The Nation-state in the Mirror of Political Science: Tracking a Discipline in India

Posted: 08/02/2009 by Nivedita Menon in Democracy, Modernity, Nation-state, Political Science, Politics, Theory
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By Nivedita Menon

(This paper was originally delivered as a public lecture in December 1999 at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore as part of a series called State of the Discipline in the Social Sciences jointly organized by NCBS and Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore.)

Why does political science call itself a “science”? The tag of “science” is an aspiration towards the high reaches of verifiability, quantifiability, systematization and applicability to “real life” which are seen as characterizing the natural sciences. Standard text-books on political science, for instance the excellent series produced by IGNOU, make a claim for the label of “science” because political analysis is about the study of “political reality”, while “political philosophy” for example, is partial because it excludes “practical aspects.” Further, behavioural and post-behavioural approaches are characterised as “modern”, as opposed to “traditional” historical and normative methods. It must be recognized that here, “traditional” means traditional within the discipline – which is itself modern. “You would come across the claim,” the student is told, “that approaches which are identified as modern, are considered more scientific.” Despite all the critiques of the fact/value dichotomy that was brought into social analysis by the behavioural revolution, the presumed (and desired) link between science and transformation continues to inform the self-styled social sciences. Society is to be studied in scientific ways, in order that it can be effectively transformed in accordance with scientific values.

The social sciences are of course, an invention of the 19th century. The natural sciences emerged around the time of the transition in Europe from feudalism to capitalism. The assumption on which they were based was that natural phenomena behave in predictable or at least analyzable ways and are therefore subject to intervention and manipulation. The struggle to establish the legitimacy of this perspective encountered the resistance of religious authorities who believed that such a view would undermine social stability. The social sciences make a similar assertion about social phenomena, that these are predictable and can be manipulated. Immanuel Wallerstein argues that it was the French Revolution, which crystallized the issues involved in this understanding and legitimated the notion of deliberate social change. However, the question, “Is political science a science” acquires its full meaning in the 20th century, in the context of the influence of positivism. Positivism holds that science is the most reliable form of knowledge we have of reality and that is it is possible and desirable to develop a natural science of society. The distinction between knowledge and reality is central to the positivist position.

In many ways, the mainstream discipline of Political Science in India continues to reflect a positivist understanding of knowledge, although many scholars today with a formal training in political science are concerned with areas ranging from cinema, literature and theatre to ecological movements. However rarely would one find their work reflected in school or university syllabi. What is considered to be Political Science is still constitutional studies, electoral politics, political parties, and other such issues that relate to the state in particular ways and that can be studied using quantitative methods like census data, surveys and objective type questionnaires.

Disciplines are distinguished from one another by the kinds of problems with which they concern themselves, the kinds of questions they ask about these problems and the frameworks within which they ask as well as attempt to answer these questions. Of course, we also know that these are not natural attributes of disciplines but conventions constituted by the communities of scholars who work within them. For liberal as well as marxist political scientists till the beginning of the 20th century, the central preoccupation was the study of the state. In the 1930s, the view emerged that the study of the state was too narrow. Power was declared to be the central category of politics by the writers of the Chicago School, who defined power as an attribute of individuals which enabled them to achieve their goals. The emphasis was on the study of individuals, institutions being conceived of as aggregations of individuals, and politics as a market in which political man competes for power. It was also held that empirically verifiable data was to be derived from the actual behaviour of individuals, and behavioural scientists tried to evolve a working definition of power which could be used to identify power relations and measure the relative power of individuals.

This view came under attack from marxist positions which see power not as the attribute of individuals but as arising from class divisions in society. Power in this understanding, is not only economic (control or ownership of resources) but political (power of the state apparatus which may be directly controlled by the owners of resources or indirectly via the political elites) and ideological (as exercised by religious leaders or by the mass media and educational system). David Held defines ideology as “systems of signification or meaning which are mobilised to sustain asymmetrical power relations in the interests of dominant or hegemonic groups.” Thus power is divided between political, economic and social institutions all of which set up multiple pressures to comply with dominant structures and values.

If the object of study of political science then, is power in this broad sense, it should be no surprise to discover that the preoccupation of the discipline with the state continues. The state in modern society is the crystallization of power in that society – it is the supreme form of political organization whose laws override all others. No-one, whether individuals or groups, can withdraw or retire from the authority of the state, and it is the state which has the monopoly on the use of coercion.

In this paper I work through one particular prism – that of the nation-state – to trace the trajectory followed by the discipline of political science in India. The shifts and transformations that have taken place in the discipline, not unsurprisingly, reflect shifts in the Indian polity on the understanding of the nation-state and its legitimacy. I must emphasize that my intention in this paper is not to offer a survey of writings on Indian politics, which would be an impossible task in so short a piece, but to look at the shifts in the ways in which political scientists and later, scholars of other disciplines, have understood the state and its relationship to democracy in India.

Political Science in India Mark I: Building the Nation

Immanuel Wallerstein points out that by the mid-20th century, the basic unit of analysis within which almost all of social science was written was the state – “…either a sovereign state, or a claimant to state status. The ‘society’ of each state was then judged as more or less ‘cohesive’, and more or less ‘progressive’. Each society had an ‘economy’ which could be characterised…Each society had a ‘culture’, and it had minorities with sub-cultures, and these minorities could be seen as having accepted or rejected ‘assimilation’”. What Wallerstein is pointing to, is the legitimisation within the social sciences, of the conceptualization of the nation as the natural and desirable whole, with a distinct and homogenous character. This desirable homogeneity is resisted internally only by troublesome parts, refusing union with the whole. The nation in addition, is seen as compact and self-subsisting, its economy having internal coherence and permitting independent analysis as a unit in a system of other such nation-states.

