Essence of freedom: India’s choice of left, right or in-between



By Sagar Sethi

More than thousands of tri-coloured souls assemble at Red Fort every year on the fifteen of August to satiate their nationalistic spirits. This Independence Day wasn’t any different, but what if, by some ‘tryst with destiny’ one of us could go back in time for a short while; say, for five minutes, and exchange a few words with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru after he raised the Indian national flag for the first time above the Lahori Gate of the Red fort?

Apart from what this person could ask Nehru, one thing that he should not, would be about the leader’s ‘socialism’. Nehru would not have given you a straight answer. In his autobiography, Nehru himself referred to his socialism as something not floating in air, but as a resolution which even “a capitalistic state could easily accept”. A socialism which could serve the interests of the ‘rich and powerful’ in this country while aiming at a substantive redistribution of resources, belonging to the rich and powerful, among all the citizens of an India which was, and still is, predominantly poor; seems too unrealistic in the first place.

Why did Nehru choose ‘democracy’ for India?

Perhaps one could ask him, why he picked ‘democracy’ for a country which at the time of Independence was not a developed economy, neither industrialized and nowhere close to ethnic homogeneity, the three stipulated preconditions for an electoral democracy?

JNU Professor Jayati Ghosh in an NDTV panel debate stated that we are ignoring Nehru’s vision at our own cost. She further added that there are three Nehruvian strategies that are very relevant today.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Grace M. Morley standing under the Mandapa in Wood Carving Gallery of the National Museum

Firstly, the Nehruvian model of a mixed economy where the government controlled public sector would co-exist with the private. His model of planning with a vision (referring to the Planning Commission), and lastly Nehru’s continued emphasis on creating centers of excellence like IIT.

In the light of these strategies, it becomes very clear that Nehru insisted on installing democracy in India as an instrument to accomplish his socialist goals and aspirations.

The focus then must shift to the Nehruvian concept of socialism.

Was Nehruvian Socialism different from actual Socialism?

While some argue that Nehruvian socialism was concrete in idea, but vacillate in practice. There are others who claim that it was not socialism at all, rather it was Nehru’s realism in the garb of socialism.

While these criticisms arise from general notions that the Nehruvian concept of socialism did not prove successful in India, there is an eminent writer Atul Kohli who begs to differ.

He writes in his The Success of India’s Democracy that ‘the political impact of these twin tendencies’ (and by that he refers to the rhetoric of Nehru’s socialist redistribution, and the conservatism behind its practice), ‘may well have been benign, strengthening democracy.’  

The reason, he says, is that this kind of socialism was able to serve the interests of the powerful – be it propertied classes, or political factions – while including the poor in its political processes activated by a democratic setup. But is democracy not a valued end in itself? Then how did Nehru expect it to bring about socialism? The resolve to this quandary may lie within Nehru’s decision to embrace bureaucracy, as warned by German sociologist Max Weber, turned Nehruvian socialism into a form of stifling statism – a scenario where the State excessively dominates the politics of the country.

It is at this juncture that we must remind ourselves of the poor socio-economic situation that prevailed in India at the time of Independence and how difficult it may have been to communicate socialist ideals to the people at large.

Moreover, his views on socialism were deeply imbued by some tenets of Buddhist philosophy.  Savya Sachi in Nehru’s Conception of Socialism opines that Nehru’s views on socialism were based on the Buddhist idea ‘of the sense and dignity of man.’ Many political theorists have agreed with this contention when they argue that Nehru’s dignified humanity was what prevented him from coercively implementing his socialist plan.

It then seems possible to conclude that Nehru was a socialist in heart, and maybe his limbs operated democratically in reverse.