Seven and a half decades ago, as the newly independent Indian state was coming into being, a similar effort on non-alignment was taking place in how the country organised itself economically. As Nikhil Menon – author of Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute and an Idea Shaped India – explains, India was consciously positioning “itself between, to put it crudely, the authoritarian stick and liberal carrot. It was branding itself, in its economic policy, as being neither fully in the American-led capitalist camp, or in the Soviet-dominated communist bloc…It was suggesting that the mixed economy method of centralised planning within a parliamentary framework was a model for a decolonizing nation who had little interest in embroiling themselves in superpower competition.”

In his book, Menon, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, charts the fascinating history of India’s unique approach to centralised planning, which it labelled “democratic planning”. Over the course of the book, he gives us glimpses of the many attendant complications and contradictions of this approach, as well as recounting the story of how planning (and not the military) brought the computer to India as well as how the Congress party leaned on an organisation of Hindu ascetics to take the idea of planning to the people.

Over e-mail, I spoke to Menon about how hard it is for us to understand the hold centralised planning had on policymaking at the time, what the propaganda that accompanied planning told us about the Nehruvian state and what he makes of the Indian government’s approach to data today.

How did you come to study history? You’ve been quite consistent with the focus on it – through DU, JNU, Princeton and then Notre Dame – but was it always clear to you that you would be focusing on this field? Were there wobbles?
I’d always been interested in history through high school in Chennai – it seemed a fascinating meld of so many other disciplines (sociology, economics, politics, and literature to mention a few). And I got the sense that a lot of what I saw around me could be explained through history. It helped that I had a string of wonderful teachers who ensured that History was never reduced to the monotony of dates and terms to memorise. I went to a quite small school, and my eleventh- and twelfth-grade history classes had only two students. It allowed for wide-ranging conversations and reading (and, admittedly, even some football chatter).

After school, I did consider studying Economics for a short while, but History won out in the end, and I’ve studied it ever since.

Tell me a little bit about where you see the field, between India and abroad, since you have experience of both. Was the choice to go to the US natural or a difficult one?
I think History education in Indian universities is excellent when it is allowed to be. I had the great fortune of superb teachers (a running theme in my life) at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. I found their ability to be engaging teachers and rigorous scholars really inspiring. And given all the constraints of working in relatively resource-strapped institutions, what they were able to achieve was, and is, remarkable. The one limitation that I found was the overwhelming focus on Indian history alone at the postgraduate level, though I understand the reasons for it. My decision to go to the US was not because of any academic shortcomings at JNU. It was to a great extent personal. I had lived in Delhi for seven years by then, and I wanted to experience something completely new. So, I’d say that in the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision to leave, though I wasn’t then aware that I wouldn’t be returning to work in India.

On a less personal note, there is a very unfortunate parallel between India and the United States in the field of History. Scholarship and the teaching of history are under attack in both places. In India, we see how school textbooks are being meddled with to suit narrow and ahistorical political agendas, whether it be about the Mughals, Gandhi’s assassination, or the role of Nehru in nation-building. In the United States, similarly, moral panics have been engineered over Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project in order to limit what teachers can teach in classrooms in some Republican-controlled states, and even ban books.

At what point did your work on this subject coalesce into the book that exists today? How would you summarise it for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book?
The idea for Planning Democracy took form during my PhD at Princeton University. I’d applied there to work on a very different subject, But once I joined, I think the combination of being in a different intellectual environment, and some exhaustion with what I had been working on, led me to reassess my interests. And I was drawn to the idea of studying India after Independence.

Planning was something that I read about in newspapers growing up, or on news shows, but I felt that I didn’t know enough about why India decided to take up Five Year Plans in the first place. Growing up in the ’90s in India, planning was extremely unfashionable, as you might imagine. But yet, believe it or not, there was a time when it was fashionable. The arc between these two was what I wanted to uncover. And I was lucky to be in an environment where I had academic mentors who encouraged this, and amidst a group of fellow graduate students who were also doing exciting work on independent India.

