Economy, Politics and Society

Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss
and Craig Jeffrey


The right of Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss and Craig Jeffrey to be identified as Authors of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2013 by Polity Press

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List of Figures and Tables
Preface and Acknowledgements
1 Making Sense of India Today
Part I: Economy
2 When and Why Did India Take Off?
3 How Have the Poor Fared (and Others Too)?
4 Why Hasn’t Economic Growth Delivered More for Indian Workers?
5 Is the Indian State Delivering on Promises of ‘Inclusive Growth’ and Social Justice?
Part II: Politics
6 How Did a ‘Weak’ State Promote Audacious Reform?
7 Has India’s Democracy Been a Success?
8 Is Government in India Becoming More Responsive?
9 Has the Rise of Hindu Nationalism Halted?
10 Rural Dislocations:Why Has Maoism Become Such a Force in India?
Part III: Society
11 Does India Have a Civil Society?
12 Does Caste Still Matter in India?
13 How Much Have Things Changed for Indian Women?
14 Can India Benefit From Its Demographic Dividend?
15 Afterword: India Today, and India in the World

Figures and Tables


2.1 India’s long-term growth, 1950–2009
2.2 Phases of growth: command and demand politics
2.3 Panagariya’s four phases of growth
2.4 Trends in savings and investment, 1950–2008
3.1 Number of people living below the poverty line (millions)
3.2 Headcount index of poverty using the national poverty line (percentage)
3.3 India: patterns of real consumption growth
3.4 India: patterns of real wage growth
3.5 Percentage of habitations not connected by roads, by Indian state
3.6 Percentage of the population with access to sewerage facilities, by Indian state
10.1 India’s ‘red corridor’
13.1 Probability of being underweight: all girls and ST girls


1.1 Distribution of votes of major parties, Lok Sabha elections, 1952–2009 (in percentages)
1.2 Distribution by party of seats won in Lok Sabha elections, 1952–2009
2.1 The world’s fastest-growing countries, 1980–2003 (per cent per year)
2.2 India’s sectoral composition of growth, 1950–2009 (per cent per year)
3.1 Growth and poverty across the globe, 1990–2015
3.2 Comparable estimates of rural poverty and inequality, 1983–2004/5
3.3 Comparable estimates of urban poverty and inequality, 1983–2004/5
3.4 India: evolution of inequality
3.5 India: decomposing changes in poverty
3.6 India’s progress against non-income Millennium Development Goals
3.7 Ranking of India’s poorest states by GSDP per capita and human development indicators
4.1 Employment structure in India – daily status (per cent)
4.2 Distribution of GDP and of employment across sectors in India and comparator countries
4.3 Employment by type and sector (millions)
4.4 Agricultural growth rates
4.5 Classification of rural households according to major earnings source, 2005
4.6 Annual rates of employment growth for usual status workers (per cent)
7.1 Turnout in Lok Sabha elections, 1957–1998
9.1 BJP and Congress in electoral competition
13.1 Sex ratios in India, 1901–2011
13.2 Women’s malnutrition across major states in India, 2005–6
13.3 School enrolment and literacy rates by gender, 1970–2005/8
13.4 Women in the BRICS
13.5 Average daily wage rates by sex, October–December 2007
13.6 Women’s representation in Parliament (Lok Sabha), 1952–2009
13.7 Percentage of elected women members, three-tier Panchayati Raj, 1999–2007
13.8 Percentage of female MLAs elected in State Assembly elections, 2002–2008


AIADMKAll India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham
APLAbove Poverty Line
BJPBharatiya Janata Party
BJSBharatiya Jana Sangh
BKUBharatiya Kisan Union
BIMARUBihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh
BPLBelow Poverty Line
BSKSSBastar Sambhag Kisan Sangharsh Samiti
BSPBahujan Samaj Party
CEOChief Executive Officer
CMChief Minister
CMIECentre for Monitoring Indian Economy
CMPCommon Minimum Programme
CPICommunist Party of India
CPI(M)/CPMCommunist Party of India (Marxist)
CPI(Maoist)Communist Party of India (Maoist)
DFIDDepartment for International Development (UK)
DMKDravida Munnetra Kazagham
EPWEconomic and Political Weekly
EPZExport Processing Zone
EGSEducation Guarantee Scheme
FCIFood Corporation of India
FDIForeign Direct Investment
GDPGross Domestic Product
HYVHigh Yielding Variety
ICDSIntegrated Child Development Scheme
ICRISATInternational Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
IIMIndian Institute of Management
IITIndian Institute of Technology
INCIndian National Congress
ISIImport Substitution Industrialization
ITInformation Technology
ITeSInformation Technology-enhanced Services
JDJanata Dal
KRRSKarnataka State Farmers’ Association
KSSPKerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad
LFLeft Front
LSLok Shakti
MBCMost Backward Class
MDGMillennium Development Goal
MKSSMazdur Kisan Shakti Sangathan
NACNational Advisory Council
NAMNon-Aligned Movement
NAPMNational Alliance of People’s Movements
NBANarmada Bachao Andolan
NCAERNational Council for Applied Economic Research
NCEUSNational Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector
NDANational Democratic Alliance
NEPNew Economic Policy
NFHSNational Family Health Survey
NGONon-Governmental Organization
NREGANational Rural Employment Guarantee Act
NRINon-Resident Indian
NSSNational Sample Survey (Organisation)
OBCOther Backward Class
OCIOverseas Citizen of India
PAEGPeople’s Action for Employment Guarantee
PDSPublic Distribution System
RJDRashtriya Janata Dal
RSSRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
SAPSamata Party
SCScheduled Caste
SEBISecurities and Exchange Board of India
SEZSpecial Economic Zone
SHGSelf-Help Groups
SPSamajwadi Party
SSShiv Sena
ShSShetkari Sanghatana
STScheduled Tribe
TDPTelegu Desam Party
UFUnited Front
UNICEFUnited Nations International Children’s Fund
UNPAUnited National Progressive Alliance
UPAUnited Progressive Alliance
VHPVishwa Hindu Parishad

