17 November 2017 14:51:24 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

Nehru’s forgotten legacy

He has had his successes and failures. But his legacy is that of a builder of institutions

Jawaharlal Nehru’s 128th birth anniversary passed by, a few days ago, with barely a whimper. Of course, November 14 is dutifully celebrated as Children’s Day every year. But even the Op-ed pages of newspapers, which usually have an article or two on Nehru, were strangely silent this time around.

This, however, is not surprising, given how trashing the Nehruvian legacy has almost become a national pastime now. This is done not just by the current ruling dispensation — which at least has the fig-leaf of political compulsions — but even by the common people, who should know better. They seem more than happy to air-brush Nehru’s era from the history of independent India.

The BJP’s spiel, that the country has been ruined by 70 years of Congress rule, has become received wisdom, given how uncritically it is being accepted by a large number of Indians. That the Congress had been in power for 55 years since 1947, and not 70, is an inconvenient fact that many choose to ignore.

Nehru’s legacy

So what exactly is Nehru’s legacy? After all these years, it must be acknowledged that he will be known as a builder of institutions.

He took over India at the stroke of midnight, when the country was being torn asunder by the horrific riots of the Partition and the massive displacement of people that followed. Just five months after Independence, Gandhiji was assassinated. Those were indeed dark days and many well-meaning people wondered whether the country would survive as a political entity.

But it did remain united and, more importantly, the first free election based on a universal franchise was successfully conducted in 1952.

Constitution and Bills: The writing of the Constitution was another important achievement, with key contributions from BR Ambedkar and BN Rau. The pushing through of the Hindu Reform Bill in the 1950s, amidst stiff opposition from sections of Hindu society, was another key achievement. But this had also led to a rupture in his relationship with Ambedkar, who quit the Cabinet in frustration.

Five-year Plans : Nehru is also best known for ushering in Five-Year Plans to develop and industrialise the vastly underdeveloped economy. Having visited the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1927 with his father as guests to the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, Nehru was impressed by the rapid industrialisation achieved by the country through planning and wanted to replicate that in India.

It is, of course, easy to dismiss centralised planning and the command economy structure today, but in the 1950s, there was a surprising degree of consensus on India’s planning, given the number of eminent economists who visited the Planning Commission in that period.

The Plans had some success (they laid the industrial foundation of the country) and many crucial failures too (the wastage of resources of the ‘licence-permit raj’ and the ensuing corruption and rent-seeking). But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the reforms initiated in 1991 owed their success to the industrial foundation laid during an earlier era.

Learning institutions : Coming back to the earlier point of Nehru being a great builder of institutions. All the centres of higher learning today — the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, NITs — were products of Nehru’s vision. Also, crucial institutions such as ISRO (powering our much admired space programme), the DRDO, and the Atomic Energy Commission, were started by the former Prime Minister.

The failures

One crucial failure of Nehru’s vision was the neglect of primary education and healthcare, as Amartya Sen and others have remarked countless number of times. This neglect would cost India dearly, especially given how East Asian nations such as China, Korea and Taiwan reaped the benefits of higher literacy.

There were some failures on the political front too. Nehru’s failure to resolve the Kashmir issue haunts the nation even today. Ironically, after being in jail for more than a decade, Sheikh Abdullah was released by Nehru for talks which raised the hopes for a solution. But sadly, he passed away before that. The war with China was another disaster for which both Nehru and his Defence Minister Krishna Menon, were equally to blame.

The way Nehru dismissed the Kerala government, the first ever elected communist government in the world, in the late 1950s did nothing to burnish his democratic credentials. It, sadly, set the template for future governments at the Centre to dismiss elected State governments — a practice that was put to an end only in 1990s, thanks to the Supreme Court’s judgement in the SR Bommai case.

India’s much storied IT revolution owes it success to the readymade manpower provided by the IITs, NITs and other engineering colleges, created largely during Nehru’s era.

So Nehru’s legacy, ultimately, was that of a builder of institutions. That the institutions created in that era are today in a state of disarray is a sad reflection of us as a nation and how unfair we have been to this legacy.