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Postcolonial Preference For Socialism: How Anti-Imperialism Came To Shape Modern South Asia

The descent into, and eventually out of, post-colonial socialism has been a very common sight across the cracked vistas of 20th century South Asia. Countries coming out of colonial rule are often economically very weak, and in the process of re-establishing a stable political system with a sound welfare policy for its citizens. During this precarious period, a free market economy only threatens to further widen the gap between the social classes, and steepen the hierarchy of income distribution.

Picture Credit: WallpaperAccess

After a period of draconian and forceful governance, a state-owned setup of the economy does not seem like a bad idea to the poor, hoping that their fellow freedom fighters would possibly be governing the newly independent nations, and thus keeping the interests of the common man in mind.

African countries like Ghana came out of colonial rule, and were led by prominent peacekeeping leaders like Kwame Nkrumah. He was one of the founding fathers of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, and was heavily in favour of 5-year plans leading the country to a path down the road of economic progress. He was also aware of the significance of the Cocoa trade, and how his country could contribute and benefit from it, and therefore kept a check on cocoa exports. The first president of Tanzania after independence, Julius Nyerere, was also in favour of state dominance in the economic sphere, and was therefore responsible for collectivized land reforms in the country.

Egypt, which was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, another leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, was responsible for nationalizing the Suez Canal. It’s importance then, and even now, cannot be overstated as it stands to be one of the most important infrastructure projects aiding international trade. The Canal has reaped great economic benefits to Egypt, apart from being one of the primary sources of revenue as a tourist site.

The aforementioned leaders and countries have mostly been part of the NAM, but very clearly chose one economic ideology over the other. This either might be due to political leaning towards the Soviet Union, without publicly announcing it (a common indication of which was neutrality during political turmoil), or a genuine belief that the newfound government would have the people’s best interests at heart, and could therefore be given the responsibility of controlling the country’s assets.

As seen in post-colonial African countries, socialism has been the prevalent form of economic governance, although politically these countries have been democratic in choosing their government leaders (no matter how crude the initial process of election may have been). However, these countries were led by populist leaders, who mostly had a strong international presence as well.

The United States has come under heavy criticism for using Latin American economies as production houses, for exploiting their natural resources, and meddling in and altering their political landscape. That is why foreign interference is heavily disliked in the region. Venezuela became a victim of mismanaged socialism, with any attempted reparatory changes making the situation worse for the common man. Inflationary pressures, joblessness, and public agitations fuelled by political chaos have ruined the country’s economy. The country stands to be one of the biggest examples of the failed socialist experiment, after the Soviet Union.

Looking at countries in Asia also provides ample evidence of the economically left leaning ideology preferred by newly formed governments. Countries like Vietnam, China and India, all saw spells of socialist control over their economies, with Vietnam splitting into two, based on the difference of popular opinion to organize economic life, apart from political tensions between the Northern and Southern parts of the country. China, whose economy was excessively state controlled, turned towards a more free-trade approach by identifying certain areas, known as Special Economic Zones, where integration with the international economy and minimal state intervention would propel the nation’s economic presence to an unprecedented level. This shift away from a sort of pure socialism, after decades of state designed policies which made things from bad to worse for the Chinese economy, a state-run capitalist system was designed in a way to create monopolies in numerous global supply chains.

India, or rather its political leaders in the period leading up to independence, were fascinated with the idea of socialism. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the nation’s first and longest serving Prime Minister was heavily in favour of a state controlled economic model, akin to that of the Soviet Union, who had been a great ally to India, despite India leading the NAM during the cold war.

Picture Credit: Himal Southasian

An eminent Indian economist Swaminathan Aiyar stated “India was perhaps the only country in the world where improving productivity was a crime”, referring to the period up until the late 1980s, when the country was said to be under ‘License Rule’. Industrialisation and capitalist goods were opposed by the common man and many in the cabinet, fearing the opening up of borders would quell any growth of the local industry and put the control of output and employment into the hands of foreign firms. Even today, one of, and possibly the most important reason why nationalised banks continue to exist in the country is due it’s irreplicable quality as a welfare institution.

What is mostly observed across the nations that have adopted a socialist way of life after independence, has not been simply due to a fondness for state control, or trust in the government that there will be a mutual understanding of development and progress. It is due to a deep-rooted scepticism of a free-market economy, living under the impression of disproportionate asset allocation, oppression, and imagining it to be a form of modern-day serfdom for the inherently disadvantaged.


By Arjun Tandon

Arjun is a budding economist, with primary focus on monetary and public economics. He can usually be found driving karts, doing research, reading philosophy or playing football.