Preface and Acknowledgements

India Today builds upon and yet is significantly different from another account of contemporary India that was written by two of us, Stuart Corbridge and John Harriss, just over a decade ago. Reinventing India (Corbridge and Harriss, 2000–3) presented an analytical history of colonial and post-colonial India. It argued that economic liberalization and ascendant Hindu nationalism in post-1980 India could be understood as elite revolts against earlier assertions of popular (or subaltern) democracy.

India Today involves three authors in equal measure and is cross-sectional in its main design. Each of its substantive chapters seeks to answer a question. When and why did India take off? How did a weak state promote audacious reform? Is government in India becoming more responsive (and to whom)? Does India have a civil society? Has the rise of Hindu nationalism halted? Will India reap a demographic dividend? And so on. There are many more questions that we would like to have asked and answered. India Today is certainly not a comprehensive account of contemporary India. But the thirteen main questions that we have selected here seem to us to be important and in some respects interlocking ones. Together, they address significant new developments in India’s economy, polity and society, while a brief Afterword considers India’s emerging geopolitical ambitions.

The answers that we propose to these questions draw upon our training as students of South Asia, on the one hand, and of political economy, comparative politics or international development, on the other. We believe that analysis of contemporary India is at its best when it combines the insights of area studies with the more generic form of reasoning that is typical in economics or comparative politics. Accordingly, as we explain further in chapter 1, the structure of most chapters in India Today is broadly T-shaped. We first consider what answers to our question(s) might be suggested by theoretical or comparative work in the social sciences. For example, if we want to know when and why the Indian economy took off, it helps to know something about the definition and frequency of growth accelerations in developing countries and something too about the main drivers of economic growth. The same logic holds when we ask ‘How much have things changed for Indian women [whether since 1950 or 1990]?’ Women in India are a heterogeneous group of people with different capabilities and identities. They also differ in key respects from women in Europe or North America. There are grounds for believing, even so, that processes of economic growth and development lead very often to higher literacy rates, create new opportunities for paid employment, and expand the public sphere – for women as well as for men. At any rate, this is one key intuition that is suggested by comparative political economy. Chapter 13 also takes on board some contrasting intuitions proposed by feminist scholars and South Asianists. The fact that there are over 1,060 men for every 1,000 women in India should caution us against simplistic – and overly generalized – views about empowerment through modernization.

India Today is an academic book and we trust it will earn the attention of our peers. At the same time, we hope the book will be of interest to lay readers and specialists in other world regions. We have done our best to adopt a prose style that is precise and not weighed down by long notes. We have also tried to minimize repetition across the chapters of India Today, although some points of overlap undoubtedly may still be found. We think this is inevitable in a book that allows readers to consult chapters out of order, if they wish, and that doesn’t provide a minutely chronological account of economic, political or social life in contemporary India. Throughout, we draw on our own field studies in eastern India (Corbridge), south India (Harriss) and north India (Jeffrey).

India Today is, of course, also the title of a well-known Indian news magazine. There is no connection between the magazine and our book, although we happily acknowledge the value to all those of us who are interested in India of remarkable news magazines published in the country, most of which are now readily accessible online. We have drawn significantly on Frontline, published fortnightly by The Hindu group of newspapers, and also upon the weekly Outlook – as we have as well, extensively, upon India’s extraordinary Economic and Political Weekly, which carries academic articles and commentary on contemporary affairs of very high quality. Our title, India Today, also repeats that of Rajni Palme Dutt’s powerful indictment of British colonialism, published by the Left Book Club in Britain in 1940. India has changed enormously since the publication of Palme Dutt’s book, and we hope that our book is as relevant to wider understanding of contemporary India as was Palme Dutt’s work at the time of its publication.

