The Congress could learn from Nehru yet

Pulapre Balakrishnan

One of the outcomes of the recently concluded state elections is that India is set to have the same party ruling at the centre and in many of the states. While this may have had some advantages in the past, such as for the decisive ending of stagnation after a century of colonial rule, a dispersion of power is desirable for our democracy. India after all is not some small European country. Not only is it set to become the world’s largest country in a matter of decades but it is also an economy challenged by poverty. There is also great cultural and religious diversity here. A governance equal to this configuration is vital. Therefore, the BJP’s choice of a mahant as chief minister of UP is ominous from this point of view. The politics that it represents needs to be challenged but the question is how is this to be achieved. In the Westminster model of government that we follow, dispersion of power requires a strong opposition at the Centre. It is the absence of any real opposition to the Congress for three decades after 1947 that is responsible for India’s slow progress despite its quite spectacular beginning under Jawaharlal Nehru. Political parties become complacent when they face no opposition. It has been pointed out that it is states which witnessed political competition that have made the most progress. The examples usually cited are of Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamilnadu. Thus with a BJP in power open-endedly, we may find a faster pace of development but may find ourselves under a more authoritarian governance. It is also conceivable that despite economic buoyancy the minorities may feel alienated by the politics of Hindutva even though some of the associated rhetoric has been toned down of late. It is to avert both these possibilities that India wants to ensure that the BJP remains challenged by a strong opposition at the Centre. Right now this can be imagined as coming from the Congress alone for it is the only other national party though in reduced circumstances. But this cannot be guaranteed. To effectively be the opposition, India’s grand old party would have to not just rethink its strategy but reflect seriously on what it stands for today. Why have the people of UP chosen to vote into government a party that has not a great deal to show in terms of country-wide economic indicators? The economy has slowed and is nowhere near achieving the double-digit growth promised during the general elections of 2014. Inflation is lower but far from tamed, with the price of dal, the poor man’s protein, reaching close to Rs. 200 per kilogramme on occasion. And to top it all, there was the demonetisation, which by all grassroots accounts led to a dip in output. Yet the BJP has walked away with the prize of power in India’s largest state by far. Accounts such as that the BJP has merely “tapped into its vote bank” imply an irreversible slide, which is hopelessly pessimistic. They fail to acknowledge that the BJP has between voted out in UP in the past, most significantly at the first opportunity after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It has returned to power only after a decade and a half, after the BSP and the SP had been given a chance to deliver broad-based development.


           While the Congress Party’s leadership has said little publicly on its defeat in UP some of its spokesmen exhibited a thoughtfulness on television soon after when they spoke of a need to reflect deeply on the inability of the party to come up with a winning formula, so to speak. If the party ever gets down to such an exercise seriously it need do nothing more than study Nehru’s conduct as prime minister. And they could make no better a start than to listen to his public address at midnight on August 14, 1947.  There, between the weary  voice and measured cadence, members of today’s Congress Party would find a purpose worth reclaiming. Nehru had spoken of independence as essentially an opportunity for “end(ing of) poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.” There is clarity in this, for Nehru could see that without it independence would amount to no more that replacing a colonial autocracy with a native one. It is interesting that while even “prosperity” makes an appearance later in the speech ‘secularism’ is altogether missing from it. Does this mean that Nehru was somehow lacking in commitment to it? Not even his most ardent critics would dare propose this. Or can it be said that while Nehru could afford to not foreground secularism in a way that the Congress Party must today as the climate has changed considerably since? Hardly. Nehru was speaking even as communal violence enacted a deathly dance around him. And his subsequent actions speak not only for where he stood vis-a-vis the question of the role of religion in the nascent republic but also of the role of the government in ensuring the safety of India’s muslims post Partition. Eye witness accounts speak of him as a man possessed haranguing roving gangs of hindus seeking revenge on Delhi’s streets in August 1947. Some years later he was to ensure the re-codification of Hindu personal law with a view to redressing the balance against women. Petitions seeking justice in marriage that have reached the Supreme Court from India’s christian and muslim women suggest that he erred in not giving the same treatment to all religions. But he had stopped with this. Unlike the Congress Party after Indira Gandhi he did not allow his commitment to safeguarding the rights of India’s minorities to be exchanged for any empowerment of the clerisy. This was to come much later and was to take a particularly jarring form in some states where, from the women’s rights to freedom of expression for artists, the Congress Party has shown itself anxious to appease clergymen of the minorities. Nothing, however, can match the cynical calculations of Rajiv Gandhi, in response to the Shah Bano Case and the Ram Mandir agitation, which appeased the most reactionary sections of muslims and hindus, respectively. With it the path was cleared for the rise of the BJP which for over four decades had had to be content with being the rump in parliament. It is entirely in the hands of the Congress to return to being a party that keeps religion out of politics except of course to ensure that an individual’s right to worship  without trampling on the rights of others is preserved. The ideal is summed up perfectly by Nehru who had ended his speech with “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”

           The Congress Party’s second moment after the national movement was to come in 1991 when it averted a default on India’s international obligations. Led by Narasimha Rao it steered the country away from a dimunition of its political stature that was assured were it to renege on them. There was also some contingent restructuring of the economy. One need only glance at post-Communist Russia to see how the Rao-Singh duo managed the transition with some finesse. It is only later, under the UPA, that the Congress Party got identified with not only dynastic privilege but also allowing economic inequality to spin out of control. Now the concerns of the corporate sector, including a hankering for recognition by the United States, came to be privileged over that of the ordinary Indian. The government came to be seen as distant, and instances of the ingenious use of the state apparatus to amass private wealth under a liberalised policy regime came to light. Examples of the latter range from telecom to aviation. With this the path already cleared for the BJP was widened. By the time of the elections in UP Narendra Modi had re-positioned himself as the deliverer of broad-based development, a role that historically belonged to the Congress Party.  It was this very role that Nehru had in mind when on the eve of Indian Independence he spoke of prosperity being “indivisible”. It is still not too late for the Congress leadership to internalise this. Above all, in the coarser language of today, Nehru had walked the talk. Economic inequality declined as a result of his policies and the man himself had died owning far less than he had inherited.   

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor of Economics, Ashoka University, Sonipat and Senior Fellow, IIM Kozhikode.