I’d summarise the book in this way: Planning Democracy is about one of the great projects or experiments of the 20th century: how India combined Soviet-inspired socialist Five Year Plans and Western liberal democracy. Especially at a time like the Cold War when these two sets of ideas and institutions were seen as fundamentally incompatible. The book explores how planning became so central to the story of modern India. It does so by using planning as a lens through which to understand the Indian state after independence. My book seeks to go beyond the debates about whether Five Year Plans succeeded or failed, and instead focuses on how planning shaped the Indian state and the nature of its democracy. So it explores the way in which India established its data capacities and ability to govern the economy through statistics and computers. But equally, it also explains the ideology of what was called “democratic planning,” and how that came to involve state propaganda, Bollywood, bands of singers and dancers, and even sadhus.

To go into that question a bit more, did you wonder at any point whether the two portions – Data, focusing on Mahalanobis and the setting-up of the Commission, Institute etcetera, and Democracy, looking at how Planning turned into narrative and was publicised – ought to have been separate works in and of themselves? Or did you always see them as two sides of the same coin?
I think you’ve put your finger on perhaps the biggest challenge in organising this book. In doing the research, I sensed that combining the two themes would be difficult, but ultimately more meaningful. Though it would have been easier to write about these two aspects separately, I don’t think it would have conveyed some of the contradictions that ran through the planning project. At the very heart of it were these competing impulses – technocracy and democracy. Both, according to people like Nehru were integral to Indian planning; but how were they to be reconciled, when each seemed to militate against the other? I wanted my book to reflect on that seeming paradox. And so, yes, to me they were two sides of the same coin – except that the metallic metaphor you have provided me implies a symmetry that I believe the two faces of planning lacked vis-à-vis Nehruvian India.

You do some work to establish for the reader how much socialism and planning were in vogue at the time of Indian independence, not just on one side of the Iron Curtain (indeed, one argument was even that it would “stave off communism”). Was that something that you also had to grasp, given how different the thinking is today?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how popular planning once was, across the political spectrum. For a while, in the mid-20th century, planning of one kind or the other seemed like the only viable option for poor decolonising nations.

I was surprised at the ubiquity of this view. And part of that surprise, I suppose, comes from having grown up in a post-liberalisation India. But what I try to do in the book is recover the intellectual context of the mid-20th century. Among politicians, planning was backed by most economic modernisers in the Indian National Congress – Nehru and Bose, for example. Bose, in fact, is the one that proposed a National Planning Committee in the first place. Among scientists, Meghnad Saha and Viswevaraya were arguing for planning from the late 1920s. Among industrialists, JRD Tata, GD Birla, and Lala Shriram are recommending it. And so, in the 1940s, we have a situation where the planning of different kinds is proposed by the Congress, communists, businessmen (in the Bombay Plan), Gandhians, and even the Muslim League.

I was also amazed at how popular planning was internationally at the time. In Britain, the victorious Labour Party’s election manifesto in the late 1940s called for the British economy to be a planned one. There were planned economies in the Soviet Union and China, of course, but also in South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, France, Mexico, Argentina, Ghana, Sudan, and Tanzania, among many other countries. And the reason for this was that mainstream development economics at the time recommended policies of state-led industrialisation. So, India and Nehru were making fairly orthodox choices.

