When India became independent, to our credit, not all the Congress stalwarts counted themselves as Leftist. Many, like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, C Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, amongst the notables, were decidedly Right-of-Centre, but their views did not prevail. They were, in fact, roundly ignored by Jawaharlal Nehru, who also had relative youth and longevity on his side.
Rajaji’s Swatantra Party did not do well electorally, and neither did Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s efforts, though both had their committed adherents, who have added vastly to their numbers and flowered these 68 years on. Such ideas now, after decades, win elections, as Narendra Modi has demonstrated. The nationalist mood of the times, in the 40s and 50s, the 60s and 70s, and for half of the 80s, preferred the rosy promises of socialism.
But we now know that this going down the socialist garden path, as opposed to the capitalist high road, condemned India to decades of negligible growth (rarely more than 2.5 per cent), high inflation (as much as a ruinous 20 per cent per annum, with no Information and Broadcasting-controlled media comment), and ever-increasing poverty in the face of a growing population. Our infrastructure, to date, is patchy, vastly inadequate, and often described as quaint.
So, to create a workable image, the Government of that day cast itself in the role of an Annadata, a benevolent neo-feudal Mai-baap, demonising the rich, and feeding the poor with terrible, sub-standard rations, often unfit for human consumption. The popular films of the time, played along with this ethical fiction, without offering any explanation as well.
The Government wilfully glossed over its own colossal failure. It took no responsibility for perpetuating a Dickensian nightmare and utterly failing to make the economy grow. It ignored the lack of equality and equity on the ground, the opposite of what socialism loved to profess and promise. Raj Kapoor played his version of the lovable tramp, Charlie Chaplin, and was very popular in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as well.
Till the 60s, for all Jawaharlal Nehru’s lofty pronouncements, we could not even feed ourselves, and had to go begging for food aid. We received a lot of charity those days, including ‘PL 480’ grain, powdered milk etc from the generous US, even as we pretended to be non-aligned, and were actually ensconced in the Soviet camp.
Indira Gandhi’s Green Revolution of the 70s changed this basic requirement at least, and the people loved her for it. But the dislike of free enterprise, embedded in the Soviet style Planning Commission from its earliest days, stayed.
It took a highly statistical approach at first, institutionalised under the much in favour Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. People like Tata Director Freddie Mehta, who was a member at first, quickly lost influence and had to quit. Jawaharlal Nehru saw it fit to patronise a young, patriotic and enthusiastic JRD Tata, without taking any of his suggestions on the economy seriously.
The saving grace was that Jawaharlal Nehru did allow what he called a ‘mixed economy’, with the private sector at least permitted to exist, albeit under a mistrustful and tight reign, the infamous ‘Licence-Permit Raj’. This, along with very high taxes, forced most of the successful in Indian business and industry to become dishonest and dexterous master manipulators of the system. This went on for so long, and created so many distortions in the economic reality of this country, that we all got used to it as part of how things had to be, because we were a ‘poor country’. Nobody questioned why we were poor. Sadly, it was a given.
This began to change in the mid-1980s with the advent of Rajiv Gandhi, and more forcefully when economic liberalisation properly began, in 1991; only to lose its way again, after an initial spurt of real change.