- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

India Since 1980

Teresita C. Schaffer

Teresita C. Schaffer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She spent 30 years as a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and as ambassador to Sri Lanka, and is co-author of the website South Asia Hand. She can be reached at

This is one of six essays in the book review roundtable on Sumit Ganguly & Rahul Mukherji's India Since 1980.

With India Since 1980, Sumit Ganguly and Rahul Mukherji have written a compact, readable account of how India has changed in the past 30 years. The choice to write about the period since 1980 was not theirs—this book is part of a series on “The World Since 1980.” The terms of reference make for a somewhat awkward period in which to analyze contemporary India; I would probably have started my “transformation” story ten years later, using the preceding periods as the “before” part of a before-and-after story.

The authors build their analysis around four transformations of the Indian scene: political, marked by unprecedented mobilization of hitherto marginalized social groups; economic, with the move from state-centered to more market-oriented policies; foreign policy, as India’s global role expanded and its most important international relationships shifted toward the United States while Russia’s role diminished; and political ethos, as the founders’ secularism was challenged by a more assertive Hindu nationalism.

Three of these four transformations form the core of most briefings about contemporary India. On the political side, Ganguly and Mukherji devote much of their analytical effort to the emergence of the dalits (former “untouchables”) and backward castes, and to me this is the strongest part of the book. Taken together with the “plebiscitary politics” of Indira Gandhi, the greater prominence of hitherto marginalized groups has led to a decline of the political institution-building that parties used to do. Today, local and state offices are increasingly in the gift of national rather than state leaders, with a corresponding decline in the role of parties in developing politicians skilled at running democratic institutions. Ganguly and Mukherji see in this phenomenon a breakdown of political institutions. What does not come through as clearly as it might, however, is that “plebiscitary politics” were in part designed to provide a direct link for Congress to the vote banks of dalit voters, and that these voters’ conclusion that they were being taken for granted fed into the rise of new parties that appealed directly to the lower castes.

The authors pass relatively lightly, however, over another important aspect of India’s political transformation—the slow but steady decline in the heft of the parties with national aspirations, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the increase in the importance of single-state parties. These are not unrelated phenomena. A number of the single-state party magnates got their start by leading backward castes in their states in a revolt against the upper-caste–dominated establishment. But the geographic dimension has a tremendous impact on the functioning of India’s political institutions. This extends even to foreign policy, as we have seen in the critical and often disruptive intervention in India’s policy toward some of its neighbors by chief ministers in adjacent states, notably West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Moreover, because single-state party leaders have thus far found it necessary to stay within their home states and tend their own political bases, they have not fully entered the competition for leadership in New Delhi.

India’s economic transformation has been widely discussed and indeed is one of the drivers behind the transformation of India’s social dynamics and foreign policy. Ganguly and Mukherji stress the transformation in economic policymaking and make the important but often overlooked point that precursors of the liberalization policy were visible during the 1980s. They note the increasing importance of the private sector, especially since the high-growth industries are mainly private. I would argue that the political system has not yet digested the implications of this change.

I would also place greater weight than they have on the rapid growth India has achieved through this liberalization. The taste of economic success has changed attitudes toward economic policy, both within the government and in the wider, policy-aware public. In particular, economic growth has led to a shift in foreign policy priorities, with trade, investment, and energy security emerging as central foreign policy and strategic goals.

The authors are correctly critical of India’s weak performance in social development, notably education and especially health. As they point out, this will be the test of the next couple of decades, both for India’s human development and for its future economic growth. This book does not reproduce the many studies that have been published in recent years about the number of high school and university graduates that India will need to sustain its growth rates. Fixing primary education, in other words, will be necessary but not sufficient.

The third of the oft-noted transformations is in India’s foreign policy. Ganguly and Mukherji treat this as principally a function of the end of the Cold War. That momentous development has indeed been critical to the emergence of a new, more pragmatic Indian foreign policy, with Russia playing a much smaller role and the United States a larger one.

However, the authors largely pass over the impact of India’s economic transformation on foreign policy. The “ballast” they speak of in India’s relations with the United States is largely the result of dramatically increased private economic ties, which are likely to continue more or less regardless of what the governments do. India’s larger profile in international institutions similarly reflects the country’s greater economic weight in the world. The authors also underplay, in my judgment, the elements of continuity in India’s outlook on the world, especially the broad commitment to strategic autonomy, which makes any Indian government reluctant to get too close to the United States and leads to a very cautious approach to multilateral engagement.

Ganguly and Mukherji’s final transformation, the diminishing salience of secularism in India’s political ethos, is not part of the commonly heard transformation narrative. The founders of the Indian republic saw India as quintessentially diverse, and embraced that diversity as part of India’s immutable character (especially in contrast to Pakistan’s Islamic identity). The authors describe, with evident concern, how a self-consciously Hindu challenge to this ethos of diversity has arisen from many quarters, not limited to the Hindu nationalist political party. They in effect argue that this contest has yet to be decided. I agree, and I suspect that if it is ever decided, it will be the result of the social and economic transformations described above. As people whose parents were largely excluded from the modern economy find jobs in India’s growth industries, and as more leaders emerge from groups that were previously purely followers in the political system, the country will need to find a new way of balancing diversity and group loyalty. It would take a better crystal ball than mine to determine how that will look.

A short (under 200 pages) book summarizing the most important trends in contemporary India is certainly valuable. But perhaps because my professional engagement with India goes back before 1980, I found this book insightful and frustrating by turns. A short book inevitably cannot cover everything, but I disagree with some of the authors’ choices about what to leave out. I am not sure the result will actually work for the “sophisticated non-expert” audience that Cambridge’s “The World Since 1980” series is aiming at; at multiple points in the book, there are references that would be obscure to anyone but an India hand. But the book’s strengths, especially the discussion of social movements, make a very complex subject accessible to those not steeped in the lore of caste politics, and this alone makes the book worthwhile.

Asia Policy 14 is supported in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation.