A brief (alternate) history of India — 20 points for the 20th century
Previously…. the swaraj movement of the early 1920s spiralled into a violent uprising…. Gandhi died a broken man in 1926, but the uprising exhausted the British as well…. Motilal Nehru, Chitta Ranjan Das and MA Jinnah negotiated Indian independence in the early 1930s…. a federal republic with an executive president was established in 1937…. Jinnah was the first president, leading india during the second world war… he was succeeded by Das, who was assassinated in 1948, allegedly by a communist gang…. Motilal’s son jawaharlal, foreign minister under Jinnah and economy minister under Das, challenged das’s successor Ghulam Mohammed (GM) for presidency…. GM backed down, and in march 1949, Joe Nehru became the fouth president of the Indian Commonwealth.
As every school kids knows, 20 points for the 20th century was Jawaharlal’s ‘election manifesto’. Strictly speaking, however, there was no election, as GM didn’t seek Congress candidacy, and Nehru won unopposed. And nor was there a formal platform where he pledged to implement the 20 points. In fact, there is a lively academic debate amongst historians about who authored the points — they first appeared in Bengali media in 1948, only this much is certain.
But the points have become synonymous with the Nehruvian era. Rather than doing a laundry list, let’s weave a story around them.
Let’s quickly recall what the late 1940s was like. While the second world war saw the cities and the industry grow dramatically, in the second half of the decade India was in a post-war recession. A sizeable urban proletariat had grown in the cities, where social structure had come under an unprecedented shock — for the first time in history the caste system that survived Muslim and British rules was under threat.
Added to this was the fact that after over 15 years (self government for the states were gained in the early 1930s) in office, most Congress politicians (there was no non-Congress state administration until the 1950s) seemed unable or unwilling to tackle the issues facing them. Alternative to Congress at the national level came from the left — the communists were openly threatening a revolution. There wasn’t any national conservative bloc in the late 1940s, but at various state levels, ethnic or communal coalitions or parties were increasingly becoming the norm.
Nehru argued that unless radical social reforms were undertaken, revolutions and civil breakdown would ensue. Social justice was the first plank of the manifesto. Indeed, the first point of the manifesto called for a preamble to the constitution pledging the Indian Commonwealth to ensure social justice. Social justice was to be the raison d’etre of the Indian Republic. As Nehru himself put it memorably in his inaugural speech, the task was to ‘build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell’.
We’ve of course become accustomed to politicians paying lip service to this laudable goal. Social justice is just a hackneyed phrase to most of us. But in the late 1940s, Nehru’s brilliant articulation was greeted with the sense of idealism that seems to occur every generation in this country. The Noble Mansion speech is considered to be a masterpiece of oratory in not just Indian, but indeed, world history.
What did ensuring social justice mean to Nehru and his followers? Two sources of social injustice were identified: untouchability and gender inequality. The manifesto called for a constitutional amendment abolishing untouchability. It also called for reforms to the civil code. Both were achieved in his lifetime, but the universal civil code continues to be a dream, with several Muslims states holding back — okay, we are getting ahead of the story.
To remove the effects of past injustice as fast as possible, the manifesto called for massive affirmative actions (this was already happening –– Bengal introduced quotas almost as soon as self-government was attained).
The manifesto also called for better education and health outcomes –– free and compulsory education and hospitals in every village. A fully literate india and health for all by 1975 were the stated objective. These were idealist times indeed. The reality has been to honour this pledge in breach.
How was the government to pay for this health and education for all?
By taxing of course! The manifesto called for renegotiating indian fiscal federalism. The idea was that the centre would raise bulk of the revenue, and the states would spend them, with a proportion guaranteed to go to health and education. However, the manifesto left the details to be worked out later, largely because there wasn’t a consensus among Nehru’s advisors on the extent of centralisation.
Indeed, while the manifesto was all about social justice, hardly a word was said about the economy — again, a lack of consensus among his advisors. This is interesting because the Nehru era is considered a golden age of growth and prosperity, while much of the social agenda remains unfulfilled. The manifesto also didn’t say anything about the rest of world, even though the controversy over Nehru’s foreign policy still rages today.
There was, however, consensus on two other issues. There were already calls for extending the suffrage, and the manifesto called for univeral adult suffrage. This, of course, would have required a constitutional amendment, and there were powerful opponents inside Congress.
Further, states in the Indian Commowealth were successors of provinces in British india and native principalities. The manifesto called for a rationalisation of the states along geographic lines. Again, there were powerful opponents to the idea.
The 20 points were a very ambitious agenda. Joe nehru was a very articulate leader. But how did he fare as a president?