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Diversity and Change in Modern IndiaEconomic, Social and Political Approaches$

Anthony F. Heath and Roger Jeffery

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780197264515

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264515.001.0001

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Incongruities, Ironies and Achievements: India’s Tryst with Modernity

Incongruities, Ironies and Achievements: India’s Tryst with Modernity

(p.xiv) (p.1) 1 Incongruities, Ironies and Achievements: India’s Tryst with Modernity
Diversity and Change in Modern India



British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the economic, social, and political aspects of Indian modernities. It considers the question of uneven modernisation and studies the sphere of politics. The Indian economy and reform is discussed in detail as well.

Keywords:   Indian modernities, uneven modernisation, sphere of politics, Indian economy, reform

NO-ONE DOUBTS THAT the transformations in Indian society, economy and polity have gathered speed since the early 1990s, and that they are now sufficiently important that Indian modernities—in their economic, political and social aspects—are of central interest to understanding the contemporary world. But agreement over significance is not the same as agreement over diagnosis or prognosis. The interactions among the spheres of economy, society and politics in India provide a potential minefield for those wishing to avoid the stereotypes that dominate public discussion and hinder engagement with a reality that is much more complex. Old clichés—such as ‘India is the largest democracy in the world’ and that India proves that democracy is compatible with widespread poverty, illiteracy and the lack of a genuine national language—have recently been joined by new ones. The most prominent of these hail India’s ‘shining’ future as it emerges as a global economic powerhouse, and claim that India is now ‘poised’ to make great leaps forward. But, as Vijay Joshi asks in his chapter in this volume, should we believe ‘the media hype that India has now achieved “take-off” into super-fast, self-fulfilling growth that will rapidly abolish poverty, make the country a global economic power, and return it to the position it occupied in the world economy three centuries ago’? Or will India become (or remain) ‘a two-tier economy, with all the attendant dangers’? We are presented with images of a vibrant middle class, of sophisticated IT personnel, able to roam the globe in pursuit of pay and status; yet they come from a society where substantial numbers—almost half the population in some states—have had insufficient schooling to be able to read more than very simple texts (See Dyson’s chapter in this volume.)

On the basis of new research in different intellectual traditions, this book considers some of the underlying processes that make possible such (p.2) contrasting images in the different spheres of demography, economy, social stratification and mobility, and politics. We look both at the national picture, drawing on large-scale authoritative quantitative data that enable us to chart trends over time, and at the micro-level, exploring contemporary processes ‘on the ground’. Because of the complex interplay between demographic, economic, social and political change we have invited contributions from all these disciplines. From these analyses we hope to provide a statistical over-view of the transformations underway in Indian society, but also to suggest what these changes mean for ordinary people in their daily lives. Thus, while Dyson, Joshi, Vaid, Heath and Yadav give us sophisticated quantitative treatments of India’s changing demography, economy, stratification and party systems respectively, the Jefferys, Gupta, Hasan, Michelutti and Banerjee go behind the statistics in different ways to explore the processes and pressures ‘from below’ that may be driving the macro processes.

This juxtaposition of macro and micro levels of analysis, of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, does not lend itself to neat conclusions. Instead it often raises new puzzles and challenges. But as James Manor suggests in his concluding chapter, ‘India—the most complex society and polity on earth—defies tidy summation, and so must any collection of sophisticated studies of it. The question to ask about such a collection is not whether it can be neatly synthesised (it cannot be), but whether it comes close to capturing the diversity of India.’ We hope that the different perspectives offered by the varied papers in this volume will bring that diversity into focus.

Uneven modernisation?

Not surprisingly, India has long been the object of attention for those features of its social structure that appear to make it ‘traditional’. Following Edward Said (Said 1978) and others, Ron Inden (1990) and more recently Nick Dirks (2001) have argued that India has been characterised more often in terms of how it differs from the West (assumed to be ‘normal’) than in its own terms. British colonial scholarship saw India as Hindu, and irredeemably religious in an other-worldly sense (see also Weber (1920/1958), who saw the underlying ethos of the caste system as a major hindrance to an indigenous development of capitalism). Since Independence, sociologists and anthropologists have tended to reinforce this representation rather than undermine it, by focusing on the village, (p.3) caste and religion rather than factories, offices, towns and scientific institutions. India is still predominantly ‘rural’ (even allowing for misleading census definitions on this score), but it is clearly not enough to look at villages without also seeing the mass media, advertising, political links, religious reform movements and social networks—almost all ‘urban’ and in some senses ‘modern’—that bind the rural and the urban together.

