How and why could India remain a possible and successful democratic polity with an impressive economic growth despite the persistence of, inter alia, large-scale poverty, caste and gender inequalities, corruption and ‘weak’ state capacities? In a book already published by Polity Press over a year ago with the title, India Today, three leading Indianists, Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss and Craig Jeffrey have gainfully used insights gleaned from their extensive comparative knowledge and field experiences respectively in East, South and North India, to engage thirteen ‘important’ and ‘interlocking’ questions in the book under discussion.
Organized into three parts, these questions range from when and why did India take off, the conditions of the poor and the workers, the state of ‘inclusive growth’ and social justice, to questions of politics like how a ‘weak’ state promotes audacious reform, the success of India’s democracy, government’s responsiveness, Hindu nationalism, rural dislocations and violent Maoist insurgency. The authors also ask probing societal questions including whether India has a civil society, the relevance of caste, condition of women and whether India could benefit from demographic dividends.
The authors present India’s impressive economic take-off since the 1980s from a ‘longer perspective’ (p. 40). Unlike the ‘singular take-off’ thesis which jettisons the blighted ‘Hindu rate of growth’ period from the economic turnaround in the 1980s and 90s, this perspective allows them to better capture the ‘cumulative dimensions of growth process in India’ (p. 24). They underscore how politics matter more than institutions in fashioning macro-economic reform policies favourable to global market integration to unshackle India from dirigiste regimes of price control and import-substitution industrialization of the Nehruvian and Indira years (p. 44). Meanwhile, the authors are cognisant of the import of quality of institutions—secure property rights regimes, rule of law, impartial bureaucracy, etc., all of which are colonial legacies and effectively used by the founding fathers—in engendering India’s economic take-off (ibid.)
Despite decades of capital accumulation, trade and financial liberalization India has limited success record in poverty reduction. The authors underline widening social and spatial inequalities in India which is reinforced by overwhelming dependence of its populations on agricultural income and non-agricultural ‘informal’ sectors (p. 49). This, coupled with widespread social discrimination, deteriorating public distribution system spawned by weak, inefficient and corrupt governments, implies that dalits and Scheduled Tribes would continue to lose out from economic growth (pp. 80-81). While this entrenches the material disabilities and social marginality of these segments, their immiserization is likely to continue as government’s expenditure in the countryside and agricultural investment declines over time (p. 90).
Noting that ‘social justice remains a field of contestation’, Corbridge, Harriss and Jeffrey document recent attempts to secure social and economic rights (p. 117, pp. 100-17). While agenda of ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘justice’ are rhetorically high on policy documents (11th or 12th Five Year Plans, for example) and government legislations pertaining to the Right to Education (2001), Right to Work (2005) and Right to Food (2010), the authors lament that India has not succeeded in generating productive jobs and that these agendas are hardly reflected in ‘in budget allocations to social programmes.’ (pp.100-01). Against this grain, the authors note the critical roles played by civil society groups and judicial activism in fostering progressive legislations (p. 159).
Examining how a ‘weak’ state promoted ‘audacious reforms’ since the 1990s, the authors contend that a combination of factors like external balance of payment crisis in 1990-91, interventions by Bretton Woods institutions and the leadership of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were critical to break the stranglehold of dominant proprietary interests of rich farmers, higher level bureaucracy and big business houses. The liberalization of trade and opening up of the industrial sectors of power and insurance, among others, was made possible by ‘provincial Darwinism’ and the propitious alignment of elite and mass politics as reform agenda do not directly impinge on existing labour laws, agriculture or public ownership which have been in the realm of mass politics (p. 129). As states mutually compete for capital accumulation and infrastructural development by promoting Special Economic Zones, they often embark upon the trajectory of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (p. 135). This stirs up ‘significant battles over land rights, labour laws and the future of agriculture’ which not only blurs the boundary between elite and mass politics but also makes it conflictual (p. 139). It is on this contested site where large-scale rural dislocations take place that the Maoist insurgents have been able to consolidate their legitimate presence by addressing social injustice and championing the cause of land reforms and redistribution (pp. 197-220).
