In Absentia: Did India have any worthwhile intellectual leadership since independence?

This question first came to my mind a few years back when I was trying to identify the basic causes of persistent poverty in India.  Even after more than 60 years of independence, the poverty rate was hovering around 25%.  The problem has remained a scourge and a stumbling block preventing the progress and development of India in other aspects as a culturally advanced nation.  This has also come to haunt the Indian political leaders and intellectuals as well since 1947 while they were struggling to build India as a modern nation-state after the British rule ended.

During the course of the research on the subject, I came to understand that the Indian state has failed not only in the economic realm with respect to the eradication of widespread poverty but also in various political spheres like annihilation of caste and in the establishment of communal harmony among different religious communities.

One redeeming feature of the Indian state is that it has not only survived 70 years of freedom as a sovereign state but also seems to be thriving very well as a nation-state in spite of various problems in its polity.

The Soviet Union (USSR) established as a communist state in 1917, which was at one time considered as a superpower competing with another superpower USA in a bipolar world, imploded and crumbled, being unable to withstand its internal contradictions, in just over 70 years in 1991.

The process of disintegration of the Communist Soviet Union (USSR) began to be visible to the outside world even in the mid 1980s (65 after the establishment of USSR) with Perestroika and Glasnost (meaning “Listen” and “Openness”), the reform movement in the political and economic systems of the Soviet Union.  A strike in the Gdansk shipyard of Poland, another communist state under the Soviet influence, a satellite state, in August 1980, was another forerunner of the fall of the communist Soviet Union.

Successful Eradication of Widespread Poverty in Europe

There was widespread poverty throughout the world during the feudal social system, which was the dominant form of the social organization until the 18th century.  Under that social system, men lived under the mercy of nature with poverty and various diseases causing enormous suffering, death, and destruction and spread misery among the populace throughout Europe.

Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1820) enabled Europe to completely eradicate that problem long ago.  It took them more than 50 to 60 years to achieve this as the effects of Industrial Revolution began to spread slowly among the general public and wealth was being created faster than at any time in the history of mankind before Industrial Revolution.

More recently, Japan and West Germany, after the almost complete destruction of their economies during World War II (1939 – 1945), were rebuilt into advanced industrial societies within 20 years after the end of the War.  Japan and West Germany became the second and third largest economies in the world after the United States within those 20 years.  The aid offered by the United States through the Marshall Plan and the relatively free trade and free market policies adopted by those countries achieved this miracle.

The Potential of India to Solve the Problem at Independence

The prevalence of widespread poverty was the easiest economic problem to solve for India immediately after independence.  The other political problems of caste division and discrimination and the establishment of communal harmony among various religious groups were more complex and would take a long time to come to fruition.

All the potential to achieve prosperity and wealth creation and thereby solve the problem of widespread poverty and to establish prosperity was there in India at the time of independence.  The only issue was whether the Indian leaders were willing to see and understand the causes of poverty and arrive at a solution to solve that problem as in the case of Europe through Industrial Revolution and Japan and Germany after World War II.  India had all the natural resources like fertile lands throughout India fed and irrigated by a large number of rivers (perennial as well as seasonal), abundant material resources like coal, iron ore and other mineral wealth that were needed to attain the status of a developed nation in 20 to 30 years.

The economy of India at the time of Independence was in a position to take off if the right policies were adopted based on the ideas of free trade and free market like Europe at the time of Industrial Revolution and Japan and Germany after World War II.  Gurcharan Das in his book “India Unbound: from Independence to the Global Information ageexplains succinctly that the economic condition of India was at such a stage in 1947(Page 11).

“By 1914, India had the third-largest railway network, the world’s largest jute manufacturing industry, the fourth-largest cotton textile industry, the largest canal system, and 2.5 percent of world trade. It also had a merchant class hungry to become industrialists. After the war, industrialization did, in fact, pick up. G. D. Birla, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, and other businessmen made huge trading profits during the First World War and reinvested them in setting up industries. Between 1913 and 1938, our manufacturing output grew 5.6 percent a year, well ahead of the world average of 3.3. By 1947, industry’s share doubled to 7.5 percent of national output from 3.4 percent.”

But, the Indian leaders took an entirely opposite direction than what was needed for India to grow economically into a developed nation, and India is still experiencing the effects of such a suicidal path.

Poverty Alleviation – Programs and Policies of Political Leadership

“Ending of poverty” was one of the main goals for India as envisioned by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his famous “tryst with destiny speech” delivered to the Indian Constitution Assembly on August 15, 1947, the day when India attained independence from the British rule.

An article in LiveMint dated Nov 17, 2014, titled “The Nehruvian Rate of Growth,” by Manas Chakravarty captures the essence of the performance of Nehru’s 17-year rule, as far as poverty alleviation and economic growth in India, in 2 sentences.

The data taken from economic historian Angus Maddison’s time series on world GDP showed India’s compounded annual growth rate for the period to be 1.68% while that of Japan was 7.96%.