Scholarship is always a collaborative enterprise and we are enormously indebted to all of the many authors whose work we draw upon here. Most of all, we are grateful to the work of the following academics, activists, friends and journalists who either took the trouble to read one or more of our draft chapters or provided more general commentary and inspiration: Bina Agarwal, Pranab Bardhan, Tim Besley, Neera Chandhoke, Sharad Chari, Jeff Checkel, Jane Dyson, Chris Fuller, Nandini Gooptu, Barbara Harriss-White, Himanshu, Robin Jeffrey, Sanjay Kumar, Stephen Legg, Sumi Madhok, Stig Toft Madsen, James Manor, Tamir Moustafa, Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Saraswati Raju, Sanjay Ruparelia, Alpa Shah, Manoj Srivastava, Ravi Srivastava, René Véron, Dhana Wadugodapitiya, Glyn Williams and Stephen Young. We have done our best to take on board their helpful comments and insights and we are confident that India Today is much stronger as a result. We are especially grateful to three anonymous referees and to the editorial staff at Polity Press, and most of all to Helen Gray, our copy-editor, and our indexer, Michael Solomons. Nikki Kalra and Thanh Lam provided excellent research assistance, which we are also delighted to acknowledge. John Harriss is grateful to the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore for the time and space in which he was able to start his work on this book, and then to complete it. Any errors of fact or interpretation are ours alone. Lastly, we are very pleased to salute our families for their patience, support and constructive commentaries, and of course for so much more: a big thank you, then, to Pilar and Joanne; Gundi, Kaveri and Ayaz, and Eli; and Jane, Florence and Finn.

London, Vancouver and Oxford: October 2011


Making Sense of India Today

1.1 Introduction

It can be difficult to avoid the use of clichés, not to mention hyperbole, when discussing contemporary India. India as the world’s largest democracy. India as a new regional superpower, an emergent economy, a BRIC – alongside Brazil, Russia and China. India as a poster child for managed ethnic pluralism: the fabled unity in diversity of a land that Churchill once declared to be ‘no more a single country than the equator is a country’. As with most clichés, too, there is more than a grain of truth in all of these claims. India has maintained its geographical integrity since 1947, notwithstanding that many observers once predicted a future made up only of fissiparous tendencies, growing ethnic and linguistic chauvinisms (Harrison 1960), or even, as V. S. Naipaul (1990) would darkly put it, a million threatening mutinies. A country which, as late as 1990–2, advertised itself to the wider world mainly in terms of rising caste tensions, looming bankruptcy, and the extraordinary dismantling of a mosque in Ayodhya by militant Hindu nationalists, has been substantially reinvented as one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a beacon of hi-tech modernity.

India today is marked by increasing self-confidence, at least among its urban middle classes. There is a growing sense that the country has taken its place at the heart of an Asian growth machine, and that power is shifting away from Europe and North America towards what not so long ago was called, mainly pejoratively, the Orient, including South Asia and the ‘Far East’ (Quah 2011). Mohandas Gandhi (the Mahatma) would have been as shaken by this turn of events as his erstwhile tormentors in the colonial establishment, Churchill very much included. Jawaharlal Nehru, too, the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of India (1947–64), would have been surprised by India’s recent embrace of an economic strategy that has begun to roll back the Licence and Planning Raj that he helped build up in the 1950s. He also would have been dismayed by the resurgence of militant Hinduism in India in the 1980s and 1990s, more than thirty years after the assassination of Gandhi, the acknowledged father of the nation, by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic and one-time member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), on 30 January 1948. (The RSS was founded in 1925 in Nagpur and remains the core organization of Hindu nationalism in India.)

One aim of this book is to convey how different India today can look from the India of twenty years ago, never mind the India of the 1940s or 1950s. A lot has changed since the crisis years of 1990–2, even if it is easy to exaggerate a sense of rupture between India now and India then. This is not a book, however, that is driven mainly by historical narrative, although we do provide some background material for readers who are new to India. Rather, India Today explores specific aspects of India’s economy, politics and society as they have emerged in the period mainly since c.2000. We want to know how and why India has changed, and with what consequences. Distinctively, too, India Today has been written to take full account of new scholarship that has been emerging over the past decade or so from social scientists for whom India is just one area of interest among many.

Serious work on India must always have great respect for variations across the country in ecology, marriage patterns, regional political formations, cultural and linguistic traditions, land tenancy systems and so on. Social scientists who wish to explore current realities in India will also be at a disadvantage if they choose to dismiss the past as another country: if they brusquely separate India’s post-reform growth story, for example, from the years of dirigiste economic management that preceded it. The same can be said of social scientists who hope to make sense of India in terms of normative counterfactuals that have little regard for political possibilities in the country they are studying. Not much is to be gained from saying that India in the 1960s should have been more like South Korea, regardless of how we might imagine South Korea to have been at that time.

