The Nehruvian Legacy – A First-hand Experience – I

The word ‘Nehruvian’ really gained currency after Pandit Nehru’s death in May 1964 as a kind of “benchmark” of India’s development profile since independence as the whole strategy of political economic, scientific, technological development till the mid -70s bore his stamp. Later in the  1990’s when the economy was made open to market forces and ‘ globalisation’, the word acquired a meaning that was unforeseen earlier-its association with a ‘strategy’ which obstructed rapid development of India due to Nehru’s policy of putting Public Sector in  ‘commanding heights’ of the economy and the state control of the market forces neatly summed up in the expression ‘ License Permit Raj’, as the primary cause of what was derisively termed ‘ Hindu rate of growth’ of about 3 % to 3.5 % annually in the 17 years and thereafter till India opened up its economy under P.V. Narsimha Rao in 1991.

The Oxford dictionary meaning of the word legacy is the gift left by the predecessor. Thus to understand this ‘legacy’, it is useful to deeply recall the main tenets of Pandit Nehru’s worldview, his political and economic philosophy and his idea of Indian Nation and how it should  advance. The speeches of Pandit Nehru in the constituent assembly particularly debates on making of the constitution and later his speeches and interventions in the parliamentary debates on critical issues of development and in deliberations of the Planning Commission are in the public domain and could as well be the basis for understanding his legacy as summarized below.

1>     ‘ Fabian Socialism’, a British view of Socialism attainable by State intervention in the economy through the process of a parliamentary democracy. Labour Party in UK under Sydney and Beatrice Webb developed this socialist model in earlier 20th Century which left a deep and lasting impact on Nehru. Hence his faith in ‘gradualism’, and orderly progress to ‘Social Control’ of means of production and the concept of a welfare State for raising the capability of citizens.

2>     Parliamentary Democracy, Rule of Law, Separation of Powers , Secularism , Decentralisation of State functions to promote citizen’s participation in government were central to Nehru’s view. Note that Nehru favoured ‘continuity with change’ as a principle of administrative reforms, and this is borne by the fact that the makers of the constitution did not think of dismantling the administrative system inherited from the colonial period and hence article 372 was incorporated in the constitution which allows continuation of pre-1947 laws, in the Statute book, and the structure of regulatory administration at the State, District and Tehsil levels as before 1947.

However, Nehru introduced major reforms and innovations in the field development administration with the establishment of community Development blocks and the Panchayati raj institutions which were set up under State laws at the block, sub-division and District levels to ensure peoples participation in implementation development schemes. Thus the institution of BDO, Block staff including Gram Sevaks/Gram Sevikas , agricultural extension officers and social education officers were put in place for rural development. These are still in place as basic field units of development administration.

3>     Commitment to growth of scientific temper in society and emphasis on core science and technology capability; and with this objective a chain of new Laboratories under the CSIR system covering technologies relevant to exploit India’s potential in industries that could kick start industrial growth such as material science, steel and alloys, glass & ceramics, pharmaceutical, construction technology were set up; The IITs, new Agricultural universities and the Indian Statistical institute were set up as a part of this policy. A most remarkable initiative of Nehru was to promote development of Atomic energy for peaceful purposes and establishment of locomotive, Motor vehicles and aircraft manufacturing in India. The object was not just import substitution, nor ‘ reinventing the wheel’ but development of a base of heavy and basics industries without which as the economic history of all advanced nations show, no durable economic or social progress was possible. Pandit Nehru took personal interest in formulating India’s first ‘Science Policy’ in 1956 laying down a road map for growth of scientific research and spread of education in Science and technology. Pandit Nehru viewed lack of capital in relation to India’s workforce and rapidly growing population as the main cause of poverty and backwardness and therefore underscored the growth of heavy and basic industries and technological capabilities was also shared by the mainstream development economists of the post World War 2 period. This was the theoretical basis of the Nehru- Mahalanobis model of development. Prof Mahalanobis was a distinguished statistician who prepared the model.