Later in the book, you explain how the massive efforts to spread “plan consciousness” and “democratic planning” were not an effort to make this a bottom-up exercise, but one that would attempt to convince the people that the plans were channelling their desires. Do you see echoes of this in the labharti/welfare propaganda of today? You broadly conclude that those efforts didn’t achieve much at a mass scale…
Perhaps it would help your readers to know a little bit about what “democratic planning” was. Democratic planning was something of a mantra in the early decades after Independence, and certainly a key aspect of the Nehruvian state. The idea was that Indian planning was different from communist planning because it was based on consent rather than force. Not only would Indians be aware of the Five Year Plans, and have the ability to vote a government out, but democratic planning also sought to involve the citizenry in the planning project. It was a mixture of idealism about what citizenship, democracy and popular participation meant on the one hand, and a realist acceptance of the country’s very limited state capacity and ability to fulfil Plan targets without citizens’ involvement. It was socialist-inspired, but not quite socialist. Romantic in its vision, but often falling short in practice. And “Plan-consciousness” was meant to be the measure of this; reflecting the extent to which Indians knew about the Plans and their obligations towards its success.

The Indian state put a lot of time, money, and effort behind popularising the Plans. And it took a remarkable number of forms. Five Year Plan Publicity officers travelled on bullock carts, jeeps, and boat carts carrying publicity materials and film projectors. There was a dedicated Song and Drama division that propagated the Plans through tunes and plays. University Planning Forums dotted the collegiate landscape, official publications like Yojana spread the word, and the Films Division of India pumped out movies and cartoons preaching the Plan gospel. There were even voluntary organisations like the Bharat Sewak Samaj and the Bharat Sadhu Samaj that directed a large number of volunteers towards developmental projects.

Further, while the government’s efforts met with mixed success, another gauge to assess the extent to which the Plans seeped into popular culture, are popular novels and films. And novels like Jhoota Sach by Yashpal, plays such as Hamara Gaon, Bollywood movies like Naya Daur (starring Dilip Kumar) and Char Dil Char Char Raahein, (featuring Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Meena Kumari), all convey the degree to which planning became a part of the popular lexicon.

Now, to return to the latter part of your question (about the relationship between Plan propaganda and welfare propaganda today). I would amend what you said a little: while the form of the propaganda might be the same (perhaps reflecting its limitations as a genre!), what they were/are doing is different. With “democratic planning” the Indian state sought to do something quite distinct from labharti/welfare propaganda. The state saw its relationship with citizens differently. It was asking more of citizens, exhorting them to be a part of a movement, not just informing them about welfare schemes made available to them. It harboured a different intellectual aspiration (wanting citizens to be aware), but also a different material request (investing and participating according to the Plans, but also including making voluntary efforts towards it).

Poking fun at the Government’s enthusiasm for Plans and popular participation. By Shankar in 'Shankar’s Weekly', May 7, 1950. Excerpted from 'Planning Democracy'.

To follow up on that, what do the massive (and mostly unsuccessful, according to the government’s own measures at least) efforts to spread “Plan consciousness” tell us about how the early Indian state saw itself and its role?

I think it reveals the Nehruvian state to be caught between an aspiration and a constraint – that of idealistic democratic planning and the limitations of state capacity (and perhaps sometimes the idealism was a mask for a realisation of that limitation). But my sense is that it also reflects a specific historical moment – the first flush of Independence – when it didn’t seem absurd to ask so much of citizens, when the idea of what Indian citizenship would be was only taking shape, and the ideology of self-reliance as a way to prevent neo-colonialism was strong.

What do you mean “[Planning] was the domestic equivalent of what came to be a non-aligned foreign policy”? How did the world engage with India’s experiment?
By that I mean that India was consciously positioning itself between, to put it crudely, the authoritarian stick and the liberal carrot. It was branding itself, in its economic policy, as being neither fully in the American-led capitalist camp, or in the Soviet-dominated communist bloc. This is something that David C Engerman has written about as well, in his book The Price of Aid. Just as India was charting a distinct path through Non-Alignment in foreign policy, similarly, it was suggesting that the mixed economy method of centralized planning within a parliamentary framework was a model for decolonising nations who had little interest in embroiling themselves in superpower competition.

