How does one understand and explain this economic rise of India in the past decade or so?
As of now, there have been two main approaches to this question — one appreciative and right wing and the other critical and left wing. For the supporters and defenders of neo-liberal economic reforms, the phenomenal growth and successes of the Indian economy and its corporate sector are proof of the viability and desirability of these very reforms. Some of them do acknowledge the reality of poverty and deprivation but argue that these economic policies, by increasing wealth in society by unleashing entrepreneurship, have started us on the path toward reducing and eventually eliminating poverty. On the other hand, critics of these economic reforms have pointed out that while corporate India has done very well for itself and the economy has grown in leaps and bounds there is no evidence that these policies have led to a reduction in inequality. On the contrary, it appears that the number of poor have increased and inequality has increased.
This column had provided some illustrative data on this last week. By Government of India data, about 350 million people live under the poverty line, which is defined as low as US $ 0.40 per person per day. If one takes the more globally acceptable US $ 2 a day as the poverty line, then about 650 million to 700 million Indians live in poverty.
Which merely begs the question as to how sustainable are these economic policies which keep hundreds of millions of people on the brink of survival, specially in a democracy where everyone of these poor people have a vote?
It is precisely democracy which has been crucial for the survival of India, both as a nation and as a State. Regular elections have provided a regular platform for people to express their anger and disappointment with the State and the ruling parties which has, at once, acted as a safety valve as well as provided the State with feedback about its policies. Regular elections have indicated to the ruling classes the existence and strength of emergent classes and provided the template for their co-option within the ruling structures. It would be an error to think that elections have only provided a safety valve to let of the anger and disappointment of the citizenry. They have impacted on State policy and forced the State to enact and amend laws and initiate policies which have popular sanction. Every time there has been a change in the laws or new policies to address a particular grievance, it has strengthened the popular support for democracy. By providing a platform to the poor and marginalised people to express themselves, also provides a regular check for the State and the ruling classes to test the acceptability of their policies. It allows for course corrections in State policy and ensures a critical mass of support for the State.
From the data available from the Election Commission of India and other surveys, it is quite clear that the poor, un-educated and marginalised citizens are more enthusiastic in their participation in voting and participating in democratic processes. There appears to be a clear negative co-relation between income/wealth, education and caste status and the voting percentage. For the poor and marginalised people of India, elections and democracy are powerful tools which they use to express their opinions and try and get policy changes for their benefit.
But the working of democracy, has another important function for the success of the Indian State. The structure of competitive elections has encouraged political parties to push forward individuals who represent particular caste, ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic interests in elections and as their leaders. This has allowed significant numbers of popular leaders who share a close affinity with the common people to enter State legislatures and Parliament and thus become a part of the State structure. This has been the method by which the Indian State and its ruling classes have co-opted the most promising and popular of the mass leaders representing a diverse set of identities.
Democracy, thus has helped the Indian State, and its ruling classes, to not only fine tune their policies to keep a critical mass of people in its support, it has also provided them with a method of identifying those individuals, groups and social classes which need to be co-opted into the State, their relative strength as well as the platform for class alliances.
There is one more reason for the ability of the Indian State to survive despite the massive weight of poverty and destitution and that is the geographical spread of its territory and the demographic diversity of the people who inhabit this geography.
It is not that there have been no serious challenges to the moral writ, political authority and physical presence of the Indian State. At the very moment of Independence, the communist party had control over most of the territory and people of the Nizam’s Hyderabad State in the Deccan. In area, population and revenue it was larger than most European States, but being a small part of India, the communist partisans were easily crushed by the army of the newly independent Indian State. In West Bengal, the communists have been the dominant political force for over four decades. But, despite winning the popular mandate in a territory populated by over 80 million people, they remain confined to a province of India. Similarly, there have been many political challenges to India, both as a Nation and a State, from Tamil Nadu in the South, to Kashmir and Punjab in the North to Nagaland in the far East, but despite the large number of people involved in these political movements, despite the range of political ideologies and social classes supporting them, they have been unsuccessful in dislodging the larger Indian State. Linguistic divisions, caste and religious differences and sheer distance have combined to render any pan-India political movement a near impossibility.
This geographical spread and demographic diversity, combined with the ability of Parliament and parliamentary democracy to voice popular opinions and grievances as well as work out temporary, partial but real solutions provides the Indian State with a foundation which has survived six decades of poverty and subversion. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the economic growth that we are witness to right now. That will be explored in this column next week.
~ ~ ~
This was published in The Post on 9 May, 2007