Consistent with the agenda to read a lot of history, two of the recent books that I happened to read were An Economic History of India by Dietmar Rothermund and India’s Political Economy 1947-2004 by Francine Frankel. Both are different outlooks toward the same issue, the former purely economic in outlook, whereas the latter also puts a large stress on politics. One sweeps past 200 years or more in 200 pages, whereas the other trudges through almost 60 years in 788!
Rothermund is a WYSIWYG kind of writer, and does not worry too much about writing well, as long as the message gets through, and data is passed on. It requires some decent background in economics, since it concentrates on monetary aspects, and since I lack the same, some of it went overhead. Frankel writes in more enjoyable prose, though the sheer size of the book may be daunting to the unmotivated. It is very readable, even by the lay reader. She goes in depth into the various aspects of Indian politics and helps us see our leaders without the aura created by party propaganda.
The ironic and saddening part is the the most athoritative syntheses of Indian politico-economic history is by Westerners rather than Indians. God knows what our economists and political scientists doing. There were people like Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C Dutt who wrote about India’s problems before Independence, but there seems to be no Indian equivalent to these books.
Rothermund’s main contribution is showing how the Indian economy grew from being a feudal one under the Mughals to a capitalist economy which was grafted onto the feudal one by the East India company mainly due to the western ideologies of private property and laissez-faire (This insight is due to another book, not reviewed here). Private property was non-existent and most farmlands were communal lands, owned (symbolically) by the king and tilled by the whole village. One of the reasons why this was done was to make tax collection easier, since you need an owner to collect tax from. Thus, the Permanent Settlement was implemented in Bengal and most of N. India, the Ryotwari system in most of S. India. These systems for collection of land revenue had far reaching consequences in India, both in the political sphere and economic sphere. For instance, it can explain why the Green revolution led to such prosperity in the Punjab and left most of South India untouched. It also explains the structure of the Congress Party and why it was so difficult for Congress policies which tried to empower the poor landless labourers to be implemented.
He goes on to describe the parasitical relationship between the Empire and its colony, how the World Wars made England’s grip on it’s colonies weak, and WW2 broke its back to almost guaranteed independence to India, regardless of the great nationalist movement led by Gandhi. He describes the rise and fall of the cotton and jute industries of Bombay and Calcutta respectively, and why Bombay flourished even after Independence whereas Calcutta did not, comparatively speaking.
Frankel’s work is more contemporary, concentrating on the relationship between political pressures and economic policies of Independent India. She goes into details of the planning and execution and results of the Five year plans upto Indira Gandhi’s time, the break from a socialist development strategy to a more liberal one (and how this was partly due to pressures of the World Bank), its results, which were both positive (self sufficiency in food due to the Green Revolution) and negative (economic disparities widened, the lowest strata were the worst hit). She goes on to give an account of the rise of populist politics, starting from Indira Gandhi, more so by Rajiv, though it was more out of external pressures, rise of the BJP due to an exploitation of the frustrations of the Hindu middle and upper classes, the rise of various regional parties and the inevitable move from single party to coalition rule. She also expresses concern about the challenge of Hindu fundamentalist politics followed by the BJP to the Indian democratic fabric.
One worrying pattern noticed in both books is that regardless of which form of economic ideology was followed in India, socialist or capitalist, benefits were seen only by a small group consisting of rich farmers and urban middle class.
One reason for this could be that the shining examples of socialism, China and the USSR, were both created by outright class wars, the Russian revolution being the more famous one. China also had a civil war between the Communists and the right wing Kuomintang. The social structure was torn down and rebuilt from scratch. Where liberal ideologies were successful, namely Western Europe and the USA, were due to lack of any social structure in the USA before migrations from Europe (American Indians can be neglected since they anyways were decimated), England was anyways more liberal than any of the others, which explains why it was the first to be almost completely industrialized, with the ruling classes in other countries were in the way of allowing a capitalist middle class to rise as fast as England. Hence also her dominance in the colonial race.
In India, however, after seeing the effects that a revolution had had in Russia, a more moderate policy of trying to cause a non-violent revolution was tried, without directly trying to attack the class structure. Attacking the upper classes was even more difficult since they were the ones that funded the Congress Party during the struggle for freedom. This is Frankel’s thesis. This, however, had the unfortunate effect of having to rely on the upper classes in the villages to help implement policy decisions, which lead to more concentration of power in their hands. The Indian electorate was not class conscious in the early days of Independence, and would vote for the local landlord or someone he supported. Rising of class consciousness was made possible by the CPI and CPI(M), with the unfortunate effects of the birth of Naxalism. It was hoped that this would lead to outright class war and bring about another Russia.
Whatever may be the ideology, India has proved an exception, and nobody was in any mood to try and find an alternative mode of economic organisation suited to Indian needs, may be with the exception of J. C. Kumarappa, who was anyways sidelined. There are still people who do not consider Kumarappa an economist, never mind the fact that he studied economics in Columbia.
Now, India seems to be riding an euphoric wave of unbelievable wealth creation, but there seems to never have been a time in India’s history when so many farmers have committed suicide in such a brief time period, (both in Vidharbha and Andhra Pradesh), a more skewed and uneven development, the lower classes venting their frustrations by taking refuge in narrow linguistic and cultural nationalisms, talks about privatizing water supplies and distribution by market demands (so that a golf course can get more water when compared to a farmer), and our demigods in the Parliament trying to disable farmers via subsidies and handouts without trying to solve fundamental problems in Indian agriculture of irrigation, short-sighted cultivation of cash crops, and lack of support prices.
The scenario seems to evoke mixed feelings about the direction that India is taking, both within the ivory towers of IT-BT zones and the disaster zones without. Political will is the need of the hour, with NGOs not able to really be effective unless there is some sound backing by the governments, and that is the one thing that seems difficult to exert with the pressures of populist and coalition politics on every Minister’s mind. Is there any hope for Tagore’s vision of India to be realized ?
Hope so :)