How Nehru Shaped India’s Development

Cees Roffelsen
Sep 25, 2016 · 15 min read
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In this article I will look at how Nehruvian Thought shaped the formative years of India as it emerged from 200 years of British colonialism.

India after independence

The wheels of fate will some day compel the English to give up their Indian Empire. What kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth will they leave behind them? — Rabindranath Tagore, 1941

After independence in 1947, India was among the poorest countries in the world. Two centuries of plunder, neglect, and exploitation by the British, had left a country of over 300 million people destitute and lost. India’s entire infrastructure, it’s economy, it’s bureaucracy, it was all designed and built solely to serve the needs of British industry and further Britain’s interests. India had been drained of its resources and manpower, so that Britain could win wars on the European continent; the Bengal Famine would kill 3 million Indians in WW II, because Churchill did not wish to ‘waste’ grain on his Indian subjects when there were Englishmen to feed. And as a final parting gift, the British co-engineered the Partition in 1947, leading to around 14 million refugees and mass killings all over the subcontinent. Half the population of India now lived below the poverty line, and over 80 percent of the people were illiterate. The country was famine-ridden and life expectancy was around 30 years. The per capita income, the agricultural output, and the food grains output had all been continuously shrinking for the previous three decades. Around 1700, the Mughal Empire produced one-third of the global GDP. For the Indian republic in 1947, this was less than 10 percent.

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There was every possibility that India would end up as just another post-independence basket case. However, as the world watched India, expecting it to fail, quite the opposite happened. When the 1950s rolled by, and consecutive 5-year plans were drawn up and executed, it came to the world’s attention that India was doing remarkably well; Percival Griffith, a former colonial administrator who was highly sceptical of India’s capabilities, wrote in 1957 that post-independence foodgrain production had been ‘spectacular,’ and that India was succeeding in doing what he himself had thought impossible. He noted that it was ‘impossible to travel round India (…) without feeling that the country has entered a new, dynamic phase,’ and that ‘the signs of a rise in the standard of living are unmistakable.’(1) British economist Barbara Ward remarked in 1961 how in India a ‘process of continuous growth (…) covers everything from Tata’s works at Jamshedpur, producing over half a million tons of steel a year, down to the villager selling his first maund of rice in the market.’ Ward further wrote that ‘investment in all sectors, including agriculture, almost double between the first and second plans,’ and that ‘the Indian record in both infrastructure and industry is one of substantial advance on a broad front, (…) like the big push needed to achieve sustained growth.’ (2) From over 40 years of zero-percent growth between 1900–1947, India saw the economy grow to 4 percent annually until 1962, putting it ahead of China, Japan, and the UK.

On who we should congratulate for this remarkable achievement, the American political scientist Michael Brecher was quite clear:

whatever progress has been achieved is primarily due to the efforts of the prime minister. Indeed he is the heart and soul and mind of India’s heroic struggle to raise the living standards of its 390 million people. (3)

Brecher is of course referring to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). As India lost its Bapu in 1948 with the assassination of Gandhi, Nehru became responsible for continuing the Mahatma’s legacy and creating the India they together had dreamed of. From 1947 to 1964, Nehru was the leading figure of India, and his vision of India would shape the country’s initial development and lay the foundations upon which it still builds today. As such, it is well worth investigating what this vision was and how it gave form to the Indian republic’s formative years.

The four pillars of Nehruvian thought

Nehru’s idea of India’s modern nationhood consisted of four key dimensions: democracy, secularism, socialism, and non-alignment. These dimensions came about through long discussions between Nehru and Gandhi, Nehru’s own experience in the independence movement, and his observations as he saw the world change and move into new, unknown territory. The destruction of the Second World War had obliterated the old order of European colonialism, and replaced it with one where countless new countries were emerging, and where two superpowers were vying for global domination. The British leaving him no tradition of good governance to fall back on, Nehru had to reinvent the art of Indian statesmanship in a new world order.

Overnight, India had become the largest democracy in the world; the sheer size of its population gave it a voter-base larger than the entire populace of most other democracies. India’s democracy took ideas from both Westminster and Capitol Hill; India became a union of states with strong local government like the US, but with a parliamentary system like the UK. For Nehru, democracy was not just about the right to vote, but also having the economic means to leverage your democratic rights. Political democracy would be meaningless without economic democracy. Nehru was also a strong advocate for Panchayati Raj, the idea of self-governance for villages. Much like Gandhi, Nehru believed development should not be dictated from above, but rise up from below. In 1957, Nehru would initiate the introduction of a three-tier system of Panchayati Raj, which was to be spread over all of rural India. For seven years, democracy was deepened down- and outwards over the whole land. Unfortunately, with Nehru’s death in 1964, Panchayati Raj would die a slow death and only be revived by Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1993.