India’s planning project was tracked closely by the international community, and of course, there were numerous lines of transnational connection which it trace in my book. Given India’s geographic location, in the backyard of the two largest communist states in the world (the USSR and China), western capitals viewed the success of Indian democracy and its economy as being determinative of the fate of democracy in the developing world and even globally. Headlines from the New York Times convey this sense of urgency: India was a “Bastion Against Communism” and the “Best Hope of Democracy in the Far East.” It said that Mao’s China and Nehru’s India were locked in a battle of “Communist Dictatorship versus Democratic Freedom.” Martin Luther King Jr wrote that it would be a “boon to democracy if one of the great nations of the world” could provide for its people “without surrendering to a dictatorship of either the ‘right’ or ‘left’.” It was these high stakes that drew experts from all over the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to India to advise on the Five Year Plans and development more generally.

For the uninitiated, tell us why the National Sample Survey was groundbreaking…
The National Sample Survey was a revolution in India’s data capacities. Started in 1950, the idea was to begin a series of sprawling, nationwide surveys to capture information on all aspects of citizens’ economic life. The logic behind it was that since it would be impossible (or too expensive) to collect statistics from every household across the nation, it was better to develop a representative sample so that the whole could be calculated from a small fraction.

It was the biggest and most comprehensive sampling inquiry ever in the world. The challenges were enormous. The initial sample they arrived at was around 1800 villages out of India’s 5,60,000 villages. The Institute was short-staffed and needed to negotiate 15 languages and 140 local systems of measurement. Mahalanobis would write in his diary about forested areas in Orissa where investigators had to be accompanied by armed guards through forests, and snow-clad Himalayan passes to scale. About encountering tribals in Assam who didn’t speak any known language. In other parts, investigators often fell ill due to tropical diseases or feared for their lives because of man-eating tigers.

But the results were probably worth it. They were extraordinary: providing amazing detail about the daily life of Indians. Since then, the National Sample Survey has consistently yielded fine-grained detail about economic life in India, helping assess poverty, employment, consumption, and expenditure, to mention just a few. Furthermore, it has made contributions to policymaking at a global level. The methods pioneered by it are now used by the World Bank and the United Nations in their household-level surveys conducted in more than a hundred countries.

The chapter on bringing the computer to India for planning is chock-full of insights, from a reminder that India’s first use for the tech “was in development, not the military” (unlike elsewhere) and Mahalanobis’ remarkable efforts to bring them to the Institute. Could you tell readers a bit about this fascinating time?
To put it simply: India owes its very first computers to its desire to centrally plan the economy. The first two computers were brought to India in the 1950s, after much drama (as I recount in the book) in order to help calculate the data from the National Sample Survey for the Planning Commission.

I found the stories relating to this episode utterly fascinating. Just to give you a flavour of it, let me repeat the anecdote that my chapter opens with, about a young American engineer name Morton Nadler. This is a young socialist who turns his back on the United States and, lying to his parents about pursuing a PhD in Paris, instead departs to the Soviet bloc in order to be a part of a revolutionary society. Unbeknownst to him, the FBI thinks that he is a traitor who is selling American radar secrets to the communists and even manages to get his mother to become an informant on her son’s activities in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately for Nadler, even his communist hosts in Prague begin to suspect that he is a double agent, pretending to work for socialism while actually serving capitalist masters in the US. Eventually, his romance with revolution souring, Nadler decides that his only way out was to move to a non-aligned nation (since America had revoked his passport and the Czech authorities were getting increasingly suspicious). That is how he winds up, through a meeting with PC Mahalanobis, at the Indian Statistical in Calcutta, working on India’s first computers.

In the book, I link that story with that of how the first computers came to India. I do this by tracking the travels of Mahalanobis and his associates through America, Europe, and the Soviet Union, meeting computer scientists and trying to strike deals to purchase this outlandishly expensive and futuristic machine. What I uncovered was that India’s ability to acquire its first computers was shaped to a great degree by the forces of the Cold War and both the United States and Soviet Union’s perception of whether Mahalanobis was a socialist and whether the Indian Statistical Institute was a red-haven. And apart from international machinations, there was also a domestic competition – between Mahalanobis, who wanted to use computers for development, and Homi Bhabha who wanted them for his nuclear program.