How do these impinge on the success of democracy in India, we might ask. The authors contend that India’s procedural democratic credentials remain robust as shown by decent popular electoral participation, largely impartial democratic institutions—Indian Administrative Services, Supreme Court and Election Commission—and the ability of the Indian state to uphold respect for human rights although this has come under considerable strain in the wake of Hindu majoritarian violence against minorities especially against the Sikhs (1984), and Muslims during the Gujarat pogrom (2002)(pp. 144-45). On the contents of substantive democracy in India, the authors show a mixed record. Although some States like Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu recently witnessed the rise of political parties which mobilized lower castes and radically redefined agenda of social justice and empowerment, rampant bureaucratic corruption, criminalization and political malfeasance which feed on a deeply entrenched patronage system render access to justice extremely difficult (pp.151-157).
Another interlocking theme taken up by the authors which impinges on the quality of democracy and capacity of the Indian state is the question of government’s responsiveness (pp. 158-76). This can be precarious in a patronage democracy like India where not only choices and decision making of political elites but also of the voters are constrained by insufficient information. What is more worrisome is the poor quality of policy implementation in the service sector especially policing, teaching and medical care which ‘involve both a lot of discretionary decision-making and large number of transactions’ (pp.159-160). Here the alternative solutions offered like outsourcing of services, and privatization of education and health instead of offering durable solutions could well become the problem (p. 161).
The authors also note the rise of Hindu nationalism which has important bearings on inter-community relations and communal violence (pp. 177-96). Even as a polity-wide Party like the BJP draws significant electoral support from increasingly religious urban and educated middle class, ethnic and religious divides get sharpened over the years. In a highly fractionalized political system like India, this divide is likely to define the extent and nature of electoral competition in the future which means that ‘banal Hindutva and its more extreme and violent forms are here to stay’ (p. 196).
In the last part, the authors concentrate on four key societal issues, viz., civil society, relevance of caste, condition of women and demographic dividends. Going beyond Partha Chatterjee’s framework of distinguishing ‘civil society’ of the middle class from the ‘political society’ of the lower class, a framework which resonates ‘the strict European definition’ of civil society whereby a distinction is made between ‘affective sociability’ (gemeinschaft) and ‘disinterested social relations’ (gessellschaft) (p. 223), the authors contend that India has a ‘large and effective civil society’ (p. 237). In doing so they underscore how ‘social practices’ of civil society under this framework characterizes subaltern politics or vice versa which makes the wall of separation between civil and political society that much more porous and fuzzy. On caste, the authors note how it reinvented itself from being ‘a hierarchical system to a horizontal assortment of competing interest groups’ (p. 240). This explains the resilience of caste even as it continues to decisively determine electoral politics and outcomes. Drawing from extant scholarship, they note how the massive spread of education, urbanization and commercialization vertically mobilized lower castes and paradoxically entrenched their low esteem and dignity in the meantime (pp. 239-57).
In their empirically rich chapter on women, the authors contend that their conditions have improved over the years notwithstanding the fact that they continue to be afflicted by gender discrimination, a situation made more precarious by widespread prevalence of female foeticide, malnutrition, illiteracy, domestic violence, and negligible presence in legislative bodies at the state and national level. The massive entry of women into the ‘clientalist and quasi-legal worlds of India’s political society’ made possible by affirmative action has also shown that they are ‘coming to think themselves as active citizens in India’s participatory democracy’ (p. 284). In the final chapter the authors examine how demographic change and the concomitant ‘youth bulge’ which is hitherto seen to have spawned economic disaster due to its negative influence on savings could instead be harnessed to trigger production, earnings and savings in India and the global South (pp. 286-87). For this to happen they persuasively plead not only for a shift of economy’s base from agriculture to manufacturing, but also for ‘greater investment in education, health and infrastructure’ (p. 288). The authors lucidly sum up their arguments in their afterword.
There is one instance where reservation of seats in village-level panchayats is erroneously projected to have been brought by the 93rd Amendment (p. 248). If the strength of the book derives from its competent engagement with such a broad canvass of issues, it also remains its weakness as it lacks an intervening argument. The division of the book into three parts and disparate sequencing of issues to technically suit this also unduly disturbs the logical flow of their ‘interlocking’ arguments. For example, the arguments made in chapter 2 would have a cogent and natural flow had it been followed by chapter 6. It may also be pointed out that in their most tightly sequenced chapters, viz. chapters 7 & 8, a more detailed treatment of the role of the right to information and Comptroller and Auditor General, among others, in giving voice and making India’s democracy more substantive and responsive could have enriched their arguments. These notwithstanding, this comprehensive book would remain a key source book on Indian politics for a long time to come.
Kham Khan Suan Hausing is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Scienc, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.