4>     Deep commitment of Pandit Nehru to upliftment of Schedule tribes, schedule castes and all disadvantaged sections of the society did find an expression in State Policies; and its impact was most pronounced in the Hill Areas of Assam. Together with Dr Verrier Elwin, the author of the philosophy for NEFA and adviser to the Govt. on tribal Affairs, NEFA, Panditji laid down what came to be known as ‘Panchsheel’ of tribal policy as outlined below in his own words: –

  • People should develop according to their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them.
  • Tribal rights in land and forest should be respected.
  • We should try to train and build up a team of their own people to do the work of administration and development.
  • We should not over administer these areas or overwhelm them with multiplicity of schemes. We should rather work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions.
  • We should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but the quality of human character that is evolved.

The Tribal areas in India are divided into the 5th and the 6th schedule areas in the constitution, that is, the hill and tribal areas of the North-East are in the 6th, while the rest are in the 5th Schedule. For the latter, Pandit Nehru was instrumental in creating a Tribal Advisory Committee in each State while in the former, the institution of the Autonomous District Councils with the powers to make laws pertaining to land, forest, minerals, administration of tribal customary laws were entrusted with these elected autonomous District Councils and to administer the 6th Schedule Subjects.  The “autonomy” meant that the laws by the State Assembly would not apply to “autonomous” Districts unless the Autonomous District Council approved the same.

5>     Secularism formed the core of Nehruvian ideal of Nationalism founded on what he felt the Syncretic civilisation of India that synthesized diverse, sometimes opposing religious faiths into one based on humanism and commonalities of faiths.

6>     Commitment to freedom of press, thought and right to dissent on public policy and issues was what Nehru stood for and he laid down high standards of parliamentary debates and public discourse.

7>     Commitment to an Independent Judiciary and respect for the British ‘Common Law’ – principle that India adopted which promoted making of ‘ Judge made Laws’ meaning judicial pronouncements and interpretation of law as having the force of law including the dictum that not abiding by the procedure amounts to violation of ‘ Procedural Rights’ of citizens in a matter and deemed violation of Fundamental Rights.

8>     On foreign policy, Nehru’s historic contribution ironically was the 1954 ‘ PanchsheelAgreement with China based on non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and non-alignment; Peace and mutual co-operation were to be the ‘outcomes’ of Panchsheel. Nehru saw peace as the condition for rise of a country like India from poverty and backwardness. So he said in the UN General Assembly, “For us peace is a passion”. This however, did not prevent him from taking a firm stand on border disputes with china or on Kashmir as he insisted on withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the areas of Kashmir under Pakistan’s illegal occupation before any meaningful talks could be held with Pakistan and to provide shelter to  Dalai Lama in India in 1959 . Most significantly Nehru realised the geo-political importance of USSR for India and pioneered the dialogue with USSR which laid the foundation of Indo-Russian strategic relationship which holds good till date and well after two decades of dissolution of the USSR.  His policy of offering ‘ helping hands’ to neighbours and to forge partnerships with multi-lateral and bi-lateral aid agencies under the UN system has been followed by successive governments.

9>     Faith in ‘Constitutionalism‘ and respect for the scheme of governance laid down in the constitution assigning respective roles of the States in the true spirit of Union of India; was a trait seen in Nehru’s dealing with the States. He was not in favour of concentration of powers in the Centre and took the State Chief Ministers into confidence on important National Issues as evident from his periodic letters to the Chief Ministers.

10> Humanism , human rights and struggle against foreign rule, injustice, discrimination and superstitions were the core values of Nehru and reflected in his domestic and foreign policies. He stood for the development with a human face.

A view may be taken that the Nehruvian face came to an end in 1975 with the promulgation of emergency in 1975 by none else but her daughter, the PM Indira Gandhi because it may be argued  that given his deep commitment to orderly, peaceful progress and parliamentary democracy, that is, ‘government by discussion’ as Amartya Sen put it, he would not have approved any such draconian measure whatever might have been the compulsion to hold on to power.


The second part of this paper dealing with “The first hand experience” would therefore cover the period up to the emergency.