But what does it mean to be modern in contemporary India? Modernisation theories, of course, have their problems, and Indian authors—like other contemporary writers on social change in India—have taken contrasting positions on what modernity might mean for Indian society. Indian experiences of modernity have often been made to appear ‘defective, blocked, still in transition, fundamentally “other”—and therefore beyond the scope of modernization theory—or schizoid—split between different arenas of experience, modern at work and pre-modern at home (following Singer 1972)’ (Osella and Osella 2006: 570). The classic early contribution of Suzanne and Lloyd Rudolph spawned vigorous discussions of the ‘modernity of Indian tradition’—with specific reference to the transformations of caste relationships (Rudolph and Rudolph 1967). Whilst one solution has been to claim that there are ‘multiple modernities’ (see, e.g. Eisenstadt 2000: 23–4), there have been few convincing empirical accounts of what these might be.

Dipankar Gupta has characterised the most common response by the Indian middle classes to any questioning of an Indian modernity: to stress India’s material progress (how many cars, how much electricity consumed) or to draw attention to the moral decay of Western modernity (how many ‘love’ marriages, how much divorce, how little familial support for the elderly) (Gupta 2001: 12–13). Gupta’s understanding of a universal modernity against which much of Indian life can be tried—and largely fail—rests on a combination of Parsons (achievement rather than ascription, and the adherence to universalistic norms), Rawls on intersubjectivity, and the ideals of liberal democracy. Satish Deshpande, on the other hand, has criticised such accounts and representations of modernity in India for defining modernity teleologically (Deshpande 2004).

In attempting to avoid these pitfalls, some writers have focused instead on how modernity is understood as an everyday term by social actors in India. T. K. Oommen, for example, sees modernity as a banner of particular social groups in their responses to contemporary discontents. He argues that movements against religious and caste elites in India preceded class-based movements, and have largely been incomplete, thus (p.4) leaving issues of equality and identity as yet unresolved (Oommen 2004). As Craig Jeffrey and others also argue, drawing on Mosse (2003),

recent accounts of educated un/under-employment in the global south point to the key importance of notions of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ in young men’s cultural styles. At almost the precise moment when scholars have come to critique concepts such as modern/traditional, urban/rural, developed/undeveloped as frameworks for academic thought, young people in situations of economic threat are often using these very categories to reflect on experiences, express aspirations, and signal social differences. (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2008: 15)

Satish Deshpande cites a slogan painted on the back of a Delhi bus in 1996: his translation reads ‘They should realize that we too are modern’ (with ‘modern’ being the word used in the original Hindi) and he notes the claim’s earlier appearance in a TV advertisement (Deshpande 1999: 33). Similarly, the ethnographic research of Caroline and Filippo Osella has contrasted informants’ narratives (produced by migrants from Kerala to the Gulf) that talk about what ‘the modern’ means to them, with classic modernisation analyses (Osella and Osella 2006). The Osellas argue that ‘informants’ life-stories suggest a different framework for analysis, pointing towards modernity as a singular—unified and global—phenomenon which is multi-centric and locally nuanced’ (p. 570 see also Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 2003).

In respect of some key structural terms, however, India is becoming ‘modern’ in fairly standard ways, as Tim Dyson shows in this volume. Demographically speaking, and acknowledging considerable regional variations, this means mortality and fertility rates that are rapidly approaching the levels of industrial and post-industrial societies. In world-historical terms, these shifts are dramatic: within two generations since Independence, life expectancies at birth have risen from 27 to over 60, and the total fertility rate of Indian women has dropped from 5.9 to 3.5 (Dyson, this volume). In principle, these shifts offer the prospect of what is sometimes known as a ‘demographic dividend’: a period when the entry of a ‘boom generation’ into working age provides an opportunity to unleash an economic growth spurt, provided the right kinds of policies are in place to ensure that the extra workers are productively employed (Bloom, Canning, and Sevilla 2003).

As Dyson also shows, however, these shifts towards ‘modern’ family patterns have been very uneven geographically, with considerably higher life expectancy and smaller family sizes in south India than in much of the north. This in turn could have major political and social implications. (p.5) In 2001, the population of the big states of the Indo-Gangetic plain—Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Jharkhand—constituted 411 out of India’s 1,027 million (40 per cent) and the four southern states—Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh—constituted 233 million or 23 per cent. But they are growing at very different rates, about 2 per cent per year in the north and 1 per cent in the south. Within twenty years, differences in growth rates of this scale might well tilt the demographic balance further towards states that are poorer and seen as more ‘backward’ than those of the rest of the country. Migration between states—whether short-term, seasonal, or for longer periods—is unlikely to make a major contribution to rebalancing, despite the absence of any formal barriers to movement.

The seat-shares of different states in the Lok Sabha (the Indian lower House of Parliament) were set by the population distribution of 1971 and have been frozen since then. But this solution will become increasingly untenable. In the foreseeable future, the demographic weight of the country will continue to lie in these north Indian states, whose politics are increasingly different from those of the south, west and east, as we discuss later.