The article quotes “Gaurav Dutt and Martin Ravallion,” poverty researchers from the World Bank, who wrote in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2010, “There was little sign of sustained progress against poverty until the mid-1970s.”

America Helped Preventing Large Scale Famine in India in the 1960s

Not only that the 14-year rule of Jawaharlal Nehru could do nothing much in eradicating poverty but also there was a much more disgraceful fact that the agriculture production was not even good enough to produce to satisfy even the demand of people who could pay for food.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, the economist, in an article “Drought not a big calamity in India anymore” dated July 29, 2012, wrote, “India in the 1960s was pathetically dependent on US food aid (called PL-480). Even in the bumper monsoon year of 1964-65, food aid totaled 7 million tonnes, over one-tenth of domestic production. Then India was hit by twin droughts in 1965 and 1966. Grain production crashed by one-fifth. Only unprecedented food aid (from the USA) saved India from mass starvation. Jawaharlal Nehru talked big about self-sufficiency. Yet he led India into deep dependence on foreign charity. The 1966 drought drove India into a ship-to-mouth existence (through the PL-480 programs of USA). Hungry mouths could be filled only by food aid, which reached a record 10 million tonnes.”

Indira Gandhi and Her Policy Failure in Poverty Alleviation

In 1971, after 24 years of uninterrupted congress rule, her daughter Indira Gandhi, the third Prime Minister of India, coined a slogan “Garibi Hatao Desh Bachao (Abolish poverty, save the nation)” which only fetched her an astounding election victory but did not seem to have helped in any significant manner to the cause of removing widespread poverty.

Many more attempts were made through various schemes and programs by successive Prime Ministers, both from Congress and Janata Party, to eliminate poverty without much success.  Here and here are the details of such programs.

As recently as in 2005 – about 58 years after independence – in order to “enhance the livelihood security” of people (an euphemism for poverty removal) in the rural areas, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, which was later rechristened as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) on Oct 2, 2009, was enacted by the Congress government under Dr. Manmohan Singh.  This program of Congress was like the proverbial icing on the cake in the quest of the leaders of India for the removal of widespread poverty.  The declared objective of the program was a tacit admission that poverty will never be eliminated and will remain as a permanent feature of Indian political economy.

The attitude of the intellectuals and the political leaders toward the issue of removal of widespread poverty left me wondering sometimes whether they were merely paying lip service to their ideal.  I had a feeling that their policies essentially have resulted only in perpetuating the problem rather than make even a small dent in the deep-set problem of our political economy.  Their actions, in essence, seemed to make one think that they are just trying to keep the people under their leash by perpetuating the problem of poverty.  At the same time, by devising one program or other for poverty alleviation, they hope to make the people believe that they are making serious efforts to solve the problem and thereby make people vote for them to win elections to rule them.

Garibi Hatao – Slogan Coined to Win an Election But Not to Remove Poverty

In particular, Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” turned out to be a mere slogan of such a heinous design since she seemed to have had no clue to the problem of widespread poverty and did not have any plan for its removal while coining the slogan for the 1971 elections.  This is what the Wikipedia entry on Garibi Hatao has to say:  “Garibi Hatao did little and accomplished less: only about 4% of all funds allocated for economic development went to the three main anti-poverty programs, and precious few of these ever reached the ‘poorest of the poor’, but it did help secure Gandhi’s election.”

In an article in LiveMint dated November 30, 2016, “How India fared under Indira Gandhi” by Tadit Kundu, the author explains through graphs the performance of Indira Gandhi’s policies and concludes that “A reading of multiple Indian poverty estimates shows that poverty has declined at a much faster rate in post-reform India despite the dismantling of many of Gandhi’s policies.”  This would, in essence, mean that Indira Gandhi’s policies were not achieving the goal of poverty alleviation in reality but were mere slogans.

The goal of poverty alleviation seems to have been discarded by the politicians since Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao,” from which the politicians realized that mere slogans on poverty would be enough to gain electrical victories and that no sincere efforts are needed to achieve that goal.  Their policies and programs since then progressed along this line and have now metamorphosed into schemes where household utensils like mixer and grinder, fan, TV, cell-phones, laptops, etc., are given to people free of cost.  This would make people always dependent on the politicians and bureaucrats and make the politicians think of and devise as many schemes as possible to keep people on their leash.

Most of these freebies are substandard and the major part of the money for the programs goes to the politicians and bureaucrats as commission which they get from businessmen who supply these freebies.  The politicians and bureaucrats are now relieved of the responsibility of even the necessity to think about any plan for poverty alleviation.  These programs act as a double whammy of keeping people always poor as these freebies shelf-life is kept deliberately low and the politicians and bureaucrats converted the programs of the government into a standard amount of income-generating machine for them at regular intervals.

