Examining a troubled transition

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy by Stuart Corbridge and John Harriss; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001; pages xx + 303, Rs.595.

INDIA'S passage through its fifth decade of Independence was scarred by several manifestations of a deep-seated political pathology. It was a decade of violence and social turmoil, centred particularly on an effort to define a sense of nationhood in terms of primordial religious loyalties. At the same time, a shift in economic course was signalled by the social and political elite, who in an exuberance of self-rediscovery turned decisively against the philosophy that had guided policy since Independence.

These multiple facets of India's troubled transition through its fifth decade called forth a fair bit of scholarly activity, among which this volume must count among the more important. Corbridge and Harriss have individually been engaged in the study of Indian society and politics over the years - the latter in particular has a track record of scholarly interest in India stretching back over two decades. This is perhaps their first collaborative effort and it is a work of expansive scope, which develops its core concepts through a complicated narrative stretching back centuries. The long-standing research commitments of the two authors are reflected in the admirably efficient job they do of digesting and presenting a diversity of views on India's political evolution from the available literature.

Since the time it began its independent journey as a self-governing entity, India has gone through several processes of transformation - a continual process of invention which constitutes a central theme of this book. As a conceptual approach this is intimately connected with another one - perhaps academically more fashionable - of studying nations and states as "imagined" entities. Politics transforms the nation of the imagination into an invented model.

The Indian state as constituted at Independence was the central focus of nationhood, deriving its legitimacy in turn from the promise of development. For Jawaharlal Nehru and others who pioneered the programme of modernity, the state was an agency of progress and enlightenment, which would shine the light of reason on areas steeped in superstition and ignorance, pulling the masses into a new realm of prosperity and promise. This was akin to the invocation of a superior power, reason exalted as "Reason", to legitimise the quest for progress - not very different in the substantive sense from the transcendental investiture by which medieval monarchies claimed their legitimacy.

In the narration of Corbridge and Harriss, the invention of India suffered from the inherent contradictions of the manner it was imagined. The idea of democracy came to India with Independence, but in the absence of a bourgeois revolution. Colonialism had modernised certain narrow enclaves, but left deeply entrenched a traditional "cellular" structure in Indian society. The caste system and village organisation had engendered, as the political scientist Barrington Moore puts it, "a huge mass of locally coordinated social cells". The bourgeoisie, for all its ambitious visions, had not managed to cement its solidarity on a national scale and remained hamstrung in its modernising project by the competing visions of the agrarian elite. In having to deal with a multiplicity of interests, the bourgeoisie was unable to institute a "developmental state" in the manner of the East Asian nations. It opted instead for a "passive revolution" through the process of planning, which in turn depended upon extending the bureaucratic apparatus of control in a manner that eroded the quasi-autonomy of the traditional "cells" of Indian society.

The situation bristled with the potential for conflict, which was only partially obscured by the invocation of four grand themes in the modernising project - democracy, federalism, socialism and secularism. All these ideals were severely compromised by actual circumstances at the time of Independence. The Constituent Assembly, which laid out the doctrinal framework for the invention of India, was a body constituted on the basis of a narrow and restricted franchise, which took on the mandate of working out the basic law for a nation made up overwhelmingly by the poor, the deprived and the under-privileged. The Constituent Assembly debates reflected all the ambivalent attitudes of an elite that was anxious to share the benefits of modernisation, without surrendering the social advantages they enjoyed.

The story of India's effort at modernisation through bureaucratic planning, then, is one of a succession of "elite revolts" against the implied egalitarian principles of development. It was a process that brought to the foreground all the contradictions in India's democratic experimentation. Democratic institutions, say Corbridge and Harriss, have been conspicuously absent in the Indian political landscape. In other words, there have been no political parties organised democratically or functioning institutions of democracy at the local level. This has meant that elections have become the substance of democracy and that electoral success has not been more than a formal mandate to govern.

Unable to surmount its inherent deficiencies, the Nehruvian planning project ran aground in the economic crisis of the mid-1960s. Indira Gandhi managed to break the resultant political impasse in 1971 with the revival of the socialist project that her father had only very tentatively embraced. But this was a "jealous populism", since for Indira Gandhi the cause of poverty eradication was not as important as safeguarding her own exclusive claim to its espousal. In a milieu of institutional infirmity, this assertion of personal authority accelerated the drift towards politics divorced from an institutional basis. The logical outcome was the suspension of even the pretence of democracy during the Emergency regime of the mid-1970s. This was not, say the authors, an effort to put in place a "developmental state" on the lines of the East Asian model, but rather, the panic response of an "ideologically and politically bankrupt ruling elite which was entangled in its own populist rhetoric".

The authors have evidently interpreted the Emergency as a part of the sequence of "elite revolts" that played havoc with the practice of democracy and the promise of development in India. They lean towards viewing the Janata Party interlude that followed the Emergency as a period when the four traditional verities of Indian politics - democracy, federalism, socialism and secularism - were reaffirmed against their threatened erosion. But then they see little contradiction in arguing that Indira Gandhi's return to power was achieved by recruiting the loyalty of the minorities and the lower castes - precisely those sections that bore the brunt of the elite revolts in terms of opportunities lost.

The 1980s constituted a period when the founding myths began seriously to be questioned, in both theory and practice. This was a decade when the Indian state sought in vain to square the circle of an unchanged distribution of productive assets, a fiscal apparatus that spared the wealthy any undue strain, and the unrelenting demands of the poor for reasonable economic opportunities. In seeking to address these contradictory requirements, by the end of the decade the Central government lurched into a fiscal crisis.

Corbridge and Harriss do not tie up the theme of the growing fiscal crisis with the erosion of the state's claim to being the sole focus of nationhood. It may be a productive line of inquiry to seek to correlate Indira Gandhi's first flirtations - and her son Rajiv Gandhi's more ardent embrace - of Hindu nationalism with the elite's quest for an alternative conception of nationhood to fill the vacuum caused by the retreat of the state.

By way of conclusion, the authors offer the prognosis that the "defining struggle" in Indian politics today is that between the "centralising instincts" of Hindu nationalism and the countervailing mobilisation of lower castes and subaltern groupings. The Indian state, they contend, may well be forced under the pressure of the new forms of political mobilisation to "do the bidding of India's lower orders". This would be the final act in the invention of the India that the Constituent Assembly had imagined. But in the bargain it is unlikely that either the political structure or the geography of India will remain unchanged. This is an extrapolation that lurks at the fringes of the authors' analysis, but perhaps is unavoidable given the terms of their discourse.

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