Interpreting India

Print edition : September 29, 2017

March 29, 1931: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Mahatma Gandhi at the opening session of the Karachi Congress. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Narendra Modi, along with BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah, performing the Ganga "aarti" at Varanasi on May 17, 2014, after winning the Lok Sabha elections. Photo: PTI

The volume provides a great deal of interpretative material on socialism, neoliberalism, nationalism, political authoritarianism and other themes relevant to the contemporary situation in India. Prabhat Patnaik has contributed to all these themes.

THIS volume of over a dozen scholarly essays in honour of Prabhat Patnaik is a fitting tribute to a leading economist and public intellectual of our times. The editors note: “While he is widely recognised as a brilliant economist with a mastery over contending theoretical traditions in the subject, he made quite clear his predilection for and commitment to applying, developing and extending the Marxist approach. Known primarily as an economist of the finest calibre, he has also forayed with much effect into a range of allied disciplines in search of an understanding of contemporary reality.” What is significant about the volume is the fact that apart from personal tributes to Prabhat Patnaik (including a moving one by Ashok Mitra, another outstanding academic of our times and a former Finance Minister of West Bengal), most of the contributions are attempts to interpret the contemporary reality of the world and specifically of India.

In order to focus on that theme, I shall, in this review, concentrate on those essays that directly deal with that topic.

That the world of today is very different from what it was half a century or even a few decades ago will be readily accepted, mainly because of the manner in which rapidly changing technology, especially communication technology, has been impacting the daily life of all sections of society. However, beneath it there have been changes in the economic, political and social spheres of equal significance. Think of the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade a claim that was heard was that a third of humanity (in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, countries of Eastern Europe, and many more) had accepted socialism as their economic order and the expectation was that more countries from the “Third World” would soon join them. Capitalism was in crisis from the 1970s and so the socialist claim seemed to make sense.

And yet, by the end of the decade, practically all of Eastern Europe had rejected socialism, and by the early 1990s, even the mighty Soviet Union had collapsed. And the “reforms” launched by Deng Xiaoping in China in the mid 1980s were seen to be a move towards capitalism.


After playing its role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States was busy inaugurating a “market economy” in the residual Russia and extending its military might into West Asia and other parts of the world. This is the theme that Aijaz Ahmed deals with in the volume. He interprets the changes as the U.S.’ “extraordinary success in subordinating all other countries of the imperialist core to its own purposes as it functions both as a nation-state protecting its own national capital through all means necessary, and, simultaneously, as the internationalised state that protects the interests of the integrated global finance capital in all corners of the world”.

Aijaz Ahmed claims that neoliberalism, which for long had been confined to enclaves like Chile, became a global phenomenon because of the coincidence of the rise to power of market champions in the U.S. (Ronald Reagan) and the United Kingdom (Margaret Thatcher), the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the “reforms” in China. These three changes made available vast labour resources to global capital in countries where they had previously been highly protected; went some distance in resolving the problem of corporate profits, thus universalising the capitalist mode of production; in short, leading to what has come to be known as “globalisation” from the early 1990s. Of course, in less than three decades nationalism in various forms has come to reassert itself, most glaringly in the U.S.

Nationalism and secularism

Irfan Habib deals with nationalism, especially as it emerged in India during the freedom movement. “It was opposition and resistance to British rule, on the one hand, and modern education and social reform, on the other, that laid the seeds of allegiance to India as a nation,” says the historian. Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that India’s opposition was not to the British as such, but to the British as rulers over India and their use of power to exploit the people of India. Nehru was influenced by people resisting colonialism throughout the world and presented a picture of independent India very different from what Gandhi had envisaged and in which the state would play a major role in matters economic. The Karachi Congress of 1931 provided the basis of Indian nationalism as consisting of individuals with explicitly recognised fundamental rights with the state given responsibility to ensure them.

In his paper, Irfan Habib also touches on the relationship between Indian nationalism and secularism. The theme is dealt with more fully by Akeel Bilgrami. He points out that “the emergence of secularism as an ideal and doctrine owes to the political fall-out of a certain trajectory in the justification of state power in Europe, from within which the ideal then emerged”. For long in Europe, the justification of state power was based on divine right. Renaissance thinking that gradually moved away from the “divine” sought explanations in terms of worldly or “secular” categories. Secularism, therefore, was part of the search for the basis of nationalism. It also marked a separation between the perceived other-worldliness of religion (the church in Europe) and the this-worldliness of the state. The situation was different in India.