We do strongly take the view, however, as we said in the Preface, that explorations of India’s economy, politics and society that cling to ideas of Indian exceptionalism are deficient in important respects. There are very significant differences between the organization of the caste system in India and forms of social stratification that prevailed in the American South into the 1960s, or in apartheid South Africa, or indeed in contemporary Peru or Israel. But there are also some useful lessons to be learned from cross-country comparisons or more general theoretical models (see, for example, Cox 1948). The same can be said of the rise of Maoism in eastern India over the past decade or so. Maoism in India is different from Maoism in China and Nepal, not to say from rebel movements in parts of West Africa. Yet there can still be instructive points of comparison between these movements in terms of their funding and recruitment systems or in regard to some of their ideological pronouncements, and some common insights and hypotheses that are worthy of exploration: for example, on the relative importance of greed and grievance (Collier and Hoeffler 2004; Cramer 2006), on possible breakdowns in systems of state patronage (Di John 2009), or on the possibility of resource curse effects (Ross 1999) in states like Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

Studies of Indian development in the first two decades after Independence commonly included contributions from economists, political scientists and sociologists who would never have thought to call themselves ‘Indianists’. They believed nonetheless that serious study of India might help them make sense of more general debates about economic development or democratization. Joan Robinson (1962), Edward Shils (1961) and Albert Hirschman (1967) all come to mind, along with the demographer Kingsley Davis (1951), and Marxist historians like Victor Kiernan (1967) and Maurice Dobb (1963). In the 1970s and 1980s, and for much of the 1990s, India fell out of favour with comparativists, prompted in part by its growing isolationism. The resurgence of Hindu nationalism in the 1980s, or of a deepening subaltern politics, were more often examined by career Indianists, if we can put it this way, than by students of comparative religious nationalism or ethnicity. Even studies of democratic deepening in India, some of which were truly outstanding (Rudolph and Rudolph 1987), for the most part had little regard for more general debates on democratization and economic development. (There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this generalization. It is important to acknowledge that historians of India made tremendous contributions throughout this period to global debates on imperialism (Ambirajan 1978; Stokes 1980), nationalism (Bayly 1998; Chatterjee 1986), and the meanings and local practices of colonialism (Arnold 1993). Some of these studies have contributed to the new and emerging field of global or transnational history: see Bayly (2004, 2007) and Lake and Reynolds (2008). Exports of Indian academic expertise in key respects ran ahead of theoretical importations during these years.)

More recently, however, India’s re-entry into the global public arena has brought mainstream social scientists flocking back to India, including large numbers of economists and political scientists trained in the United States. Some of their studies can betray a lack of familiarity with Indian realities, or with its diverse histories and geographies, and it is no part of our purpose to put comparative or theoretical studies on a pedestal. Inevitably, too, some of these studies rehearse arguments and present conclusions that are already well known to serious students of India. Novelty is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. At their best, however, these new studies provide welcome insights into many of the questions that we pose in India Today. So much so, indeed, that the reader will see that in each of the chapters that follow we begin with some intuitions that seem to us to flow from more general bodies of theory – that is, we aim to start each chapter with broad-based reasons for constructing answers to our questions in some ways and not in others.

We shall have more to say about the ‘new Indianism’ later in the chapter. At that point, too, we will comment further on the organization of our text and the goals we have set for ourselves. Before we pick up these threads, however, we want to provide a very brief account of how India in 2000 became India in 2000, if we can put it so crudely. Readers who require an in-depth account of India’s changing political economy from c.1950 to c.2000 are encouraged to consult key sources flagged throughout the chapter. What follows is bound to be schematic, but we hope it provides readers with information they will find helpful in making sense of India post-2000, not least with reference to broader debates in social science.

1.2 Path-Dependencies and Present Histories

An important vein of work in contemporary social science – though one with a long ancestry – examines the influence of what has come to be called historical path-dependency. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001), for example, are prominent amongst those scholars who hold that long-run patterns of economic growth and development are shaped very largely by the quality of a country’s institutions (broadly, the rules of the game or incentive regimes, something they model in terms of property rights guarantees and respect for the rule of law: see also chapter 2). They argue that ‘neo-Europes’ like New England, Australia and New Zealand prospered because English and other European migrants to these shores brought with them high-quality institutions that were locally improved upon. Untroubled by dangerous tropical diseases, these migrants settled in their new countries, where they invested in their futures. In Jamaica, in contrast, or in some parts of Iberian America, and, later on, in much of West Africa, European migrants were less minded to put down roots. These lands were rife with dangerous infectious diseases, and wealth could be extracted at a distance with the aid of forced labour systems. Sugar, coffee, gold and diamonds have all been mentioned in this regard, and later on oil. In a second and complementary paper, Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2002) argue that many regions which reported relatively high average per capita incomes in c.1800 suffered a reversal of fortune in the nineteenth century. Locally autocratic regimes, created to meet the practical needs of plantation or mining economies, found themselves poorly equipped to take advantage of the new industrial technologies which began to emerge from capitalist North-west Europe. Instead, it was the settler colonies which imported these new technologies and which developed better industrial technologies of their own. They were able to do so, Acemoglu et al. conclude (following Marx (2008), Barrington Moore (1966) and Robert Brenner (1977) it should be said), very largely because of the quality of the institutions they had imported and developed two centuries previously. (For a more shaded account of this longue durée, see Austin 2008a.)

