Narendra Modi: the first anti-Nehruvian Prime Minister

Some men, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, are born posthumously. But some men also die posthumously: Jawaharlal Nehru belongs to this category. Biologically, he died on 27 May 1964, at the age of 74.

But it was almost exactly half a century later that the system that he established died—on May 16, 2014, the day India came to know about Narendra Modi’s victory in the general election.

Before Independence, there were many leaders in the Congress, some of whom were bigger than Jawaharlal Nehru in popularity, accomplishment, and stature. After Independence however, it was Nehru all the way. Mahatma Gandhi died in 1948 and Sardar Patel in 1950. His contemporaries and equals eventually faded away, including those (e.g., C. Rajagopalachari) who became his ideological and political opponents. The Nehru juggernaut continued to gather heft and momentum even after his death and despite huge and various failings.

The genesis of most political and economic problems India faces today can be traced to Jawaharlal Nehru. This is not to say that he was a bad man: he was a scholar with varied interests and wide sympathies; he was an accomplished writer; as a politician, he was neither tyrannical nor venal—traits so common among successful leaders in Third World countries in the second half of the twentieth century, and almost universal in our country today. He was an intellectual who succeeded in politics. That was his biggest problem. It also became the nation’s biggest problem.

Nehru: A quintessential intellectual

The reason is not difficult to find. For most people, seeing is believing; for an intellectual, it is the other way around. An intellectual downplays the importance of empirical evidence and wants to change the world relying solely, or primarily, on intellect. Once wedded to a certain kind of thinking, the intellectual remains faithful to it, even when incongruities in the thought become evident. And, as Sartre said, there cannot be an intellectual “without his being Leftwing.” Nehru certainly was Leftwing, as is evident from his various writings and the policies that he imposed on the nation as its first Prime Minister.

In his article, ‘Swaraj and Socialism’ (1928), he wrote: “Capitalism necessarily leads to exploitation of one man by another, one group by another, and one country by another. If, therefore, we are opposed to this [British] imperialism and exploitation, we must also be opposed to capitalism. The only alternative that is offered to us is some form of socialism.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. For, as authors like Ayn Rand have pointed out, capitalism is the only system known to mankind that is free of exploitation. It allows the full unfolding of the human potential. Socialism, on the other hand, leads to the subjugation of the individual’s life and liberty to the state. Unsurprisingly, while capitalism has created the richest and freest societies in the world, socialism has produced labor camps, unprecedented purges, millions of deaths, subdued economic growth and development, and many a reign of terror.

Yet, socialists and communists have been quite successful in selling their lie that “capitalism necessarily leads to exploitation.” They succeeded because they relentlessly indulged in guilt-mongering and argumentum ad hominem (when the arguer rather than the argument is attacked. For instance, they don’t provide arguments to counter an economist favoring market economy; they would just call him a stooge of India Inc, multinationals, the World Bank, etc). Few thinkers and writers have garnered the courage to expose communist mendacity; in fact, intellectuals have generally peddled this lie; Nehru was among them.

Three pillars of Nehruvian system

The fact that he also happened to be the Prime Minister meant that he was in a position to execute his ideas. He bestrode the nation like a colossus. He thrust socialism along with secularism and non-alignment—the three pillars of the Nehruvian system—upon the nation.

Nehru ensured that Parliament adopted  a resolution (December 1954) which contained the clauses: the objective of economic policy should be a Socialistic Pattern of Society. Towards this end the tempo of economic activity in general and industrial development in particular should be stepped up to the maximum possible extent. His government began a huge intervention in the economy, set up public sector undertakings, tangled entrepreneurs in a maze of regulation, and generally discouraged private enterprise. He once told J.R.D. Tata, “Never talk to me about the word profit; it is a dirty word.

Non-alignment was also promoted with a similar obstinacy. Predilection for anti-imperialism claptrap and Gandhian sentimentalism eclipsed the national interest. His alter ego, V.K. Krishna Menon had a baneful influence on foreign policy and defence matters.

Not much dissimilarly, Nehruvian secularism acquired a doctrinaire trajectory. Instead of focusing on the conventional meaning of separation of state and religion, it evolved into a doctrine that was suited to appease Muslims and diametrically opposed to Hindu nationalism, which was indistinguishable from Indian nationalism in the pre-Independence era–leaders like Lokmanya Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Sardar Patel were Hindu nationalists. A large number of communists and fellow travelers were encouraged to malign Hindu nationalism. Meanwhile Hindu nationalists had also scored a self-goal by murdering Mahatma Gandhi.