There are also other major regional demographic differences, in particular with respect to sex ratios and what they may tell us about differences in the ways men and women are valued in different parts of India. For a long time India has been one of those unusual countries with a surplus of males. In the late nineteenth century, in British and Princely India, female infanticide was said to be practised among particular dominant landed castes, but strong governmental action seemed to have stamped out the practice before 1900. Nonetheless, in many parts of northern India, the sex ratio at birth has remained more masculine than in most other parts of the world. Furthermore, age-specific mortality rates have suggested that girls were more vulnerable to childhood illnesses than boys, leading to juvenile sex ratios (females per 1,000 males under the age of 10) well below parity. The arrival of new technologies in the 1970s (amniocentesis using ultrasound) made it possible to ascertain the sex of the foetus from about thirteen weeks, and concerns about misuse of these technologies led to legislation banning pre-natal foetal sex determination.

Despite these moves, by the 2001 Census sex ratios for children aged 6 or less were 819 girls per 1,000 boys in Haryana and 798 in Punjab, compared to 960 in Kerala and 942 in Tamil Nadu. Some authors see a ‘diagonal divide’ across the country, with the south and east showing few differences in the life-chances of boys and girls, and as a result, having sex (p.6) ratios for juveniles that are fairly ‘normal’ (Bhat and Zavier 2007). Others suggest that the ‘divide’ is breaking down, as sex ratios in southern states (such as Tamil Nadu) move towards those of northern states, and outside the ‘normal’ range (Srinivasan and Bedi 2009). Not only in Punjab, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan is it possible to see the results of attempts to discover the sex of the baby in utero, to manipulate the sex ratio at birth by aborting females among couples who already have a daughter, and then, through relative neglect, if nothing more active is involved, allowing more girls to die in childhood. In the demographic sphere too, then, what is often seen as a ‘modern’ social trait—planning small family sizes in order to invest in the quality of child-rearing—is inflected in India (as in China) by a continuing preference for boys, predicated on the costs of the dowry that must accompany a new bride and continue to be given well into her married life, and on the old-age support and residence norms that prioritise the links between a man and his parents over those of a woman and hers. We cannot represent what is happening anywhere in India as a simple process of demographic modernisation.

The economy is often seen as the major motor of modernisation. In the second half of India’s post-independence career to date, growth has increased dramatically as a consequence of economic reform, which has unshackled the economy from the grip of controls and exposed it to international competition. As Joshi shows in his chapter, however, there are still several impediments to sustained rapid growth. Moreover, Joshi argues that the quality of India’s growth is flawed. It has been relatively ‘jobless’ and, as a consequence, India risks becoming a two-tier economy. Growing wealth in the upper tier, and continuing deprivation in the lower tier, is a potentially explosive combination. The most daunting challenge that India faces, therefore, is the employment problem, the reverse side of the demographic dividend.

As Dyson shows, India’s working-age population is growing rapidly. There will be a huge addition—of about 200 million people—to the 15–64 age-groups between 2005 and 2020. This figure is a good approximation to the likely increase in the labour force over the period (on the plausible assumption that an increase in the participation rate of women will be offset by more young people staying on in education). But, as Joshi argues, the employment picture for these people is dismal. Between 1995 and 2005, total employment (organised plus unorganised) just about kept pace with labour-force growth, but in the organised sector, employment is utterly stagnant. Jobs are being produced only in the informal, unorganised sector. Many of these are purely notional jobs of low quality.

(p.7) A crucial reason for the exacerbation of the employment problem is that the transfer of labour from agriculture to industry has barely happened in India. This is reflected in the very modest increase from 1965 to 2005 in the share of industry and manufacturing in national output—in sharp contrast to other fast-growing economies in east Asia, where this share more than doubled. East Asian industrial expansion was rapid but, crucially, it was also powered by the growth of the manufactured exports sector, employing large numbers of people. India, by contrast, appears to be trying to skip the stage of labour-intensive industrialisation; as Vaid and Heath argue in their chapter, India shows an incongruous occupational structure, with a substantial ‘salariat’ coexisting with a huge agricultural sector and a relatively modest industrial working class.

India’s recent industrial growth has been capital- and skill-intensive. Many of India’s most dynamic industrial companies and sectors create few jobs. True, the services sector, now 51 per cent of GDP, has grown fast but its growth has also been ‘jobless’, which suggests that it has been skilled-labour-intensive. An example is the information technology (IT) sector. This has achieved international success, but it cannot provide the answer to India’s employment problem: as Joshi shows in his chapter the output of the IT sector is merely 2.5 per cent of GDP. The sector currently employs only around one million people; by 2015, it may employ three million. But by then India’s labour force will have grown by around sixty-five million and (as Dyson shows) much of the rise will occur in ‘backward’ states. The IT sector cannot answer the employment needs of millions of poorly educated people in rural and small-town north and east India. Nor do its values show signs of spreading to major parts of exporting enterprises, in the small-scale sector. As Gupta’s chapter in this volume shows, even where external pressures for ‘ethical’ sourcing have been determinedly pushed forward, the effects on employment conditions have been very limited.