Clearly, history matters; indeed, it matters rather a lot. Mahmood Mamdani (1996) believes that many of the problems confronting post-colonial African states today – notably those of nation-building and ‘tribalism’ – can be traced back to systems of colonial indirect rule which accorded racial identities to citizens and ethnic identities to subjects. Ethnic fractionalization is a problem for Africa, but it is a manufactured one rather than an original condition (see also Laitin 2007). Partha Chatterjee (1993) and Nicholas Dirks (2001) have each made a parallel argument about British rule in India. The British may not have invented ‘the caste system’, but the colonial ethnographic state – and the Census of British India most of all – did much to harden identities around caste (or ethnic) categories which the British used alongside religious categories to govern and even produce their imperial subjects. An earlier generation of historians, not to mention nationalists, described this as ‘divide and rule’. Politics in India continues to be informed by these caste identities, although, as we explain in chapter 12, hierarchical rankings of castes or jatis are far less commonly accepted now than fifty or a hundred years ago.

Geography also matters, as the AJR model begins to suggest. Institutions adapt in part to geographical conditions, even as they also modify those conditions over time. Recent work by Engerman and Sokoloff (1997) and Sokoloff and Engerman (2000), mainly on the Americas, as well as by Easterly and Levine (2003; see also Nunn 2009; and Austin 2008b), has resurrected the idea that at least some of the variation that we currently observe in global patterns of governance can be traced back to the land/labour ratios that take hold in different soil and climate zones (Goody 1971; Myint 1964). Crudely, in regions where land is scarce and labour is plentiful, highly centralized political regimes evolve to manage access to the limited resource. This is the story of East Asia (Wittfogel 1957; see also Pomeranz 2000). In regions where land is plentiful but labour is scarce, political systems emerge which seek control over labour in less territorialized ways. This is the story of Africa, slavery regimes very much included. As in East Asia, rule is coercive, but it is more decentralized and less conducive to the building of strong bureaucracies (Goody 1971; Herbst 2000; Hopkins 1973; see also Nunn 2008). Land markets are limited and incentives for agricultural innovation correspondingly are diminished.

Of course, this is not to say that history (or geography) is everything, or that the paths a country treads are always narrowly circumscribed or foreordained (Poteete 2009). The basic intuition of most path-dependency models is nonetheless supportive of a certain scepticism about the capacity of existing governments significantly to change the future history of a country: hence the importance of regime change in some models. We know, for example, that Africa’s population growth rates have more than tripled over the past fifty years, and governments across the continent now have to adjust to new demographic and political realities. Employment growth is a critical issue and conflicts over land and resources are becoming more common, not least in parts of East and South Africa (Moore 2005). Whether these states have the capacity to act effectively is another matter. The demographic past still weighs heavily in the region. Discontinuous historical change, meanwhile, picks up on the importance of conflict and revolutions in changing previous historical paths. The French and American Revolutions are commonly cited in this regard: abrupt breaks with the past that paved the way for new institutional settlements. More recently, economic historians have signalled the importance of revolutionary and post-conflict settlements in Japan (in 1867 and again in 1945), as well as in China (1949 and possibly 1976– 8), Taiwan (1949) and South Korea (1945). All are seen as turning points on the roadway to economic development (see Frieden 2006).

But what of India? India witnessed major institutional changes in the colonial era and immediately after 1947; albeit many of its post-Independence institutions grew out of British machineries of rule. Since the time of the Constituent Assembly (1946–9), however, India apparently hasn’t suffered (or embraced) the sorts of upheaval that have been seen in many other post-colonial states. Continuity seems to be a more accurate watchword for post-Independence India. But, if this is true, how do we make sense of an apparent reversal of economic fortunes in India since about 1980? How do we explain India’s take-off or its ability to sustain concerted economic growth for more than thirty years? One answer might be that India gives the lie to strong path-dependency arguments, or to arguments that focus in a very singular fashion on institutional quality (or change) as a precondition for a sustained growth acceleration. We shall have more to say on this in chapter 2. It is an argument that has some merit. Good policies and good leadership might matter more than mainstream social science currently allows. Another answer, however, and one to which we are more generally inclined, is that India has been going through a revolution of sorts over the past few decades – but it is a ‘quiet’, even a ‘silent’, revolution, and one with a much slower trajectory than most of the revolutions that we commonly identify (Ahluwalia 1994; Jaffrelot 2003). As ever, it is partly a matter of wording, of how we frame events and processes.

