Understanding Nehru, the visionary 

Nehru set the foundation for ‘Indo-Soviet friendship’ but never let it cloud his judgement

Nehru with Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union at Rashtrapati Bhavan in November 1955.

Nehru with Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union at Rashtrapati Bhavan in November 1955. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Soviet socialism, unlike the Chinese or other variants, compelled everyone to take a position owing to its universal claims, and Jawaharlal Nehru was no exception. His lasting response was that democracy with adult suffrage made the revolutionary seizure of power superfluous. This was his reply, not merely to the Soviet revolution but as much to the 19 th century ideal of the revolutionary coup d’état.

When he encountered Soviet communists in Europe in 1926-27, he complained, “Personally I have the strongest objection to being led by the nose by the Russians or by anybody else”. His four-day visit to Moscow in 1927 resulted in a booklet which has earned him in some circles the reputation of a fellow traveller. Such a person is a “useful idiot”, a non-communist apologist for the iniquities of communism. 

This is curious since he found the country far from endearing. He was repelled by 1) the religious mentality; 2) the communist priesthood; 3) the ubiquitous propaganda; 4) the political dictatorship; 5) the unequal franchise where a worker enjoyed five votes to one for the peasant; 6) the devaluing of the individual citizen through group representation; and 7) outright class exclusions. He wrote admiringly of Lenin, but qualified it by describing him a “fanatic”; and after a visit to the mausoleum, he found that “Even in death he is the dictator”.

Nehru commented favourably on the Soviet prison system as reformatory rather than punitive. His polemical purpose was to contrast Soviet prisons with the “barbarous” British colonial ones with their “handcuffs, fetters and other punishments”. He followed this us up with another damning comment: “it can be said without a shadow of doubt that to be in a Russian prison is far preferable than to be a worker in an Indian factory, whose lot is 10 to 11 hours of work a day and then to live in a crowded and dark and airless tenement, hardly fit for an animal.” 

Universal literacy

His other positive observation concerned universal literacy, a Soviet success story in the 1920s, which historians have often noted. Again, it was set against the appalling British record in India. He took care not to be hostile, but he made clear that this was communism, a special world unto itself containing “much that I do not like or admire”.

He seemed uncritical only in his description of Nadezhda Krupskaya, that “even a few minutes’ conversation with her discloses her charm”. All reports said she was unattractive, slovenly and grimly austere. Nehru was a discriminating judge of feminine charms; but he seems to have lost it with Lenin’s widow.

His obsession with planning has often been ascribed to Soviet influence. But the idea of planning is an ancient socialist tradition dating to the 1830s, beginning with Henri de Saint-Simon, if he can be considered socialist, followed by Louis Blanc, and by the Fabians in Nehru’s time. He had been attracted to the Fabians well before the Soviet revolution and his “conversion” to socialism in 1926-27. His early passion in the 1930s for planning, not only the material but also the spiritual life of the nation, owes something to these early socialists, especially Saint-Simon; but the Fabians would have been the proximate source of Nehru’s ideas on the subject.

“Non-alignment defined Nehru as much as planning did. Once again, he related it to socialism, not Soviet communism.”

The European war economies then provided functioning models of planning. The German war economy masterminded by Walther Rathenau during World War I was the first example. Though capitalist, German centralised state monopolies provided Lenin a model for his early attempts at Soviet planning. During World War II, the British war economy was exemplary for its centralised efficiency. When Nehru launched his own planning exercises, he justified them more through the image of war than through socialism and the Soviet example. 

Planning success

He endlessly explained that war is conducted by planned effort, not by individual soldiers acting heroically on their own. He had the experience of the British war economy in mind, and if, as it seemed to him, it was possible for a rational and enlightened bureaucracy to rise to such heights, it should presumably be possible in India also in her war on poverty.

Soviet planning fascinated him for its extraordinary success in transforming a backward rural economy of the 1920s into a developed industrial economy in the 1930s capable of defeating the Nazi war machine. But the methods were barbarous and the human cost was hideous. He could not accept them for India; but then he did not face the prospect of total war either. In effect, his sources of inspiration for planning were the pre-Soviet socialist tradition, especially the Fabians, the non-socialist British war economy, and most of all, warfare itself.

Non-alignment defined Nehru as much as planning did. Once again, he related it to socialism, not Soviet communism. The logic of non-alignment was to retain and consolidate the independence so arduously won. It entailed being open to both sides in the Cold War but subordinate to neither. Since India was already totally exposed to the western world, non-alignment required exploring the communist, as also the entire decolonising world. This opening to the communist world has been blamed on his misguided socialism or the malign influence of V.K. Krishna Menon, all of which trivialise a considered strategic choice.

Nehru reasoned that his new state could not promote capitalism freely as that would lead back into the maw of imperialism, London and New York. Socialism would be the corrective. 

Lonely road

But he could not endorse communism either, however sympathetic to or interested in the Soviet Union he may have been, as it demanded subservience to Moscow. Socialism was the corrective again. Nor could it be European socialism or social democracy owing to its complicity in imperialism. Hence, it was to be an independent socialism, a lonely road that India would tread. Such a socialism provided the ideological and intellectual backing to non-alignment. It was independent, not pro-Soviet.

While Nehru was indifferent or negative to Soviet theories and practices, he was distinctly positive to its geopolitical role. In the pre-War years, he noted that India and the Soviet Union had a common foe in imperialism. After the War, as he saw American supremacy replace the British with an even wider reach, he found the Soviet presence useful to contain the excesses of western dominance in the subcontinent. Without joining either side in the Cold War, he sought to soften the edges of the power blocs through his non-alignment as in his active diplomacy over Korea and Indo-China. 

But the Soviet Union provided a vitally needed additional resource for diplomacy, economic development, and military supplies. He set the foundation for “Indo-Soviet friendship” as much as he did for good relations with America, but he never pursued either at the expense of the other as his critics and advisors on the left and right wanted him to do. More than anybody else in the political leadership, he maintained clarity on independence of choice, and never let Soviet friendship cloud his judgement.

The writer is the editor of ‘Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’. This is the last in the essay series on Nehru in the Magazine.

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 4:21:42 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/nehru-set-the-foundation-for-indo-soviet-friendship-but-never-let-it-cloud-his-judgement/article65417128.ece