Nehru’s idea of secularism was to be often tested during his premiership; with Partition and the creation of Pakistan, the idea of Muslim-Hindu cohabitation came under fire by both Muslims and Hindus. Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, believed that Muslims would never be safe as a minority in a Hindu-dominated India. On the other side, there were those who believed in Hindutva, the idea that India is first and foremost a Hindu nation and should be guided by Hindu principles. The creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan gave Hindutvaa new boon as its adherents now argued that, with the Muslims having their own state, Hindus were entitled to having India as their country. Nehru would have none of this and till his lasts days he fought for a secular India over a Hindu India. When the Islamic minority had to be reassured that India would continue to be their home as well, Nehru stated in 1951:

If anyone raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from inside the government or outside. (4)

Nehruvian socialism and planning were the centre-pieces of the Congress Party’s economic platform, going as far back as the Karachi Congress of 1931. In 1926–27, Nehru had stayed in Europe as he attended a meeting of the League Against Imperialism in Brussels, where he would meet many European socialists and, more importantly, the Chinese revolutionary delegation. He was also an official guest at the 10th anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution in the Soviet Union. There he became impressed with the USSR’s remarkable achievements, and he already saw great potential in the burgeoning super power. However, he also became irritated with the Bolsheviks’ dictatorial ways, their aggressive and vulgar methods, and their obsession with ideological purity. Nehru would be among the first in the socialist bloc to break with Stalinist Marxism as a model of national development. He did not believe in the regimentation of society, the brutal dictatorship of the proletariat, or forced acquisition and collectivisation. Instead, Nehru’s socialism was to be on the basis of democracy and non-violence, leading to the establishment of a cooperative, socialist commonwealth. He advocated for the abolition of the zamindari system of feudal landownership, and the rapid acceleration of industrialisation through central planning.

Nehru’s foreign policy for India was to be shaped by the idea of non-alignment. Over a hundred new countries would emerge from the ruins of European colonialism after WW II, and the two competing super powers — the US and the USSR — were both looking to expand their influence over these maiden nations. India was also courted, but Nehru rejected the false dichotomy of American capitalism or Russian communism. Instead, he chose the third path of non-alignment. The idea of non-alignment finds its roots in India’s struggle for independence; Gandhi had successfully turned the practice of non-violence into a political principle of passive-resistance and non-cooperation. Not only could Gandhi thus avoid confronting the British empire on its own terms, but it also gave a moral imperative to the struggle. Rather than developing a the-end-justifies-the-means mindset — as so many revolutionaries do — Gandhi believed the end was intrinsically connected and influenced by the means, and a violent struggle for power would have led to a subsequent violent hold onto power. For Nehru, this moral ethos meant that India could not align itself with either of the super powers for its own interests, without becoming corrupted by the means and methods of those super powers. If India was to stay true to the principles of Gandhi, then aligning with either the US or the USSR was out of the question. Non-alignment was also a way for India to maintain its national sovereignty; having just thrown out the British, it seemed foolish to immediately become a vassal of a new foreign master. Furthermore, India’s choice to not align itself with either great power, but to always remain an advocate for non-violence and peaceful cooperation among nations, gave it a much larger voice in international politics than its economy or military strength really justified. India would become one of the leading nations of the Movement of Non-aligned Countries, a power bloc in the United Nations of many newly-liberated countries.

Development under Nehru

All the efforts of post-colonial development had to happen within the framework of non-alignment and democracy. Combining rapid industrial development with democracy was something none had tried before, and thus Nehru had to tread uncharted territory. Unlike Bolshevism, Nehruvian Socialism did not allow for the forced acquisition and collectivisation of land, meaning that the necessary surplus for industrialisation could not be forcibly attained over the backs of the Indian working class and peasantry. Unlike with the US or UK, India could also not force surplus out of labour through slavery, or by collecting tribune from colonies.