Author Sures Chandra Jain in his book “Indigenous Resources for Rural Development: Agricultural Mechanisation and Rural Industrialization” published in 2005, espouses essentially a similar theme in his concluding chapter “Conclusion:  The removal of poverty,” where he explains the fundamental nature of the attitude of political leadership towards poverty alleviation (Page 216):

“The rulers in India in the post-independence era have been ruling by initiating certain social reforms whenever their positions have been threatened.  No sincere attempts so far have been made to eradicate poverty except to keep the rulers being in positions of power and authority.

In nearly five decades after the independence, all the reforms have meant for strengthening political power rather than the common good of the wretched masses in general, where approximately 10 percent of the population at the top level has been the main beneficiary of independence in India, as concluded in Chapter 1 of this book.

So far, therefore, no genuine attempt has been made to eliminate the economic serfdom, illiteracy, and ignorance so widespread in rural areas, where 80 percent of the population dwells…….

In the post-independence era, a number of programmes had specifically been designed, developed, and implemented for rural development.  During the VIth and VIIth Five-Year Plans (1980 – 1990), massive investments have been made in Integrated Rural Development Programmes (IRDP) and National Rural Employment Programmes (NREP).  All of these programmes have not been able to scratch the surface of poverty in rural areas.  There are many reasons for their failure, but corruption, malpractices, and administrative inefficiency are the most widely acknowledged.”

This trend was broken only after the 1991 economic reforms, which led to a rapid reduction in the poverty rate in the 20 years after the reforms, when the poverty rate dropped from 37% in 1991 to 22% in 2011, while in the 44 years since independence in 1991, the poverty rate had dropped from around 50% to 37%.  While the period 1947 – 1991 saw an increase in the poverty rate from around 50% to 60% in 1981, and then had a steep decline to 37% in 1991, the period 1991 – 2011 saw a steady decline from 37% to 22%.

While India was Failing, South East Asia was Achieving Dramatic Progress

The economic policies that were being followed in India seemed to be failing not only with respect to the goal of removal of poverty but also in all other economic indicators like shortage of essential commodities, the balance of payment problems at regular intervals, very slow growth in the Gross National Product, etc.

While India was struggling with the problem of poverty, some countries in South East Asia, called Four Asian Tigers – Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong – were making enormous progress in wealth creation.  Those tiny nations, without any mineral wealth like India, were marching steadily from the status of developing countries to developed nation.

The rate of growth of the Indian economy was abysmally low that it was derisively called “Hindu rate of Growth,” which was very inappropriate but should be called “Nehruvian rate of growth” because this was the result of the policies initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru, and this has nothing to do with the Hindu religion as the name suggests.

One comparison of India’s economy with one of these “Four Asian Tigers” would make the respective growth rates of their economies clear:  From Wikipedia:

In 1947, South Korean per capita income was less than 2 times bigger than India’s.

By 1960, South Korean per capita income was 4 times larger than India’s.

By 1990, South Korean per capita income was 20 times larger.

Neither the political leaders nor the intellectuals of India seemed to have learned any lesson from the success stories of those countries nor did they think of making any corrective measures in terms of policy changes in their approach to find a solution to the problem.  They even failed to take any note of this and they continued to follow those failed policies with more vigor after every election.  Those policies failed even to give any cosmetic effect to the problem, let alone solve it.

The problem of removal of poverty did not seem to be merely an economic issue but some underlying political and philosophical principles were preventing the leaders even to consider implementing the economic ideas of the Asian countries to India and emulate their success in order to remove poverty.  The absence of any major critique of the economic policies from the intellectuals was of greater significance than the attitude of political leaders because it was the intellectuals who are the guardians of the culture of any society, including its economy.

When I was contemplating on various issues of social organization and statecraft related to this major problem encountered by India, a significant event happened in Bihar in the field of education, which offered me an opening to a possible answer to my question about the existence or otherwise of any respectable intellectual leadership in India since independence.  This was a bridge to identify the comprehensive set of ideas that are dominant among the intellectuals for their attitude to poverty removal and their persistence in continuing with policies and programs that were obviously failing.

Indian Education System in Shambles

The significant event was a horrible incident of mass copying that happened in a school in Bihar in March 2015 during the examination conducted by Bihar School Examination Board that attracted international attention with an article published in Daily Mail, England.  An Indian newspaper sarcastically titled this as “Scaling new heights to deliver cheat sheets.”

This incident acted as the launch pad in my mind to seek a definitive answer to this question with urgency.  I thought that this incident was the symbol of much deeper malice in the society and its culture than the problem of poverty confronting India at this time.  The root cause of this if identified would lead to the identification of the factors for India remaining as a nation of poverty and would lead to an answer to my question about the intellectual leadership.

These were clear symptoms of a rotten educational system of Bihar and UP, which were glaringly open, but no intellectuals seemed to respond to such a grave cultural emergency.  Almost all articles were just journalistic in nature:  How this happened, how many were involved, how corrupt the Bihar bureaucrats were, how the political class was clueless about the problem or a possible solution?

