What previous Prime Ministers did

What previous Prime Ministers did


No Indian Prime Minister has ridiculed his predecessors as the current incumbent Narendra Modi does. Speaking at election rallies and elsewhere Modi claims that there was no development in the country during the last 70 years except for ‘some’ development during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s rule. Maybe one should appreciate Modi for giving ‘some’ credit to his BJP predecessor, at least, Modi’s view of what India was before he became PM shows that either he is ignorant or is trying to mislead the public, especially the young generation who are unaware of what PMs before Modi did. As Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels stated: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually believe it!

Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947 to 1964) was responsible for setting up a strong base for modern India and major industries. Nehru believed that science and technology held the key to India’s development and elimination of poverty. In this quest, he put together India’s science and technology establishment even in the initial difficult years immediately post-Independence – from the IITs to DRDO, the atomic and space programmes, the dams and power projects, etc. Nehru’s policy of self-reliance and planned development helped establish several heavy and capital-intensive industries, along with promoting labour-intensive small and cottage industries and integrated community development. Annual GDP growth rate averaged 4% during 1951-1964, which was four times that recorded during the last 50 years of British rule.

Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi continued Nehru’s policy of self-reliance. The younger generations are unaware that India was not even able to produce its food requirements and had to import large quantities of wheat from the US in the 1960s. It was said that India led a ‘ship to mouth’ existence. When Indira Gandhi became PM in January 1966, she had to confront this severe food crisis, made worse by the bad drought years of 1965-66. Then US President Lyndon Johnson tried to use food aid as a political weapon and arm-twist her into supporting the US in its infamous Vietnam war. Faced with this, she decided to focus on making India self-sufficient in food. With the support of her food minister C Subramaniam, scientists such as M S Swaminathan, the ICAR institutes and agricultural universities, she ushered in the ‘Green Revolution’. If today’s India is one of the largest producers of food grains and enjoys buffer stocks, it is thanks to initiatives taken long before Modi became PM.

It was Indira Gandhi who took the momentous decision to conduct India’s first nuclear test in 1974, in the face of American threats that if she went ahead, America would make “an example out of her”. The CIA and US spy satellites had no inkling of the test preparations until the ‘Buddha’ smiled on May 18, 1974. The US and the West imposed sanctions and India went through a tough phase of technology denial for over three decades. But Modi and Amit Shah remember only the nuclear tests conducted in 1998 under Vajpayee. Are they ignorant of the history of India’s nuclear programme since Nehru?     

Indira Gandhi also implemented several pro-poor programmes from 1971.

Rajiv Gandhi was instrumental in laying the foundation of Digital India. It was under him that the telecom and computer technology revolutions took off in India, on which were built the disruptive mobile telephony and internet revolutions that came in the 1990s. If we are a leading power in IT and biotechnology today, some of the credit should go to Rajiv Gandhi, who created the environment for their development.

Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) ushered in economic reforms and liberalisation in 1991, which did away with the ‘Licence Raj’ that characterised Indian economy. This helped revv up economic growth and attract foreign investment.

Manmohan Singh, who became PM in May 2004, accelerated the reform process during the UPA years (2004-2013). The economic growth rate for the 10-year UPA period averaged 7.8%, with the agriculture sector averaging 3.7%.

As against this, the Modi government, which benefited from the struggles already fought by previous PMs and the foundation they had already laid, recorded – during its first four years – annual GDP growth rates of 7% or below (under a revised methodology) and a mere 1.8% in the agriculture sector. Battered by demonetisation, a poorly designed GST and other factors, India’s economic growth rate slumped to 4.2% during 2019-20. And with the sudden and harsh lockdown due to the pandemic, GDP is set to plunge an unprecedented -10.3% in 2020. The BJP stalled the functioning of Parliament during the UPA years, unable to digest its consecutive electoral defeats. Modi and the BJP were dead against GST, Aadhaar and FDI in retail; now they are their most ardent advocates.

Most other Indian PMs had brief tenures. But mention may be made of Charan Singh and HD Deve Gowda. They sincerely tried to implement pro-farmer policies. The proportion of poor, which was 57% of the population in 1951, had fallen to 22% in 2012. But for Modi and Shah, there was no development in the last 70 years. With the ‘Achhe Din’ slogan of 2014 having become an embarrassment for Modi and the BJP, a new carrot, ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, is being dangled before the people. By abusing his predecessors, Modi is demeaning the high office of Prime Minister.

(The writer is an economist)