Dedication to non-alignment meant that India could not accept foreign aid, foreign capital, or other types of foreign intervention that would make India a junior partner of the industrialised nations. Nehru understood well that political independence would have little meaning if it was not combined with economic independence. However, the nature of British colonialism meant that India had become completely dependent on the developed world for capital goods, technology, and investments. In 1950, over 90 percent of India’s capital, machinery, and even basic tools, had to be imported from abroad. This type of neo-colonialism forced Nehru to compromise on his non-alignment position, but it also motivated him to adopt a path of industrialisation, based on heavy industry and capital-goods industry. Since India lacked a sufficient private sector with the necessary start-up capital for industrialisation, and since foreign investment would have jeopardised India’s independence, it was the state which became the heart of Indian industry . However, this did not mean the state started to dictate the private sector or confiscate its property. Nehru’s commitment to democracy meant that the private sector was largely left to its own devices, and that only the railways, the airlines, left-behind British firms, and the Imperial Bank (later renamed as State Bank of India) were nationalised. Where the state came into its own, was in pioneering new avenues of growth and in taking risks the private sector could not afford to take. Planning was another key ingredient of the Nehruvian Socialist economy, and the successive 5-year plans would see India’s GDP growth increase from a paltry 0.72 percent in 1947, to over 4 percent annually in the following years.

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During Nehru’s three 5-year plans (1951–1965), India’s industrial sector would grow at 7,1 percent a year, the number of consumer-goods industries would increase by 70 percent, the production of intermediate goods would quadruple, and the output of capital goods would increase tenfold. India went from a situation where 90 percent of its industrial goods were imported, to halving that in 1960, and having only 9 percent of its goods come from abroad in 1974. This form of economic autonomy freed India from the industrialised countries and strengthened its position as a non-aligned country. Besides cutting ties when it came to imports, India also made sure it would not be dependent on a few industrialised nations for its export. Instead, India deliberately diversified its trade and made sure no particular region or bloc was left out or favoured. In 1947, 45 percent of India’s total trade was with the US and UK. By 1977, this would be reduced to only 20 percent, which was achieved by increasing trade with the socialist bloc and other non-aligned countries.

As with the industrial sector, post-independence agriculture was sorely lacking in India. British neglect had allowed Indian agriculture to stagnate and decline, leading to successive famines and widespread malnutrition. After 1947, India faced acute food shortages and 14 million tonnes of food had to be imported between 1947 and 1953. As with capital goods, India would never be truly independent if it was reliant on others for basic survival. Hence, Nehru took upon himself the task of revolutionising agriculture. But again, as with the industrial sector, Nehru’s commitment to democracy meant that he could not forcibly reform land ownership or coerce the peasants into collectivisation. This would thankfully spare India the casualties of similar forced reforms in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, and despite Nehru’s softer approach, by 1957 the 150-year old zamindari system was all but gone. Cooperative and institutional subsidies for farmers had freed them from the stranglehold of landowners and moneylenders. Such loans would increase from Rs 0.23 billion in 1950, to Rs 3.65 billion in 1966. With public investments in scientific agricultural research, irrigation, and electric power projects, India’s agriculture was rapidly modernising. Nehru understood that an agricultural revolution could not happen without innovation in its methods — e.g. without electricity, tractors, pumps, chemical fertilisers, etc. This combination of public investment and cooperative land reforms saw agriculture grow annually by 3 percent from 1951 to 1965. Even the Green Revolution, which for the first time in decades would give India a food surplus, would not have been possible in the ’70s, had it not been for the groundwork laid by Nehru.

And lastly there was the knowledge sector. The British had deliberately left India as an intellectually barren wasteland, depriving its population of any opportunity to develop scientific or creative thought, and Nehru was fully aware of how backwards India was in 1947. As with agriculture and industry, it was important that India would develop its own institutions for scientific education and research, or forever become dependent on the advanced world for intellectual development — Nehru himself had received his education at Trinity College in Cambridge. He oversaw the founding of the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the National Physical and Chemical Laboratories, the AIIMS (All India Institutes for Medical Sciences), and many other such institutions all over India. An atomic reactor was set up in Bombay, which would attain criticality in 1956. The national expenditure on scientific research also increased from Rs 10 million in 1949, to Rs 4.5 billion in 1977. In this same period, India’s scientific and technical manpower would increase from 190,000 to 2.32 million people. But his focus on high-level education did not mean Nehru neglected basic education for the less-well off. As far back as the Karachi Congress of 1931, Nehru had been committed to free, public, and compulsory basic education for everyone. Primary schools were set up all over India, and funding was provided to ensure they were properly staffed.