The story that Joshi tells, then, is one of lopsided growth and uneven modernisation. India’s economy has highly modern elements coexisting with a huge and much less modernised agricultural sector. ‘Modern’ societies are also, as Daniel Lerner put it many years ago, ‘mobile’ societies (Lerner 1962, 1968) in which ascriptive factors such as caste, ethnicity, religion or social background play a decreasing role in determining one’s life chances, thus delivering a degree of equality of opportunity. Yet, until Vaid and Heath’s chapter in this volume, there has been very little research systematically exploring the effect, if any, of increasing (p.8) modernisation and development on patterns of social mobility and inequality in the country.

Vaid and Heath distinguish a variety of ways in which modernisation might operate in the Indian context and might lead to increased equality of opportunity and social mobility. Economic reform and marketisation might be expected to eliminate discrimination, whether on gender, caste or class lines, since discrimination essentially means hiring a less productive worker from a favoured category (e.g. upper-caste men) in preference to a more productive worker from a disfavoured set (e.g. lower-caste women). Competition should mean that inefficient firms will be driven out by efficient ones, and hence firms will either have to eliminate discrimination against disfavoured groups or face the consequences of inefficient recruitment practices, and risk being driven out of business (or being unable to expand). Competitive market pressures can therefore be expected to be associated with greater equality of opportunity and this implies that the greatest improvements over time in equality of opportunity would be in those sectors most exposed to competitive market forces. This in turn suggests that trends towards increasing equality of opportunity might be most visible in the urbanised and more ‘modern’ sectors of the economy.

Another possibility (again discussed by Max Weber) is that the gradual extension of formal bureaucracies with formalised recruitment and promotion practices is the main driver of equality of opportunity. This suggests that it is the kinds of recruitment practice that employers use that are crucial, and that formal impersonal and transparent systems (typical of the German or British civil service in Weber’s day, for example), will tend to be most associated with equality of opportunity. We might therefore expect rather little change in equality of opportunity over time in India since (as Joshi demonstrates), India’s growth and modernisation have not been accompanied by any major expansion of the formal economy. We would not expect any decline in inequality of opportunity in the informal sector since (as Gupta’s chapter reminds us) small businesses run on informal lines might continue to use informal recruitment practices, hiring workers on the basis of personal ties and word of mouth.

Vaid and Heath do indeed show considerably more ‘openness’ in the non-agricultural than in the agricultural sector of the economy. Their evidence also suggests that elements of Indian society have been relatively ‘modern’ for some considerable time. They argue, for example, contrary to expectations, that throughout the period since Independence father’s class rather than his caste has been the stronger determining factor for access to salaried class destinations. But they find only the merest hints of (p.9) increasing openness over time. In this respect, then, they provide very little support for any claim that India is ‘modernising’ (as a process) in this sphere.

Western writers dealing with equality of opportunity have largely focused on the role of social class background. The key debates have been about how far social class origins continue to influence educational and occupational attainment. In the Indian context, however, caste and caste-oriented educational and public-sector employment reservations have been the major focus of policy, though many scholars and activists have argued that class should have been the focus instead. Whatever the merits of the argument, though, Independent India has seen the implementation of reservation first for the Scheduled Castes (ex-Untouchables, now often known as Dalits, or oppressed) and Scheduled Tribes (sometimes known as Adivasis or original inhabitants). Later, reservations were added for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (where the C literally stands for classes but in practice refers to castes). Overall, then, this provides another reason why we might not expect that class-based inequalities of opportunity in India will move towards ‘modern’ patterns, since the policy focus has been elsewhere.

The sphere of politics

As Joshi argues in this volume, ‘There is no doubt that a consistent economic package can be designed which would maintain rapid growth, create employment and eliminate poverty. But in order to deliver it India’s political class will have to walk successfully the tightrope of implementing reform while balancing diverse interests and managing the compulsions of mass politics.’

How far can we put flesh on the bones of the frequently reiterated claim that India is ‘the largest democracy in the world’? If voting is the test, the figures speak for themselves: high and stable turnout, spread across age-groups and social classes in ways that other democracies would love to match; non-violent transfers of power on a regular basis after national and state-level elections, with only one occasion when the electoral process was delayed (the Emergency of June 1975 to March 1977, when many democratic rights were suspended). As Mukulika Banerjee says in this volume, ‘elections are the most sacrosanct, secular, universal, public rite of modern India’ and the Election Commission of India is, on this basis, credited with organising the largest event in the world, with (p.10) 800,000 polling stations and an electorate of over 650 million for general elections. The Election Commission marshals a gigantic task force for each country-wide general election: nearly five million polling personnel and civil police forces. This huge election machinery is deemed to be on deputation to the Election Commission and is subject to its control, superintendence and discipline during the election period, for around eight weeks.