No intellectual discussion seemed to have happened about how and why this malaise had taken hold of society and what would be the nature of future citizens of the country whose education seemed worthless.  The intellectuals of India were caught napping.  What they should have predicted, as the following 2 articles testify, they not only failed to do so but became dumb in the face of a crisis that they had not expected but should have.  What I expected was a flurry of articles and analysis and research projects on the subject, but most of the intellectuals were not even found to be on the scene even as spectators.  This incident is an example of the pathetic nature of the failure of Indian intellectuals in the face of a grave crisis in Indian culture.

One ridiculous suggestion of an “open book system” to solve the problem has been made in an article in The Hindu.  It was supposed to have been suggested by “many of the school teachers and academicians” claims the article.  This must have come from someone who is novice as far as the principles of education are concerned.  In this context, the idea of open book exam is like offering as a solution of making one particular crime as legal in order to claim that they have cleaned the society of all crimes and the nation has become a peaceful society of law-abiding citizens.  If I am asked to give an instance of “tearing opening the lid off hell and letting men see it,” then I would term the attitude of the intellectuals to this issue as the most appropriate.

Open book system as practiced by some advanced nations, mainly in the Europe and USA, is for higher education in which some high standard has already been established in the system.  The faculty who design questions for such open book system should be of a very high standard.  The ideas under which such a system works is that with a book in hand, obviously, the student is not expected to just copy the book as an answer to any question.  He is expected to read the data and the ideas that are given in the book relevant to the question, then think it over himself and offer his answer in his own words, through which the teacher who values that answer sheet would get some idea about the knowledge possessed by the student and evaluate the capacity of his thinking and ability to express ideas.  This cannot work in a system of education where the principles of education are in early stages of development and still evolving as in India.

One can observe a peculiar attitude of leaders of India wherein the leaders were regularly professing their intention of repealing archaic laws in the constitution and legal system that were made during the British rule but seemed to have not able to even make any attempt to achieve this.

The same kind of principle is dominating in the field of education in India.  Everybody is blaming the British system and Indians being slaves to such a system and that a thorough revamping is needed with no trace of British principles of education left in our educational system but not able to make any significant changes.  Their inability to do the changes is a clear admission on their part that they do not understand the nature of the education system and they have some fear psychosis that if they try to tweak the system then it may affect the basic principles which are the pillars of the system and that would ultimately weaken the whole system and it would ultimately collapse.  Without a clear understanding of the basic principles of education, they could not touch the system for even some cosmetic changes.  This again is another example of the absence of intellectual leadership in the field of education.

Every politician in India seems to have some strong opinions on every aspect of educational policies that they profess to be followed by the state, policies that openly show derision or open hatred against some standard to be established in the education system, but no intellectual seems to be heard to protest against those regressive policies.

The Cause of Decay in Education in India

After searching hundreds of web-pages for a respectable analysis of the problem, I came across two well-written articles identifying the fundamental causes of the decay in the Bihar educational system by Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad, who resides in Canada, a former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA:  “Scandals in Bihar Education are Old; Role of Media is New” dated 24 June 2016 and 1967 to 2017 and  “Bihar Celebrates Half a Century of decay in Education” dated 16 June 2017, both published in Patna Daily.

The decay in the education system started with the introduction by Karpoori Thakur, the then Education Minister, in 1967, of what was called PWE (Pass Without English) or “Karpoori Division,” as it was sarcastically called then.  As the author noted in the article, “He lacked the vision to make the foundation of students strong,” and rather laid the foundation for the standard of education to decline.

The decay of Education System Main Cause of Persistent Poverty

What the American economist and political philosopher Thomas Sowell said about the relationship between poverty and education in the American context holds true for India as well.  “If you want to see the poor remain poor, generation after generation, just keep the standards low in their schools and make excuses for their academic shortcomings and personal misbehavior.”

This has been demonstrated to be absolutely true in Bihar when one observes the kind of mass copying that has been happening regularly as a consequence and direct result of that disastrous idea introduced 50 years ago.  The politicians and bureaucrats in Bihar took the next logical step and “progressed” from that idea of “Pass Without English” to “Pass Without Studying,” and thereby destroyed the education system and still they are venerated as “progressives” and the mass copying during exams is still going on without respite.

The 1967 elections to various state assemblies brought a shift in political power from Congress to various regional parties, almost all mainly more socialistic than Congress, with no ideological change in the trend for better.  The political alternative to the Congress under Nehru and Indira Gandhi was not ideological but personal and mainly nitpicking over trivia, a false alternative.  There was no real intellectual alternative that was credible ideologically.  This again shows lack of intellectual leadership.

It is not a mere coincidence the states where the reports of regular mass copying in exams are happening in Bihar and UP, where the education system is at its lowest standards, and those two states are the least developed in India economically.

Intellectual Vacuum In India Since Independence

I was deeply pondering over all these issues and their relevance to the cultural trend in India for some time, and then one day, while I was browsing the net I happened to land on Ramachandra Guha’s article “Ambedkar’s Desiderata,” dated February 1, 2010, in the Outlook magazine.

