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Reading India’s Transformation, From the Outside In

Jason A. Kirk

Jason A. Kirk is Associate Professor of Political Science at a jkirk2@elon.edu.

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

Sumit Ganguly may be the most prolific political scientist working on India today. In just the past five years, his name has appeared on no fewer than a dozen books covering topics in India’s foreign policy, international relations, and security. In India Since 1980 Ganguly teams up with Rahul Mukherji, a leading scholar in his own right who specializes in India’s political economy, to produce a concise but comprehensive introduction to the world’s largest democracy.

The book offer readers a rigorous account of India as a rising power. Its equally wide-ranging yet compact discussion of internal state-and-society dynamics is especially impressive, and perhaps because I was relatively less familiar with their perspectives in these areas, I found these discussions to be the book’s most engaging. However, the chapters on each of the “four revolutions” underway since 1980—in foreign policy, economic development, democratic mobilization, and secularism—are all skillfully executed. Below, I will briefly comment on the authors’ treatment of each.

But first, the book’s periodization deserves particular consideration. As a publisher’s note explains, this book is part of the Cambridge University Press series “The World Since 1980,” which includes titles on other important countries and regions. In any case, 1980 works well as a meaningful (if approximate) marker for several crucial turning points in India’s politics and international relations. As a teacher at a liberal arts institution, I tried both to read this book as my students might read it and to think about what distinguishes this volume from other generalist works that might be used in an advanced undergraduate course. I can almost envision using India Since 1980 as a stand-alone text, which is nothing short of remarkable given its mere 200 pages. And although I might supplement it with other material on the earlier decades or on specific topics, this does not mean that the book’s historical demarcation is a shortcoming. On the contrary, as post-independence India arrives at the ripe young age of 65, it makes perfect sense to approach its political history in roughly two halves.

The first period—a backstory that the authors recount judiciously when necessary—begins with independence in 1947 and runs to the late 1970s or early 1980s. This period encompasses the Nehruvian era of state-building, central planning for economic development, and pursuit of a nonaligned foreign policy. Crucially, it also subsumes the initial dominance and later deterioration of the Congress Party, and culminates with the Janata Party coalition leading India’s first non-Congress central government from 1977 to 1980, the period after the national trauma of the 1975–77 Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. For all its turbulence, this period is relatively straightforward—even romantic—political history: there are the formidable, if highly contrasting, father-daughter figures of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the story arc of the Congress Party, and the international backdrop of the Cold War.

But in the post-1980 period, a coherent narrative breaks down: India’s story becomes “a million mutinies now,” as V.S. Naipaul called his acclaimed 1990 travelogue. Here history-as-biography gives way to more intricate analyses of structural changes. The challenge is that these changes “have not moved in tandem but have overlapped with one another,” as Ganguly and Mukherji observe (p. 1). The contemporary era requires a framework for understanding the causal relationships linking the Indian state to global market forces, subaltern social change, and the evolving regional and international milieus.

A book as concise as India Since 1980 cannot definitively capture all of these interconnections, but it does render each of the four revolutions comprehensible on their own terms. And in doing so, the book invites a new generation of scholars to pose their own questions about the complex relationships among foreign policy, economic transformation, political mobilization, and secularism. Ultimately, Ganguly and Mukherji conclude, “India has attempted a bold experiment in democracy and development” (p. 167)—no less so after 1980 than during the Nehruvian era. But while democracy and political mobilization “have empowered hitherto marginalized communities,” they also, “in turn, have created significant challenges for governance” (p. 169). Market-friendly policies and “a decidedly pragmatic orientation” (p. 169) in foreign policy have raised India’s global profile, but they have not put an end to deprivation or the dangers stemming from continuing tensions with Pakistan and China.

The chapter “The Transformation of India’s Foreign Policy” begins with the briefest of summaries describing the pre-1980 period, opening with the assertion that “from the vantage point of the Cold War’s end, India’s pursuit of a foreign policy based upon nonalignment now appears quaint at best and hypocritical at worst” (p. 18). This is a reasonable statement through 20/20 hindsight, but as both authors know, there were significant structural and ideological reasons for nonalignment, which they can only briefly enumerate in the chapter. This is one of the few instances in which the book’s post-1980 focus is a conspicuous constraint; the reader will have to look elsewhere for a fuller exposition of Nehruvian foreign-policy thought or to understand why, even today, notions of nonalignment continue to resonate in some quarters among India’s political and intellectual classes. But to their credit, the authors have provided particularly helpful footnotes in this chapter, pointing to classic works covering the pre-1980 period on topics including India’s relations with the superpowers, Sino-Indian amity to enmity, the conflict with Pakistan, and the nuclear issue. The curious reader is well prepared to dig deeper.

