A critical component of the myth-making around Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to minimize the contribution of the country’s foundational figures. None has suffered more than Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who laid down the rails on which the republic has run for 74 years. Which makes it surprising that Modi is emulating a signature Nehru policy and, paradoxically, one that failed: self-sufficiency. Why is a 21st-century leader borrowing a discredited 1940s idea that was given up in the 1990s?
The Harrow and Cambridge-educated Nehru, son of a wealthy lawyer, was an internationalist. But when it came to picking a developmental strategy, he never had much of a choice. Taking charge in 1947 of a newly independent nation ravaged by two centuries of British colonial plunder, he was forced to follow a closed-economy approach. For one thing, World War II had caused a huge global shortage in capital goods. The steel that could go into tractors had ended up in tanks. How to import any machines, or pay for them? Especially when India’s export advantage in cotton and jute was lost after partition, to West and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.