Tribute to Myron Weiner

Print edition : November 05, 2004

India and the Politics of Developing Countries: Essays in Memory of Myron Weiner, edited by Ashutosh Varshney; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pages 271; Rs.295.

MYRON WEINER was one of the American political scientists whose professional life and writings consisted of work he did in and on India from the early 1960s until his death in 1999. He used his intimate grasp of politics in India to make comparative studies of politics and democratic processes in developing countries and to make seminal contributions to political theory as well. It was his book based on his Ph.D. dissertation, Politics of Scarcity: Public Pressure and Political Response in India (1962) that brought him to the notice of scholars in India and in the United States. Fairly soon after came Party Building in a New Nation: The Indian National Congress (1967). Other books on India and on more general themes came out subsequently. Two books in the 1990s, one on a specific Indian problem, The Child and the State in India: Child Labour and Educational Policy in Comparative Perspective (1991) and the other on a global issue, The Global Migration Crisis (1995) were widely acclaimed. The first, particularly, generated a great deal of public discussion in the country because of the author's uncompromising position that poverty and low incomes were not the main causes of the persistence of child labour in India, but the deep-rooted norms of hierarchy shared by bureaucrats, educators, trade unionists, social activists - that is, the influential Indian middle class.

His friendly disposition made Weiner a popular figure among social scientists in India. He also became the mentor of many young Indian students of political science who went to the U.S. for higher studies. In the scholarly community of political scientists in his home country too Professor Weiner had a standing of high order.

The book under review consists of 10 essays authored by a select group of Weiner's associates - "a labour of love, admiration and respect" as editor Varshney says in his introduction. Varshney mentions that while most scholars tend to specialise in a few themes, Weiner's research and writing covered a wide range of subjects - democracy, party politics, pressure groups, federalism, identity politics, caste, child labour, public policy, to mention the major ones. In the second essay, Gabriel A. Almond, one of the senior political scientists in America (who passed away in 2002), traces the evolution of Weiner's ideas.

According to Almond, it is a tribute to the clarity of vision of the 22-year-old Weiner that while dealing with the emerging democratic experiment in India in the 1950s, he saw that the key question was whether a coherent Opposition would emerge and provide the element of competition essential to a democratic polity. Another major insight of Weiner is that many particular and local interests dominate the politics of a diverse and complex society like India and that these interests do not get easily aggregated into common policy goals and hence are best accommodated through patronage.

Practically, all subsequent essays try to develop critically Weiner's seminal ideas. The third essay by Lucian W. Pye takes off from Weiner's inquiry into the dominance of the Indian National Congress in India's democratic set up and moves on to consider why there has been decline in the dominance of one-party rule in many parts of the world - in Italy, Mexico, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, for instance. Pye's attempt is to provide common explanations for these specific instances. He argues that the bipolar balance of power of the Cold War era was an important factor in upholding dominant one-party systems and that with the end of the Cold War their hold has been considerably reduced.

The Cold War called for united stands within countries and that this need for ideological unity provided the cover for domestic corruption. Similarly, the Cold War led to many countries even within the so-called "free world" to accept different shades of planning and social engineering and to give technocrats and bureaucrats considerable decision-making power. These centralising and unifying tendencies rather quickly disappeared when the Cold War ended and free competition became the dominant creed in a globalising era.

This explanation appears feasible and some may find such grand theorising even appealing. But why not turn the argument around and say global finance and universal markets swamp all "local" considerations and therefore tend to unify, rather than diversify, political ideologies? In fact, the concluding essay by Baldev Raj Nayyar argues with more supporting evidence that under the influence of globalisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party in power was forced to give up its swadeshi thrust and accept and implement more ardently the economic reform policies initiated by the rival Congress party.

James Manor's comparative study of the role of small-time political "fixers" in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka is quite informative. Kanchan Chandra has a long piece on how some parties succeed and some don't in incorporating elites in multi-ethnic societies. With reference to the debates in the Constituent Assembly, Christophe Jaffrelot draws a distinction between composite culture and multiculturalism.

A comparison of ethnic (communal) violence, before and after Independence, is the theme of Stephen I. Wilkinson's essay. Through it he tries to test the applicability of the consociational theory in the Indian context. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein has tried to pattern her essay, "The Mother and the State in India" on Weiner's The Child and the State in India. She notes that the standard claim that fertility rates are inversely related to per capita income (used as a proxy for economic development) does not hold in India because fertility rates are high in high-income States like Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat while the low fertility State of Kerala has a per capita income lower than the all-India average and Tamil Nadu the fertility rate of which is close to that of Kerala has a per capita income slightly above the all-India figure. She, therefore, turns to non-economic factors such as cultural norms (specially son preference) and women's education to arrive at causal factors to explain the fall in fertility rates and reproductive health in general.

THE most contentious essay is that of Ashutosh Varshney. He tries to explain why poor democracies have not succeeded in eliminating poverty. The empirical basis of the query is the finding that three countries with authoritarian regimes - South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore - have virtually eliminated poverty and other similar countries like Mexico and Chile have considerably reduced poverty (less than 20 per cent of their population below the poverty level). At the same time, poor democratic countries such as India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Venezuela and Jamaica have much higher proportion of the population - 25 to 35 - per cent in poverty, though they too have succeeded in reducing the level of poverty.

To provide an explanation the author draws a distinction between direct and indirect methods of poverty alleviation. The direct ones are visible income and asset transfers to the poor such as the variety of target group subsidies, food-for-work and other employment schemes. The indirect methods are growth-mediated, resulting from trade liberalisation and, in general, market-oriented economic strategies. The hypothesis (or the thesis as the case may be) is that sustainable poverty reduction can be achieved only through the latter, but democracies have a built-in bias for the former because of their vote gathering potential. Autocratic regimes, on the other hand, do not have to be concerned about political compromises and hence can concentrate on the right policies, economic measures that will benefit the people, including the poor, in the long run.

This hypothesis is attempted to be validated through some empirical evidence not particularly convincing. For one, the tables that purport to give supportive evidence show clearly that in terms of poverty levels the worst performers (well above 50 per cent of the population in poverty) are countries with authoritarian regimes. Secondly, the index used for market orientation of countries is the ratio of foreign trade to gross domestic product (GDP), overlooking the fact that this ratio is not related primarily to economic policies, but to the size of countries (high in the case of small countries like Singapore and Taiwan and low in the case of India as well as the U.S.). These problems apart, the hypothesis conveniently sets aside one set of facts. Authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan brought about radical land reforms that provided an asset base for large sections of their population to enter into market-oriented economic activities. Were these land reforms meant to lend support to the market economy and the welfare of people at lower levels, or were they meant to crush the power of the rural elites? If the latter is true, is it not possible to argue that democracies in poor countries do not succeed in eliminating poverty because they rely so much on the rural elites and hence refuse to take up radical land reforms necessary for the long-term economic emancipation of the poor?

In any case, it seems reasonable to say that Myron Weiner would have gone in for detailed comparative studies of selected democratic and authoritarian regimes instead of general endorsement of one or the other based on casual empiricism and a less-than-robust analysis.

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