Failure of the Nehruvian Pillars

It is interesting to note that the failings of Nehru’s policies had become evident by the mid-1960s, many during his lifetime. According to the Planning Commission document for the Fourth Five Year Plan (1967-72), “Per capita real income in 1965-66 was about the same as it was in 1960-61.” Further, “the slow rate of growth in agricultural production not only depressed the rate of growth of the economy but also led to an alarming increase in the dependence on imports of food-grains and other agricultural commodities. During the Third Plan [1962-67] the country imported 25 million lonnes of rood-grains, 3.9 million bales of cotton and 1.5 million bales of jute.”

During the subsequent three years, too, the imports continued to be heavy. Despite increased imports of food-grains, per capita availability was lower than the 1961 level, and there was severe pressure on prices. After 1962-63, the rise in wholesale prices was sharp, as per the Planning Commission. “A growing trade deficit and mounting debt obligations characterized the situation.”

Ruinous economic polices

In short, Nehruvian socialism had ruined the economy. His dreamy foreign policy, premised on the notions that the West was bad and socialist nations were the torchbearers of freedom proved to be as disastrous as his defence policy was.

1962 was the denouement. The recently leaked Henderson Brooks Report—kept under wraps by successive governments, including that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee for half a century—made it clear that more than the Chinese ‘betrayal’ it was Nehru’s policies that led to the debacle and the humiliation.

The humiliation went beyond the mismanagement of foreign affairs and national defence. After Nehru’s death, wrote Inder Malhotra (The Indian Express, June 10, 2013), “India literally almost lived from ship-to-mouth, and those of us who lived through that era swallowed a measure of humiliation with every morsel of American food.”

The farm sector was in a mess because of socialist policies. Worse, our food-grain supplies from the US were jeopardized because of the pro-Soviet non-alignment in general and Krishna Menon’s rabid anti-Americanism in particular. US President Lyndon B. Johnson was so incensed that he stopped the supply of wheat to India. “Sensitive Americans were as appalled as Indians by Johnson’s handling of food supplies to India and appealed to him to show some compassion, but to no avail,” wrote Malhotra. But here’s something worse:

“Chester Bowles, then US ambassador to India, ventured to point out to his president that what Indira Gandhi was saying was no different from what the UN secretary-general, U. Thant, and the Pope were also saying. The irascible Texan in the White House growled at him: U. Thant and the Pope don’t want our wheat.”

Another negative of the Nehru regime was the First Amendment to the Constitution which curtailed both the freedom of expression and the Fundamental Right to Property, thus undermining the two essential principles of a liberal democracy. This was the original sin of the Nehruvian dispensation, leading to further corrosion of individual liberty and the abrogation the Fundamental Right to Property.

Statism: Fatal flaw

This is not to suggest that Nehru was the personification of evil, or that he didn’t do anything good for India. He had a modern, liberal mind; he favored a rationalist, scientific approach and wanted to promote scientific temperament in the country. He set out his vision of modern India by building dams, establishing heavy industry, laying down the foundations of higher education like the Indian Institutes of Technology and Management, and so on. The fatal flaw in his vision, however, was the overbearing statist element.

So, on the whole, Nehru proved to be a comprehensive failure. This became evident in the mid-1960s. Even during his lifetime, many drawbacks had surfaced. The question is: why did it take so long for the demise of the system he espoused and built with great zeal? The answer is simple, though astounding: a very large section of the intellectual class had imbibed the quixotic ideas and ideals of Nehru and this class acquired a life of its own. As professors, academicians, authors, litterateurs and literary pundits, art and cinema critics, editors, etc, they were not only opinion makers but the opinion makers of opinion makers.

It needs to be mentioned here that no politician can escape the climate of opinion. It is very difficult for him to, say, open up the economy if the universally accepted canon of public discourse says that liberalization and globalization are anti-poor; nor can he improve ties with America if this is dubbed as becoming a lackey of ‘neo-imperialists.’ Intellectuals ensured that the public discourse continued to be in a Left-liberal, Nehruvian type of idiom.

