Aseem Kshirsagar – On the eve of India’s independence, on 14 August 1947, the first Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, “Tryst with Destiny”. The speech embodies the high spirits of the freedom struggle and the ambition to create a new India and a new world, based on egalitarian values. How have these dreams fared over 76 years?
At its independence, India inherited a colonial government machinery designed for effective exploitation, subjugation and repression. This machinery was readily used for political repression after independence. In 1948, peasants rebelled against the despotic feudal rule of Nizam in the “princely state” of Hyderabad, which refused to join the Indian Union. The princely states were ruled by native feudal lords who owed allegiance to the British Empire. The police machinery at the disposal of the Indian government was used to liberate the princely state of Hyderabad. However, after the liberation, it was also used to brutally suppress the peasant struggle. The government machinery had actively undone the spontaneous land reforms carried out by the peasants and distributed the land back to the local landlords. In the state of Bombay, a popular movement for the rightful demand for the creation of the state of Maharashtra on the basis of Marathi as the common tongue faced brutal repression. This movement took the form of a class struggle as the majority of the protesters were Marathi-speaking textile workers, whereas the owners of the textile mills were non-Marathi and opposed to the formation of a unified Marathi state. In 1955, police firing on the protesters resulted in 106 deaths, the martyrs of a unified Maharashtra. In 1957, the Communist Party of India (CPI) won elections in the state of Kerala, and formed the first ever democratically elected communist government in the world, and tried to push for land and educational reforms. However, despite a majority in the legislative assembly, the state government was dismissed by imposing emergency rule in the state. These are just a few of the many examples of rampant repression and disregard for democratic values in the first couple of decades after independence. This undemocratic conduct and repressive government machinery has persisted to varying degrees until now.
This repression and democratic misconduct have been manifestations of the class tensions at different times. The organisational structure of the Indian National Congress (INC), the political party that spearheaded the freedom struggle, was largely composed of upper class and upper caste elites. After independence, more and more rural as well as urban elites joined the INC in order to remain close to the dominant political power. The class interests of these elites, especially the rural landowners, conflicted with the agenda of aggressive land reform of emerging political oppositions, communists and socialists. In the industrial urban settings, the new political freedoms offered by independence were used by the workers’ movements to bolster their organisational and mobilisation capabilities. However, the private industry remained stagnant due to persistent lack of capital. It failed to improve workers’ living standards or provide new employment opportunities, thus aggravating the class antagonism. The bare destitution, the plight of the rural and urban masses and the need for struggle against the new compatriot overlords even became the subject of Indian cinema of that era, notably the Hindi classics of Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy. Against this backdrop, the ruling INC assumed a multifaceted role. It assumed political representation of the rural and urban elites, while maintaining some of its progressive, social and anti-imperialist potency. To defend the political interests of the elites, it hesitated from radically reforming the repressive government machinery and tolerating democratic achievements of opposition forces. On the other hand, it recognised that the urban and rural bourgeoisie lacked the capacity to lead the country out of economic destitution. The INC, therefore, pushed for the nationalisation of key industries and resources, the creation of new public sector industries and ill-conceived land reforms. The adoption of a centralised industrial policy and coherent economic regulation pushed different stakeholders to engage with the Indian government. This engagement bolstered national unity and sovereignty, which at the time seemed fragile given the horrors of partition and the troubles with the incorporation of princely states. While the class character of the INC constrained it from making meaningful progress towards democratic socialism, INC indulged in a lipservice to socialism in order to cash in on its mass legitimacy at the time. Under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, daughter and political successor of Nehru, the INC amended the preamble of the constitution to add “socialist” as an adjective to the Republic. Redistributive policies of the INC can be explained as a combination of fulfilling the developmental role of the government in the absence of viable policy alternatives and social tokenism to relieve the political pressure of mass movements.
