Yesterday’s Nehru, Needed Today And Tomorrow?

To speak meaningfully about contemporary relevance of Nehruian thought one has to explore what it is or was in the first place. Books written by scholars and students of Nehru have not quite exhausted the possibilities of exploring the contours of the Nehruvian idea. A short article will therefore hardly do justice. Yet one might consider the Nehruian tradition both as a political ideology as well as a political style. Both may have suffered the ravage of time, yet the need for both is greater now than even before.

The importance of Fabian socialism and being impressed by the accomplishment of the Soviet Union were undoubtedly base, of Nehrus socialism. But what he saw of real India himself, and through the eyes of Mahatma Gandhi, also contributed in a major way. The imperative as well as the efficacy of the Nehruism model of mixed economy with the commanding heights being in the direct control of the state, cannot be denied by any person except the extremely irrational foes of Nehru. That we owe a great debt of gratitude to the public sector cannot be undermined by the fact that large parts of it are today in debt. For instance the glamorous five star hotel chains of contemporary India cannot deny the path-breaking role of Indian tourisms flagship, Ashoka Hotel. In every field that was big and expensive, there were very few takers in the private sector at the time of Independence. Given Indias stature in theTthird world, we could not have waited so the state stepped in quickly. But a more important aspect is that but for sustained development supported by the public sector, Indian democracy itself could have been in peril. Imperfect as the contribution of the state sector might have been to the pursuit of social justice and equitable distribution of benefits, its aspiration of reversing social disparity and providing opportunities to the backward and neglected sections of society certainly had a salutary effect.

The present preoccupation with economic reforms should not necessarily be seen as an admission that we were wrong in the past. There are many aspects of the present process that might well have fascinated Jawaharlal Nehru. In that sense, attacking reforms in his name is another case of Nehruites defying Nehru! But to get the correct perspective on this we need to focus on the style dimension of the Nehruvian tradition mentioned earlier. His style was not a single dimensional thing. It combined aesthetics with deep commitment to liberalism in public life. Thus Nehru was a socialist in his economic thinking but a true liberal in his social and political attitudes. Today, sadly, there is paucity of aesthetics that no amount of purchased glamour can substitute and which is becoming the hallmark of politics in our times, is the exact opposite of fortunately the institutional structures ensconced in the constitutional framework provide the ballast to prevent immediate and irretrievable drift.

Many advocate of reform focus entirely on disinvestments and liberalization of licensing procedures. That, along with the attendant issue of labour reform has given the impression of reforms being rich peoples agenda. But the fact is that this very small part of the picture. It would be madness to think that the retreat by the state from many commercial and service sector jobs also means its withdrawal from health, housing and education. Even in the US this is not the case. In a developing country like ours it would be disastrous to leave these to the market. If economic reforms are to be sustainable they will have to be packaged with substantive social sector initiatives if not a full fledge social security system. That is a Nehruvian aspiration in letter and spirit. Therefore there is no question of abandoning Nehru.

Every country, and every generation needs icons and role models for mew generations. The west is very good at producing or discovering one periodically. We too have tried to emulate that but with sporadic and limited success. Nehru remains an obvious option. There is something remarkably enduring about his works and personality. Pity though that we have in a well meaning effort put him up on pedestals but only as a stone statute or congratulated ourselves after merely naming roads and buildings after him. But the real Nehru, particularly his scientific tempore, has gradually disappeared from our political culture. In times of seemingly low ideology content and growing frustration with the system, yet great new opportunities opening up globally, a rediscovery of Jawaharlal Nehru could provide the meaning we are looking for. If nothing, the vocabulary of politics will show some sophistication. And roses come centre stage, not a bad thing in itself.

Nehru once wrote an anonymous piece on himself - for fern presumably - in which he wrote that people did not know the real man behind the face. Only a liberal at heart could have looked in thin himself so critically. Some one has the dust the memory of that great man and being him out for what he was “ a remarkable, erudite, sensitive, visionary democrat.