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Mainstream, VOL LII No 34 August 16, 2014 - Independence Day Special

Elites as the Economic Problem

Friday 15 August 2014


by G. Omkarnath

Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption by Arun Kumar; Vision Books, New Delhi; pp. xxiv + 792 (hardbound); price: Rs 1450.

At the turn of the new millennium, the Indian economy has attracted scholarly atte-ntion for two distinct reasons. First, there is the natural urge to assess its place and potential in the face of major shifts in global polity and economy. The collapse of the Soviet block, the phoenix-like rise of China and a fresh crisis of capitalism are the main markers of these shifts. Secondly, crisis-driven economic reforms in India since the 1990s have induced a spate of evaluations, both liberal and radical, of policies at home. Arun Kumar’s extensive study does not fall under either category although it is concerned with both globalisation and reforms, among others. Unusual in scope and method, it is an enquiry into social history of a kind, broadly conceived, of contemporary Indian economy in the mirror image of ‘colonial disruption’. The wide-ranging nature of the work cannot be missed, given its total length of nearly 800 pages with the author’s preface and a index of 20 and 30 pages respectively.

A physicist-turned-economist and activist, Kumar finds existing approaches to the study of the Indian economy not only partial but far too splintered (perhaps reflecting the situation within academic economics) and myopic of the ‘macro’ economy and the ‘long run’. There is the yearning, then, for a ‘holistic perspective’ that integrates sociology, politics and history into his economic analysis. The question under investigation is: why has India failed to realise its basic transformative agenda in six decades of freedom from colonial rule? Or conversely, why has India produced dichotomous develop-ment? In itself, the theme is unexceptionable and can easily bear more than one approach. Dichotomous development refers to a state of widespread marginality and deprivation of the great majority of population coexisting with a small but ‘organised’ economy securing high incomes and opportunity for its members. Disruption is to be seen in broader terms than dichotomous growth. In addition to all-round economic stagnation it connotes a decay of democracy, cultural cynicism or what the author calls ‘poverty of the mind’.

The study avoids the stock-in-trade frame-work of state versus market, possibly because in the Indian context the state and market are opaque categories that can raise difficult issues of conceptualisation. Instead, the author traces the essential phenomenon of dichotomous development to colonial disruption and, even-tually, to the native elites born of the British Raj. In the final analysis, the elites are instru-mental in perpetuating this disruption long after de-colonisation and hence the sub-title of the book, Persisting Colonial Disruption. The chief mechanism mediating between persistent disruption and the elites, it is argued, is the system of education instituted by Lord Macaulay. It is now well-known that Macaulay’s system of English education was designed not only to produce clerks for the British Raj but quite explicitly to destroy the self-esteem of Indians with regard to their languages, culture and knowledge systems. Among the elites, it promoted comprador values, dependent development, predatory capitalism and a culture of indifference to the welfare of the marginalised. The kernel of Kumar’s thesis is that the essential reproduction of these elites and their values and attitudes in independent India is the real undoing of its transformative agenda.

The main body of the book dissects virtually every aspect and sector of the Indian economy since independence to feel the deep undercurrent of a systemic crisis. The various ‘local’ crises and the implied loss of dynamism are shown to be manifestations of the narrow interests and indifferenceon the part of the elites. The analysis thus ranges from decline of the commodity producing sectors, absence of technological innovations, dismal trade performance and the consequent ‘one-way globalisation’ and ‘depen-dent development’, to marginality of the majority, black money, fiscal crisis, social backwardness and environmental degradation. The broad sweep cannot, of course, exclude lack of democratic deepening. Doubtless, it is refreshing to view the crisis of development from the standpoint of persisting colonial disruption mediated by elites as products of a lifeless education system. There is much meat in this central thesis and in the meticulous analysis of specific issues presented that would interest the readers. A part of the readership at least might, however, entertain some doubt as to the efficacy of Kumar’s framework and method.

Socio-economic systems are by nature dynamic entities in a time-space continuum and, as the author notes, presents a perennial dilemma as to the cause-effect relations. The analyst in such a case often has no choice but to first reckon with conditions before attempting any causal analysis. In other words, the system must be frozen in its essentials and its ‘structure’ established at any point in historical time as a basis for understanding ‘change’. Despite a rich and suggestive narrative, one misses in Kumar’s study a well-specified structure of colonial India for the purpose at hand as distinct from, say, that of pre-colonial India. For, without this, it may well be argued that the British only rein-forced and complicated an already disruptive society. The same woolliness marks the treat-ment of elites. The origin, characteristics and nurturing of elites both under the Raj and after independence are crucial for the thesis proposed but find less than their deserved space.

From the same English-educated middle and upper classes also sprung strong nationalism and a reinvention of native arts, languages and culture. Several industrial entrepreneurial groups in the post-independence period represent first generation literates and nothing more than a family background in agriculture. Even the top echelons of the bureaucracy in India today are not socially homogeneous. Why do the elites, whatever their nature, let the size of India’s ‘welfare’ state, specifically intended for the poor and marginal, be at its present high level? All these need not necessarily negate Kumar’s thesis but a careful separation of the grain from the chaff would have strengthened his argument. The implication of the study for India’s educa-tional system is similarly hazy because we do not find an assessment of either indigenous intellectual tradition or the problem of multi-lingualism.

While the quantitative expansion of education in India must be understood in relation to societal aspirations about access and equity, the quality of it cannot be separated from the quantum of productive employment the system can generate. Why does the Indian state seek to institutionalise poverty ‘alleviation’ rather than promote productive labour? Although it is crucial for the study there is little engagement with the nature of the present Indian state and whether it may be seen as a simple projection of the colonial state.

Arun Kumar’s book fascinates as a study of the contemporary Indian economy through a historical triangulation of colonialism, elites and educational system. Its cross-cutting domain and eclectic taste can do with a little more of conceptual groundwork.

Dr G. Omkarnath is a Professor of Economics, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at e-mail: omkarnath.hyd@gmail.com