Never talk to me about the word profit; it is a dirty word” — Prime Minister Nehru to J R D Tata.The recently published ‘A New Idea of India’ by Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri focuses on the reconciliation of the idea of individual rights with the concept of a civilisational state. The book, at its core, focuses on building a new idea of India that is in contrast to the prevalent thought that finds its essence in Nehruvian Socialism.
It is not very often that we see someone challenging the idea of what constitutes India as a nation. The sheer abstract notions involved, with their inherent set of contradictions, result in many avoiding a debate on this particular subject. However, for one of the world’s oldest civilisations that happens to be a young modern state, such a debate becomes imperative. It was necessitated by the fact that over the last three decades, we have systematically tried to dismantle the prevalent economic order that was built on Nehruvian ideals.
For a country that has been historically governed by a single party, more so a single family, this debate becomes critical as dynasties tend to preserve the legacy of their ancestors, which brings about a sense of rigidity in governance. The book mentions this rigidity as the country practiced and followed Nehruvian ideals, some of which may not even be consistent with the views of Nehru himself. However, the key aspects of Nehruvian Socialism were socialism, secularism and non-alignment.
The authors have evaluated the Indian experience of each of these as they illustrate the pitfalls associated with them. For instance, it is largely acknowledged by now that the socialist economic model had significant consequences for India’s growth rates, which were abysmal during the initial decades after Independence. In fact, India’s economic growth accelerated only once we started to dismantle the Nehruvian model that views profit as a dirty word. In fact, there is a chapter in the book that starts by quoting PM Nehru calling profit just that—and it is titled ‘Profit is not a dirty word’.
In many ways, the book challenges the conventional beliefs of the erstwhile idea of India, whether economic or cultural. On secularism too, the authors highlight the inherent view of the erstwhile Nehruvian era that in practice viewed individual rights to be in conflict with the need to create a secular state. The interpretation of secularism as a divorce between religion and the state morphed into an alternative Nehruvian definition that allowed a cocktail of politics combined with religion even as the state guaranteed rights based on religion or caste.
The differing rights on the basis of identity were a form of appeasement politics, which is the very antithesis of the idea of creating a secular country. The book extensively captures the inherent contradictions of Nehruvian Socialism and illustrates that these conflicts are an outcome of a misplaced idea of India as a modern nation state. It is this lack of clarity regarding our identity that created a toxic cocktail of ideals that are yet to be achieved—or perhaps, might never be achieved unless we recognise the need to take a relook at the idea of India.
This is precisely the focus of the book; to raise a discussion and debate regarding India as a nation state that is compatible with what they term a civilisation state. The very concept of India as a country finds its roots in a common unifying culture that binds it despite its religious, linguistic and geographical diversity. It is this common culture that has sustained the civilisation across different ages. To consider our modern state as divorced from the civilisational heritage was perhaps one of the biggest gaps in the Nehruvian idea of India.
That India became a modern nation on 15 August 1947 is a fact and it is consistent and not in conflict with another fact that India was born several centuries ago. Therefore, in a way, the erstwhile idea of India made residents apologetic about their cultural heritage rather than attempting to reconcile it with a modern, progressive and liberal society. The New Idea, as presented by the authors, differs significantly as it places the cultural identity at the core and argues for the need to focus on individual rights. Strengthening individual rights would do far more to achieve a progressive, liberal and rules-based society built on mutual respect, harmony and social cohesion than practicing the policies of appeasing religious-ethnic groups.
The focus of their New Idea is fundamentally based on a staunch support for individual rights, whether they are cultural, social or economic in nature. To liberate society from excessive state influence and allow people to take decisions regarding their lifestyle choices is critical for a modern republic. The authors argue how ‘free speech’ has been used as a political pawn in the hands of a few to protect their interests but the discussion around it and its violation on multiple occasions hasn’t been given the due importance it deserves in a functioning democracy like ours.
The very notion of individual freedom is to give people the right to exercise choices in various parts of their life as long as they don’t negatively impact the rights of others. A characteristic failure of the state has been on individual rights and their enforcement—and the New Idea makes a compelling case for correcting this anomaly as we move ahead. While the book has many parts with which some might disagree, it makes a very compelling argument in most places as it attempts to ignite a debate regarding what constitutes the idea of India.
In the process and knowingly, perhaps, the authors end up reconciling the ideas of Friedrich Hayek with the notions of a civilisational state. This reconciliation alone is a worthy pursuit for other authors who might attempt to build on their work and take this debate forward. One hopes that the work of Harsh and Rajeev, spanning more than hundreds of columns over the years and now compiled into this voluminous book, yields a new consensus on what constitutes the idea of India in the 21st century—and that this idea is disjoint from the erstwhile burdensome legacy of the Nehruvian era.
(Somya Luthra focuses on issues related to gender justice, individual and private property rights. Karan Bhasin focuses on issues related to macroeconomics, monetary economics and institutional economics)
New Delhi-based legal scholar
New Delhi-based economist and policy researcher
(Views are personal) (firstname.lastname@example.org)