Rhetoric and reality: How about following Patel’s economic vision?

A brief chapter in an expansive biography of civil servant VP Menon, that alluded to Jawaharlal Nehru having to be coaxed by Mountbatten to induct Sardar Patel in his Cabinet, has kicked off an unwitting controversy 73 years later. After foreign minister S Jaishankar tweeted about it, historian Ramachandra Guha and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh quickly joined issue, the latter also uploading several letters, one in which Nehru writes to Patel terming him the Cabinet’s “central pillar”.

It’s clear that there’s a BJP-Congress divergence here: while Congress would argue that the two nationalist stalwarts worked in harmony, questions about the trajectory India would have taken under Patel as prime minister have frequently emerged from BJP quarters. It erected the towering Statue of Unity to commemorate Patel, while regularly dissing Nehru and his legacy. In which case – whatever the truth of the matter might be about the personal equation between Nehru and Patel – it would help if BJP showed greater recognition of the wisdom inherent in Patel’s economic beliefs. In the present context where government is responding to the economic slowdown with protectionism, it would be instructive for those inspired by Patel to ponder over how his economic vision diverged from Nehruvian socialism.

The latter course took India through modes like centralised planning, license raj, import substitution and maximal exercise of governmental/ bureaucratic power, with stagnation and modest growth rates as the long-term outcome. In contrast, Patel believed in wealth creation before the state channelled its efforts in the direction of a welfare state and socialisation of profits. India is again at a bend in the woods, caught between uncompetitive domestic industries and global trade realignments. Ironically, BJP’s response has been more Nehruvian than Patelesque. Perhaps it could take a few economic lessons from the man it holds up as its icon.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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