As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, Indians will see this as an occasion to recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s immortal speech, “A Tryst with Destiny”, delivered on the night of August 14, 1947, and its haunting poetic expressions — “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India awakes to life and freedom.” For most, that speech and the man who spoke those words symbolised the spirit of a new nation just born. For them, some of the recent attempts to undermine Nehru’s place in history may seem like a minor distraction.
Vision of a modern nation
Nehru’s luminous legacy is deeply laid in India’s growth story since Independence. In May this year, when the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) launched India’s largest public issue and collected ₹21,000 crore from the market, the nation was aware that this was a Nehruvian institution established in the early years of independent India. Equally, when we look at the celebrated names of global CEOs and corporate leaders, we can recognise many of them as Nehru’s ‘children’, as they were educated at the iconic Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM).
In 1947, Nehru, as Prime Minister, inherited an India that was politically shattered, socially divided and emotionally devastated. Yet, with restraint and self-confidence, he steered the country through those turbulent times and laid out the vision of a modern, progressive nation that quietly earned the respect of the global community.
Ideas and institutions
Nehru’s vision of India was anchored in a set of ideas such as democracy, secularism, inclusive economic growth, free press and non-alignment in international affairs and also in institutions that would lay the foundation for India’s future growth. These institutions touched every kind of economic activity, ranging from agriculture to aviation and space research. An agnostic Nehru described them as “the temples of modern India”. There were around 75 of these institutions including the Bhakra-Nangal dam, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the LIC, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Indian Oil Corporation, the National Library of India and the National Institute of Design. Nehru saw them occupying the commanding heights of a stable, self-sustaining economy with people’s welfare as their central mission. Nehru’s inclusive vision ensured that these institutions spanned the entire social spectrum. When the IITs were planned, Nehru also established a network of Kendriya Vidyalayas. Along with large projects in steel and petroleum, Nehru saw the importance of promoting small and cottage industries and set up the Khadi and Village Industries Commission. When Bhilai, Durgapur and Rourkela were taking shape as functional townships, the Prime Minister also felt the need for a well-designed, modern city and thus was born Chandigarh. Chandigarh was perhaps India’s first ‘smart city’ when that term was not yet fashionable.
Two of these institutions deserve special mention: the Election Commission of India and the Planning Commission. They relate to the fundamentals of the Nehruvian vision: the triumph of democracy along with development. Nehru’s institutions flourished under the management of a group of accomplished persons who shared his idealism and his vision of a modern India. These were people of stature and high learning. They were technocrats, scientists and professionals with impressive records of past achievements. They included Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, P.C. Mahalanobis, Verghese Kurien, S.S. Bhatnagar, S.Bhagavantam and C.D. Deshmukh. Each of them steered the fortunes of the project under them with high professional standards, laying down benchmarks for the performance of the project and identifying second layers of leadership for the project’s future growth. Many of these institutions, over the years, rose to global standards. Indian Oil became the first Indian company to be listed in the Fortune 100, in 2014. Amul emerged as the country’s best known consumer brand and India became the largest milk-producer in the world.
Shifts in the economy
Prime Minister Nehru’s 17-year rule set the stage for momentum in the Indian economy and his management model became a template for many succeeding Prime Ministers. This was a period which saw seismic shifts in the Indian economy. The Green Revolution which transformed India from a basket case to a grain-exporting nation, the telephone revolution that changed the telephone from being a symbol of elite lifestyle to mass ownership, and the digital revolution which turned India into a global technology hub all played out one after another. And then came the momentous reforms in 1991 under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao which transformed the economy into an open, liberal and largely market-driven regime.
The success of these missions owed a great deal to the Nehruvian model, with several scientists and technocrats playing a central role in these accomplishments, such as M.S. Swaminathan, Sam Pitroda, Dr. Manmohan Singh and Nandan Nilekani. Collectively, these shifts have lifted over 300 million Indians above the poverty line and heralded the arrival of a modern, diversified globally connected economy with a significant digital component.
Now, well into the third decade of the 21st century, India is widely recognised as the fastest-growing large economy of the world. It is an incredible transformation in scale and depth to unfold in 75 years. It all began with one man’s dream and the many shrines of growth and development that he built. Their enduring impact reaffirms Nehru’s place in history. Among the political leaders of the newly independent nations of the 20th century, Nehru stands out as a unique personality who combined intellectual stature with mass popularity. The Economist in a widely-read obituary titled “World Without Nehru”, on May 30, 1964, observed, “Throughout the long years of his premiership, he retained his magical grip on the great masses of people.” That equation, which an Indian Prime Minister had with his people, remains unequalled and untested till now.
C. Sarat Chandran is Senior Fellow, London School of Economics