Regarding the present history of India, we believe this is best understood in terms of three key moments. First, there are the legacies of British rule, and indeed of earlier systems of rule. If we want to understand why Bihar has long been one of India’s poorest states, it helps to know that its ‘landlockedness’ – a key factor in the model of geography and development advanced by Jeffrey Sachs and his colleagues (see, for example, Sachs, Mellinger and Gallup 2001) – became more of a burden as the economy of colonial India was reorganized to serve Britain’s trading needs on a global stage. It also helps to know that rural areas of the Bengal Presidency, of which Bihar and Orissa were component parts until 1911, were subject to the Permanent Settlement of 1793 and systems of zamindari (not raiyatwari) rule: roughly speaking, landlordism and rack-renting rather than peasant farming. There was also a version of plantation farming in north Bihar, as in Champaran. Gandhi famously helped to organize indentured indigo workers there in 1918–19, adding his weight to a struggle that had begun locally a few years earlier. The strength of New Delhi in India’s federal system of governance, meanwhile, owes a good deal to the Government of India Act, 1935, as well as to the mistrust of state and local politicians that was expressed in the Constituent Assembly debates (1946–9) by Nehru and Ambedkar. Both of the main drafters of the Constitution of India were sharply critical of the conservatism and even communalism of India’s provincial elites. India’s present system of affirmative action also has its roots in the decision of the colonial state, in 1943, to combine reservation of seats in legislative bodies with reserved jobs in government services for members of the Scheduled Castes, and in earlier reservations of seats for the ‘Depressed Classes’. We refer to these and other colonial legacies at appropriate points in India Today, but readers wanting comprehensive treatments of this period should again look elsewhere (see, for instance, Washbrook (2004) on south India).

A second foundation stone of India’s present history is the period of nation-building and economic development that was presided over, very largely, by Prime Minister Nehru and later by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. The Constitution that was adopted in 1950 committed independent India to a political model that embraced elements of the Westminster and Washington systems of government. The first Lok Sabha election of 1952 was based upon universal adult suffrage, as all elections have been since. Competing political parties and independent candidates aim to win parliamentary seats on a first-past-the-post basis. A similar electoral system was introduced into the second tier of India’s democratic polity – the State Legislative Assemblies – and led in most of India’s provinces to the formation of Congress governments, just as at the centre. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, flying the flag for Hindu nationalism in the early post-Independence years, failed to win more than 10 per cent of the popular vote in Lok Sabha elections through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Instead, the main opposition to Nehru’s Congress governments came from various wings of the Indian National Congress itself, from the communist left in Kerala and West Bengal, and sporadically from pro-business and regionalist groupings, including the Swatantra Party nationally and the Jharkhand Party in Bihar (see also table 1.1).

It was common in the 1960s for commentators to describe India as a one-party democracy. Not least this is because a 40 per cent vote share translates into a much greater share of parliamentary seats in a winner-takes-all electoral system (table 1.2). But this depiction of the ‘Congress system’ fails to do justice to some further aspects of India’s political landscape (Kothari 1964). While independent candidates and political parties are able to stand in all of India’s electoral competitions, they can only contest ‘reserved constituencies’ by fielding individuals from the communities for whom the seat is reserved. What in India is called compensatory discrimination, and what elsewhere is called affirmative action, provides reserved seats in the Lok Sabha for India’s Scheduled Castes (SCs or ex-untouchables) and Scheduled Tribes (STs or adivasis) in proportion to their share in the population of India more generally – roughly 15 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. In some of India’s states, and most notably in the south where anti-Brahmin political movements had already gathered force in the pre-Independence period, attempts were also made to reserve seats for some other Backward Castes in Legislative Assemblies, just as jobs in government and the public sector (the latter from 1969) were reserved for candidates applying from India’s hitherto subaltern communities.

The Constitution of India was constructed first and foremost to embrace democracy and federalism, and to provide individuals with Fundamental Rights against abusive government power. This liberal agenda was made to coexist alongside an agenda for social uplift that aims to compensate SCs and STs for injustices historically committed against them. The Fundamental Rights of the Constitution are thus complemented by numerous non-justiciable Directive Principles of State Policy, many of which have the effect of reinforcing group identities based on caste or ethnicity (Galanter 1984). The Constitution of 1950 guaranteed reserved seats for India’s SCs and STs only up to 1960. The dependence of the Congress Party on the votes of these two groups, however, as well as on those of many Muslims and members of India’s Forward Castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas), helped persuade Nehru’s government, and all governments in New Delhi since his time, to continue this policy for succeeding ten-year periods. Since the end of the 1980s, as we shall see in later chapters, demands for reserved seats in India’s Lok Sabha and State Assemblies have widened markedly to include the country’s Other Backward Classes (roughly, those castes or sub-castes between the Forward Castes and the Scheduled Castes: mainly the Shudra varna), and India’s women.