Whenever they saw any slackness on the part of the political class in acquiescing to the dogmas of Nehruvian ideology, intellectuals ganged up and denounced any move that they thought was heretic. For instance, when Indira Gandhi warmed up to the gestures of President Johnson, they slammed her for abandoning her father’s legacy. When she visited America, Inder Malhotra, (The Indian Express, May 13, 2013) wrote, the “welcome to Indira Gandhi was so spectacular as to exceed all expectations. The media hype, orchestrated by the White House well before her arrival, was itself unprecedented. It was excelled, however, by President Lyndon Johnson’s gushing praise for this ‘proud, able, gracious lady’.”

To an extent, according to Malhotra, Johnson was responding with true Texan warmth to Gandhi’s charm and candor.

“But his exuberance had a wider purpose too. He knew how desperate India’s need for food and economic aid was. As he was to announce, in due course, that he had already made up his mind to offer this country three million tonnes of wheat under the US Public Law 480. About economic aid, he was confident that through the World Bank-sponsored Aid India Club, it would be possible to provide India with nearly $900 million a year, with the US contributing almost half the amount. In return, his main expectation was that India would tone down its policy on the Vietnam War, which was dear to his heart but had started evoking strong criticism not only across the world, but also in his own country.”

Shenanigans of fellow travelers

While Indira’s two top advisors, L.K. Jha, her secretary, and B.K. Nehru, the Indian ambassador, strongly urged her to tell her host that India “shared America’s agony over Vietnam,” the Left-leaning P.N. Haksar, though junior in rank (though he later became her most powerful and influential advisor), was against such expression of bonhomie. He prevailed over his seniors, so India merely “understood” America’s agony over Vietnam. Back at home, her desire to have better relations with the world’s mightiest country was scoffed at vehemently by prominent intellectuals. This was the time when Indo-US ties began souring and a time came when Johnson felt no qualms if Indians starved.

While the machinations of Left-leaning intellectuals caused enormous damage to our country, their clout increased in political and policy circles. Increasingly, they came closer to the Congress. A concomitant development was that the grand old party gradually came to stick around only the descendants of Nehru. The Dynasty came to be identified with the Nehruvian legacy and consensus. Unsurprisingly, many intellectuals became Nehru family retainers.

Challenges to the Nehruvian Legacy

After Nehru, the Nehruvian consensus faced two major challenges—in 1991, when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao liberalized the economy, and in 1998, when the Bharatiya Janata Party under Atal Bihari Vajpayee began its six-year tenure. But Rao’s attack against socialism was not philosophical or ideological; it was explained in terms of efficiency rather than principles.

His finance minister, Manmohan Singh made it appear like a continuity of the Nehruvian project. In his historic 1991-92 Budget speech, Singh said,

“Thanks to the efforts of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi, we have developed a well diversified industrial structure. This constitutes a great asset as we begin to implement various structural reforms. However, barriers to entry and limits on growth in the size of firms, have often led to a proliferation of licensing and an increase in the degree of monopoly. This has put shackles on segments of Indian industry…”

Nothing was wrong with Nehruvian socialism; there were just a few glitches that needed attention. Or so we were told.

In other words, Rao did away with some of the worst features of Nehruvian socialism. He did discard it. Nehruvian socialism was wounded, but not mortally.

Prime Minister Vajpayee, though he came from a party ideologically opposed to Nehru, did little to accomplish a radical breach from the past. In a recent article, Mani Shankar Aiyar rightly called Vajpayee “the last Nehruvian.”

The Nehruvian consensus, however, was exposed to the vulnerabilities arising out of the economic, political, and social changes between the late 1980s and 2004. The reforms continued unabated even after Rao demitted office in 1996. Later regimes continued with liberalization; this was despite the fact that the Communist Party of India was part of two governments during 1996-98. The BJP, which ruled for six years (1998-2004), carried forward the reforms agenda, notwithstanding its Swadeshi rhetoric.

Economic Reforms and Tumultuous Events

Such tumultuous events had left the Indian communists and their fellow travelers ideologically shattered and psychologically battered. The fall of the Berlin Wall and later of the Soviet Union, unraveling of Moscow’s client states in the Eastern Bloc, China’s embrace of capitalism in all but name—these events disoriented pinkish intellectuals. They could not pose a big challenge to Narasimha Rao when he opened up the economy. Not that they did not try, but they were too demoralized and badly discredited in the public eye to check the economic reforms Rao authored.

