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Updated: July 26, 2011 11:03 IST

Nehru's vision of a new India

Suranjan Das
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This selection provides a new entry point for understanding Jawaharlal Nehru's responses to multiple challenges of nation-building during April-June 1958. The writings and speeches of India's first Prime Minister — judiciously selected and thematically arranged in 11 sections by Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee — recreate his thoughts on a “daring and new India.”

Nehru advocated state-sponsored industrialisation, increasing the “wealth-producing capacity” and using atomic energy for civilian use. But he realised that for industrialisation to be viable it needed a supportive agrarian economy and a small-scale industrial base. His ideas on town planning — going beyond roads and parks to education, recreation, employment and business — were remarkably modern. Slums distressed him; he visualised a symbiotic relationship between the city and the village. Criticising society's acquisitive tendencies, he endorsed the state's role in curbing them. He proposed that every village should have a panchayat, a cooperative society, and a school.

Governor's role

Nehru anticipated the ills to which governance is vulnerable: corruption, administrative delays, and collusive links between the unscrupulous officials and the people. For him, civil service neutrality was a fiction, although he encouraged bureaucrats to cultivate objective and detached thinking. He wanted State Governors to play their part strictly within the Constitutional framework and not perceive themselves to be a “superior class.”

Nehru wanted the administration to be freed of such feudal hangovers as chaprasis and ‘peons'. He was quite amused that a government official “wants a chauffeur, the chauffeur wants an assistant chauffeur and that fellow wants a cleaner.” For him, solution to the refugee problem lay in rehabilitation and resettlement, not in handing out doles. He disapproved of the word dalit because he believed it “stigmatised” the individual, and he was all for affirmative action.

If “democratic socialism” formed the ideological core of Nehruvian political economy, what he envisaged was a welfare state based on people's consent, bereft of dogma and violence, and strongly grounded in ethical values. His thoughts on planning, community development, decentralisation, employment, public health, family planning, secularism, and equal opportunities collectively bring out the “egalitarian India” he envisioned.

On communism

Nehru celebrated India's linguistic and cultural pluralism, but warned: “The moment you place a language in opposition to another language, you do injury to it.” Assuming that out of differences “truth sometimes emerges,” he valued any constructive criticism by the Opposition. That people who were quick to make demands often ignored their duties and obligations worried him. Nehru's opposition to communism never flagged, and the correspondence between him and the first Communist Chief Minister Namboodiripad is of great academic interest and value.

Nehru was a staunch advocate of state support for quality education. The dialectics of few “first-rate institutions” and a plethora of “institutions without ‘any education'” disturbed him. He wrote of academic freedom and supported foreign academic collaboration. At the same time, he was pained that many of the foreign experts were “second-rate stuff” but, ironically, paid more than their much-abler Indian counterparts. He suggested more effective deployment of Indians trained abroad through special recruitment channels, if necessary.

Besides encouraging studies on our flora and fauna, Nehru impressed on the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to support indigenous scientists like Boshi Sen, who is credited with producing hybrid maize and irradiated wheat mutant. He oversaw the publication of Gandhiji's collected works and evinced interest in Visva Bharati. He reposed immense faith in the youth's capability to make India “a country of quality.”

Being a firm believer in the principle of non-alignment, Nehru was naturally shocked by the Graham Report on Kashmir that suggested third party intervention. Emphasising that the country's defence depended more on its morale than on weapons, he made out a case for resolving contentious issues between India and Pakistan, particularly those related to mutually beneficial development projects, in a spirit of cooperation.

The speeches Nehru delivered in Parliament provide a brilliant analysis and evaluation of the contemporary developments across the world — from Sri Lanka's Tamil question to foreign intervention in Indonesia, anti-colonial struggles in Vietnam and Algeria, de-Stalinisation, to Nepal. He welcomed the Soviet suspension of nuclear tests, but condemned Moscow's intervention in Hungary. He was firmly against India intervening in disputes between other countries, except with the consent of the disputants. When Yugoslav President Tito sent a goodwill message to the Communist Part of India, Nehru did not like it.

Strengthening Congress

Amidst all his Prime Ministerial preoccupations, Nehru was alive to the task of strengthening the Congress ‘anchor'. In a strong condemnation of factionalism, he reminded his party colleagues: “If the spirit with which the Congress was built and nourished is absent, the Congress would cease to be the type of national party it now is.” Advising them not to be unnerved by occasional electoral reverses, he exhorted them to “stand firm by our basic ideals.”

The volume has a well-prepared Glossary and Index. An appendix containing the biographical sketches of leading individuals figuring in it would have been useful. The cartoons from Shankar's Weekly are a value addition. Why is it that much of Nehru's vision remains largely unrealised in the making of modern India? Those who venture into seeking an answer to this nagging question will find the present collection an important source-material. Perhaps, it could have been touched upon in the editorial note.

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