Table 1.1: Distribution of votes of major parties, Lok Sabha elections, 1952–2009 (in percentages)

Source: Election Commission of India.

Table 1.2: Distribution by party of seats won in Lok Sabha elections, 1952–2009

Source: Election Commission of India.

Nehru clearly expected caste and religious identities to wither away in a progressively modernizing India. Most likely an atheist himself, Nehru famously described the Bhakra Nangal dam on the Sutlej river in Punjab (now in Himachal Pradesh), as well as dams along the Damodar river in eastern India, as India’s modern temples (Klingensmith 2003). The Prime Minister shared, that is to say, a classic mid-century faith in the inevitability of traditional ways of life giving way to modern ways of being. Urbanization, compulsory state provision of secular education, and above all industrialization would call into being new Indian citizens who would have less need for pre-modern forms of identity.

It didn’t quite work out this way, however. On the one hand, the political system constructed for independent India made it rational for people to mobilize as much on the basis of group identities as on the basis of a more individualized sense of self. Caste identities were not dissolved, but instead were valorized and reinvented: the traditional, so-called, was modernized (Rudolph and Rudolph 1967). We explore why and how in chapter 12. In addition, it was clear by the 1960s that the capacity of government to provide its citizens with public goods was less than had been expected when planned development began in India in the early 1950s. Myron Weiner (1962) argued that mobilization around ethnic or other sectional interests was increasingly induced by a ‘politics of scarcity’: the poor performance of the Indian economy at once deprived the Government of India of revenues while at the same time it ensured that the state would become more and more the focal point for organized groups bent on drinking such milk as it could offer (see also Chatterjee 2000). Here too was an opening for India’s army of fixers, brokers and bosses: the pyraveekars, dalaals and dadas who for a commission connect ordinary people to the state, and who themselves very often play the role of patrons who provide services to their clients (Reddy and Haragopal 1985). Kanchan Chandra maintains that India’s patronage democracy functions as a ‘covert auction in which basic services, which should in principle be available to every citizen, are sold instead to the highest bidder’ (Chandra 2004: 292). This may be a little exaggerated, but ideology does take a back seat in India’s electoral politics – the communists and religious nationalists excepted in varying degrees. Politics is mainly about capturing scarce state resources. And in India, it turns out, this is still done most effectively by voting with one’s fellow caste members.

More so than in some other countries in Asia and Africa, however, the skill with which successive governments in India have negotiated the politics of scarcity helped to maintain the unity of the country at times of low economic growth (Dasgupta 2001). Ballot rigging and booth capture probably did not disturb the overall fairness of India’s elections even in the era before electronic voting machines. Governments have consistently been voted out of power, and this became more common in the 1970s and 1980s as the Congress Party began to lose shape and was ‘deinstitutionalized’ (Kohli 1990). Other parties started to challenge more confidently for the votes of different groups of Indians: caste-based parties, regional parties and religious parties. Once in power in India’s multiform democracy, moreover, non-Congress politicians, or even new factions within the Indian National Congress (which itself split in 1969), used their patronage networks to bind disaffected groups into the broader project of building India (or Bharat, the Hindi word for India). A free press and an (in)convenient neighbour, Pakistan, also helped to manufacture an identity that Churchill had considered oxymoronic and which Nehru and Gandhi both saw as manifest destiny – albeit one which was torn asunder by Partition, a catastrophic sequence of events centred on 1947, which, as Sunil Khilnani (1997: 202) reminds us, still haunts the political imaginaries of both India and Pakistan. And where cooptation failed, there was always force, as Portuguese Goa discovered in 1961, and as generations of people have discovered since then along India’s northern and eastern borders: in Punjab, in Assam, in Nagaland, and most of all in Kashmir (Brass 1994).

India’s sense of self was also encouraged by the nuts and bolts of economic development, notwithstanding that the building of roads, schools, factories and dams happened more slowly than expected. Five-year plans were introduced in 1951. The first of these was broadly neutral in its treatments of rural and urban India, and agnostic between the public and private sectors. India’s Second and Third Five-Year Plans, however, which spanned the years from 1956 to 1966, and which are often taken to embody the Nehru-Mahalanobis model of planned industrialization, committed India more definitively to a model of directed economic development which found favour at that time with most development economists (Hirschman 1981). (Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was a dominant figure in India’s Planning Commission, a body that was set up in 1950 and chaired initially by Prime Minister Nehru. First and foremost, Mahalanobis was an outstanding statistician: see Rudra 1997).