But the efficiency and honesty (in comparison to many other countries) with which the elections are organised sits oddly with Indians’ own understandings of the increasingly corrupt and dishonest people elected by these processes. In contrast to many other spheres of Indian social life, the realm of politics is one where those previously regarded as lowly outsiders have forced their way in to take dominant positions. What Yogendra Yadav, Christophe Jaffrelot and others have denoted the ‘second democratic upsurge’ (after the transformations following Independence) took place in the 1980s and 1990s (Jaffrelot 2003; Yadav 2000). In the heyday of Congress dominance, lower caste groups were often represented by members of the higher castes, or were granted little more than token roles themselves. Since the early 1980s, however, members of these castes—often poorly educated, with agricultural or poor urban backgrounds—have developed their own political parties and gained power themselves in many states. Zoya Hasan’s paper in this volume contextualises some of the arguments that accompanied legislative reform in two moments when this transformation became salient: Mandal 1 (in 1990) and Mandal 2 (from 2006).1 Members of many ‘forward castes’ now see public service as irredeemably undermined by inefficiency, and the realm of politics as irretrievably corrupted by muscle power and criminality, associated with those from ‘below the salt’. Outsiders—Dalits, OBCs, farmers, criminals—are epitomised by the example of Lalu Prasad Yadav, who (despite a criminal record that disqualified him from continuing as Chief Minister of the state of Bihar, a post he held from 1990–7), was Railways Minister in the Central Government from 2004–9. In UP, the dominant political actors since 1990 are Mulayam Singh Yadav (an OBC) and Mayavati (a Dalit woman). Mulayam Singh heads a party, the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party, or SP), widely known to be the party of the Yadavs: Lucia Michelutti’s paper in this volume shows in detail what it means to be a Yadav in one of the heartland UP areas controlled by the caste. (p.11) Mayavati, elected Chief Minister of UP in 2007 with an almost unprecedented absolute majority in the State Assembly for her Bahujan Samaj Party (Majority People’s Party, or BSP) has crafted a coalition of social support behind the unquestionable leadership of Dalits—especially those from the largest UP caste, the Chamars.

These upsurges in lower caste political empowerment have not been replicated to the same degree elsewhere in India, however, as Oliver Heath and Yogendra Yadav show in this volume. In MP and Rajasthan, coalitions led by the right-wing Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, or BJP) have exchanged rule with the cross-caste Congress Party. Since 1977, West Bengal has remained under the dominance of a coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) that in terms of the social origins of its leadership, remains determinedly bhadralok, or middle-class intellectual (see Banerjee, this volume). West Bengal is the only state where political party membership is relatively widespread, fairly permanent, and enforced by strong intraparty discipline: elsewhere, with the partial exception of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, party membership is unstable, and almost irrelevant between elections. Regional dimensions also remain highly germane to voting patterns. In south India (Karnataka, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and, to a lesser extent, Maharashtra and Gujarat in western India, manifestos of efficient government have had much more electoral salience. But, in different ways, the BJP and other right-wing parties have also managed to make political inroads by playing up the significance of communal divisions—Muslims and Christians alike have been targeted (symbolically, but increasingly also physically) as being, in some senses, anti-national.

