Ambedkar, Nehru, and Atmanirbhar Bharat
The nature of the threat to India’s strategic autonomy has changed since the time of Independence but India’s strategic choices bear uncanny similarities with the past. As the Russia-Ukraine war rages, we have chosen to become non-aligned Nehruvians once again
The birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, due next week, has always been an important day in the calendar of Dalit youth in India. Now, it has become an important day in the country’s political calendar. Like the “forgotten hero”, Subhas Chandra Bose, Ambedkar seems to have found new adherents, with politicians of different hues vying for his legacy.
Amebdkar’s writings suggest it is very hard to pin labels on him. The author of Pakistan or the Partition of India, in which he outlined the rationale for a separate Muslim State also wrote the Riddles of Hinduism, a stinging attack on Hindu scriptures. His economic writings and speeches were equally eclectic. The proponent of rapid urbanisation also advocated co-operative farming. The champion of fiscal conservatism also argued for State-led industrialisation.
Ambedkar was among the best-educated Indian economists of his generation, having earned a doctorate in economics from Columbia University in the United States (US) and another from the London School of Economics (LSE). His Columbia dissertation on Centre-state fiscal relations was supervised by Edwin Seligman, a global expert on public finance. His LSE dissertation on the management of the rupee was supervised by Edwin Cannan, an eminent historian of economic thought. Most of Ambedkar’s economic writings appeared during the 1916-1927 period. Post 1927, it was largely law and politics that took up his time and attention.
In 1947, Ambedkar was asked to head the drafting committee of the Constitution. During his work in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar renewed his engagement with political economy concerns. The latter-day Ambedkar had much more faith in State interventions than the young economics doctorate. Responding to “libertarian lawyers” who argued for minimum State interventions, Ambedkar countered that withdrawal of the State may lead to liberty but that liberty is “liberty to the landlords to increase rents, for capitalists to increase hours of work and reduce rate of wages”.
The older Ambedkar’s economic vision had much more in common with that of Jawaharlal Nehru than Mahatma Gandhi, a critic of industrialisation and urbanisation. The same could be said of Bose or Vallabhbhai Patel. Ambdekar, Bose, Nehru, and Patel all agreed on the need for rapid economic modernisation to eradicate poverty and build a self-reliant nation. There was also broad agreement on a big State-led push to achieve this goal.
In his 1938 presidential address at the Haripura session of the Indian National Congress, Bose announced that the first priority of an independent Indian government would be to set up a planning commission. Bose set up a National Planning Committee the same year, and asked Nehru to chair it. Bose felt that Nehru was ideally placed to forge a consensus national plan for the country.
The committee’s composition reflected that urge to frame a national consensus on India’s future economic direction. It included Congress stalwarts such as Patel and Acharya Kriplani, the celebrated scientist Meghnad Saha (a victim of caste discrimination during his early years like Ambedkar), the renowned engineer M Visvesvaraya, economists from the “Bombay school” (CN Vakil and KT Shah), and industrial barons such as Jamnalal Bajaj, Purushottam Thakurdas, and Ambalal Sarabhai.
Ambedkar was not part of this panel, but his endorsement of a State-led economy was loud and clear during his interventions in the Constituent Assembly debates. In a memo on citizenship rights, Ambedkar included a section on “protection against economic exploitation”. It proposed that key industries, including insurance, would be owned and run by the State. It also proposed State takeover of agriculture. Ambedkar argued that State-organised collective farming was the only salvation for landless labourers belonging to marginalised social groups.
The views of India’s founding fathers were shaped by the times they were living in. Like other anti-colonial politicians in the developing world, they viewed the market as a driver of inequality between and within countries. Given the weak state of domestic industry in most colonised countries, the Polish economist Paul Roseinstein-Rodan’s theory of a “big push” to jumpstart industrialisation in under-developed economies found many takers.
Even the World Bank encouraged State-led planning in the first few decades of its existence before reversing course sharply in the 1980s. As one of the tallest Congress leaders and then as Prime Minister, it was left to Nehru to forge an economic consensus centred around these themes, and devise an appropriate national plan.
Economics and politics both influenced the planning process. Just as semiconductors have acquired strategic status in the digitised economy of the 21st century, heavy industry was seen as a strategic lever of control in the mid-20th century, finding pride of place in the Nehruvian plans. India’s import-substituting industrialisation strategy was aimed as much to strengthen domestic industry as to provide the country strategic autonomy in foreign affairs. Today’s China-substituting industrialisation policy is driven by similar imperatives. It explains why India is reluctant to be a part of Chinese-dominated value chains in the Far East but is keen to forge deeper trade links with the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom.
The nature of the threat to India’s strategic autonomy has changed since the time of Independence but India’s strategic choices bear uncanny similarities with the past. As the Russia-Ukraine war rages, we have chosen to become non-aligned Nehruvians once again.
Pramit Bhattacharya is a Chennai-based journalistThe views expressed are personal.