Early development economics took shape in the 1940s and 1950s around three key ideas. First, there was a critique of comparative advantage theory. Hans Singer (1950) and Raoul Prebisch (1950) each took issue with the idea that latecomer countries could develop effectively as primary goods producers. In their view, there were both theoretical and empirical reasons to suppose that prices for non-primary goods would rise faster over time than the prices of primary commodities. Developing countries had to build up infant industries as a priority, even if this meant erecting tariff barriers around the domestic economy (see also Naoroji 1901). Second, this commitment to import-substitution industrialization (ISI) implied in the short term a run of balance of trade deficits. Developing countries first had to import the machine tools and other goods that would help them build up local manufacturing capacity. A foreign-exchange constraint would become especially compelling in a country like India where ISI was intended to privilege the production of capital goods: iron and steel, chemicals, heavy engineering, etc. Flows of foreign direct investment were thin on the ground in the 1950s and 1960s, and probably would not have been very welcome in India. Happily, Nehru’s ability to position India at the head of the Non-Aligned Movement helped to unlock this constraint. India was able to build a steel mill at Bokaro (Bihar) with assistance from the USSR, and another at Rourkela (Orissa) with help from West Germany. Third, the very scarcity of foreign exchange in the 1950s and 1960s, coupled with poorly formed local stock markets and supposedly weak private trading systems (some of which were coded as ‘oppressive’ or exploitative), inclined the Government of India to think of economic development as a project that had to be planned for and delivered by a beneficent state. (This paragraph and the next five follow Corbridge 2010: 307–9.)

Thus conceived, India’s model of development through most of the 1950s and 1960s made a virtue of deferred gratification. Nehru and Mahalanobis believed that high rates of economic growth would depend on high rates of personal and government savings and their efficient mobilization for purposes of large-scale industrialization. By definition, this first wave of capital-goods based production would not be labour intensive; it would not create large numbers of goods for the under-employed peasants who wanted to leave the countryside to find more productive jobs in the modern sector. This Lewisian transformation would have to await the second stage of India’s industrial revolution (Lewis 1955). Cheap steel, chemicals and power could then be plugged into a plethora of efficient Indian-run companies that would produce bicycles, radios, two-wheel tractors and such-like for the final consumer.

Put another way, the Nehru-Mahalanobis model presupposed that India would be governed by what later would be called a developmental state, of the sort that was even then taking shape in East or South East Asia (Wade 1990). This would be a state that was relatively autonomous of privileged local classes, as Marxist theoreticians liked to put it (see also Evans 1995). In India, it would be embodied in the Planning Commission and in the Five-Year Plans themselves. The state would specify a social welfare function for the future (five, ten, fifteen or twenty-five years away) and then deploy the best economic and planning instruments to match inputs to intended outputs. The model further supposed that the Government of India could funnel resources from the agricultural sector to the non-agricultural sector without provoking a backlash among India’s rural population. Nehru believed that he could square this circle in two main ways: first, by making use of Public Law (PL) 480 food aid from the USA, and, second, by means of land-ceilings legislation that would break up unproductive estates and enfranchise efficient small farmers. Agriculture was a ‘bargain basement’ that would free up scarce resources for use elsewhere in the developing economy (Harriss 1992).

In practice, it did not work out this way. By the early 1960s, it was apparent that increases in grain production were barely keeping pace with population growth. Food-supply growth in the 1950s came mainly from increases in the area under cultivation, but that could not continue once the land frontier closed. By the mid-1960s, many farmers were bemoaning their lot. The great Jat farmers’ leader, Charan Singh, had opposed Nehru’s plans for cooperative farming in the 1950s. In 1967, he defected from the Congress, before setting up the Bharatiya Kranti Dal (Indian Revolutionary Party) in 1969. Singh anticipated Michael Lipton’s (1977) claim that India was suffering from high levels of urban bias. Government spending decisions were denounced as inequitable, inefficient and unsustainable. In a country where more than 75 per cent of the people still lived in the countryside – agriculture’s share of GDP was as high as 61 per cent in 1950, and not much less than 50 per cent in the mid-1960s – it apparently made little sense to waste capital on inefficient urban and industrial projects. The need instead was to fund new irrigation systems and off-farm employment growth in the countryside.

This view gained currency at the end of the 1960s, following the failures of the 1965 and 1966 monsoons, and in the wake of new data showing that the incidence of absolute poverty in the Indian countryside had remained stubbornly high through that decade (Dandekar and Rath 1971). Nehru died before the crisis in Indian agriculture was fully exposed and before the suspension of planning in 1966–9. But his death also came after a disastrous war with China in 1962, and these events taken in the round continued to inform the difficult political and economic atmospheres in which first Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964–6) and then Indira Gandhi had to make their way as Prime Ministers.