Religions in India have been very different. They are by no means “other-worldly”; they affect daily lives in terms of what to eat, how to dress and much more. To be realistic, therefore, acceptance of religion as a reality is unavoidable. That was the issue during the freedom movement. Leaders reacted to it in different ways. Gandhi was a devout Hindu, but quite open to other religions. Nehru was a “secularist” in its European sense, but recognised that Indian society for centuries was characterised by a completely un-selfconscious pluralism. In any case, during the freedom movement the focus was on holding the vast Indian population together in the fight against the British by emphasising “unity in diversity”, “composite culture” and “inclusive nationalism”. To give concrete expression to these, the Congress not only supported the Khilafat Movement, it launched a Muslim Mass Contact Programme to demonstrate the inclusiveness of the freedom movement. That none of these finally succeeded in keeping India united but led to a division of the country on religious basis is a sad admission. When the Constitution of the Republic of India was being drafted, there was considerable discussion on the secular nature of the new nation. The final decision was that it was not necessary to spell out that the republic would be a “secular” one because its secular and inclusive character were amply brought out, according to Bilgrami, by “a commitment to freedom of religion”; and “a commitment to certain fundamental constitutional rights that neither mention religion nor mention opposition to religion”.

Hindu rashtra

Sitaram Yechury adds to this discussion by dealing with the contemporary situation in India, especially after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre and in many States. He states that the objective of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the BJP is to replace the secular democratic Indian republic with their concept of Hindu rashtra, that is to foster “Hindu nationalism” in place of “Indian nationhood”. The definition of secularism that he prefers is that it is separation of religion from politics which means that “while the state protects the individual’s choice of faith, it shall not profess or prefer any one religion”.

Socialistic pattern of society

C.P. Chandrasekhar shifts the discussion to another of those contested issues in post-Independence India, especially during the period of Nehru, that of the “socialistic pattern”. It is well-known that Gandhi and Nehru differed considerably, particularly about the economic order that was to be pursued and promoted after Independence and that Nehru’s ideas finally prevailed. Nehru was a great admirer of the economic progress that the Soviet Union made within a few decades after the revolution and attributed it to the direction that the state provided and to the pattern of industrialisation that was pursued with emphasis on heavy industries.

How these were to be achieved within the framework of a democratic polity (to which he was equally committed) was, for him, the real issue. While many admirers of socialism outside the Soviet Union thought of it as primarily a way to reduce income inequalities, to Nehru its main feature was state-sponsored industrialisation, which is what the “socialistic pattern” meant for him. This was to be achieved by planned investment decisions. And, the “socialistic pattern of society” envisaged an element of gradualism in the transition to a system with substantial social ownership while protecting the economic interests of the “small man”.


The transition from these essentially background material to the contemporary situation in India comes in Prakash Karat’s piece on political authoritarianism, which he sees as being closely related to neoliberalism. According to him, “the pre-eminent demand of the neoliberal regime is that governments may change but the reforms process must go on”. This has been happening ever since the liberalisation process was started in 1991, irrespective of the political complexion of the government, whether Congress-led coalitions, BJP-led coalitions, a non-Congress secular coalition and now the BJP-led government. All these governments have supported the vital interests of contemporary capitalism such as financial sector liberalisation, disinvestment of shares in public sector enterprises and privatisation of basic services. Another feature common to all these regimes has been the entry of business persons into politics at all levels from local bodies to Parliament and the funding of political parties by the real estate sector. The plea for and attempts to provide “strong government” is another manifestation of the same urge.

Zoya Hasan in her treatment of “Democracy after Modi”, provides further evidence and analysis of the same phenomenon. She describes the general election of 2014 that gave absolute majority to a Hindu nationalist party, saw the routing of the Indian National Congress, and the near obliteration of the Left parties as representing a “tectonic shift” in Indian politics. It also brought out the nexus between big business and socially reactionary religious nationalism. The Modi government has publicly stated that the original version of the Constitution did not proclaim India to be a secular state, and it is the natural tolerance of Hinduism that allows equal citizenship to those professing other faiths.

The volume, therefore, provides a great deal of interpretative material of yesterday and today. Prabhat Patnaik’s contributions to these themes have indeed been significant. But Prabhat Patnaik has dared to go beyond. In several of his writings he has questioned the “canonical view of Marxism” and has insisted that socialism and Marxism have to be interpreted to change them and has called for a “creative effort to reconstruct Marxism” (See his Re-Envisioning Socialism). While maintaining that capitalism, which is not compatible with genuine democracy, must yield place to socialism, his position has been that there is no inevitability about it, and so the ushering in of socialism is essentially a democratic political task to be led by a subset of the people who will not have any “hardened interest of their own”. A couple of papers critically evaluating Prabhat Patnaik’s views on these aspects would have substantially enriched the volume.