Anyone who has listened to any of the Prime Minister’s speeches should have guessed that Jawaharlal Nehru is not one of his heroes. And yet there was so much breathless excitement last week over the “appropriation” of Nehru by Narendra Modi that Nehru’s heirs had to publicly claim him. In speeches that were mean-spirited and churlish, the president and vice-president of the Congress announced that Nehru’s legacy was being destroyed. Angry, communal people (Modi?) are responsible for this, Nehru’s heirs asserted, so Congress workers must take a pledge to save his legacy.
So what is this legacy that everyone is fighting over in the week of Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary? From Nehru’s custodian-in-chief and her heir I gleaned that they believe that it was from him that India learned secular values. Then they must explain why there were so many incidents of ‘secular’ violence under Congress governments. The list is long, but what about just an explanation for what happened to the Sikhs in November 1984? An apology has been made, Congress spokesmen repeat ad nauseum, but there are things that you cannot apologise for. Pogroms for one.
Nehru’s most enduring legacy has been economic and it is time that we analysed it dispassionately. The foundations of what India is today were laid in Nehruvian times. He believed that the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy must remain in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats (not businessmen) and so set up a Planning Commission to take full charge. This Nehruvian idea bankrupted the Indian economy by 1991 and so a Congress prime minister was forced to end the licence raj. Had P V Narasimha Rao not done this, India may have become a basket case long ago and there would have been no middle classes. It is important to remember that there were as many Indians living in absolute poverty when Nehru became prime minister as when he died in 1964.
In my ever-humble opinion, Nehru’s most flawed policies were in education and healthcare. It is true that we have Nehru to thank for the IITs, but it is equally true that he failed to lay the foundations for a mass education system that would at least give Indian children the ability to read simple stories and do simple sums. This did not happen. In healthcare, he created excellent hospitals at the top and nothing below them.
On paper he planned for a vast network of primary health centres and rural hospitals, but the plans never worked and we are paying for this today. I can think of very few countries where doctors would be permitted to conduct the sort of criminal, assembly-line surgeries that caused the tragedy in Chhattisgarh. If the Prime Minister wants ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’, he must order radical reforms at least in states that are run by BJP governments. Chhattisgarh is one of them.
Modi’s economic and political ideas are the opposite of Nehru’s because he is a product of that vast Indian hinterland that lies beyond the slightly shabby but refined and liberal world in which Nehru formulated his “idea of India”. I spent my childhood in that India and it was a terrific place. We lived in large bungalows in leafy avenues, we spoke only English, studied in fine boarding schools and spent long summer holidays in the hills. Nehruvian socialism was very good for a small group of privileged Indians and very bad for the vast majority of Indians who continue to this day to live without such basic things as clean water and sanitation.
It is not for nothing that Modi repeats often that he does not have a great “vision” for India and that he wants to concentrate on doing the “small things”. He said this most recently in the speech he made at the village of Jayapur when he went back to his constituency for the first time as Prime Minister. He talked of “small things” like the need to end foeticide, the need to celebrate the birth of a girl child, the need to help keep the village clean and the need for young people to help those who come to give children polio drops.
Every time he outlines his “small” vision, Modi speaks of the need for 125 crore Indians to get personally involved in bringing about ‘vikas’ and ‘parivartan’. Development is not something that can be bequeathed by the government, he emphasises, it is a process in which everyone has to become involved. This is the opposite of what Nehru believed. His inspiration was the Soviet Union that he saw as a role model for rapid economic development. He could not have known that the Soviet Union would one day collapse under the weight of its economic mistakes. The world has changed. India has changed. Old idols and ideas have lost their relevance.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh
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