On 29 February 1956, presenting his budget speech as the finance minister, C D Deshmukh said that the Indian people stood on “the threshold of a golden age.” The Second Five-Year Plan, with its deliberate focus on industrial production and self-reliance, was to usher in this golden age. The financial journalist Geoffrey Tyson, writing for an April 1956 issue of the BBC weekly The Listener, stressed that the success of the Second Five-Year Plan within the framework of parliamentary democracy was vital for the free world. In India, he went on to say, planning “occupies people’s minds in the way that a royal marriage or league football might in other countries.”
Nikhil Menon’s Planning Democracy is a stellar history of planning and its constitutive role in the making and legitimisation of the Indian state. Planning was by no means a new concept or worldview to the founders of the Indian republic in 1947. It had captivated socialist-minded Indian nationalists since the 1930s, culminating in the foundation of the National Planning Committee in 1938 with Jawaharlal Nehru as its chairman. In British India, one of the basic preconditions of national planning – national independence – could never be met. Yet, planning helped the nationalists articulate a vision of a united and free India (including the princely states) that would undo the damage of centuries of colonial spoliation. Menon’s book tells us in vivid detail the actualisation of the nationalist vision of planning in the aftermath of Independence.
The book is a fine specimen of postcolonial history writing, one that bravely embraces the challenge of archival paucity that often bedevils a historian’s ability to study independent India. Even as institutions – such as the Planning Commission and the Indian Statistical Institute – play a key role in the narrative, Menon uses eclectic archival sources – personal papers and memoirs, periodicals, magazines, cartoons, films, songs and fiction – to make his narrative rooted and decentred. The book is not styled as an economic history of planning or the Five-Year Plans. Rather, it is a history of the Nehruvian state, of its strategies of governance, of participatory democracy, of the relationship between development and the state, and, more importantly, of the legitimisation of the nascent Indian state.
Technocracy and democracy
The book appears in two parts. The first shows the fascinating ways in which an ex-colony like India became a powerhouse of data and statistics in the early years of independence. Statistics as a discipline grew in close association with the state, and its primary mandate was to supply data about people and the economy in order to aid governance. Jawaharlal Nehru roped in Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, a physicist turned statistician, to preside over the statistical revolution. Mahalanobis became the head of the Indian Statistical Institute – a position he would retain until his death in 1972 – and would play a crucial role in setting up the knowledge infrastructure required for planning in India.
The book is also a history of statistics, its fraught relationship with economics, and its entanglements with planning in India. Mahalanobis’s National Sample Survey was a distinguished contribution to the world of statistics, and was quickly emulated by the United Nations and other countries. With the preponderance of data came the need for machines to compile and analyse them. India’s quest for supercomputers in the age of the Cold War, and consequent success in gaining access to them, is also integral to the story of planning in India. As Menon argues, in India, unlike in other global centres, computer development did not take place in the shadow of military needs. Rather, it was the developmental imperatives of the state that enabled excellence in computer technology. The flip side of the increased ability of the state to know and classify people en masse was centralisation.
Planning’s pedagogical and political focus on bridging India’s divisions, including provincialism and regionalism, could not have come without a cost – the attrition of federalism.
Part two moves from technocracy to democracy, showing the conscious ways in which the Indian state sought to include people in planning. As the planning minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, said in 1956, “We can beat China and Russia—if we get public cooperation.” The Communist bloc relied on plans, but it lacked a full-fledged democracy or popular participation. Planning became a cause célèbre among Indian people: students, universities, press, professional associations, public servants, and even artists became vectors in making planning look democratic. Much of this was confined to rhetoric, for there was no evidence to suggest that making people “plan-conscious” or involving them in the process had any impact on planning priorities themselves. As Menon describes it “Planners wanted knowledgeable and consenting foot soldiers, not a citizenry empowered to share their own views on grand strategies.” For instance, the second plan’s focus on industrialisation left much to be desired for women, as they remained peripheral to priorities. The involvement of cultural personalities like the writer Khushwant Singh – the founder and first editor of Yojana, the magazine published by the Planning Commission – and the film director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, shows us the unlikely entanglements that planning caused in culture and art. “Pushing for a ‘happy alliance’ between Plans and motion pictures, Abbas called for planners to assist filmmakers with facilities and funding and for filmmakers to respond by integrating their ‘creative energies with the ideals and purposes of the Plan’,” Menon writes.
