Nehru: The Vacillating Socialist

When Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister of India, it was expected that India would have  a socialist government. This was not a false expectation because over the past two decades he had shown his inclination through the speeches he gave, the literature he read and the friends he kept. In 1929, two years after this three day visit to Moscow, Jawaharlal Nehru told Congress workers that India has to be a socialist nation to end poverty and inequality. During that period, socialism was not in the official party line, but he called himself a socialist. Mahatma Gandhi understood his passion and once explained that Nehru wanted socialism by any means, even without non-violence.
But once he took office, this passion for socialism disappeared and reappeared only seven years before his death. As a man who always got things done his way, he could have got the country to adopt this idea as well, but he stayed away from it even when opportunity presented. One such occasion was during the refugee crisis following partition, but even then he did not voice anything about socialism or a classless society.   In 1948 a private member of the Constituent Assembly introduced legislation demanding a socialist economic pattern, nationalization of key industries, and collective farming.  Nehru dismissed this demand as “vague” and wondered how any government could accept such a resolution.
What was going on? Why did the self-professed socialist backpedal when he got an opportunity to implement his ideas? In some cases, it was seen that he even opposed making socialism official. Did he realize that socialism went against millennia old Indian polity and hence stayed away from it or was it pure politics which caused him to press pause and then resume when the situation demanded?
Party Politics
One reason for Nehru going slow on socialism maybe due to the fact that the party machinery was controlled by Sardar Patel, who was known as a capitalists’ man. A socialism versus capitalism fight during that period would not have done any good for the party. Then Patel died in 1950 and Nehru was able to get Patel’s nominees out of the leadership paving way for absolute control. He could have inflicted any “ism” on the country, but even while the first Five-Year-Plan was being developed, there was no reference to socialism in the documents.
A turning point came after the first general elections. The Congress won an overwhelming majority both to the Parliament and in the State legislatures, but the Socialists and the Kisan Mazdoor Party polled in double digits as well. This was a cause of concern to Nehru and he tried to get Socialists to his side by negotiating with Jayaprakash Narayan. Once again the demands of Jayaprakash Narayan — redistribution of land, nationalization of banks and insurance, state ownership of selected industries — sounded like Nehru’s dream, but he walked away from it stating that the time was not right. The Socialists were not surprised because it was on Nehru’s advice that the group was formed within the Congress and once it was formed, Nehru refused to join it. Also, when Gandhi wanted a socialist leader to be the President of Congress in 1947, Nehru joined forces with Patel and opposed it. What was more strange was this: the Constitution and Economic Programme Committee of the party, under Nehru’s chairmanship recommended a socialist economic programme, but as Prime Minister he rejected the report.
He provided various explanations for this behavior; in one speech he said that he was not interested in any “ism” and was focused on achieving a casteless and classless society. In another speech he said he aimed for a society not guided by greed, but one in which there is distribution of economic power. What people wanted, he argued, was food, clothing and shelter and they were not concerned about the social and economic policies.
The Socialist Vision
In 1954 Nehru visited China and North Vietnam and saw how both countries were using a new social system to build their nations. He saw the response of the hungry masses to socialism and thought that it would be a trump card against both Socialists and Communists. On his return, without consulting the Cabinet or Planning Commission or Congress Working Committee, he started touting socialism. In speech after speech, he talked about the utopia that socialism would bring and this policy was adopted in the next annual session of the Congress party without much difficulty. This was a brilliant move for it seeded confusion among the socialists and leftists and brought everyone else into Nehru’s big tent.
Once socialism and the goals of casteless and classless society were proclaimed, candidates for the next election were selected based on caste, class and religion. In places where feudal loyalties played an important part, feudal candidates were selected. In some places black-marketers or drunkards were selected and Nehru justified it saying that the selection was due to the pressure from the ‘rightist’ elements.
After all this, he started behaving erratically; the Second Five Year plan was released later and it had no trace of socialism in it.  After spending energy explaining socialism and socialist pattern was few years earlier, he started backpedaling once again. He refused to define what he wanted and vaguely mentioned equality and removal of disparities. He asked party workers to go around the country explaining the party agenda and when some of them asked details on his vision of socialism, he simply refused. All this did not prevent the party from adopting a resolution which demanded the creation of a socialistic society in the Nagpur session in 1959. At this point no one seemed to care what it meant  and no one wanted to know.
At the end, the socialist agenda of Nehru was vague. It could only be explained using the words “Neti, Neti” for it was not about nationalization or doctrine or confiscation of private property.  For a man who was passionate about the idea, it later became an empty slogan which could be used for political needs. By being vague about it, he could bring it up when needed and discard it once the juice was extracted. Fed up with this drama Subash Bose bluntly asked how a person as individualist as Nehru could be a socialist. Finally thanks to Nehru’s vague socialism, many congressmen who were paupers before 1947 became millionaires.

  1. Adapted from Rao, Amiya Rao, B. G. Six thousand days : Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister, Sterling Publishers, 1974.

2 thoughts on “Nehru: The Vacillating Socialist

  1. Thank you for the exposition.
    I wonder, how much influence the big corporate houses of Birla, Tata’s, etc had in terms of influencing his industrial policy.
    Large corporates close to the government had (and have) much to gain from a Prime Minister that favoured organising large national-scale projects while avoiding the nationalisation of industries.

  2. I think the author of this post makes a big mistake by suggesting that Nehru was not socialist. He was a FABIAN socialist. That requires a deeper study than the primitive (more direct) form of socialism the author of this post has in mind.
    Fabianism is about deception, about getting the job done even while pretending that something else is going on. It is Nehru’s ACTIONS that we must observe if we are to study his approach to economic policy.
    The very act of central planning is socialist. The author conveniently forgets that. The very act of input-output modeling is socialist, entirely opposed to the market system. The very act of controls and direction on production is socialist. The very act of incrementally reducing the salary gap between senior and junior levels of government is socialist. The very act of reducing accountability in public governance is socialist.
    Thus the concept of mixed economy is socialist. The act of nationalising Tata’s airlines is socialist. The act of nationalising public transport, the ceiling on land (and confiscation), the dilution of property rights was socialist.
    Please do not be deceived by deceptive Fabian socialism. They have a SINGLE MINDED goal of socialism, but they incrementally nudge towards that goal.
    Only on the foundation of Nehru’s work could Indira Gandhi then nationalise all banks, create the most monstrously inefficient public sector undertakings, and generally destroy the moral fabric of India.
    India of today is Nehru’s creation. It is true that had Patel been PM (or even lived longer), India would have been 10 times richer by now. And clean, modern, and powerful.

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