How did you come to the story of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj and its “Planning” work? Were you surprised at the extent of its involvement and connections to the Congress efforts?
When I stumbled across these references to sadhus in documents about Five Year Plans, I knew I had to dig deeper. And I was rather surprised by what I found.

The Bharat Sadhu Samaj was an organization established in early 1956 after a meeting between Congress politicians and sadhus at Birla Mandir in Delhi. Despite Nehru’s deep ambivalence about the venture, it was enthusiastically promoted by god-fearing national figures like President Rajendra Prasad and the Minister for Planning, Gulzarilal Nanda. The Samaj was instituted on the belief – shared by Congress and Hindu ascetics – that these holy men would help popularise the Five-Year Plans among the country’s devout millions.

What the Congress Party would find, however, over the course of the following years, was that associating itself with Hindu causes would ultimately play into the hands of its political rivals, initially the Jan Sangh and eventually the BJP. The sadhus in this Samaj would prove hard to control, dragging the party into arenas where its secular commitments were ever more threatened, and where its competitors were bound to succeed.

Cartoon representing the priorities of the Second Five Year Plan. Astride the public sector are central ministers including Lal Bahadur Shastri, Gulzarilal Nanda, and T. T. Krishnamachari. By Shankar in 'Shankar’s Weekly', May 6, 1956. Excerpted from 'Planning Democracy'.

You make it clear that the book does not set out to take an opinion on the economic effectiveness of the Plans. Can I goad you into offering judgment outside the pages of the book?
No! Okay, duly goaded. So here goes:

I think it depends on what we define as planning and which phase of independent Indian history we are speaking of. Because the answers would be different for the 1950s, versus say the 1970s.

We must distinguish between planning and import substitution. Planning was popular in many parts of the world – South Korea, Japan, China, Malaysia, France, the Soviet Union, Argentina, Ghana, and Sudan. But planning is just a technique, the specific policy can be very different within it. So let’s compare India and South Korea. As scholars like Vivek Chibber and Atul Kohli have argued, the problem might not have been planning as much as policies adopted under planning – specifically import substitution, instead of an export orientation. Though, it is worth pointing out that most leading Indian industrialists were quite happy with import substitution at first (since it protected them from foreign competition).

So why did India choose a relatively closed economy and import substitution and not an open economy that was export-led? Because being an open economy and focusing on exports means relying on imports for many other products. This, given India’s history of colonialism and Swadeshi didn’t sit right with India’s intelligentsia. Many believed that being politically independent meant being economically self-sufficient. This, by the way, was believed and endorsed by India’s business community as well. In fact, they were quite happy to have a protected and vast home market, with no competition as I mentioned earlier. So there was a broad consensus about import substitution. It wasn’t something Nehru was particularly wedded to on his own. As I write in my book, in the late 1950s, and early 1960s, people as different in their economic orientations as Manmohan, Amartya Sen, and Jagdish Bhagwati all agreed on this.

Lastly, how did planning perform? Between 1900 and 1950, the Indian economy grew at less than 1%. From 1950 to the mid-1960s it grew at 4 per cent. So some significant growth. As even critics of Nehruvian planning like Bibek Debroy admit, this early phase was crucial in spurring growth and building critical industrial capacity. The Licence-Permit Raj really took hold only after Nehru.

I’m not an economist, and so I won’t hazard a detailed explanation of why the Indian economy stalled. But the raft of licensing and red tape from the 1970s, combined with the inability to move towards an export orientation, certainly didn’t help.

