Aditya Balasubramanian, Kena Wani

Scholars in Conversation | Dr. Aditya Balasubramanian with Dr. Kena Wani

The ‘Scholars in Conversation’ series features interviews with academics across diverse disciplines and geographies. Anchored by NLSIU faculty members, these conversations explore the work of leading voices in their fields in order to bring academic insights to bear on public discourse.

Historical scholarship has hesitated to examine the frictions and shifts that independent India experienced in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Instead, the study of the period between 1950s and 1970s has been dominated by disciplines such as political science and sociology. Over the past two decades, however, there has been a spurt of historical writing that has sought to scrutinise this period anew, highlighting novel ways of reading and interpreting twentieth-century archives.

In this interview, Aditya Balasubramanian talks about his new book Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India (Princeton University Press, 2023) which similarly embarks upon the task of studying the post-independence period. The book tracks the emergence of neoliberal ideas in the first three decades of independence in India by following the political, social, and institutional trajectories of the Swatantra Party (1959 to 1974) founded by C. Rajagopalachari. In so doing, the book complicates the conventional periodisation of the post-independence era, which is often carved out into two distinct, oppositional, and teleologically defined periods beginning with the developmentalist era in the 1950s and a seemingly inevitable shift towards the era of liberalisation in the 1990s.

Can you summarise the historical world of mid-twentieth-century India and briefly situate the Swatantra Party within this specific historical milieu?

Mid-20th century India was a society in transition. People were moving from rural to urban areas and turning to professional occupations. New local and regional newspapers appeared every year. As the Government of India in New Delhi asserted itself over the states, it stood poised to take control of economic life. The dominant Congress Party’s political leaders committed themselves to economic planning that would help bring about a ‘socialistic pattern of society’, one imbued with a mission to eradicate poverty through a combination of public and private sectors, an ethos of sacrifice for the greater good, and a spirit of nation-building. A new national imaginary had been created, and the country was to be clothed in the garb of modernity. And yet, India was becoming more unequal. Taxation rates and prices rose, the corruption of government officials increased as layers of bureaucracy proliferated, and the state appeared incapable of fashioning a suitable food policy to feed the masses. For all the enthusiasm surrounding change, its pace failed to meet expectations.

This spectre of malaise and tensions between new interests such as the urban professional, the government bureaucrat, and the small businessperson led to a growing chorus of economic discontentment in independent India by the second half of the 1950s. As the groups behind the anticolonial movement splintered in the aftermath of independence, new political formations emerged. None were more powerful than the Swatantra Party, founded in 1959. Its leaders were partisans of a ‘free economy’, with which they sought to replace what they memorably called a ‘permit-and-license raj’ economy. Invoking the language of the colonial past, they attacked the ruling dispensation as a coalition of corrupt politicians working in tandem with big business and bureaucrats. By 1967, Swatantra became the largest opposition party in the country, although it collapsed during the early 1970s.

How would you place your work in dialogue with emerging scholarship on the history of neoliberalism and conservative thought? Two key texts which come to my mind are Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism and Amy Offner’s Sorting out the Mixed Economy: The Rise and Fall of Welfare and Developmental States in the Americas.

In its most coherent characterisation by Quinn Slobodian, neoliberalism is understood as an anti-democratic, expert driven project to insulate markets from politics and make them operate according to certain principles with a particular legal framework that the state provides and enforces. The two contributions I see my work is making are: a) questioning how appropriate a characterisation neoliberalism actually is when we consider the experience of non-western societies, and b) understanding that the Indian interlocutors of neoliberalism actually conceive of markets as part of their democratic—albeit not progressive—politics.

Building on Amy Offner’s work, my book focuses on informal cultures of economic argumentation and shows how local class and caste tensions drive ideas and practices about political economy that seek to diminish the role of the state in the era of mixed economy. In so doing, the work provides an alternative to diffusionist accounts of neoliberalism from the minds of Western economists across the world. To be sure, I am not arguing, for example, that India’s 1991 liberalisation is driven purely by local constituencies. Rather, what I am showing is that there is a longstanding constituency for liberalisation that expresses itself much before the 1990s and that we cannot understand the country’s trajectory since then without grasping this as a longer process of embedding.

Much of your book focuses on reconstructing the lives of politicians, thinkers, organisations and institutions that played key roles in articulating the contours of a ‘free economy’ in post-independence India. The book as a result has an astonishing range of archival sources, from unpublished dissertations, pamphlets, periodicals, biographies, illustrations, FDI films, obscure publications, to more conventional sources such as official government reports, electoral data, and political speeches. Can tell us more about your archival sources?

In this book, I make use of sources in English, Hindi, Tamil, and translated sources from Gujarati. Core material comes from the private papers of my protagonists. These rich repositories include statements of party ideology and activity, thousands of petitions and letters from constituents, and exchanges between leaders and officials of the Nehruvian state. In addition, I consulted the recently collected and open papers of the Swatantra Party. I have read these sources alongside fragments from the formal archives of the Indian state and collections strewn across Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These mainly concern individual and institutional interlocutors of my protagonists. I have also cited excellent unpublished doctoral dissertations found either on ProQuest or Shodhganga, the open-access online repository for Indian doctoral theses.