When I finished reading the first 2 paragraphs, I was taken aback with a great shock and almost leaped out of my chair.  The shock was because those sentences were almost like a confession – albeit indirectly – to the world that India did not have any respectable intellectual leadership since independence (or maybe even before that) by one of the most prominent members of the profession of our time.

As a contrast to the feeling of shock, I had a great relief in another aspect as I could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for a possible, plausible answer to that nagging question of mine about whether or not there was any respectable intellectual leadership in India since independence.

A confession by definition is “a formal statement admitting that one is guilty of a crime.”  Of course, obviously, I am not talking about any actual physical “crime” here.  In spite of the dismal failure to provide leadership by the intellectuals for the integration of India, while at the same time their claim to have preserved the integrity of India as a nation with a lofty slogan of Unity in Diversity, is what amounts to the intellectual “crime” that I am talking about.  The answer to my question was resounding “No” as can be explained easily based on his observation as we are going to see.

The attitude towards poverty removal and the disdain toward the establishment of higher educational standards for the young generation demonstrates the intellectual failure or lack of proper intellectual leadership in the field of economics and education.  The ideas discussed in Guha’s article demonstrate such kind of failure in politics and other social issues as we will discover through an analysis of the ideas in that article.  I would put forth all the relevant facts and the ideas that were dominant in Indian since independence in every aspect of the culture and try to prove my point.

Ramachandra Guha – A Liberal Leftist Intellectual

Ramachandra Guha is considered to be a leftist intellectual.  He identifies himself as a “lapsed Marxist” in his twitter account.

It would be interesting to know how and why he became so and whether this happened before or after the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, which had long been the practical symbol or monument of application of the Marxist ideology.

Whether he discarded his Marxist ideas wholesale or only the economic theories of Marx and whether he still subscribes to his philosophical idea of “dialectical materialism,” is also a moot point.  I have some suspicion that he still believes that the social theories of Marx have some relevance and thus he continues to remain somewhat of a leftist.

The acknowledgement of his mistake when he came to realize that history was providing a series of remarkable pieces of evidence of failure, one after another in quick succession, of an ideology that he hold dear should really be welcomed:  In 1978, in China, Deng Xiaoping dismantled the state control of the economy and opened it by introducing free trade and free-market policies.  In August 1980, workers of Solidarity trade union in the Gdańsk Shipyard in Poland went on strike against the communist government in that country.  And in November 1989, the Berlin Wall, one of the most prominent structures of Communist ideology, “the Iron Curtain” collapsed.  Guha understood sometime in between one these events and realized that one cannot explain these events in any satisfactory manner and that remaining a Marxist, his old intellectual persuasion, seemed untenable, which is the mark of a good intellectual.

Dogmatism of Most Leftist Intellectuals in India

I do not hold in high esteem some of the leftist intellectuals of India like Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, and many others as they remain dogmatic Marxists, unlike Ramachandra Guha, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of its failure as an ideology.  Guha’s professed change in his intellectual persuasion shows his intellectual integrity.

Most of the leftist intellectuals in India still clung to the whole body Marxist theories of the social organization despite indisputable evidence (both theoretical as well as practical) that that theory was unworkable and essentially evil.

Parochialism:  The Bane of Indian Polity

Coming to the passage in question, I am quoting the two paragraphs of Guha’s article:  “Over the years, the makers of modern India have been parochialized by the sect or state to which they originally belonged.  Rabindranath Tagore, whose stories and especially essays are of universal appeal, is now considered an icon of Bengalis alone. Vallabhbhai Patel, without whose efforts India would not be a united nation, is now hardly remembered outside Gujarat. Jawaharlal Nehru, who helped nurture a democratic ethos across India, is now the property of a single party.”

A fourth Indian who has become a victim of sectarian diminution is B.R. Ambedkar. He is now known only for his contributions to the emancipation of the subaltern castes. To be sure, he did a great deal to instill a sense of dignity among the oppressed. But we seem to have forgotten that he was not just a militant Dalit, but also a wise democrat, whose life and thought can profitably be studied by all Indians, regardless of the caste or religion to which they belong.”

Lack of Any Comprehensive Idea of Indianness

The way Ramachandra Guha formulated those sentences seems to put the blame on the present and previous generation of people (mainly politicians) for parochialism and thereby relieving the intellectuals of any responsibility for such a development.

Instead of blaming the people of India, he should have asked himself three questions which would have given him some clue to the fundamental nature of the problem:  What were the ideas offered to the people that were rejected?  How did they arrive at those ideas and what were the alternatives ideas considered before making the decision to follow their chosen ideas rejecting the alternatives available?  How well the intellectuals articulated those ideas and communicated them to the people in order to enable the people to make an informed decision to follow the ideas?

The widespread prevalence of parochialism as described by Guha, the absence of an intellectual or a political leader who can project an idea of Indianness by overcoming parochialism, the failure of the realization of “social democracy” as envisioned by India’s founding fathers as claimed by Guha, all point to intellectual failure.

