Three Bharat Ratnas, One Enduring Commonality

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Feb 10, 2024, 12:58 PM | Updated 12:58 PM IST

M S Swaminathan, Chaudhary Charan Singh, and P V Narasimha Rao stood for an India of ideas rather than a dogmatic idea of India.
M S Swaminathan, Chaudhary Charan Singh, and P V Narasimha Rao stood for an India of ideas rather than a dogmatic idea of India.

On 9 February, three Indians were posthumously conferred the nation’s highest award, the Bharat Ratna: former prime ministers Chaudhary Charan Singh and P V Narasimha Rao, and M S Swaminathan, agricultural scientist and father of our green revolution.

Opposition political parties and their loyalists in mainstream media immediately said that the first two awards were merely for electoral reasons. An award to Singh, who was a Jat, would help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) get more of the Jat vote in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and an award to Rao would make the BJP more attractive to Telugu voters. And, in the flurry, Swaminathan was overlooked.

Yet, a commentator with some sense of history would abjure such puerile remarks to look instead at the three awards from a more mature perspective; for, if they do, they will find a curious common strand running through the three.

All three men came into their own in the decade following independence, all three owed their careers to the agricultural community, and, intriguingly, all three contributed to undoing the socio-economic setbacks levied upon India by Nehruvian socialism.

An overwhelming majority of the population lived in villages, surviving by subsistence farming. The cities, which should (and could) have swiftly become powerful growth engines on the back of private investment and enterprise, instead weltered upon the hand of an alien ideology which diverted precious resources to state-run factories.

As a result, the marvellous engineering capacity built up during the Second World War began to wither, agriculture stagnated in its subsistent rut, unemployment grew, and vital commodities grew scarce. Food had to be imported.

But, for Nehru, grand dreams of statism, of flourishing farming collectives and sprawling public sector factories, which he actively pursued as policy, meant more than these numbing realities.

Indeed, Nehru’s masterplan for India’s agricultural growth was a Soviet-style farming collective where irrigation, mechanisation, skill development, and better-quality seeds came together in successful socialist harmony.

His test bed was a collective farm at Suratgarh, in north Rajasthan, which was established in the mid-1950s. It was the keystone of his agricultural policy, which he pursued at a time when collectives had already started failing in the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China.

In 1954, Swaminathan returned to India after higher studies to pursue a career in agro genetics at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi. He was already filled with ideas on how to integrate new crop variants with fertilising, mechanisation, and irrigation, and was confident that all of these aspects could be infused into the rural sector easily.

In 1957, Rao was elected as the member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Manthani, a rural constituency on the Godavari in northern Telangana. The pressing problems of his constituents, at a time when the Telugu-speaking lands had yet to become a major granary, were self-evident. That is why when he became chief minister of Andhra in 1971, he enforced land reforms.

By the time the Suratgarh collective came to define Nehru’s approach to the agriculture sector, Charan Singh had quietly become the foremost expert on the subject in the political sphere. He had already been provincial minister for Agriculture and Revenue in Uttar Pradesh (then known as the United Provinces), understood the problems of the farmers, and was perfectly clear in his mind that collectivisation would be disastrous.

Through the decade, he wrote a series of books explaining why the Soviet approach would not work in India, and, instead, offered detailed technical, administrative, and legislative solutions, including land reforms and a scientific approach. Unfortunately, he was sidelined because his views clashed with Nehru.

The last straw was in 1959. Nehru gave a major speech explaining why collectivisation was central to agricultural growth. This was negated by a Charan Singh book which not only refuted this approach (and criticised Karl Marx for good measure), but also offered detailed solutions which were diametrically opposite to what Nehru sought. That marked the start of Singh’s disenchantment with the Congress and his eventual departure a few years later.

By 1965, Nehru was gone, Lal Bahadur Shastri was in charge, and India was hit by two consecutive droughts. It was this threat of widespread famine which forced Shastri to adopt Swaminathan’s ideas and kickstart a long-overdue green revolution.

Two years later, Singh got his chance to implement Swaminathan’s ideas when he formed the first non-Congress government in Uttar Pradesh. In some ways, it was a greater shock for Indira Gandhi than her party’s relatively poor performance in the 1967 general elections, and forced her towards the hardline socialist path. Until then, she and her father had taken Uttar Pradesh for granted.

From then to Singh’s leading role in defeating Indira Gandhi in 1977, after the emergency, the spread of Swaminathan’s green revolution across the country, and Rao providing the final twist by introducing economic reforms in 1991 is, in fact, one common strand of history — because at its centre lies an effort to undo the economic ills forced upon this country in the first decade of its independence.

Singh had the clearest insights into the problems of rural India and how they could be solved from an administrative and political perspective. Swaminathan had the clearest insight on how these problems could be solved scientifically. And Rao provided the final nail for a hoary Fabian socialist coffin.

All three men were forced to devise administrative, political, and scientific solutions because of the legacy issues they had to grapple with. If the green revolution forced itself upon Shastri because of the twin famines of 1965-66, Singh was forced to create a successful opposition to Indira Gandhi because she turned undemocratic, and Rao was forced to adopt economic reforms because his Congress predecessors had driven the country to bankruptcy.

If we study them carefully, Singh, Swaminathan, and Rao stood for an India of ideas rather than a dogmatic idea of India. And these three men, each in his own way, saved India from the dire perils of Nehruvian ideology which would otherwise have sunk us economically, geopolitically, and strategically. If that is not worth a Bharat Ratna, then nothing is.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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