Adivasis remain largely outside the political mainstream, but caste barriers in the political sphere are being gradually undermined. The same cannot be said for exclusion on the basis of religion—especially for Muslims (see Sachar 2006). To some extent, this results from the conscious policies of what are known as the ‘family’ of the Hindu Right, those political parties (centrally, the BJP), social movements and pressure groups associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or National Volunteer Corps). Whilst these have been visible in Indian politics since the 1920s, their significance has grown dramatically since the mid 1970s. The Hindu Right was part of the opposition coalition that emerged after Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ to win the 1977 elections but which collapsed within two years. For a while it appeared that the Hindu Right was more severely hurt by this collapse than the other parties. By (p.12) the mid-1980s, however, it re-emerged as the BJP, a forceful proponent of Hindutva (an attempt to fuse ‘being Hindu’ with ‘being Indian’). Its allies, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and their associated women’s and youth organisations, spearheaded a campaign to remove the Babari Masjid (a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya), claiming that it was built over the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. Their supporters demolished the mosque in 1992 and anti-Muslim riots flared around India.2 A coalition led by the BJP was in power in UP from 1997–2002, and its leader was the Indian Prime Minister from 1998–2004 in a coalition government.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Hindu Right echoed allegations repeatedly made in Hindu nationalist discourse since the early twentieth century that Muslims constitute a threat to the ‘Hindu community’ (P. K. Datta 1999). Hindu nationalist claims have focused inter alia on purported Muslim expansionism through invasions, forced conversions, and the abduction of Hindu women, and have characterised Muslim men as militant, sexually predatory, and a danger to India’s integrity (Bacchetta 1994; Gupta 2002: 222–320; Jaffrelot 1996; Pandey 1990). This discourse also portrays Indian Muslims as potential traitors, with Pakistan (or occasionally, Bangladesh) as countries that can call on their ‘natural’ loyalty (Gupta and Sharma 1996; Jaffrelot 1996: 338 ff.). At the level of electoral success, the BJP has rarely managed to persuade a majority of voters to support them: but in a Westminster-style, first-past-the-post system, they need little more than one-third of the votes to gain power. At the level of taken-for-granted suspicions of Muslim untrustworthiness and potential threat, however, many more Indians have been persuaded by the anti-Muslim propaganda. Muslims find it hard to buy or rent property in ‘Hindu’ areas; and they are massively under-represented in senior positions in Government and in the private sector (Hasan, this volume). Muslims are often perceived as being somehow responsible for bombings or attacks (such as those in Mumbai in December 2008) that have been caused by (or are blamed on) terrorists of one hue or another who are also Muslim—even when many miles away from an event, and despite their vehement condemnation of those carrying them out.

(p.13) The publication of the Sachar Committee report in late 2006 marked a watershed in discussions of the position of Muslims in contemporary India. Sachar reported that Muslims in contemporary India are, on the whole, worse off than OBCs: for instance, in regard to levels of poverty, living conditions, access to secure and well-paid employment and achievements in formal education (Sachar 2006: 237). On some indicators and in some states (particularly the large Muslim-minority states of West Bengal, Bihar, UP and Assam) ‘the situation [of Muslims] is particularly grave’ (Sachar 2006: 237). The detailed tables in the Appendices to the Report show that on some educational indicators—such as proportions of the population completing at least Middle School (8th grade)—levels for Muslims in UP and West Bengal are now well below those for Dalits and Adivasis. Elsewhere in north India, Muslims are still somewhat better placed on these indicators than Dalits and Adivasis, but the differentials are shrinking fast (Sachar 2006: 297–8). On economic indicators in different parts of the country, Muslims also appear to be on average poorer than other sections of the population, and their relative position is generally worsening through time (see John and Mutatkar 2005: 1341; Sachar 2006: 158–60; and Shariff 1995). In addition, the report draws attention to many misconceptions in the public understanding of aspects of Muslim everyday life in India, for example by noting the relatively small proportion of Muslim children who rely wholly on madrasahs for their formal education.

In more general terms, and often showing continuities with the Congress governments of 1937,3 the state and its various institutions have displayed ‘banal Hinduism’ (akin to the ‘banal nationalism’ identified in Billig 1995). Despite claims to secularism, made most prominently by Congress politicians, public institutions—such as schools, hospitals, offices and factories—have embodied a Hindu character in taken-forgranted ways: school assemblies, the temples and shrines attached to many public buildings, the celebration of festivals, all these have been introduced on the assumption that the pupils, staff, patients, employees etc. are Hindu. This is not surprising, given that even on the most restricted of definitions (i.e. excluding Dalits and Adivasis from the (p.14) ‘Hindu’ group) about half of all Indians would count themselves as Hindu. But the implication is that ‘Others’ are not fully entitled to state benefits and facilities—an assumption that lies in part, for example, behind how Muslim, Dalit and Adivasi women are treated when they try to access Government medical facilities (Jeffery, Jeffery, and Rao 2007: see also Jeffery and Jeffery in this volume).

The patterns of social exclusion thus generated are not single-variable based, of course. The everyday and institutionalised communalism of the local state interacts with everyday and institutionalised sexism, so that state services have been delivered in ways which seriously disadvantaged all women, but especially poor women from the Scheduled Tribes and minority communities: what has been called ‘gendered, institutionalized communalism’ (Jeffery and Jeffery 2006: 95). As men have competed over the allocation of public resources, their own women as well as those from ‘Other’ groups tended to be excluded. As Heath and Yadav argue in this volume, then, the decline of Congress dominance has not led to the ‘individualistic, cleavageless politics that has evolved in the West’, rather

the decline of the initial ‘national’ electoral foundation established at the onset of mass democracy has made way to social cleavages that perhaps bear more similarity to the Lipset–Rokkan model than they did earlier. Whether these cleavages persist in the future remains to be seen. Economic and social development may gradually weaken their hold, as they did in the West, but the current extent of poverty and inequality that exists throughout much of India suggests that this may still be some way off.