Private capital accumulation in the global North has been boosted for centuries by colonial and neocolonial mechanisms. As this possibility simply did not exist for the Indian capitalist class, private accumulation in India was fuelled by the transfer of natural resources such as mines and forests to private players, lucrative government contracts, subsidies and the over-exploitation of local workers. Regional asymmetries in economic development, which already existed during the British era, persisted and even intensified after independence as a consequence of government policies. Underdeveloped states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are often referred to as Bimaru or “diseased states”. The Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra state, the most industrialised state, remain severely underdeveloped and infamous for farmer suicides to this date. These regional inequalities are not accidental, but have been perpetuated and exacerbated by the appeasement of elites from developed pockets who vehemently oppose fair distribution of key resources and funds. Furthermore, these regional inequalities have secured a supply of cheap labour for agricultural and industrial growth in the more developed pockets and have contributed to over-exploitation. Many states in India have pursued distinctive and successful development strategies, exercising their constitutional prerogatives in agriculture, irrigation, education, etc. Western Maharashtra was able to exemplify agricultural industrialisation through cooperatives. In West Bengal and Kerala, earlier reluctant and partial land reforms were corrected and completed by Communist Party governments, which earned them popular support in these states. However, the small number of constitutional fiscal tools available to non-INC state governments prevented them from exploring distinct policy alternatives that were at odds with national policy. States experimenting alternative policies often faced hostility from the central government and the capitalist class, which meant an economic blockade: reduction of development funds, capital inflows and red tape for cooperation.
In 1991, the Indian government faced an acute economic crisis of depleting foreign exchange reserves. Many temporary reasons such as the collapse of the Eastern bloc countries, which had special exchange rate arrangements with India, and spikes in global oil prices contributed to the severity of the crisis. However, the structural problem underlying the crisis was the contradiction between the Indian government’s developmental role and its class bias. While modest welfare programmes and infrastructure development continued, the government shied away from the necessary taxation and appropriation, not to mention the charitable transfer of public assets to the private sector. Instead, the government resorted to higher fiscal deficits and increased borrowing, leading to an economic dead-end. By 1991, the Indian private industry had grown in size and competence, thanks to the overall development of infrastructure and human resources, and government support, and was ready for ambitious win-win collaborations with Western capital. The collapse of the Eastern bloc had sealed the unipolar world order and dealt a strong blow of defeatism to all political currents left of centre. On the other hand, the memory of colonisation receded farther away in the past. Against this background, the economic crisis of 1991 was turned into an opportunity by the ruling classes and the stewards of the global economic order, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to kick-start the liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the Indian economy, obviously on terms dictated by the IMF and the World Bank. In return, the IMF and the World Bank provided the Indian government with foreign currency liquidity in the form of loans.
Thereafter, urban India experienced rapid economic growth fuelled by foreign and national private capital. Various treaties and agreements signed by the Indian government to welcome the foreign capital dictated economic deregulation, reduced import tariffs and privatisation of basic services. The Indian capitalist class was the prime benefactor of these policies. The Indian capitalist class acquired fortunes of public sector enterprises and their human resources with technical know-how, nurtured over decades using public investment, at throwaway prices. Austerity measures adopted by the Indian government as a part of the neoliberal policy package resulted in the systematic defunding of public transport, education and health care. The vacuum of public initiatives in these lucrative but essential sectors was filled by private players. The neoliberal reforms exposed the agricultural sector, dominated by small land-holder farmers and earlier oriented towards food security and self-sufficiency, to the free-market turmoil. This resulted in rural-agrarian distress, which conveniently resulted in cheap labour for the urban construction boom. The steady dismantling of the public distribution system and the inability of small-scale traders to adapt coincided with the rise of big private players in the profitable retail sector. This period also coincided with Western companies relocating dirty manufacturing to developing countries and exploiting cheap labour. In parallel, many progressive gains of workers’ movements have been systematically nullified. Overall, the 1991 economic reforms were not just diktats from the stewards of global capitalism, but they were also convenient for the Indian capitalist class to expand in different profitable spheres of the economy and to solidify their hold over Indian polity.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Indian People’s Party, the main opposition party at the time of the economic reforms in 1991, pushed neoliberal policies with more fervour than the INC when it came to power in 1999. Hence, a bipartisan consensus regarding neoliberal policies was reached. While a tectonic shift in Indian economic policy was happening, a large political space was occupied by BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics which led to the destruction of a medieval mosque in the state of Uttar Pradesh and unprecedented bloodshed in Hindu-Muslim riots since the partition of India in 1947. On the other hand, the politics for affirmative action for backward castes and the politics for regional autonomy had successfully forged new political identities. Overall, many political fissures and fault lines diluted a coherent political scrutiny of neoliberal policies at their inception.
