not based on foreign capital. The public sector was clearly seen, by a wide spectrum of opinion, which included the capitalists and the Left, as the alternative to foreign capital domination and not necessarily as an alternative to private enterprise, if it was available.23

While reducing dependence on foreign capital and technology for making indigenous investment was one way of gaining and keeping the country’s sovereignty intact, other strategies were adopted as well. India undertook a deliberate strategy of diversifying its foreign trade so that her dependence on any one country or bloc of countries was reduced. As a result, the geographical concentration index (GCI) of trade with foreign countries declined sharply. GCI of India’s exports declined from 0.69 in 1947 to 0.22 in 1975. There was a similar decline in GCI in the case of imports. Significantly, the result of the declining GCI was that the share of the metropolitan countries of the West, which earlier dominated India’s trade, declined sharply. For example, the share of UK and USA in India’s exports, which was 45 per cent in 1947, fell by more than half and by 1977 it was only 20 per cent.24 This was partly achieved by the increase in India’s trade with the Socialist bloc (which bailed out India at a time when she was extremely short of foreign exchange by allowing barter and Rupee trade) and other under developed countries.

Jawaharlal Nehru was acutely aware of India's backwardness in science and technology, an area deliberately left barren in the colonial period, and therefore made massive efforts to overcome this shortcoming. An unprecedented increase occurred in the educational opportunities in science and technology in the universities and institutes. National expenditure on scientific research and development kept growing rapidly with each plan. For example, it increased from Rs. 10 million in 1949 to Rs. 4.5 billion in 1977. Over roughly the same period, the stock of India's scientific and technical manpower increased more than 12 times from 190 thousand to 2.32 million. A spectacular growth by any standards, a growth whose benefits India reaps today as the world moves towards a ‘knowledge’ society.25 While Nehru’s anticipating the knowledge revolution by focusing on scientific education was to pay rich dividends economically, Nehru had another important objective in mind. He was keen to introduce what he called a “scientific temper” in a society deeply immersed in superstition and obscurantist belief systems. (A task which still needs to be performed as many of our leaders at the highest positions still confuse mythology with history and uphold mythological imagination as scientific achievement.)

22 See Aditya Mukherjee, “Planned Development in India 1947-65: The Nehruvian Legacy”, in Shigeru Akita, ed., South Asia in the 20th Century International Relations, Tokyo, 2000. Also in Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence, Penguin, New Delhi, 25th reprint, 2014ch.25. These figures are from an extremely persuasive piece by Vijay Kelkar, “India and the World Economy: A Search for Self Reliance”, Paper read at Seminar on Jawaharlal Nehru and Planned Development, New Delhi, 1980, reprinted in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 15, No 5/7, February 1980.
23 See Aditya Mukherjee, Imperialism, Nationalism and the Making of the Indian Capitalist Class, Sage, 2002, Chs. 10 and 11.
24 These figures are from Vijay Kelkar, op,cit.
25 See Aditya Mukherjee, “Indian Economy, 1947-65: The Nehruvian Legacy”, in Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence, op. cit.

Another area of concern for the maintenance of India’s sovereignty and ability to stay non-aligned was India’s food security.  Indian agriculture had stagnated and even declined under colonial rule and at independence India was faced with acute food shortage and famine conditions in many areas. 14 million tonnes of food had to be imported between 1946 and 1953. There could be no sovereignty if India was dependent on food aid for its very survival. Indian agriculture needed to be revolutionised and Nehru took up the task on a war footing. It is often wrongly alleged that Nehru ignored agriculture with his focus on industrialisation. He pushed through the extremely difficult task of land reforms within a democratic framework and laid the basis of the ‘Green Revolution’, which made India food surplus in a remarkably short period.26 As Daniel Thorner, one of the keenest observers of Indian agriculture since independence noted:

“It is sometimes said that the (initial) five-year plans neglected agriculture. This charge cannot be taken seriously. The facts are that in India's first twenty one years of independence more has been done to foster change in agriculture and more change has actually taken place than in the preceding two hundred years.”27

People’s Empowerment

Nehru’s success in keeping India on the democratic, civil libertarian path against considerable odds (while most other post-colonial countries faltered on this count), by itself ensured that the poor were not altogether left out of the development process or that their condition was not totally ignored. It is now well recognised that democracy is critical for the survival of the poor. It is democracy in India which has ensured that an inflationary path to growth, which hits the poor hardest, was never adopted. The trend rate of inflation in India since independence had not touched two digits for several decades. No government in India irrespective of their political ideology has been able to ignore the political implications of uncontrolled inflation.

26 See my chapters (29-33) on Land Reform and Green Revolution in Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence, Penguin, New Delhi, 25th reprint, 2014.
27 Daniel Thorner, The Shaping of Modern India, Allied, New Delhi, 1980, p. 245, addition in parenthesis mine.