Another significant factor in Guha’s observation was the absence of any mention of MK Gandhi here or his ideas that could have prevented parochialism.  Why could not Gandhi have provided such a platform from which his descendants could have built a theory of Indianness?  More importantly, Guha did not think of considering the relevance of Ambedkar’s economic ideas and their significance in the formulation of a theory of an integrated Indian culture.  If Ambedkar can be considered as an intellectual, it is because of his works in the economic sciences.  Guha obviously would aware of this, and this seems to be a mystery to me that Guha did not consider this fact in an article exclusively devoted to Ambedkar.

Indian Polity Mired in Parochialism and Dynasty

In the whole of the remaining article, Guha discusses how this parochialism has been widespread in various parts of India.  He did not consider the questions of how and why this parochialism got into the Indian polity and who or what was responsibleWhy did not Guha pursue further to find out the causes for parochialism and dynasty and the resultant failure to integrate India intellectually?

Guha claims in the article that “Our republic owes its existence to a constitution whose drafting was overseen by Ambedkar.”  On another occasion, he claims that “The document that finally marked the end of the nation’s teething troubles and sign-posted its future.”  These assessments of the constitution by Guha can be accepted to be true.  Then what powerful ideas that could have acted against such a document and prevented the realization of “social democracy” as envisioned by our founding fathers?  There seems to be no answer provided by Guha in this article.

Assuming that the founding fathers enacted a constitution to achieve certain “vision of social democracy,” and if that constitution was amended beyond recognition more than 100 times by subsequent leaders, then who is to blame for the failure of not achieving the goal of social democracy?

The founding fathers could not be held responsible for the constitution that stands now and it has been so wrecked that its original body of ideas that were the backbone of the constitution has become weak.  R. Jagannathan in an article “Quotas, Art 370: Why BR Ambedkar would not recognize our Constitution today” published in the FirstPost dated October 12, 2015, argues for a “complete overhaul from the ground up, with socialists mangling it out of shape.”

If one argues that the changes were made after the realization that there were anomalies in the original constitution that needed to be corrected in order to achieve the vision of “social democracy,” then it amounts to an acknowledgement that the founding fathers were lacking in foresight and vision and made mistakes in writing the original constitution.

In spite of the amendments to the constitution, if we could not achieve the vision of social democracy of the founding fathers, then the leaders who made the amendments should be held responsible for the failure.  One may as well ask whether the “social democracy” could have been achieved using the original Constitution without making those amendments.

We will revisit this issue later to find out exactly who has failed when we go in detail during the discussion of the ideas based on which the constitution was made and their basic philosophy.

Intellectual and Scientist – An Analogy

Before dealing with this article further, a clear idea about the concept of an intellectual would come in handy in analyzing and understanding this issue further with a clear perspective.  An intellectual is the one who is a social scientist, whose work is similar to that of a scientist in physical sciences.  The scientists and the intellectuals mainly deal with the theoretical part of knowledge in their respective field of study.  The technologist and engineers in physical science have their counterparts in social sciences as politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, artists, writers, filmmakers, etc.

Politician – Statesman – Intellectual:  Nature and Function

This brings us to the need for an understanding of the nature of the works of politicians and intellectuals and their respective contribution to nation building.

While politicians and statesmen may contribute greatly to nation-building, to originate the ideas that are needed for the proper organization of society would be the work of professionals in every field of social sciences.  That requires specialized study of one lifetime, which no politician would be able to do.  An intellectual can become a politician.  Dr. Ambedkar is one great example.  It would be almost impossible for a politician or even a statesman to become an intellectual.  A statesman is an experienced politician, especially one who is respected for making good judgments (Cambridge Dictionary).

What politicians and statesmen do in their profession is having the conviction that certain ideas of some intellectuals are relevant to their society and would contribute to its development and progress.  He should also have the courage to persuade his colleagues and build institutions, either private or government, to implement those ideas.

Some examples of such statesmen can be easily identified with some knowledge of history.   Lee Kuan Yew (1923 – 2015) of Singapore and John James Cowperthwaite (1915–2006) of Hong Kong are two great examples, the first a politician and the second a bureaucrat.  Both of them introduced free trade and free market economic ideas that they have studied and implemented them in their respective countries and achieved an unparalleled amount of success.

Singapore – Financial Capital of Asia

Lee Kuan Yew is recognized as the nation’s founding father, with the country described as transitioning from the “third world to the first world in a single generation” under his leadership.  He studied in London School of Economics and Cambridge University.  BBC News published an article, “How Lee Kuan Yew engineered Singapore’s economic miracle,” on March 24, 2015, a day after his death, tracing his achievement as a statesman.  More than 3 ethnic groups live in harmony:  They consist of Chinese (74.2%), Malay (13.3%), Indian (9.2%), and others (3.3%).

A simple comparison of higher education in India and Singapore would give a good perspective on their respective progress and development.  The National University of Singapore has a student strength of 37,969 (27972 undergraduates and 9997 post-graduates).  Another Science and Technology University in Singapore Nanyang Technological University has 24,300 undergraduate students and 8,900 postgraduate students.