We’re operating in a time when there is criticism of the government’s handling of data, and what is made public. We’re certainly told that the kind of meddling or at least suppression is unprecedented. Is this something that, given your research into these early years of the system, you would agree with?
The situation is dismal. Last year, The Economist carried a piece that described India’s statistical system as “crumbling”. Data journalists like Pramit Bhattacharya have pointed out some of the long-term issues that date back a couple of decades at least. But there does seem to be an accelerated decline in quality more recently, according to professional economists. Over the last five years, we’ve discovered, as I wrote in the book, that “good data isn’t always good politics”, and so we’ve seen NSS survey results suppressed, and certain other studies discontinued. When the findings have been leaked, it became clear that it was because the surveys showed record unemployment or declines in household spending. As a result, we don’t have a firm baseline for assessing the levels of Indian poverty and unemployment. The government makes claims about these, but without the ability to actually assess this data and trust its robustness, we have good reason to be very suspicious of these claims.

To be clear, these criticisms have come from professional economists and statisticians ranging from the Left to the Right.

Questions of technocracy versus democracy persist today, albeit often in very different terms – “Hard work vs Harvard” etcetera. Could you tell us why you think India’s experiment with this effort to square that circle ought to inform the way we see these debates playing out today?
It is a hard problem with no easy solution. But recognising that there is a trade-off and that there are genuine stakes, and having the humility to acknowledge that, is important I think. So while in Nehruvian India technocracy often seemed overwhelming, it was also the time that democracy was being instituted. Today, one senses a swing in the other extreme, against expertise, as seen in colossal (and failed) economic experiments such as demonetisation. I don’t really think that there is a real choice about whether or not to rely on expertise. Especially in modern, complex societies, with the level of specialisation, we have in different fields. The challenge, though, is to have a democracy that is able to keep a check on that expertise, ensuring that it is working towards the common good. And a parallel challenge is to cultivate a political culture in which expertise is also respected.

I think a lot of the anti-expertise backlash comes from populist movements across the world that are anti-elite, and because experts are seen as part of the elite, their expertise is seen as stained or corrupt. The long-term answer, to me, is not to turn away from expertise, but to democratise access to higher education and specialisation so that citizens do not associate experts with certain entrenched elite social groups, but see it as a position that anyone could have access to.

What misconceptions about Planning, Mahalanobis, the ISI or even just the Indian state in these years do you find yourself having to correct all the time?
There are several! That centralised planning was an idiosyncratic choice made by India; that only socialists in India were in favour of planning in the 1950s; and Mahalanobis was made a Planning Commission member because he was Nehru’s friend.

What areas of research – or tools – would you point younger scholars interested in these subjects towards?
Oh, there is so much more that can be done vis-à-vis research on planning. Some of them, I think, could include studies of regional/state-based variation in thinking about managing the economy; the ways in which planning intersected with caste (in conception and application); and the reception of both the National Sample Survey and “democratic planning” by ordinary citizens. These are some that come to mind immediately.

What are you working on next?
I’ve recently begun working on my next book project – tentatively titled Status Anxiety: A Transnational History of Indian Soft Power – that studies Indian cultural diplomacy and the long project of building soft power.

What three books/papers/podcasts on these subjects would you recommend to someone who wants to find out more?
I’m going to cheat a little and offer two sets of three recommendations:

On planning:

  1. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is an amazing novel based on the premise of Soviet planning.
  2. Kamyaab Hum Karge Rahenge Paanch Saal Ke Plan Ko (a Bollywood song about the Five Year Plan sunch by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi).
  3. Shadow and Substance (a Films Division of India movie about the Plans, involving an alien visiting Earth).

On Independent India:

There are recent/upcoming books on newly independent India which promise to be fantastic, by superb scholars.

  1. Aditya Balasubramanian’s Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India.
  2. Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s Radio for the Millions: Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders.
  3. Rotem Geva’s Delhi Reborn: Partition and Nation Building in India’s Capital.

Bonus recommendation (if I may cheat again?): Neeti Nair’s Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia.

This interview first appeared on India Inside Out.