Also, it is democracy and civil liberties that ensured that no large-scale famine deaths could occur in India since independence, despite some extreme conditions created by climatic shocks, while more than 40 million died in famines in China in the late 1950s and 60s, which the world got to know decades later because of the absence of a free media. Amartya Sen has emphasised the role of civil liberties and a free press in preventing such mass man made disasters. With more than 70,000 newspapers and about 700 satellite channels and with nearly 30 newspapers having a daily readership of more than a million it is not easy to keep famine conditions under cover in India.

While political democracy was understood by Nehru to be a necessary condition for people’s empowerment, it was by no means taken to be sufficient. As he put it in 1952:

“If poverty and low standards continue then democracy, for all its fine institutions and ideals, ceases to be a liberating force. It must therefore aim continuously at the eradication of poverty…. In other words, political democracy is not enough. It must develop into economic democracy also.”28

Nehru was deeply aware that active efforts had to be made and institutional structures created which would enable the mass of the people to achieve a life of dignity. He set up the massive Community Development Programme in 1952 aimed at ameliorating all aspects of people’s lives in the remote villages, from improvement in agricultural methods to communications, education and health. His basic objective through this programme was “to unleash forces from below among our people” by “creat(ing) conditions in which spontaneous growth from below was possible”. The ultimate aim was “progressively producing a measure of equality in opportunity and other things.”29 A veritable army of Village Level Workers  (Gram Sewaks) and Block Development Officers was spread out in the countryside to achieve this task. As a tendency towards bureaucratisation began to emerge in this programme, Nehru tried to integrate it with the Panchayati Raj institutions (elected local self governing bodies) and set up a large programme of cooperatives in banking, marketing and other services benefiting and empowering millions of peasants.30 Emphasising the critical role of local village level self-governing, cooperative institutions Nehru said:

“I feel more and more that we must function more from below than from the top. The top is important of course and in the modern world a large measure of centralisation is inevitable. Yet too much centralisation means decay at the roots and ultimately a withering of the branches and leaves and flowers. Therefore we have to encourage these basic organs in the village.”31

However, the struggle to make these local institutions function in favour of the most deprived was not an easy one in a greatly class, caste and gender divided society. Infact, decades after Nehru passed away, Rajiv Gandhi took the initiative to re-invigorate Panchayati Raj by proposing that elections to these bodies be made mandatory and that the deprived castes, tribes and women be given adequate representation in them, which resulted in the 73rd and 74th amendments in the Indian Constitution in 1993. The process of trying to empower the poor and disadvantaged is still carrying on as it must in the future, but the foundation was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru.

28 LCM, 16 June 1952, Vol. 3, p.18.
29 Jawaharlal Nehru, Speeches, 5 Volumes, Volume 2, pp. 50-56.
30 See my chapter on Cooperatives and an Overview of land reforms in Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence, op.cit.
31 LCM, 5 July 1952, Vol. 3, pp. 38-39, emphasis mine.

Nehru was deeply influenced by Marxism since the late 1920s. His contribution in embedding and then making widely acceptable the socialist ideal of empowering the poor, among the Indian people was immense.  The fact that not only the Communists and Socialists but an overwhelming majority of nationalist opinion in India since the late 1930s accepted socialism as an objective was to a great extent because of Nehru.  (So deeply did this idea get rooted among the Indian people as a whole that as late as 1980 when the decidedly right-wing Jan Sangh, which had nothing to do with socialism or the national movement, was reborn in its new avatar as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) it chose to declare its creed as ‘Gandhian Socialism’!

Nehru was able to give the socialist ideal such wide acceptability in India partly because he made a very early break from a narrow, sectarian and rigid interpretation of Marxism which India’s leading historian of the modern and contemporary period, Bipan Chandra, called “Stalin-Marxism”.32 Nehru was among the first in the world to make this break from Stalin-Marxism. Roughly at the same time as the famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Nehru, in the late 1930s, was groping for a strategy of social transformation in a democratic or semi-democratic framework, which was different from the insurrectionary and violent Bolshevik model that was not suitable for such situations.  Nehru was fortunate in being witness to and part of the Gandhian struggle for freedom which was till then and perhaps remains till today “the only actual historical example of a semi-democratic or democratic-type state structure being replaced or transformed, of the broadly Gramscian theoretical perspective of a war of position being successfully practiced.” The fact that Gramsci saw this “as the only possible strategy” for social transformation “in the developed countries of the west” underlines the huge significance of the Gandhian  movement to the world as whole.33

Learning from the practice of the Gandhian movement made it easier for Nehru to break from the Stalin-Marxist paradigm and argue somewhat precociously that, while there could be no true democracy without socialism, there could be no socialism without democracy. He insisted that civil liberty and democracy had to be basic parts of socialism. The socialist transformation required societal consensus, the consent of the overwhelming majority of the people. It could not be a minority revolution led by a band of highly committed revolutionaries, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It was also not enough just to have a majority. To succeed, it had to be a socialism acceptable by all sections, by an overwhelming majority. Nehru was anticipating what later events were to validate and what was to be slowly accepted globally by increasing sections of the left.

