Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1957, is believed to have identified Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a barely 33-year-old first-time Lok Sabha MP from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, as future prime minister material. Seven years later, on Nehru’s death, Vajpayee called it a “dream shattered”, a “song silenced” and a “flame vanished in the infinite”.
But there was more to this mutual admiration that transcended ideological differences. While one was a Fabian socialist and the other a “moderate” right-wing conservative, the factor uniting the two was their role in creating institutions and stewarding infrastructure projects that have become the markers of independent India’s modernity. This is a legacy no one — whether from the ideological right or left — can take away from them. It is worthwhile to talk about some of the great institutions created during their stints as prime minister.
When reference is made to the Nehruvian-era temples of Modern India, the names that immediately come to mind are the Hirakud, Bhakra-Nangal and Nagarjuna Sagar irrigation dams-cum-hydropower projects, the integrated steel plants at Bhilai, Rourkela, Durgapur and Bokaro, the Indian Institutes of Technology at Kharagpur, Bombay, Kanpur, Madras and Delhi, the Indian Institutes of Management at Calcutta and Ahmedabad and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at New Delhi.
However, there are others as well.
The period from 1959 to 1964 saw as many as 14 Regional Engineering Colleges (now National Institutes of Technology) being established in Warangal (then in Andhra Pradesh), Surathkal (Karnataka), Nagpur (Maharashtra), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), Jamshedpur (then in Bihar), Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir), Durgapur (West Bengal), Allahabad (UP), Rourkela (Odisha), Calicut (Kerala), Surat (Gujarat), Jaipur (Rajasthan), Kurukshetra (currently in Haryana) and Trichy (Tamil Nadu). The Delhi School of Economics and the Institute of Economic Growth, too, came up during Nehru’s time.
No less important were the four world-class state agricultural universities or SAUs at Pantnagar (then in UP), Bhubaneswar (Odisha), Ludhiana (Punjab) and Hyderabad (then in Andhra Pradesh). These US land-grant college modelled institutions — the four SAUs were respectively “tagged” to the state universities of Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Kansas, whose faculty helped design their education, research and extension systems — and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research together sowed the seeds of the Green Revolution. By 1968, there were five more SAUs apart from the four started under Nehru.
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was founded in 1942. But its major constituent laboratories — the National Physical Laboratory (New Delhi), National Chemical Laboratory (Pune), Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute (Kolkata), Central Food Technological Research Institute (Mysore), Central Drug Research Institute (Lucknow), Central Leather Research Institute (Madras), Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (Durgapur), Indian Institute of Petroleum (Dehradun), National Aerospace Laboratories (Bangalore) and National Geophysical Research Institute (Hyderabad) — were set up between 1947 and 1961. And one shouldn’t forget the two planned cities of modern India — Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh andOtto Königsberger’s Bhubaneswar — that were also built on Nehru’s watch.
Vajpayee’s tenure as PM may not have spawned such a diversity of institutions and centres of excellence. But in terms of ambition, scale and impact, his projects were just as game-changing. The Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) were arguably the most audacious infrastructure projects undertaken in the country. They truly connected India — not just its metropolises and big cities, but also the hinterlands.
The 5,846-km GQ, a four/six-lane express highway network conceptualised in 1999 and completed in 2012, connects the four metros (Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai), besides passing through other cities such as Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Bhubaneswar, Dhanbad, Varanasi, Kanpur, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Pune, Hubli and Bengaluru. The PMGSY sought to provide all-weather roads to every rural habitation with a minimum population of 500 in the plains and 250-plus in tribal, hill and desert areas. This programme, which the Vajpayee government launched in December 2000, was to cover 1,78,184 such eligible habitations. The fact that 1,42,255 of these habitations — plus another 16,000-odd covered by state government-sponsored programmes — actually have roads today is a tribute to the sheer boldness of Vajpayee’s vision.
The GQ and PMGSY have stood out for the quality of assets created. The PMGSY roads were required to meet technical specifications and geometric design standards of a Rural Roads Manual, specially brought out in 2002 by the Indian Roads Congress. The standard bidding documents further bound the contractors constructing the roads to maintain them for a five-year-period. The Delhi Metro — which set new standards in project management, contract awarding, construction and adoption of advanced tunnelling technologies — was again a Vajpayee government baby. During his tenure, not only did the physical work on the project commence, but the first Shahdara-Tis Hazari section was also inaugurated in December 2002.
The significant point to note is that the projects under Nehru and Vajpayee were taken up in times that were far more challenging than now. The classical developing-country constraints of foreign exchange, domestic savings and wage-goods (food) didn’t deter Nehru from dreaming big. During 1950-51 to 1964-65, India’s GDP grew at an average annual compound rate of 4 per cent, as against 0.9 per cent in the pre-Independence period from 1900-01 to 1946-47. This marked acceleration, described by the economist Pulapre Balakrishnan as a “revival of a moribund economy,” was also across sectors: Primary/agriculture (from 0.4 to 2.6 per cent), secondary/industry (1.5 to 6.8) and tertiary/services (1.7 to 4.5).
Vajpayee’s government, likewise, had to deal with the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, the Pokhran-II nuclear tests and the Kargil War. Yet, funding for the GQ was ensured through a Re 1-per-litre cess on petrol and diesel, with half of the proceeds from the latter being earmarked for the PMGSY. The fruits of these investments were reaped by the subsequent Congress-led UPA regime, which also benefited from a global economic boom that began in 2003-04 and lasted for much of the decade.
The contrast with the present times cannot be greater. There are no comparable constraints of foreign exchange, domestic savings and food, yet one cannot think of a single programme in the recent period to match what Nehru and Vajpayee initiated. No one knows where the Rs 1,50,000-1,60,000 crore additional annual revenues from the increased excise on petrol and diesel imposed by this government have actually been invested. Equally disturbing is the undermining of institutions. There is no better symbol of it than the Indian Agricultural Research Institute — the cradle of the Green Revolution — which has been without a regular director now for about four years. It’s unlikely that a Vajpayee would have tolerated such apathy and creeping mediocrity threatening to consume even existing centres of excellence.