From the archives | Comment

Nehru’s economic philosophy

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a public meeting at Fowles Compound in Salem on October 03, 1955.   | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

To one who was so intimate with the masses as Jawaharlal Nehru was, his economic philosophy could not but be intensely human, a living thing of the present, and practical. In the ultimate analysis. the central point and goal of all economic philosophy is the elimination of poverty and want, and Nehru's was no different. Gandhiji had already focussed attention on poverty with his famous symbolism of the "Daridra Narayana". Nehru brought to bear on this central problem his modern mind and its scientific temper. Scientific socialism, tempered by his intense humanism, thus became his intellectual tool. He was a practical idealist, and that is not mutually contradictory.

Fabian influence

In his youth,. Nehru was drawn to British socialist ideas, at a time when, under the banner of the Fabian Society, Shaw Wells and the Webbs were preaching socialisation of essential services and basic industries within the framework of parliamentary government as the best means of eliminating poverty and ensuring work for all. But it was really his study of Marxism and of the Communist experiment in Russia that sharpened his interest in the possibilities of socialism for economic development and social equality. It is said that most admirers of Karl Marx have not read his "Capital", but Nehru was not in this category. At a Press conference some years ago, when questions turned on communism, he asked his audience If they had read the Marxist classic. None had the temerity to say yes, whereupon Nehru said that he had read it. When with his father he visited Russia, he was impressed (but not his father) by what Russia was doing to transform the society. But quite early in this period, he was appalled by the violence of communism, although he believed that capitalism also could be violent. He was deeply affected by the spectacle of the coal strike in England in 1926. The violence of capitalism was, however, of a different kind and there were social remedies for it. It was oppression rather than violence.

Independence first

Intellectually, Nehru came gradually to equate socialism with economic development. The Great Depression of the 1930's convinced him that uninterrupted economic progress was not possible under capitalism. He contrasted the slump in the West with the striking increase in production that Russia was making at the time through her newly-launched five-year plans. While this impression remained in the intellectual plane, when he plunged into Congress politics in India, Nehru found a different situation to which he had to adapt his socialistic ideas.

Attitude towards capitalism

British exploitation of the Indian economy was obvious and Nehru's views on it were broadly in line with those of nationalist economists like Dadabhoy Naoroji. Ranade and Gokhale. But he carefully refrained from supporting Indian capitalism or justifying its role in Indian economic development. He did not seem to accept that capitalism was necessary for the economic development of India. He fell in line with the prevailing climate of opinion that national independence was the first issue and the best means of achieving economic independence would be determined later. With this, he always kept in the back of his mind his faith in socialism.

On the economic side, his crusade within the national movement was directed against feudal property relationships in land. He carried on a relentless campaign against landlordism in his home province. The belief that there could really be no egalitarian society in a predominantly agricultural country like India until all feudal vestiges in land were eliminated survived with him to the last.

Non-acceptance of Gandhiji’s ideas

Wedded to scientific rather than a vaguely humanitarian socialism, as he was, Gandhiji's economic ideas did not make much impact on Mr. Nehru. Gandhiji's opposition to modern industry and his qualified approval of voluntary poverty could not possibly appeal to one who believed in higher living standards to be attained by the application of modern science and technology to modern means of production. He also rejected Gandhiji's theory that the rich are the trustees of the poor. Nehru's formal education was in the natural sciences. In the social sciences, he was a self-educated man. This amalgam produced the scientific-humanist temper which characterised Nehru's economic philosophy. Recently, Western thought has contended that the scientific and humanist cultures are antithetical. But in Nehru was an embodiment of their synthesis It cannot be said that he took much interest in the Khadi and Village Industries movement. That was largely looked after by other associates of Gandhiji.