The government’s attempt to make planning popular had unsavoury consequences, too. The most important of these was the recruitment into the planning propaganda machinery of radical Hindu majoritarian sympathisers like Tukdoji Maharaj, the first president of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj (Indian Society of Ascetics). Through the Samaj, plan propaganda reached even the holy ghats, and the Kumbh Mela became an occasion for celebrating the virtues of planning. Stating that “In its partnership with the Samaj, the Indian government was willing to swallow the contradiction of promoting planning—the very symbol of secular technocracy and scientific modernity—through the language of religion and tradition,” Menon argues that this unlikely alliance between radical ascetics and the Indian nationalists (though led more by the sadhu-like Gulzarilal Nanda than by Jawaharlal Nehru) would have to be accounted for in the studies of Hindu majoritarianism decades later.
Indian nationalists saw development or the economy as non-political precisely because the economy had become a metonym for them to justify a unitary state.
A striking number of unsung economists, statisticians and technocrats come to life in the book, and Menon pays close attention to detail in introducing each character in the story. Often, he visually marks his characters with physiographical descriptions – “portly” (V T Krishnamachari), “spindly” (J B Kripalani), “uncommonly short-statured” (Milton Friedman), and so on – even as he is interested more in “subterranean historical currents” than the individuals themselves.
The book is, at one level, a history of Indian democracy and nationalist thought, as well as state-making. But it lacks much analysis of nationalism or the ways in which planning complicates some aspects of Indian nationalist thought and history. A striking claim early on has to do with the putative separation of development from politics. Menon argues that “the Indian National Congress, for its part, imagined development as above politics.” In assigning questions of economic importance to the experts, or technocrats, the Congress believed that it elevated these above the exigencies of politics – and Menon believes alike. Thus, this account shows a careful separation of the political from the economic, even though the book doesn’t analyse what this meant for planning or Indian nationalist thought in general.
Indian nationalists’ strong preference for a unitary state long precedes their fascination with planning – so much so that economic disparity, not just between the rich and the poor but also between the provinces and the princely states, was used as a rationale for a unitary Indian state. It is this conception of a unitary state, the main tenet of nationalist thought since the Nehru Report of 1928, that reconciles the political and socio-economic priorities of the nationalists and makes planning a viable strategy. The prerequisite of planning was a united and unified India, with no partition of sovereignty within.
If actively steering the economic life of millions of people is an apolitical activity, what else is political?
Thus, in the Constituent Assembly, there were arguments in favour of a unitary state mainly on the basis of the economic unification of the country. It is in this vein that T T Krishnamachari, later a detractor of state-led planning, would argue in the Constituent Assembly in November 1948 that “to improve the economy of the common man, the only way in which that can be achieved is to take certain amount of powers to the Centre.” He went on to say, “I am all for a strong Centre.”
The book justifiably concentrates on how planning manifested through the machinery of the postcolonial state, and how this state machinery was, in turn, built through the process of actualising state plans. But the strong undercurrent of unitarism that is the sine qua non of Indian nationalist thought does not find mention. Indian nationalists saw development or the economy as non-political precisely because the economy had become a metonym for them to justify a unitary state. In marked contrast, in the same nationalist thought, the questions of federalism or minority rights, or the problem of the princely states, were never seen as purely legal or constitutional matters. Much of the political thought coming from the minority provinces and princely states before Independence privileged legal solutions over political ones, for politics would only favor the numerical majority in India. The nationalists consistently argued that the problem of joining together the many units of the Raj could only be resolved politically and not legally, for a legal resolution would have resulted in a more decentered, federal state with greater provincial independence, a far cry from the unitary state they imagined.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, a tour de force on French and American revolutionary traditions, shows that the social question (meaning both economic and social upliftment) at the heart of the French Revolution has come to define the revolutionary inheritance of the modern world. In contrast, the American Revolution, which privileged political freedom, has not found many takers. India was no exception. As the political theorist Uday Singh Mehta argues, the so-called social question (alleviation of poverty and inequality) marked the founding of India more than a commitment to political freedom. The social question in the Indian context, much like in the French context, was primarily an economic one, for the Indian state would reserve utmost powers to itself to effect changes in the economic lives of its citizens. The historian Rohit De shows that, soon after Independence, the Indian state enacted a dizzying array of social and economic laws, whereas less than 5 percent of legislation in the colonial era pertained to those areas.