In 2004, the BJP’s high intensity push of neoliberal agenda was rejected by the Indian masses through ballots. A coalition dubbed United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which was led by the INC and supported externally by a strengthened left front, formed a government in Delhi. The UPA and the left front pushed a progressive common minimum programme aimed at providing relief to the masses. The coalition, which lasted a decade despite an early exit by the left, passed laws that for the first time provided a legal guarantee of school education and rural employment. The Land Acquisition Act and the Forest Rights Act paved the way for fair compensation to peasants for their land and the right of tribal populations to forest land, respectively. The centre-left incline of the INC-led coalition can be traced to the understanding it formed with the left and other regional political parties which advocated social justice. Coalition president and head of the INC, Sonia Gandhi, also played a decisive role in pushing certain social welfare schemes, particularly to address food insecurity. The policies of the UPA were not a retreat from neoliberalism itself, but a set of corrective measures implemented alongside the neoliberal push due to political quagmires, electoral necessities and other temporary reasons. A wider consensus on neoliberalism in the UPA is evident from the fact that the Prime Minister during the UPA rule was Dr. Manmohan Singh, a pro-market economist and the chief architect of the 1991 economic reforms as the then Finance Minister.
When neoliberalism presented itself as an opportunity, the Indian capitalist class upheld it, however this upholding did not mean subscription to neoliberalism on an ideological level. In Narendra Modi of the BJP, who served as a Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat for three consecutive terms from 2001 to 2014 and who created the Gujarat model of “business-friendly” governance, the Indian capitalist class saw a political alternative capable of steadfastly pushing corporate interests, providing political stability and insulation from electoral turmoil. In the 2014 general election, corporate India threw its weight behind Modi. Prominent media houses were brought under corporate control and oriented towards political projection of Modi and engineering an alarm over alleged rampant corruption by UPA ministers. After winning the elections, the ‘Modi’fied BJP proved to be a great bet for the Indian capitalist class as Modi pushed for the privatisation of critical public infrastructure such as airports, ports, mines, urban railways, the dilution of labour rights and economic deregulation at an unprecedented scale. Economic inequality in India has reached unprecedented levels. Indian billionaires, especially cronies like Adani, recently exposed for stock manipulation by several international investigative reports, have had a meteoric rise in their wealth. With a well-oiled election machinery, fuelled by corporate funding, a grassroots network of Hindu nationalist activists, the muzzling of dissent by misusing national law enforcement agencies, and a corporate television media towing in line, Modi government has successfully managed to limit political backlash from the voters. The divisive politics of asserting Hindu primacy over other minorities, an ideological agenda of the BJP, has been pushed ahead to create a successful diversion away from public scrutiny of economic policies. In 2020, the Modi government faced its only major policy setback when it tried opening up the agrarian sector and grain procurement to large private players, and hundreds of thousands of farmers marched on Delhi and occupied the streets for a year to oppose it.
Manmohan Singh hoped that free markets and foreign investments would bring prosperity without hampering democracy and federalism. The Indian capitalist class, which grew in its clout and confidence over a quarter century after 1991 reforms had something else in mind. It preferred unitary governance as opposed to devolution of governing powers; it needed a government which didn’t believe in the neoliberal doctrine ideologically , but rather would be partisan to interests of certain Indian monopolies at national and international level. As coalition politics diluted the pro-corporate push from time to time, a single party forming a majority through a presidential-style election around a personality cult would prove very useful for diminishing the parliamentary mechanisms.
The Indian state and democracy are a multi-layered, dynamic and complex landscape representative of regional, linguistic, caste, class, gender, geographical and international facets. While political and ideological differences are important determinants of the Indian government’s stance, the relation of the government with the capitalist class has played a pivotal role in shaping its policies and visions. Understanding the predicaments and opportunities in front of the Indian capitalist class at different times allows insights into the role of the Indian state. Viewed through this lens, it is apparent that the Indian capitalist class has skillfully and malleably navigated over 75 years, pushing its interests both defensively and aggressively fitting to the situation at hand, twisting India’s tryst with an egalitarian and socially just destiny.
- ‘’India Discovers Herself Again’: The Full Text of Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst With Destiny’ Speech’, The Wire, 15 August 2022, https://thewire.in/history/india-at-75-jawaharlal-nehru-tryst-with-destiny-full-text (viewed 11 September 2023).
- Sharma, S., ‘Remembering the Telangana Peoples’ Struggle Against Feudal-Colonial Rule’, Newsclick, 25 September 2022, https://www.newsclick.in/Remembering-Telangana-Peoples-Struggle-Against-Feudal-Colonial-Rule (viewed 11 September 2023).
- Venkatesan, R., ‘The Political Necessity of the Licence-Permit Raj’, The India Forum, 9 May 2023, https://www.theindiaforum.in/history/political-necessity-licence-permit-raj (viewed 11 September 2023).