Humanist Values

The nearest that Nehru came to some practical formulation of hia economic ideas before independence was in the work he did in the National Planning Committee set up by the Indian National Congress in 1935. Planning was defined by that committee as something that should be considered from the point of view not only of economics and rising living standards, but of cultural and spiritual values. The concern he expressed at the time for democratic evolution and the inter-connection he stressed between economic and extra-economic life remained with him all along. When years later he addressed the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and Far East, he said he was no expert (although experts were inevitable), but he liked to deal with human beings. The work of the National Planning Committee remained academic without political power to implement its ideas. So it was really the advent of independence in 1947 that gave Nehru the opportunity to make concrete his vision of economic India.

Inevitability of gradualness

In political power under a democratic system, Nehru realised the conflict howsoever small it may be between socialism and the economic development of an underdeveloped country. He who had admired communism minus its violence and socialism reminded himself that the time factor was also important for social reconstruction. In his younger days, he must have been influenced by R. H. Tawney's classic, 'Acquisitive Society', but now admitted that the change from such a society to socialism and co-operation cannot be brought about by "a sudden law". Speaking at the AICC session at Indore in 1957, he said that Russia had taken 35 years or more to industrialise herself, and Mao Tse-tung had said that China might take 20 years to achieve "some kind of socialism". He added, "We must realise that the process of bringing socialism to India, especially in the way we are trying to do it, that is." the democratic way, will inevitably take time. When he produced his autobiography in 1936, reviewers said he assumed the inevitability of revolution. Twenty years later, he had come to accept the inevitability of gradualness.

Concept of mixed economy

The Industrial Policy Resolution of 1948 was the most concrete expression of Nehru's means for achieving socialism in India. It was here that his intellectual appreciation of British socialist thought rather than the Marxist dialectic unmistakably asserted itself.

The resolution adumbrated a "mixed economy" for India and this concept has stood, despite all that has been said by the Congress about socialism in subsequent years. It was when Nehru spoke on the resolution that he brought out the importance of understanding a socialistic economy in terms of technological change. In a transitional economy, one must place oneself in a dynamic and not in a static conception of economic progress.

Dynamism came from technological change. The State would build a new and technologically sound sector, and not waste its resources on acquiring productive resources that may have become obsolete. This philosophy meant recognising the role of what has since come to be known as the Private Sector. Again reminding himself that the capitalistic structure is inherently acquisitive, he began to propagate the value of a co-operative sector that would help counteract the anti-social side of capitalism. It is said that in later years Nehru did come to admire "enlightened capitalism" and that privately he even admired one of the leading Indian business houses.

Planning commission

The establishment of a Planning Commission and the era of planning that it started gave Nehru a chance to work simultaneously for economic development and social justice. The disappointment he openly voiced in recent years at the failure of Indian planning to achieve these objectives was a measure of his faith in them. His burning wrath against poverty heightened his sense of frustration at the miscalculations of the planning process. Not being an economist in the conventional sense, he just could not understand the frequent breakdowns in the economy.

He continued to emphasise the importance of land reforms, of increasing production through the application of technology and spreading co-operation to ensure distributive justice within capitalism. These indeed were the themes of his annual addresses to the Federation of Indian Cambers of Commerce and Industry for some 15 years. His keen interest in atomic energy was the latest manifestation of his scientific temper.

University of Philosophy

Nehru did not have many opportunities of formulating his ideas on international economic co-operation. But when he did get a chance to do so—as when he spoke to the ECAFE or the Colombo Plan meetings or at the United Nations—he reflected in his ideas the same universalism that was the keynote of his political philosophy. Even in his opposition to such economic blocs as the European Economic Community, his economic philosophy was entirely consistent with his political philosophy. It was based on mutual help, absence of fear and hate and on good neighbourliness. He was fond of the following lines from Euripedes, which he quoted at least on two occasions. They seem to sum up his philosophy.

"What else is wisdom? What of man's endeavour, or God's high grace, so lovely and so great? To stand from fear set free to breathe and wait, to hold a hand uplifted over hate, and shall not loveliness be loved for ever?"

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 8, 2021 12:58:56 PM |

Next Story