I read across multiple kinds of published sources. Libraries in India and the United States and online portals furnished me with collections of periodicals. Digitised newspaper repositories provided information about national and regional events. Published materials produced by the Government of India furnished me with statistics on India’s postcolonial economic and social history. But the voices of my historical actors came out most clearly from the various genres of texts they wrote and the fora where they spoke. These include everything from moralistic short stories to children’s books, voice recordings to films. I found them in various libraries all over the world and scattered across multiple websites.

By following the biographical trajectories of figures such as N.G. Ranga and Bhailalbhai Patel your work offers a compelling account of the power that landed castes came to wield in shaping the discourse around development (and its critiques) in the early decades of independence. Can you elaborate upon this role and the ways in which the landed interests of these communities directly intersected with the ideas of free economy’?

So, I was particularly interested in how landed castes from formerly ryotwari areas who were transitioning to agro-industry, real-estate, construction, and other forms of capitalist activity rose up against the Nehruvian state. This is in part because of regulation of their enterprises. But it was also when discussions of land ceilings started to be passed in the states, which they believed to be compromising their right to property. These landowning dominant castes, chiefly from Western and Southern India, drew a distinction between zamindari abolition, which they welcomed, and ryotwari land ceilings, which they saw as penalising the landowning ‘peasant proprietor’. Now, of course, this is an ideal type that masks a heterogeneous reality—some ryotwari landlords are just as big as their zamindari counterparts. But what is significant here is the invocation of this historical identity as a way to politically mobilise and smoothen their transition to capitalism.

Your book shows how the historical world of twentieth century was a moment of intense political churning, giving rise to elite individuals such as Ranchoddas Lotvala and N.G. Ranga whose ideas cannot be pigeonholed into a single ideological category. Their biographies show an engagement with varied positions ranging from third world internationalism, Hindu nationalism, anarchism, to Gandhian thought. Can you discuss this chequered ideological world inhabited by some of the key protagonists of your book? And how do you situate such figures who courted multiple ideologies within the prehistory of neoliberalism in India?

In the book, I deal largely with informal thinkers—i.e. politicians and publicists—who did not produce a coherent system of thought. Several of them traversed the ideological spectrum throughout their lives. But there was a lowest common denominator brought out in their various articulations of free economy: anticommunism, the defence of private property, decentralised development, and unfettered private economic activity. And I think that is significant.

Towards the end of your book, you gesture towards a distinction between secular conservative thought (as embodied by the Swatantra Party) and communal conservative thought (as embodied by the BJP). However, as your work also shows, these demarcations are not impermeable. How would you analyse this relationship between the economic right and the cultural right?

So, in the book, the cleavage between the two happens on the grounds of language—Hindi as the national language versus English as the language of government with regional languages in the states—and the prioritising of communism rather than the Muslim minority as the major problem of society. Still, there were both committed secularists and Hindu revivalists in the Swatantra Party, as there were in the Congress at this time. Most of the top brass of Swatantra had been associated with Gandhi in the Congress and embraced his ideas about inter-religious unity. But this was also a time when Hindu nationalism was not politically respectable or mainstream. That happened after the Emergency. And so we may say that the economic and cultural right have come together more since then. The staunch free-market economic right always needs numbers to come to power; that can mean allying with religious conservatives like the Reagan coalition in the USA, or a third way coalition like that of Blair in the UK.

Your book shows how the Swatantra Party sought legitimacy by constructing the constituency of the middle-class-identifying ‘common man’. As you indicate, the common man here was fundamentally an upper-caste male with landed or entrepreneurial interests, and included both the mofussil as well as the urban regions. Despite the short life of the party, this imagination of the common man’s righteous struggle against the state in the language of corruption/economic rights continues to find its place in the contemporary political landscape, most recently espoused by the Aam Admi Party. Can you talk a little bit about the afterlife of the Swatantra Party?

Very often, the ‘middle class’ is not really in the middle of any kind of income or social distribution. However, if we look at the kind of person the Swatantra Party is trying to appeal to, which also includes urban professional classes, the ranks of those people have certainly increased since liberalisation, thanks in part to service sector-led growth. But there is also a set of issues that Swatantra is fighting about, regarding inflation, excess, taxation, and corruption, that have become in some ways the sine qua non of English-language anti-incumbent political discourse in India.

Finally, tell us more about the title of your book. Why have you situated the Swatantra Party within the historical context of democracy and opposition politics?

In this book, I am building on the work of John Dunn who suggests that we must unsettle the conflation of democracy with freedom, rights and equality by historicising democratic projects. It is only by understanding these projects in their plurality that we can forge better ones going forward.

To be sure, Swatantra’s ranks include ex-civil servants who cannot seriously be characterised as democratic. They display a nostalgia for the colonial period. And as I point out, the conversion of feudal power into legislative seats accounts for its limited success in multiple states. But at the same time, there are three things that are going on which are significant and democratic—albeit not progressive—that I label opposition politics. These are (a) the imagination of a conservative party and two-party system as salutary even for a polity with progressive ideals; (b) the communication with and attempted mobilisation of people around economic ideas and issues rather than concerns of religion and caste (with limited success, and of course with its own caste logic); and (c) the usage of the legislature and courts to bring checks and balances to the power of the dominant party.

In the contemporary Indian context, as we head into the general elections, this is a valuable episode worth revisiting. We live in a time of renewed one-party dominance of a very different sort from its Nehruvian version, but with a national-level opposition that is sadly comatose.

About the Authors

Aditya Balasubramanian is a lecturer in economic history at the Australian National University.

Kena Wani is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at NLSIU.