Affluence with Liberty: Nehru’s Choice
Salil Misra
SELECTED WORKS OF JAWAHARLAL NEHRU (SECOND SERIES), VOL. 38 by Mushirul Hasan A Project of Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 2008, 863 pp., 800
June 2008, volume 32, No 6

As India made its transition from colony to an independent nation, Nehru made the transition too from being a ‘rebel’ to a ‘statesman’. The two transitions were indeed connected. The primary objective of Nehru’s political-intellectual engatement after 1947 was no longer to lead the anti-imperialist national movement but to enable India’s transformation to a fully independent and modern industrial society and Nehru’s own endeavour trying to create a new space for the young independent India in the new world order. This transition is fully reflected in the second series of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, brought out by the research team of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund under the intellectual leadership of Mushirul Hasan. Volume 38 of the series, covering the period May-July 1957 is an important repository of Nehru’s major national and international priorities as the leader of Independent India.

Nehru showed an acute awareness of the fact that what independent India had set out to achieve was historically quite unique and unprecedented. Developing an affluent modern industrial society within a parliamentary democratic framework was not something that had happened in other countries. Affluence and liberty were both important values but they tended to come successively rather than simultaneously. This indeed was the pattern of all developed countries where democratic institutions developed after necessary conditions for baseline affluence had been created. Independent India, by contrast, had refused to prioritize between affluence and liberty and strove to achieve both at the same time. There was no model available for a development of this kind. What independent India was doing was in fact to constitute a model to be followed by other Third World countries, and to be theorized upon by social scientists. A theory did not exist for the unique Indian practice, but the practice needed to be theorized upon.

It was broadly in these terms that Nehru explained the essence of socialism in a long speech given to Congress women legislators (‘Socialism by Consent’, pp. 31-40). The capitalist democracies had made much progress but had ended up creating an acquisitive and competitive society. Soviet Russia, on the other hand, had used coercion to forcibly take away peasants’ land from them. As against both these models, Nehru was convinced that ‘socialism has to enter the people’s minds and hearts…. The problem is how to change men’s minds’ (p. 39).

Nehru explained further: ‘The question that poses itself before us is: Should we use force for the achievement of our objectives or is it possible to march towards our goal with everyone’s cooperation? We believe, and our Constitution lays down, that we should not use force and coercion for the achievement of our objective. We have got a democratic system of government and it is evident that if anyone takes recourse to force, this system of government would end and another system of government may be ushered in. It follows, therefore, that we cannot copy some other countries like Russia and get things done through force and coercion’ (p. 40). Nehru was aware that building a democratic consensus could slow down the pace of economic development, yet it would be a far more superior development in the long run.

These were some of the major issues that Nehru constantly engaged with throughout the 1950s. He was fully convinced that it was desirable—and possible—to combine the two major values—affluence and liberty, without having to temporarily suspend one to facilitate the other. But it was important to convince others, both Congressmen and other party leaders. The volume under review provides many instances of Nehru trying to create a consensus around this idea.

Then there were other questions. How to modernize India’s social structure while retaining some positive features of Indian tradition? Nehru was uncomfortable with the continuation of some feudal vestiges that had entered the bureaucratic and political structure. He received complaints of bureaucratic red tape that led to inefficiency; and he found that many leaders in power were over-using, if not misusing, the facilities granted to them as ministers. Both the red tape and the misuse of resources had entered independent India’s political and bureaucratic culture. Many of our political leaders still persist with these ways and it may be instructive to point out Nehru’s contempt for them. For instance, he totally disapproved of the excessive security being provided to political leaders and tried to discourage this practice. In a letter to Home Minister Pant, Nehru conveyed his displeasure at the ‘excessive arrangements made for his security’ and emphasized that ‘security arrangements should be made only when necessary’ (p. 301). Nehru also commented on the bureaucratic red tape leading to delay, and often denial, in issuing visas to foreign correspondents wanting to visit India. ‘We have already got a bad reputation in Europe…. The impression exists that we are constantly pushing out people. Also there is enormous delay in the issue of visas. We seem to look upon foreigners as some kind of enemy agents.’ He advised the home minister: ‘I think that we shall have to consider this problem in a much more liberal way than we have done thus far’ (p. 336).

The volume under review also has interesting information on Nehru explaining the principles of Panchsheel to an American academic (pp. 456-7), and also elaborating on the future of the Commonwealth in an interview to a foreign correspondent (pp. 599-603).

Nehru remained a Marxist all his life. Yet he could not get along with Indian Communists. His own explanation for this was that Indian Communists were too busy following Marx literally, overlooking the fact that ‘what Marx wrote a hundred years ago could certainly not be appropriate for India after a hundred years, or for China, or…for the whole world.’ It was therefore important not simply to follow or apply Marxism to Indian conditions, but to creatively develop Marxism so as to retain its relevance for the contemporary world. This is what Marx himself would have done. ‘I am confident, if Marx were alive today, he would have thought in a different way and written a different book’ (p. 38).

This is an extremely useful and rich volume tracing the life and activities of one of the pioneers of modern India.

Salil Misra teaches history at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi 

Review Details

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