Democracy and development

If poverty and low standards continue, then democracy, for all its fine institutions and ideals, ceases to be a liberating force. It must therefore aim continuously at the eradication of poverty (…) In other words, political democracy is not enough. It must develop into economic democracy as well. — Nehru, 1952

Most newly-independent nations prioritised economic development over democratisation. Just as the West first industrialised before it became truly democratic, so did many third-world leaders see democracy as a luxury for only rich and developed countries. Today, many in Africa and Asia see China, with its dictatorial state capitalism, as the model they should emulate. Supranational bodies like the European Union and the IMF are also often in favour of sidestepping the democratic process in favour of technocratic solutions. For Nehru however, political democracy was a necessary condition for people’s empowerment and an integral part of economic development.

It was Nehru’s dedication to democracy and civil rights, that prevented India from experiencing large-scale famine deaths as a result of radical reforms. Over 40 million would die in China between the 1950s and 60s due to Mao’s poor governance. The absence of free media in the People’s Republic left the Chinese powerless to inform each other about it, thus giving incompetent officials free reign over the country. In India, with over 70,000 newspapers and countless television channels, it would have been impossible for the government to keep a famine under wraps, thus forcing officials to be held accountable for their actions.

Along with the Panchayati Raj initiative, Nehru sought to empower the villages and common people economically, by improving their agricultural methods and giving them better means of communication, education, and health. His objective was to ‘unleash forces from below among our people,’ by ‘creat[ing] conditions in which spontaneous growth from below was possible.’ (5) Nehru sought to integrate it with the elected, locally self-governing bodies of the villages. He set up local cooperatives in banking, marketing, and other services, while emphasising the critical role of cooperation between these institutions and the Panchayati Raj. By keeping both democracy and development close to the poorest of India, an inflationary path to growth, which always hits the poor the hardest, was never adopted. For several decades, the trend rate of inflation would not touch two digits in India.

Nehru’s legacy

Unfortunately, Nehru’s successors would prove to be poor caretakers of his legacy. The many cooperatives and local institutions he had set up would slowly become more and more bureaucratised and fall victim to graft and rent-seeking. Along with Panchayati Raj, bottom-up development slowly withered away and a new form of corporate feudalism would emerge in its place. The quality of public schooling would sharply decline after Nehru’s passing, along with many other pro-poor programmes he had set up. Though the final nail in the coffin of Nehruvian development would come from his own daughter, Indira Gandhi. When she declared a state of emergency in 1975, and began a two-year period of tyranny, fear, and uncertainty, she betrayed everything her father had stood for. The policies Indira enacted in those two years would forever discredit Nehruvian Socialism and initiate the steady decline of the Congress Party as a hegemonic force in Indian politics, culminating in its ignominious electoral defeat by the BJP in 2014.

Yet, while Nehru’s successors may be but a poor reflection of the original, his legacy still remains. India’s successful Mars mission of 2014, was an achievement that had been built on the scientific progress since independence, started by Nehru. His investment in nuclear technology would allow India in 1988 to become one of the few nations in the world with its own nuclear arsenal. And to this day, the IITS are still among the most prestigious institutions of education in India.

Having escaped the trap of neo-colonialism many newly-independent countries fell into, India is now rapidly becoming one of the ruling super powers of the world, only outdone by China and the US. And not only is it still the largest democracy in the world, but it is among the few developing countries who have remained democratic without interruption or foreign intervention — except for the ’75–77 Emergency.

With Hindutva on the rise in India through the popularity of the BJP, and Rahul Gandhi continuing to be a joke of a politician, it has become popular to criticise Nehruvianism, calling Nehru’s premiership ‘wasted years’. While it is true that Nehruvian Socialism was in bad need of renewal — or even replacement — by the 1980s, it would be disingenuous to deny the importance it played in laying the foundations upon which even the BJP is building today. Learning from the practice of the Gandhian movement, Nehru had come to understand there could be no political democracy without economic democracy, just as there could have been no political independence, without economic and intellectual independence.


(1) Sir Percival Griffiths, Modern India (Ernest Benn Ltd.; London; 1957) 205–207

(2) Barbara Ward, India and the West (Hamish Hamilton; London; 1961) 145–172

(3) Michael Brecher, Nehru: A Political Biography (OUP; London; 1959) 553

(4) Hindustan Times (4 October, 1951)

(5) Jawaharlal Nehru, Speeches Vol. 2 (1967) 50–56

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