Gandhi vs. Nehru: An Old Debate to The Rescue?

India is a month away from completing 71 years of independence. The country has managed to accommodate a bit of everything, which is shaping it at every stage- socialism, capitalism, communism, liberalism as well as fanaticism. Yet, we have worked to be the democracy envisioned by our founding fathers. Unity in diversity may be questionable at every juncture, but India has grown and developed, despite many, if not all odds. Today, we are free from external rule but captivated by internal forces.

Several questions arise with respect to the current situation of politics in the nation. Who, if not Modi? Was Demonetization a good idea? Why should Aadhar be mandatory? Why is India so unsafe for women? Is the growth rate really representative of all the ground-level issues? Should caste and reservation be abolished? These are not just questions for the future, but to a great extent, also consequences of the past. Post-independence there were only two approaches to guiding India- the Gandhian or the Nehruvian, both which were, in the light of the events back then, perceived to be in the best of the interest of the country. However, over the years, alongside growth and development, the skewed political framework coupled with social evils has plagued the Indian democracy.

A significant question that was raised 71 years ago and once again arises in the wake of various ideological debates is this. Is an individualistic approach the answer to change and democracy or should the state be the tool of change and protector of democracy? This brings us back to the Nehru vs Gandhi discourse, one that was thought to have died with both of them. Yet, today, if we look back, there is much to learn.

After independence, our politicians and policy makers faced the Herculean task of restructuring an economy and society which was left exploited and poverty-ridden as a consequence of colonization. The Indian infrastructure, economy and bureaucracy was designed to suit the Britain interests. We were drained of our resources and manpower, so our colonizers could fight World Wars. Incidents such as the Bengal Famine killed 3 million Indians in World War 2, because Winston Churchill wished to ensure sufficient food supply for his men, while conveniently ignoring the acute shortage for his subjects. The infamous Partition was a parting gift of the British. Not only did that lead to the displacement of 14 million refugees but also large scale mass killings. The presence of the Kohinoor diamond in London is symbolic of the colonial agenda, but the consequences of Partition are far more severe and long-lasting.

More than half of the Indian population now lived below the poverty line. The illiteracy rate had crossed 80 percent. The country was struck with famine while life expectancy was approximately 30 years. Per capita income and agricultural output were increasingly reducing for the previous three decades. While in 1700, the Mughal Empire produced one-third of the global GDP; in 1947, India’s contribution was less than 10 per cent. A popular narrative of independence rests on the fact that the British freed India not so much because of the freedom struggle and rising political pressure-internally and externally- but because there was nothing left to take away from the colony. The damage had been done.

In such a situation, Indian leaders had to grapple with multiple problems. While the Gandhian approach was to focus on the villages and implement initiatives to alleviate the conditions prevailing there, the Nehruvian approach was to incorporate the industrialization technique. The former believed that India was primarily an agrarian economy and it can only develop if the villages, or the grassroots of the economy, are prosperous. The latter desired a country with modern, large-scale industries and a strong defence. At the same time, he propagated a socialist agenda with a hint of capitalism. Gandhi, who advocated for autonomous villages wherein Panchayats would conduct and perform the legislative, executive as well as judicial functions, did not resonate with the vibe of the Nehruvian agenda. The objection of Gandhi to developing large cities was subsequently rejected but a modified version of the Panchayati Raj was adopted later. Upon Gandhi’s death, the country lost its strongest contender for an ideology, contradictory yet dominant, which could have otherwise lead to varied policy decisions taken then.

In Nehru’s vision, he saw India confidently surpassing evils, internal and external. Be it reservations, large-scale industries, education, health, community planning- modernity and state intervention were inevitable to mould the Indian mind as well as society. Whether a socialist state is Nehru’s gift to us or not remains unanswered, but the notion that socialism and the state are conducive agents in promoting inclusive growth cannot be denied. This notion has (un)fortunately not withered away despite rise and collapse of governments and governance. Undoubtedly, Gandhi was an unbending figure given his commitment and success in the freedom struggle. His beliefs were inherent in his non-violent methods which thoroughly opposed usage of force. He did not detest socialism; what he disliked was the force of the state in the disguise of an agent of change. One can, in some way, relate this idea to the prevailing questions of demonetisation and beef ban.

The heart of this vibrant debate lies at the importance of personal morality alongside the creation of a social space that accommodates such behaviour. Today, it would be considered unattainable, but Gandhi primarily stood by that. All other ‘swa’ elements—swadeshi, swadharma, swaraj.—are inspired by this very premise. The utopian Gandhian dream wherein the individual would realize utmost responsibility, was not less idealistic than of the Nehruvian, one of a righteous state for all. While Gandhi so eloquently articulated self-assumed individual responsibility when he advocated for redistribution on the basis of trusteeship, Nehru drafted a mechanism compelling the citizens and businesses to comply with state directed planning. In an ideal world, maybe both or either could have survived. (Un)Fortunately, India was neither in an ideal situation nor ready to accommodate any sort of idealism. Nehru was largely influenced by the experiences of his western education, and thus placed significant importance on greater role of the state as the guiding light. Gandhi relied more on spirituality and dharma, with responsibility and ahimsa as pillars of democracy. The possibility of a meeting point was meek.

Today, 21st century India faces a similar dilemma. With freedom of speech being questioned in the wake of murders of those who exercise it to the fullest, and dwindling choice, it seems as though the state is not prospering the way Nehru would have liked it to. Yet, individual responsibility seems equally undervalued with littering, social evils, superstition, corruption, rape, murders and disrespect spreading at an alarming rate. Whether a Modi/Gandhi can solve these problems or do we as citizens need to better perform our roles ahead by pressing the button on the EVM, should certainly take less than 71 years to answer.

Picture Credits: A&E’s Biography

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