Moreover, the upshot of historical brevity is a focused analysis of more contemporary concerns. The foreign policy chapter really gets rolling with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, which presented “a structural dilemma for India’s leaders,” given that nonalignment had by then given way to formal Indo-Soviet friendship and cooperation (since 1971) and because General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan was suddenly transformed “from being a virtual pariah state to one of vital strategic significance to the United States” (p. 22). The Soviet invasion “also came at a particularly inopportune moment for India’s domestic politics,” after the Janata Party coalition had splintered but before a rehabilitated Indira Gandhi returned to office (p. 22). This juxtaposition of external crisis and internal disarray is a very effective way to lead off the chapter’s analysis of Indian foreign policymaking during an era of complicated domestic politics. It renders India’s predicament at the end of the Cold War as less of a bolt from the blue than it has appeared in some other accounts. Finally, this portrayal sets up implicit comparison and contrast with the period after September 11, when India again faced the predicament of a U.S. alliance with Pakistan and yet still managed to pursue a breakthrough “strategic partnership” with the United States.

The chapter “India’s Economic Transformation” also benefits from the post-1980 periodization. Aligning their account with recent reinterpretations by leading scholars, the authors show how initial attempts at industrial deregulation from the mid-1970s were “consolidated in the 1980s,” and how this important decade “laid the ideational and political foundations for the tectonic policy shifts of 1991” (p. 61) that followed a severe balance-of-payments crisis. Significantly, “the 1980s also witnessed the birth of comparative advantage in India’s information technology sector” (p. 77), which of course draws global interest today. But the authors do not avoid the less successful reform stories in physical infrastructure and rural development. And while they endorse the view that “the proportion of people living below the poverty line in India has declined more sharply” after 1991 (p. 102), they also acknowledge “a growing gap in the rates of growth between the country’s richest and poorest states” and the increasing concentration of India’s (and the world’s) poor “in large, populous heartland states, such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh” (p. 103).

The chapters “Political Mobilization in India” and “Indian Secularism Since 1980” direct attention to the Mandal-Mandir dualism of the subordinate caste revolution and the Hindu nationalist movement (alongside distinct trends in centrifugal regionalism and the evolution of Indian federalism, which deserve fuller discussion than the space here permits). On the first, the reader is introduced to colorful lower-caste leaders Laloo Prasad Yadav and Kumari Mayawati, who for years dominated the political scenes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. Such politicians have made masterful use of “symbolic appeals against discrimination in order to gain personal popularity rather than promote a genuine development agenda” (p. 170), an unintended ramification of the mobilization that followed the 1980 Mandal Commission Report, which called for caste-based affirmative action in public sector employment. Here again is a reason to see 1980 as an important turning point.

But the authors’ most acerbic criticism is reserved for “ideologues within the Bharatiya Janata Party and its associated organizations” in the Hindu nationalist movement (p. 141). The BJP was established in 1980 as the successor to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and as the political arm of the Sangh Parivar family of organizations that also includes the groups Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Ganguly and Mukherji acknowledge the moderating constraints that the coalition government placed on the BJP during its 1998–2004 period of leadership at the center. But they offer an unsparing appraisal of the brutal sectarian conflict that episodically accompanied the party’s ascent and wielding of state power—from the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, in service of the Ram Mandir (temple) cause, to its direct offspring in the carnage at Godhra, Gujarat, a decade later. There, a train carrying Hindu activists was set ablaze as it passed through a predominantly Muslim district. This tragedy ignited systemic pogroms directed at Muslims across the state. Today, another decade has passed and Narendra Modi still leads a BJP government in Gujarat. Although the authors acknowledge the Hindutva movement’s internecine disarray after India’s 2004 elections, they argue that it would be unwise to dismiss the movement as a spent political force.

Indian secularism, Ganguly and Mukherji maintain,

    is not dead—yet. But its health is poor, and it may be facing a slow demise. The stakes are huge. If secularism breaks down decisively in India, this will spell the rise of “illiberal democracy” in that country and raise grave questions about the sustainability of liberal democracy across the entire postcolonial world (p. 147–48).

Seen in this context, then, for all of the challenges that coalitions may pose to the crafting of coherent foreign policy and economic management, it may be a silver lining if, as Ganguly and Mukherji predict, “coalition governments are likely to be a fixture in India for some time to come” (p. 8).

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