Reform and the Indian economy, society & politics, 1990 to 2010

Bringing OBCs and Dalits into the political fold, while leaving them (and Muslims) largely marginal to the economic benefits of economic growth, raises issues of how far individuals from different social categories and cultural markers can claim citizenship rights and make positive contributions as Indians. But concentrating on the realm of politics, and of democracy in particular, draws attention away from concerns about how the state—in its enabling and providing as well as in its exclusionary and punitive roles—differentiates amongst its citizens. Recent ethnographic work on the Indian state challenges the idea that theorising around the ‘master concept’ of the state is the sole or best route to more sophisticated understandings of its nature in contemporary India (Khilnani 1997). In the collection edited by Fuller and Bénéï, for example, several writers (p.15) explore ‘…what the state variously means and does for people in India today’ (Fuller and Harriss 2000: 10) through such diverse and routine manifestations of state activity on the ground as anganwadi (crèche) workers, land registry officers, District Commissioners’ offices and health extension and hospital workers (Corbridge et al. 2005; Gupta 1993). Seeing the state as constituted from dispersed sites of activity not only enables ethnographic study of the state but also challenges any notion of the state as a unified actor; the state becomes visible rather as a range of actors and activities in pursuit of different and often conflicting ends. Above all, everyday perspectives on the state break down any easy dichotomies between ‘state’ and ‘citizens’ or ‘civil society’. As Osella and Osella comment, ‘the state is composed of people, and…analytical models which start from dualistic categories are bound to posit distance and overlook the quotidian intimacy of the state’ (Osella and Osella 2000: 157). We need models that ‘acknowledge networks of patronage, personalized relationships and shared cultural practices that link the state differentially to the people it is supposed to serve’ (Jeffery and Jeffery 2006: 97).

Unfortunately, the everyday workings of local state institutions have not been given much attention in accounts of the Indian state.4 General discussions of the operations of lower-level state functionaries (extension workers, health workers and teachers, for example) are either managerial in emphasis or concerned mainly with their role in factional and party politics and the class biases exposed in their patterns of work. More recent ethnographic literature on the Indian state tried to remedy this lack, and raises the issue of the nature of the distinction for individual Government workers between their roles as public servants on the one hand and as private individuals ‘concerned with their position in their own social world’ (Fuller and Harriss 2000: 13) on the other. Akhil Gupta uses the collapse of this distinction in practice to question more generally the adequacy for India of the Western-derived dichotomy between state and civil society. Whilst Gupta does not detail the substantive private interests pursued by the government employees amongst his informants, such phenomena lend themselves easily to explorations of corruption (Gupta 1993). Previous explanations of corruption in India—that it was (p.16) a by-product of the excessive controls and licences that restricted private enterprise and empowered government functionaries—seem no longer to apply, given the rolling back of such controls since 1990. Despite these reforms, however, the chimera of an efficient, transparent bureaucracy remains tantalisingly out of sight (Editorial 2009).

In the 1990s and 2000s, this multifaceted and somewhat incoherent state has been challenged in two very different ways. From one side, under promptings from neo-liberal advocates of the appropriate role to be played by the public sector, it has been under pressure to downsize, to abdicate responsibility for economic activities, and to reduce its interventions into market processes. Reform packages (such as that funded by the World Bank in UP, entitled the ‘Uttar Pradesh Fiscal Reform and Public Sector Restructuring Loan/Credit’), have been designed to:

strengthen the long-term process of reorienting government towards its core functions and reducing its role in the economy, improving civil service efficiency and strengthening fiscal management and financial accountability. (World Bank 2000: 4)

On the other hand, the World Bank, along with other donors, such as DFID, USAID and the European Union, has encouraged a deepening of government involvement in social welfare schemes—presumably working to a theory that places these as part of the ‘core functions’ of the state. Since the mid-1990s, but with more political support since the United Progressive Alliance Government (a coalition led by Congress) came to power nationally in 2004, several programmes have been designed to strengthen the welfare state—ironically, at just the same time that other processes have tended to undermine the possibilities that Government programmes might make a serious dent in patterns of poverty and social exclusion. The earliest of these projects targeted primary schooling. Known as the District Primary Education Programme, it focused on states where large numbers of children (especially, girls) were out of school, or failing to complete 5 years of schooling. In 2000, reflecting in part global programmes attempting to achieve Education for All, the Indian programme was renamed Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Complete Education Programme). International donors have contributed ideas and support, but most of the funding has come from the central Government. New school buildings have been erected, old ones refurbished, new teaching materials have been supplied, and states have been supported to employ extra teachers—but only on contracts with markedly inferior rights to those of existing teachers.