It was the developmental imperatives of the state that enabled excellence in computer technology. The flip side of the increased ability of the state to know and classify people en masse was centralisation.
The primacy of the social and economic question in India makes it even more urgent that we examine the relationship between politics and the economy. This relationship is foundational to Marxian thought, even as the Soviet Union under Lenin took a different path. Lenin saw the essence of the October Revolution as “Electrification plus soviets.” Arendt viewed this as “an entirely un-Marxist separation of economics and politics,” wherein technology was to solve the economic problem, and socialism was to guarantee political freedom. Translating Lenin’s formula to India, what Menon’s story tells us is the first part: technology and technocracy as a means to better economic well-being and political neutrality. But we miss the second part, which is about the form of government or the political and ideological implications of this process.
The separation of planning from the political comes through even in how key personalities in the book are described. Mahalanobis is mostly viewed as an apolitical person since he supposedly thought that statistics (and thereby planning) were above politics. But the Americans always feared that he was partial to the Russians, so much so that the United States even refused to give digital computers to India in the 1950s. If actively steering the economic life of millions of people is an apolitical activity, what else is political?
The book is a history of the Nehruvian state, of its strategies of governance, of participatory democracy, of the relationship between development and the state, and, more importantly, of the legitimisation of the nascent Indian state.
In framing the story of planning in India as “an unorthodox marriage between parliamentary democracy and centralized economic planning” in the era of the Cold War, the book shows us the global stakes of this Indian experiment. Yet one wonders whether it was a faithful marriage or a union plagued by extra-marital affairs. India may have married a middle path but remained faithful to both the US and the Soviet camps when the occasion called for it.
For instance, when the question of establishing more steel mills came up in the mid 1950s, as a TIME report from the period shows, T T Krishnamachari, the commerce and industries minister, demanded that the Birlas, a powerful industrialist clan, be given a contract. Nehru objected – he was keen to give the contracts to the Russians, which Krishnamachari feared would lead to the communists gaining a foothold in central India. To this charge, Nehru responded that India was also buying a steel mill from West Germany’s Krupp. The implication here is that India considered both camps of the Cold War as bedfellows when an opportunity presented itself (as an undated cartoon by R K Laxman republished in the book 50 Years of Independence Through the Eyes of R.K. Laxman also shows). Planning as a concept was very malleable and could be made to speak to anyone. This protean character was in the very nature of planning; a strict middle path or consistent antagonism hewing to Cold War binaries would have been impolitic, if not impossible.
In an age when centre-state relations in India are at a historic low, with the central government occupying a formidable position and the states voicing bitter protest, the country’s federalism has become increasingly tenuous. Planning’s pedagogical and political focus on bridging India’s divisions, including provincialism and regionalism, could not have come without a cost – the attrition of federalism. As early as 1967, the Administrative Reforms Committee report had shown a corrosive relationship between planning and federalism. This attrition of federalism through a centralised, non-statutory body like the Planning Commission and the concomitant making of an all-powerful central government were to signal federalism’s downward journey, a phenomenon that has acquired telling proportions in India today.
Menon’s book is a remarkable achievement and the product of painstaking archival research that makes contributions to a plethora of fields – the history of development, statistics, technology, the state, democracy, planning, and the rule of experts, to name just a few. What we should see in the coming years are more historical accounts of postcolonial India, with more historians breaching the canonical boundary of 1950 that separates colonial and post-colonial history, and has long separated history from other social-science disciplines like political science and sociology. The trials and tribulations of Menon’s project have much to teach people setting out to write historical accounts that extend to our lived historical present.
Sarath Pillai is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book project examines the rise and fall of federalist ideas in late colonial India. He tweets at @i_sarathpillai.