A brief (alternate) history of India — Nehru’s golden years
The 1950s is, of course, considered as somewhat of a ‘golden era’ these days. Some of it just nostalgia of the older generations. It is also partly a result of decades of pop culture glorification of Lallywood’s golden days. But there is also something to the idea that the mid-to-late 1950s were times of general peace and prosperity.
And the mid-1950s was the heyday of Jawaharlal Nehru’s long political career.
While the economy has actually grown faster in most of the subsequent decades (with the exception of the 1970s), things felt better in the 1950s. And one major reason for this was the fact that 1950s was the first better because it was the first time in history that the average Desi didn’t go to sleep in an empty stomach.
Mid-1950s was the time of Green Revolution, which resulted in not only self-sufficiency in food production, but also an efficient food distribution system that has banished forever the spectre of famine from Desh.
Meanwhile, the boom in manufacturing set off by the Korean War continued into the rest of the decade in the form of light, labour intensive manufacturing, which benefitted from preferential trade deals provided by the Americans.
The United States was of course wooing India as a cold war ally. That’s why, as well as preferential trade agreements, the US provided generous aid and soft loans — directly as well as through multilateral institutions — for massive infrastructure projects. While most of these projects were actually completed in the 1960s, the investment helped lay the foundation for sustained growth into our time.
The American aid notwithstanding, India’s development experience was (and still is) far from laissez-faire. Even before his re-election, Nehru had set up a Planning Commission to help avoid a post-war dislocation like the 1940s. The Commission wasn’t the only ‘elite’ institution aiding development set up by the Nehru administration. The Green Revolution was assisted by the Agriculture Academy. By the end of the decade, there were also world-class academies and research centres for science, technology, statistics, engineering, health and the humanities.
Nehru took a personal interest in these academies — calling science and technology India’s new religion, and dams her new temples.
Inspite of the public investment , India was nothing like a planned economy such as Red China or the Soviet Union. Not only was the manufacturing boom led by the private sector, India was attractive to the multinationals. Well, make that some Indian states — those with lower taxes and less stringent regulations.
Recall, the constitution had left much of the fiscal powers to the states. Nehru revived a broad-based consumption tax, but otherwise left the states to set their own taxes and regulations. He also left the states to set actual policies that affect human welfare, while the newly elected parliament amended the constitution and legislated the Noble Mansion agenda including the end of untouchability, rights to health and education, or gender equality.
The resulting divergence across the states in terms of achieving these worthy objectives is self-explanatory.
Turning from domestic to international affairs — Nehru refused to join any military pact. He cemented his role as a global statesman by negotiating the end of the Korean War. He offered to host a summit between Khrushchev and Eisenhower, and championed decolonisation. He condemned the Soviet atrocities in Hungary in late 1956.
But it was the Suez crisis of the same time that made him an icon of the ‘South”. When Britain and France sent troops to support Israel’s invasion of Egypt, Nehru committed Indian forces to defend the Arab republic. Consequently, no Desi leader ever came close the popularity Nehru enjoyed when the IAF bombed British ships in the Red Sea.
Nehru was always expected to win a third term in the 1957 election — the first held with universal suffrage. But after the war, he crushed a dozen or so opposition candidates, with Subhas Bose coming second with less than tenth of votes.