Economic reforms brought unprecedented prosperity, and it was not confined to the rich and middle class; according to official data, the percentage of people below poverty line came down from 36 to 26 between 1993-94 and 1999-2000 (Of course, these and other figures of poverty reduction are religiously challenged by Leftwing experts, but then these experts are often wrong, though never in doubt, as we shall see).

All the Leftist predictions about the ill-effects of economic reforms proved to be wrong. They said that Indian companies will be crushed or eaten up by multinational corporations (MNCs); actually many domestic corporations themselves became MNCs. Professional revolutionaries said that ‘cut-throat competition’ will spell doom for the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs); but the MSME sector grew very fast after liberalization; its growth rate was usually more than the index of industrial production. It was claimed that the rich would become richer and the poor, poorer; the rich did become richer but the poor also gained from all-around growth and development. The Left’s apocalyptic assertions and weird theories consistently proved to be wrong, but there was no let-up in the creation of outlandishness.

The Left’s tenacity was matched only by the complacency of Big Business and the political class. In the early 2000s, it was frequently said at business conferences and other public forums that ‘reforms have become irreversible.’ The rants of the Left were tolerated as the fulminations of outdated radicals.

Many relics of the past, like public sector undertakings (PSUs) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), were viewed as dinosaurs that would slowly but surely become extinct. Administration, the law and order situation, judicial processes, police functioning, national security, etc, were expected to improve gradually. Or so the productive sections of society, the middle class, and the responsible politicians thought.

Lutyen’s Delhi as Jurassic Park

But 2004 witnessed Lutyen’s Delhi transform into Jurassic Park, with red and pink tyrannosauruses trampling economic reforms, creating mechanisms to strangulate business, devising ways to augment public (read wasteful) expenditure, weakening the fight against Maoist and jihadist terror, and playing havoc with diplomacy.

However, owing to the 13 years of reforms, the economy had acquired a certain resilience which not only withstood the depredations of the communists (who supported the UPA regime from outside during 2004-08) and the National Advisory Council (NAC) but grew at a fast pace for the first four years. It needs to be mentioned that the NAC, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, comprised professional radicals, green lobbyists, bleeding hearts, and some downright Luddites. What made them really dangerous was the fact that they were Sonia’s handpicked advisers to shape public policy and she was the de facto ruler of India.

Most of the time during UPA I, the communists and NAC fanatics planted landmines in the economy. Over the years, many have tripped on the landmines. The food security legislation is one such landmine that has the potential to play havoc with the economy in the next few years. Sonia Gandhi’s rights and entitlements-based ideology also meant almost total neglect of governance, fiscal prudence, investment climate, internal security, and national defence. Murphy’s Law was at work: everything that could have gone wrong did.

The Rise of Narendra Modi, the first anti-Nehruvian Prime Minister

Narendra Modi’s impressive rise should be viewed against this backdrop. Contrasting this with the rise of Ronald Reagan would be instructive. While the conservative revolution embodied in the popular American President was preceded by an intellectual revolution of at least two decades preceding it, there no comparable intellectual groundswell in favor of Narendra Modi. In fact, he was hauled over the coals by academics, editors, political commentators, and other experts over one issue or the other. It was the complete breakdown of the Nehruvian consensus, rather than any intellectual efflorescence, that helped Modi emerge as the undisputed leader of the nation. In the ultimate analysis, the UPA proved to be the swan song of the Nehruvian consensus, the last cry of a discredited system.

Narendra Modi is the first truly anti-Nehruvian Prime Minister. He is the only politician who has passionately castigated the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty for all that it stood for. In the run-up to the Assembly elections in five states last year, Modi said at an election rally,

“I request political pundits to get the speeches of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi and also of Sonia and Rahul and I bet that you will find that 80 out of 100 things they speak about poverty have remained the same.”

He went on to flay the policies of the Dynasty by saying that they “have talked about poverty all the time and even today, they are doing the same thing, which proves that they are unsuccessful and won’t be able to run the country.”

That said, Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge is to ensure that the last rites of the Nehruvian system are carried out properly so that its ghost does not come back to haunt him or the nation. The anti-Nehruvian PM has to make India post-Nehruvian.