32 Bipan Chandra, “Jawaharlal Nehru in Historical Perspective” in The Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India from Marx to Gandhi, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2012 for a brilliant analysis of Nehru, particularly the nature of his vision of ‘socialism’ and social transformation. Much of what I argue in this section borrows heavily from this and other articles in the book
33 Ibid.

By the late 1930s, Nehru began to veer towards the position that Socialism could not be brought about by coercion or force. How can you arrive at a consensus by force? He argued that to achieve the desirable end of socialist transformation one should not adopt the means of hatred and violence, and that a socialistic pattern of society could be achieved through non-violent and peaceful means. Fully in tune with the Gandhian notion that wrong means could not achieve right ends he declared:

“There is always a close and intimate relationship between the end we aim at and the means adopted to attain it. Even if the end is right and the means are wrong, it will vitiate the end or divert us in a wrong direction.” 34

Also, arriving at a socialist consensus would mean that one would have to view it as a process and not an event arrived at in a ‘revolutionary moment.’  This would have to be a long drawn out process with its ups and downs, a process which may have to at times slow down, moderate or tone down its immediate goals, in order to carry the bulk of the people along, including those who held opposing positions. Nehru writing from prison as early as the 1940s described his understanding of how the National Planning Committee (NPC), set up by the Congress in 1938, should move in a socialist direction:

“…it became clear to me that our plan (NPC) …was inevitably leading us towards establishing some of the fundamentals of the socialist structure. It was limiting the acquisitive factor in society…It was based on planning for the benefit of the common man, raising his standards greatly, giving him opportunities of growth…. And all this was to be attempted in the context of democratic freedom and with a large measure of cooperation of some at least of the groups who were normally opposed to the socialist doctrine. That cooperation seemed to me worthwhile even if it involved toning down or weakening of the plan in some respects.” 35

Evident here is the notion of taking steps in the socialist direction (rather than establishing of socialism by the immediate overthrow of the existing structure) and of doing so within the democratic framework, accepting the logic of adopting such a framework by taking steps, including partial compromises, which made it possible to carry along a wide section of society.

Nehru was to retain throughout his life this nuanced persuasive style of functioning while remaining resolute in his goals, which brought him the support, love and admirations of the millions in a manner which was surpassed only by Gandhiji. And as a true disciple of the master, while appealing to all sections of society, he succeeded in keeping his gaze focused on the poor, the oppressed and the disadvantaged. His great achievement was that he got a very large part of Indian society, individuals and institutions, to share his socialist vision. In the Nehruvian period, from the planning commission and the public sector bureaucracy to the media and popular films, the socialist objective was seen as a desirable one, not defined in any narrow fundamentalist way but as Nehru broadly outlined it.

34Jawaharlal Nehru,  Speeches,  Vol. 2, p. 392 quoted in Writings of Bipan Chandra…op. cit.
35Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Asia, 1961, p. 400, emphasis mine.

Half a century after his death, with infinitely higher economic capacity to empower the poor, when we falter on this count, we realise how important it is to remember Nehru’s legacy.


Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the foremost torchbearers of our liberation struggle, not only kept the glow of this glorious movement alive after independence but was instrumental in embedding the basic ideas and objectives of that movement in the society and in the institutions of the newborn state. His role in setting India firmly on the path of modern, secular, democratic, humane and pro-poor development against incredible odds was immense.

Yet today, half a century after his death, that legacy stands seriously challenged. And that challenge is not coming from a ‘backward’, ‘traditional’ people but from their leaders and the state machinery. The modern scientific temper is challenged with obscurantist beliefs drawn from mythology by political parties in government who force it on school children; the secular fabric so carefully and painstakingly woven is beginning to fray with the collusion of state power; in the euphoria over unprecedented growth, the hard-earned rights (to employment, education, information, etc.) won by prolonged people’s movements are sought to be reversed by the state; the very dangers to democracy by concentrating power in the hands of individuals that Nehru had warned against seem to loom large. It is as if the political leaders have reversed their roles. From that of pulling up society and bringing it in line with the highest global civilisational values, a role performed by the leaders of the Indian national movement and those who were inspired by its values, to that of pushing society back by appealing to sectarian identities acquisitive instincts and traditional prejudices. The hegemonic ‘Idea of India’, the ‘common sense’ of the Indian people created by the Indian national movement is sought to be challenged.

In meeting this challenge, Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy, embodying the values and principles of democratic and secular inclusion, and empowerment of the people, particularly of the poor, will continue to guide and empower and inspire.

Prof. Aditya Mukherjee
Professor of Contemporary History
Centre for Historical Studies
Dean, School of Social Sciences,
Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi- 110067
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