(p.17) More recent programmes have attempted to contribute to reductions in child poverty and to raise school registrations, through (among other things) enhanced school meals programmes in every state; a National Rural Health Mission (NRHM); and (perhaps the most ambitious of all) the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Amongst the many projects associated with the NRHM are incentives to encourage all pregnant women (some twenty-five million each year) to give birth in hospitals or other medical institutions, most of which are in the public sphere (see Jeffery and Jeffery in this volume). The NREGS also involves huge numbers: thirty-five million households provided with employment for some part of the year, to a total of 1,397 million person-days, 31 per cent for Dalits, and 24 per cent to Adivasis, nearly half being work for women ([http://nrega.nic.in/], accessed 3 February 2009). Like many other employment guarantee schemes, most of its benefits tend to go to those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, since others are unwilling to do the hard physical labour required for enrolment in the scheme. But the programme has further goals: to increase transparency in government programmes (following from the success of right to information campaigns, especially those developed in Rajasthan) and to encourage bank deposits and other mechanisms to reduce corruption and to give the poor a stake in the banking system (Drèze and Khera 2008).

In other words, in the spheres of education, health and social welfare, the Government of India is attempting to extend its reach and deepen its relationships with its citizens. Yet, at the same time, its commitments to those citizens in terms of economic ties are under ideological and budgetary attack (see Joshi, this volume). These somewhat contradictory processes shed further light on the intractability and centrality of the state for Indian society.

The state in India has many attractions for powerful social groups. At the most basic level, the state provides subsidies to agricultural inputs, such as power, fertilisers and credit, which would prove costly in political terms were any party to propose to remove them. The state offers some opportunities for stable jobs on good financial and other terms—because most public sector employees still have status and job security. Many public sector jobs also offer the chance to earn rents or ‘over-income’, by exploiting opportunities to take bribes, or misappropriating public resources. Since so few jobs are being created by the particular form of economic growth that has characterised the Indian economy since the early 1990s, those in the public sector are heavily competed for, and may be as often allocated for political reasons, or in response to corrupt (p.18) practices, as on the basis of merit. The press often report how many thousands have appeared for the examinations that are the start of a process—often lasting a year or more—that will lead to the appointment of fewer than one hundred posts. Even in the IT business, 25,000 jobs in Infosys can attract one and a half million applicants, offering them a less-than-2 per cent chance of success (Giridharadas 2006). In the public sector, the stakes may be higher. In a cause célèbre in UP, nearly 18,000 appointments to the state police forces were annulled by the new Chief Minister, Mayawati, in September 2007, on the grounds that they were political appointments (often from the same caste as the previous Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav) (Press Trust of India 2007). Thus, even though the state has not been the main provider of employment prospects, the imagined opportunities it offers still feed the political disputes that dominate media debates and everyday discussion.


This brings us full circle from the start of this introduction: the divergent trajectories of those with economic, social or cultural capital, compared with those with only transient and unreliable political clout—between the members of what Partha Chatterjee calls civil and political society (Chatterjee 2001). In their very different ways, all the contributions to this book grapple with these issues. In combination, the insights they render—whether into social mobility, how elections are organised, or how it feels to be marginalised from central social institutions—go a long way in challenging simple stereotypes and unhelpful dichotomies. Zoya Hasan’s paper in this volume reminds us that these understandings are not of merely academic significance: they may have policy relevance, to find ‘different and new means to bridge disparities and deepen social equality’ and to help India avoid the bitter and violent struggles that have characterised much change in these directions elsewhere in the world—and in some parts of India as well. As James Manor suggests, Indian social change has seen many ‘incongruities—painful ironies amid remarkable achievements’ including the gradualism (in polity, society and economy) that has long characterised transformations in Indian society. We hope this volume will make a further contribution to the endeavour to make sense of India’s tryst with modernity.


Proceedings of the British Academy 159, 1–18. © The British Academy 2010.

(1) Named after B. P. Mandal, the chair of a commission on OBCs that reported in 1980, but whose recommendations are still being raked over, nearly thirty years on.

(2) On the Ayodhya affair and the communalisation of politics in contemporary India, see Basu and Kohli (1998); Jaffrelot (1996); Jeffery and Basu (1998); Ludden (1996). The Ayodhya affair became prominent in late 1990, and was used by the Hindu Right to mobilise support when it feared the possible effects of the Mandal Report (see Zoya Hasan’s paper in this volume) might undermine its position.

(3) This has been argued persuasively by Gould (2002) who shows that Congressmen engaged with Hindu nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s for both strategic and cultural reasons. Two good examples are their espousal of Hindi rather than Urdu, which was interpreted as being a coded support for a ‘Hindu Raj’; and their introduction of Hindu prayers into the government schools, under the cloak of Gandhian ‘basic schools’.

(4) See, e.g. Vanaik (1990). Of more general political discussions, Kohli (1987) is unusual in taking seriously the developmental activities of the Indian states; but he too is primarily concerned with their regional, caste and class dimensions and virtually ignores community and gender.