The Nehru-Gandhi legacy of shame

This is the ninth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I caught an episode of the charming show, Koffee with Karan, in which Karan Johar was chatting with Shobha De and Vijay Mallya. I enjoy the rapid-fire round on this show, because it reveals much about the celebrity-culture of our times, as well as about our celebrities. One question Johar asked De and Mallya on the show stood out: “Rahul or Priyanka?”

Now, Johar wasn’t asking De and Mallya which of the two Gandhis was better looking or suchlike. He wanted to know who they preferred as a politician. There was an implicit assumption that one of them is certain to be a future prime minister. This has nothing to do with with their political skills or leanings, of which little is known. It is all about their last name, which is the most powerful brand in the biggest market of India: our democracy.

Rahul understandably wants to exploit this, and build the brand: a few days ago, while campaigning in UP, he spoke of how the Babri Masjid would never have been demolished had the Gandhi family been active in politics. It’s natural for Rahul to invoke the Gandhi brand, given the resonance it carries in this country. But it’s also somewhat ironic. Despite their iconic status among our economically illiterate masses, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been nothing but disastrous for our country.

Jawaharlal Nehru was one of our foremost freedom fighters, but the freedom he fought for was restricted to the political domain. Once the British had been ousted, he replaced them with a new oppressor: the Indian government. He distrusted free trade, and once famously told JRD Tata that profit was “a dirty word.” He shackled private enterprise with a license-and-regulation raj and tried to build a command economy where the state was all-powerful. His fatal conceit, to borrow Friedrich Hayek’s phrase, ensured that India limped into the modern age while other Asian countries, once behind us, leaped ahead.

One can be charitable and say that the well-intentioned Nehru was a creature of his times. It is hard to give his daughter similar benefit of the doubt. Indira Gandhi not only took Nehru’s policies forward at a time when it should have been obvious that they weren’t working, she systematically began to strip away the little economic freedom that existed in the country. In colleges it would make good material for a course titled “How To Savage An Economy 101.”

She nationalised all our big banks. She stopped foreign exchange from kick-starting the country’s development, and thus creating employment and productive growth, with the Foreign Exchange Regulation act in 1973. The Urban Land Ceiling Act of 1976 distorted land markets, thus raising land prices and aggravating the problem of slums in cities.  The Industrial Disputes act (1976 and 1982) distorted labour markets and acted as a disincentive to industrial expansion. And so on and on.

With our natural strengths, India should have dominated labour-intensive manufacture and become a manufacturing superpower decades before we started doing well in services, but Jawarharlal and Indira never let that happen. The consequences of Indira’s policies look dry in economic terms, but by perpetuating poverty and shackling growth, they unquestionably had an impact on millions of lives.

Indira attacked more than economic freedom, of course. The emergency was a period of shame for our country, and yet, quite what you’d expect from a leader who took ruling India as a birthright. Her son, Sanjay, had authoritarian instincts even more pernicious than hers, but we were thankfully spared his rule. Rajiv Gandhi, when he took over, seemed a good man, if an inexperienced one. But can naïvete – he was in his 40s during his prime ministership – serve as a suffiicient excuse for, say, Shah Bano, or the foolish intervention in Sri Lanka?

Sonia Gandhi, while she had the character to refuse the prime ministership, also has all the wrong ideas. Her doubts about foreign investment and her support for well-intentioned but short-sighted programs such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Act demonstrate that the lessons of the past haven’t been learnt, and that the communists in the UPA aren’t the only forces holding back India’s progress.

It would be unfair to hold this shameful legacy against Rahul Gandhi. Even if political leadership comes to him as inheritance, he may turn out to be his own man, and recompense for the sins of his forefathers. But here’s what worries me: the best we can do, in our elite drawing rooms watching elite TV shows reading elite papers like Mint, is hope that he turns out well. Of his coming to power, there is no doubt at all. Isn’t that scary?