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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

In Resurrection of Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Arup Maharatna


Indisputably enough, India on many a count was a distinguished colony of the British empire. While courting colonial domination over a fairly long span, India—unlike its many peers (for example, the African countries)—happened to have an illustrious heritage of a long-settled civilisation, with a complex social structure and organisation, culture, and religion. Ironically, India’s distinction on this score proved eventually more of a curse as it turned, in the course of a long indirect and indifferent rule by the British colonial adminis-tration, into a complex metamorphosis pervading almost all walks of life. For example, the messy trajectory of India’s independence movement bears glaring illustrations of such metamorphosed and dilemmatic minds of the indigenous leadership and people at large. No less muddled have often been the thoughts, understanding, and policy perceptions of many influential Indian leaders, thinkers, scholars, and administrators. One illuminating case in point is a conscious (and perhaps indeed concerted) neglect of Gunnar Myrdal’s masterpiece, Asian Drama, which contains many passionately researched insights and policy prescriptions on India’s (and a few other South Asian countries’) aspirations and predicaments for independent economic development in the context of the newly emerging international order over the post-War decades.

In fact, the career of Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama—a well-nigh epic in the history of social science literature—has been somewhat strangely anomalous. On the one hand, it was born with a bang which turned subsequently into much glamour, and was deservingly crowned with the Nobel Prize; on the other hand, it was received in the influential academic and intellectual spheres with discernable dismay, neglect and perhaps a concerted (and conspired?) indifference. Indeed it sooner or later turned into a ‘sleeping giant’, not really unnoticed, but untouched and undisturbed by most. This historic episode, I believe, is not exactly very trivial in the global academic annals of social sciences, and it does call for serious thought—even after more than three decades of its first appearance. I will make here only a plea for its resurrection as it has deep relevance to several contemporary problems and predicaments faced generally by the developing world and particularly India.

Indeed, it is of much interest as to why the Asian Drama not only failed to garner an effective clout at its first appearance in the late 1960s and 1970s both at national and international forums, but it remained conspicuously ignored by the much of the most influential circles even after it was crowned with the Nobel Prize in Economics. International politics and its far-reaching influences arguably have had much to do with this relatively unpublicised puzzle in the world’s intellectual history—a puzzle of which full reckoning could take a serious academic venture yet to be undertaken. However, the latter’s case and urgency is worth trumpeting—as I intend to do presently—by alluding to the profound relevance and significance latent in some of Gunnar Myrdal’s incisive ideas and insights into development predicaments specific to South Asian history, society, and culture in general and to those of India in particular.

For example, while the post-Cold War period of raging neo-liberal ideas and ideology has unleashed stark antipathy towards the role of state in economic development as if the state used to be blindly and indeed wrongly accorded a rather sacrosanct position previously, this argument crumbles down when judged in the light of the notion of ‘soft state’ that Myrdal had floated as far back as the 1960s. Indeed the idea of a ‘soft state’—the state which is inherently bountiful in leniency toward enacting and enforcing secularist policies, rules, and regulations in a hugely heterogeneous polity—occupies the centre-stage in the whole argument of Myrdal’s Asian Drama. This particular notion is a powerful pointer that recognising the key role of the state is not tantamount—as is often made out to be the case in neo-liberal literature—to being blind to the potential difficulties and dangers associated with the character of the state in many developing countries.


It is, arguably, a misfortune that the notion of ‘soft state’ as pioneered by Gunnar Myrdal had received at its advent unduly harsh and certainly very hasty criticisms from the then influential scholars and political leaders of India and elsewhere. Consequently, profusely insightful and useful suggestions and advices emanating from the Asian Drama, particularly towards a more effective functioning of the state, had been summarily flouted by the then dominant leaderships and governments—albeit at colossal peril of many countries’ subsequent development trajectories. Similarly costly should have been the callous neglect and indifference on the part of academics and political leaders alike towards Myrdal’s incisive analysis and understanding of the growing phenomenon of corruption in many newly independent countries in Asia. For example, Myrdal’s invention of what he called the ‘folklore of corruption’ as far back as the 1960s was intuitively novel and deeply genuine as (at least) a partial explanation of the rapid spread of corruption. Since the subject of corruption is present almost inextricably in people’s ordinary talk, gossip, and day-to-day conversations in general, as runs the argument, the entire population eventually get conditioned not only to the pervasive environ of corruption but to being a party to petty corruption themselves in the face of the slightest opportunity. While this highly reflective and ingenious insight into the contagion of corruption in many Asian countries, and particularly in India, was offered by Myrdal about four decades back, the state and society at large happened to have consistently ignored its great potential as a guide to effective policy and action.

An inadequate or sometimes even deformed reading of Myrdal’s passionately deep analysis of the role and limitations of the state in Asian countries like India became almost irremediable in the wake of the vigorous intellectual and academic efforts of propagating the anti-state (pro-market liberalist) ideology of the Western camp during the Cold War. Alas, it was, ironically enough, Gunnar Myrdal who was perhaps one of the foremost to have objectively exposed the uniquely weak character of many Asian states in meeting up to their effective role and requirements for promoting sustained independent economic development. No less ironically, while the vivaciousness of Myrdal’s original notion of the ‘soft state’ and its wide insidious ramifications are of late being increasingly felt and germane, his name is fast fading away from the glowing and glittering economic literature and analyses reeling under the predominantly neo-liberal ideology and its camouflaging derivatives.

While Myrdal’s ‘soft state’ in several developing countries had long called for—albeit in vain—committed ‘reformation’ of the character of the state since as early as the 1960s, the subsequent intellectual history, bubbling with buzzwords, ‘structural reforms’ or ‘liberalisation’, left, instead, his precious insight and richly derived wisdom thwarted, grounded, and sometimes even twisted towards chopping off the wings of the state itself. The soft state notion, if at all given cognisance by the dominant mainstream, was—perhaps tactfully—posed as if it was more of a plea for the withering away of the state than for making it ‘stronger’. Ironically, India’s post-independence political trajectory is amply eloquent of a perennially ‘soft state’ plunging itself, by its own irresistible logic, deeper and deeper into the pre-existing dilemmas, confusions, and chaos (for example, caste conflicts, communal riots, pervasive corruptions and scams) bred admittedly of insufficient ‘enlightenment’. It is, I think, a cruel joke in the entire intellectual history that Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama was converted—so quickly and prematurely—into an incapacitated ‘statue’ of a giant widely treated too sacrosanct to be opened and read carefully, let alone as passionately as it was too evidently written by Gunnar Myrdal himself.

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.

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