All the IITs put together has a strength of 9885 undergraduate students as per an article in “The Hindu” dated June 20, 2013.  In India (population 1326 million), the students’ strength in all the IITs put together is less than one-sixth of the number of students in two universities in Singapore (population 5.6 million).

When compared to the achievement of Singapore in higher education, India’s accomplishment pales into insignificance.  What Lee Kuan Yew did to the development of higher education in Singapore can be called truly marvelous, but we cannot even remotely attribute such characterization to Nehru’s contribution to India’s higher education.

Hong Kong – Land of Capitalism

John James Cowperthwaite was a British civil servant and the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971.  His introduction of free-market economic policies is widely credited with turning postwar Hong Kong into a thriving global financial center.  The Index of Economic Freedom—compiled by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation—ranks Hong Kong (HK) as the freest economy in the world.

The gross domestic product (at purchasing power parity) per capita of Singapore and Hong Kong is higher than the USA.  In comparison to India, the GDP per capita of Singapore is 16 times more than India’s and that of Hong Kong 25 times more than India’s.

P. V. Narasimha Rao – A Statesman – Father of Modern India

In India, I would call P. V. Narasimha Rao (1921 – 2004), who was Prime Minister of India for five years (1991 – 1996), the best Prime Minister India has ever had, as a true statesman.  He transformed India from a socialist/fascist economy that has performed pathetically under Nehru – Indira Gandhi to a mixed economy that has made great strides in the removal of poverty.

As Industry Minister he introduced a New Industrial Policy.  The major objectives were the abolition industrial licensing, de-reservation and reduced reservation of industries for the public sector, disinvestment in some PSUs, liberalized regime for foreign capital and technology, relaxation of upper limits for foreign investment, automatic permission for foreign technology agreement, and changes in the MRTP Act which was being used as a tool of harassment against industrialist.  A major part of License-Permit-Control Raj of Nehru/Indira Gandhi was dismantled.   P.J. Kurien, minister of state for industry, tabled the “New Industrial Policy” in the Lok Sabah on July 24, 1991.  A few hours later Dr. Manmohan Singh, the finance minister, presented the budget for 1991 – 1992 and completed the two-way process of economic reforms of 1991.  An article published in LiveMint on August 6, 2015, traces the gradual development of the intellectual impetus needed for deregulation which culminated in the industrial policy of 1991.

Poverty Alleviation – Success Rates before and after Economic Reforms of 1991

In 1991, even 40 years of independence, India was still struggling to solve the problem of poverty.  In fact, there has not even been any substantial progress on the front, let alone complete removal.

I have collected the following data on population and poverty rates in India from various sources:

1951 population:  361 million.  Poverty rate around 47% (169 million)

1981 population:  713 million (Increase of 97% over 30 years).  Poverty rate around 60% (429 million)

1991 population:  888 million (Increase of 25% over 10 years).  Poverty rate around 37% (332 million)

2011 population:  1210 million (Increase of 35% over 20 years).  Poverty rate around 22% (266 million).

Between 1951 and 1981, the poverty rate has actually increased by 13%, an increase of 260 million in absolute numbers.  Indira Gandhi had deceived the people of India through her slogan of Garibi Hatao and this program had actually increased the poverty rate as well as the number of people below poverty in absolute numbers.

In the 1980’s, there were some halfhearted economic reforms that were undertaken, and this succeeded in some measure to a reduction in the number of people living below poverty line.

In a research paper published in 2003, “India in the 1980s and 1990s: A Triumph of Reforms,” Arvind Panagariya explains the nature of the economic policies of 1980s and 1990s with a clear perspective:  “Under Rajiv Gandhi, the government made some tentative moves to encourage capital-goods imports, relax industrial regulations, and rationalize the tax system……The difference between the reforms in the 1980s and those 1990s is that the former was limited in scope and without a clear road-map whereas the latter were systematic and systemic. This said the reforms in the 1980s must be viewed as a precursor to those in 1990s rather than a part of the isolated and sporadic liberalizing actions during 1960s and 1970s, which were often reversed within a short period. The 1980s reforms proved particularly crucial to building internal support for future liberalization and imparting confidence to politicians in the ability of policy changes such as devaluation, trade liberalization and de-licensing of investment to spur growth without disruption.”

The dramatic reversal in the history of India happened within a few months starting in 1991 that was performed by Narasimha Rao who became Prime Minister of India on 21 June of that year.  His reforms transformed India from a socialist/fascist economy to a mixed economy.  His opening up of the Indian economy by dismantling to a great extent the License-Permit-Control Raj of Nehru/Indira Gandhi dispensation unleashed the potential of India as an economic powerhouse.

The following two articles capture these great moments and the enormous odds against which this was accomplished and the moral courage that the situation demanded and exhibited by Narasimha Rao:   “Inside the complex mind of India’s forgotten PM” in India Today dated August 27, 2015, and “25 years of reforms: How a PM with zero knowledge of economics scripted India’s biggest turnaround story” in The Economic Times dated July 21, 2016.

