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Sonia alert for Nehru critics

Sonia Gandhi, accompanied by son Rahul, pays tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru on his 50th death anniversary at Shanti Van in New Delhi on Tuesday. (PTI)

New Delhi, May 27: Sonia Gandhi today said that any deviation from the Nehruvian vision would be disastrous for a country with such diversity and deprivation as India.

Her comments sounded as though they were unsolicited advice for Narendra Modi, who has come to power with the promise of a new culture of governance.

Congress leaders, though, argue that for all his rhetoric, Modi has little scope for making radical changes to the country’s economic or diplomatic policies and would be forced to largely follow in the UPA’s footsteps in most key matters.

Sonia argued that the policy of “inclusive development, transparency and secularism” that the UPA government had pursued in the past 10 years was only an updated version of Nehru’s idea of India.

But she denied that the Congress was caught in a time warp, citing how the UPA had encouraged the “involvement of the private sector in wealth generation” and opened up “opportunities in a globalised world”.

“The four pillars of Nehruvianism: democratic institution-building, staunch secularism, socialist economics and a foreign policy of non-alignment — all of them were integral to a vision of Indianness that is fundamentally challenged by some in the prevailing political climate today, but which remain at the core of our party’s beliefs,” Sonia told a seminar, held on Jawaharlal Nehru’s 50th death anniversary.

Without taking names, she said: “It is fashionable today to decry Nehruvian socialism as a corrupt and inefficient system that had condemned India to many years of modest growth levels.”

She went on: “We do not deny, as Rajiv (Gandhi) said three decades ago, that over time the socialist model, as practised in India, developed many flaws. But at the core of Nehru’s socialism was the conviction that in a land of extreme poverty and inequality, the objective of government policy must be the welfare of the poorest.”

Sonia described the UPA government’s rural job guarantee scheme and its initiatives on food security, education and land compensation as manifestations of Nehruvian socialism.

“Today we refer to this as inclusive development,” she said. “In his day, the best way to accomplish that was by building up structures of public ownership and state control of national resources, as well as enhancing the nation’s economic capacity through government intervention.”

Some corporate houses and economists who appear to favour the so-called “Modi model” have described the new land acquisition law as draconian, and the rural job and food security schemes as wasteful expenditure.

But Congress leaders expect Modi to maintain a degree of continuity with the UPA’s governance model — though the packaging, language and speed could be different — except, perhaps, on secularism.

A senior Congress leader said Sonia’s advice should be viewed as a forewarning.

“Modi’s bluster apart, his approach towards Pakistan was reflected in his decision to extend a hand of friendship. That’s what Atal Bihari Vajpayee too did,” the leader said.

“India cannot be governed on the basis of RSS rhetoric, and any significant shift from the Nehruvian approach would be a political misadventure. Modi won power riding on sectarianism and vitriol, but governance is a different ball game.”

The Congress leader claimed that Modi’s decision to give the human resource development portfolio to “a modern and apolitical person like Smriti Irani” provided a glimpse of his thinking.

“The denial of the HRD ministry to hardcore RSS leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi, who played havoc with the education system during Vajpayee’s rule, is a positive signal,” the leader said.

Many in the Congress say subsidies cannot be abolished in a poor country like India, although they feel that Modi could try to strengthen the delivery mechanism and streamline the list of beneficiaries.

“He will not only continue with the MNREGA and food security, he will reverse his party’s decision on FDI in retail and endorse the Congress line,” a Congress source said.