In the 20 years since that economic reforms, nearly half of the period from 2004 – 2011, under Dr. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, the economic reform policies were not pursued as vigorously as he did under Narasimha Rao during 1991 – 1996, and in fact, instead of undertaking second-generation reform as the economy needed to sustain its growth, the trend of reform was reversed and the old fascist/socialistic policies were again reintroduced.  The future growth rates for India severely got restricted because of these policies.  In a release by Asian Development Bank, the poverty rate in India is pegged at 21.9%.  Had the economic reforms being carried forward – instead of retrogression – during the 10 years of Dr. Manmohan Singh government from 2004 through 2014, another 10% of people would have been brought above the poverty line by now in 2017.

The achievement of Narasimha Rao and his economic policies in 20 years (1991 – 2011) will be clear when compared to Nehru – Indira Gandhi – and other socialist leaders under the Janata Party governments in 40 years (1951 – 1991).  Specifically, great strides were made toward the goal of poverty alleviation, and this achievement alone would confer on Narasimha Rao the title of a statesman.

Further Points to Ponder on Intellectual Leadership in India

I have barely scratched the surface on the issue of the nature of the intellectual leadership in India since independence.  I have so far only dealt with the issues of the failure of the political leaders to solve the problem of widespread poverty in India.  What kind of intellectual advice was being made available to political leaders at that time and the basic ideologies behind such advice should be analyzed to decide why that problem has eluded solution.

Ramachandra Guha’s article did not seem to be the work of an intellectual but of a journalist.  He seemed to have failed to ask the right questions when dealing with issues of statecraft, the answers to which would have led him to the conclusion that it was the failure of the intellectuals that led to the spread parochialism and dynasty.  The failure of intellectuals to present a comprehensive idea of Indianness was the root cause of this.

There are many questions that would need to be answered to find out exact nature of the intellectual leadership since independence.

Why was the Economic Reforms of 1991 not implemented much earlier when the socialist policies of Nehru and Indira Gandhi were obviously failing in achieving the major goals of India?  Even a die-hard Communist China discarded its economic policies based on that ideology and undertook reforms in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping and embraced some principles of free trade and free market after realizing its failure.  Why did not India, which was following a less radical form of ideology of socialism, could not become conscious of its failure and revert its course and make a course correction?  Why were there no intellectuals who could observe and understand the reasons for the success of Asian Tigers and realize the causes for China’s discarding of communist ideology, at least in its economic sphere, and suggest a similar course to Indian politicians?

China’s adoption of some free trade and free market ideas led to its success and it has overtaken India economically and achieved the status as an economic powerhouse and is now considered as the manufacturing hub of the world and became the second biggest economy in the world after the USA.

There have been half-hearted attempts at economic reforms first in the 1960s and again in the 1970s under Indira Gandhi.  Why there were only “isolated and sporadic liberalizing actions during the 1960s and 1970s, which were often reversed within a short period” as Panagaria explained above?  Why there were no full-fledged reforms then and what kind of advice the intellectuals were giving to Indira Gandhi at that time, and why they could not convince her to undertake radical reforms suggesting the success of the Asian Tigers?  If there were no intellectuals in India to offer such advice, were the Indian intellectuals living like a frog in a well and could not and did not see what was happening around the world?

What was the contribution of the discussion and debate in the Constituent Assembly and final Constitution of India that was adopted in 1950 to the economic policies adopted in India since independence?  How and by what means the founding fathers were expecting the economic policies ingrained in the constitution to perform in the elimination of widespread poverty in India and other goals regarding caste discrimination and the establishment of communal harmony in the polity?

Did the 100 amendments to the Constitution in any way make an advance to the cause of the goal of removal of widespread poverty, the annihilation of caste divisions, and to the establishment of religious harmony?

I will try to address these questions in my next blog article.




Dissolution of the Soviet Union:  (

The Gorbachev Era: Perestroika and Glasnost: (

Impact of the Industrial Revolution: (

The Industrial Revolution:  Working Class Poverty or Prosperity?:  (

The British Industrial Revolution: A Tribute to Freedom and Human Potential by Michael Dahlen dated January 30, 2014. (

Facts about The Industrial Revolution by Ludwig von Mises dated February 1, 1956 (

A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution:  How Did the Industrial Revolution Affect Living Standards? by Thomas E. Woods Jr. dated November 1, 2001. (


Japanese Economic Miracle: (

Japanese economic takeoff after 1945: (

Out of the Ashes: A New Look at Germany’s Postwar Reconstruction: (

German Economic Miracle by David R. Henderson: (

Germany and Japan: A Comeback Story: (

“Gifts from Heaven”: The Meaning of the American Victory over Japan, 1945 : (

Quotas, Art 370: Why BR Ambedkar would not recognize our Constitution today by R. Jagannathan in FirstPost dated October 12, 2015.

India Unbound: from Independence to the Global Information age:  By Gurcharan Das: (

Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny Speech:  (




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