This was the dominant form of the discipline as it had developed by the 1960s in the American academy, when the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa began to become areas of interest. In the Cold War politics of the time, these regions were areas of concern. Were the new states going to be successful in bringing about development and stability, or were they going to collapse under the explosion of “traditional” identities – religious, ethnic, racial, regional and caste?

From the point of view of the elites of the new states, development and stability were seen as the primary tasks. The anti-imperialist struggles were meant to culminate in the modernisation of their societies through economic development. Not only were modernisation and development considered to be practically synonymous, there seemed in addition to be a self-evident relationship between the nation-state and development. Indeed the claim to legitimacy of the of the state structures set up by the elites of the newly emerging nations of Asia and Africa lay in their promise to deliver economic development to their populations.

Nation building, then, was the concern of political scientists studying India and the axes along which this project was mapped were those of Tradition/Modernity, Development and Stability.

The classic and early work of the British scholar WH Morris-Jones (1964) establishes a continuity of the post-Independence state in India with the institutions of British rule. What he calls “mediating institutions” – the legislative bodies, the judiciary and the law – were taken over by the nationalist movement with “respectful care”. Through these institutions, values which were “not native to the Indian soil” took firm root here. There is then, “the presence, the confrontation and…the mixing of political idioms” which gives the Indian political scene its distinctive tone. There were two such idioms – the modern and the traditional – the language of the mediating institutions and that of the institutions of caste. But Morris-Jones identifies a third idiom – that of the modern politician at the local level, who is able to exploit the traditional idiom. In his revised edition written seven years later, Morris-Jones draws on the work of several American scholars – Paul Brass and Myron Weiner, who identify the Congress as one of the great meeting places of these three languages of politics and Harold Gould, who gives a twist to the Tradition/Modernity divide. The latter, cited by Morris-Jones approvingly, suggests that behaviour in political parties is in some ways an extension of behaviour learnt in a world of caste groups. For Gould, “Indian politics manifests a largely unconscious jati model…If caste is seen as retreating in the face of new institutions it must also be seen as having in some measure already shaped its replacements.”

For these scholars, the Indian political system has acquired stability through this unique mode of accommodating modernity within tradition. Morris-Jones was optimistic that the forces of disintegration were weaker than those which would preserve India’s unity, even if one of the latter was the most powerful non-Congress party at that time, the Jan Sangh, for its anti-Muslim Indianization slogan was strongly unitarist. However by the late 60s, Morris-Jones can see the tendency towards increased violence and extra-constitutional action – “the established avenues cannot cope with the issues which seem to press.” The main reason for this as he sees it, is the weakening of what was “virtually the sole integrator”, the Congress as an umbrella, centrist party. The process of development as well as the failures of development created a series of social tensions seeking expression.

Writing at the same time, Rajni Kothari took issue with Morris-Jones on his understanding of disintegrative possibilities within the system, specifically, his reading of the linguistic reorganization of states as a disintegrative move. Rather, he argued that the coming forward of “indigenous elite groups” was healthy for Indian democracy. Kothari was generally in tune with Morris-Jones on the question of the stability of the Indian state, but his own understanding of nation-building was sharply critical of the suspicion towards “parochial tendencies.” Kothari saw this suspicion as arising from the Western experience of the establishment of centralized nation-states out of the break-up of feudal structures and empires. But he argued that in the new nations such an approach could in fact, be a recipe for disintegration. “The task facing the elites of the new nations is to establish a centre, penetrate the symbols of this centre, involve other centres into its dominant framework through coalition-making and bargaining, and mobilize the population into this framework”

Politics in India is pre-eminently the politics of integration, for Kothari. The “seeming discrepancy” between centralized bureaucratic planning and a widening electoral base could have been met by increasing centralization and an authoritative structure of political leadership. Rather India’s elites chose an alternative path to development which had no previous model to follow. “To attempt a simultaneous achievement of political and economic development while at the same time undertaking a reconstruction of a hardened social structure was a unique undertaking.” India chose to give precedence to the task of mobilizing intermediate and peripheral structures “through a simultaneous pursuit of both aggregative and participatory goals, rather than simply to re-map its institutions for the primary purpose of extracting from the people a growing economic surplus for the state.” The latter goal is to be achieved as part of a total process of social and political mobilisation and not through authoritarian manipulation. Indeed, Kothari feels the authoritarian formula may not work in “cultures where the central symbols of secular authority have not penetrated into the regions and where subnational identities have yet to be woven together into a viable federation.” Authoritarianism in such a context may lead to disintegration, not integration.

Kothari decries also the “paranoid concern with stability” (reinforced by the foreign policy perceptions of dominant nations), which leads to a suspicion of political participation in a semi-literate and socially fragmented society. “The hold of an amorphous theory of secularism and the concomitant concern with a movement from “communal” to “associational” organizations [i.e. from “tradition” to “modernity”] colours the analysis of caste and tribal associations.” He argues that the preoccupation with national identity as an overriding theme of political development leads to a neglect of intermediate mechanisms of containing political demand and the role of differential (including parochial) identities in political institutionalization. It is the neglect of these intermediate identities, Kothari argues, that leads to the notion of “the revolution of rising expectations,” which is meaningless outside the context of the demand-oriented polity of the West.

During this process of simultaneous institutionalization and dispersal of political opportunities, the traditional sectors are mobilized as much as the modern ones. On this question of Tradition/Modernity, he agrees broadly with the Rudolphs, who, in their influential work, The Modernity of Tradition, argued that the distinction between tradition and modernity blurs as they “infiltrate and transform each other.” The caste association representing “the adaptive response of caste to modern social, economic and political changes”, reveals the modernity of tradition. “By creating conditions in which a caste’s significance and power is beginning to depend on its numbers rather than its ritual and social status, and by encouraging egalitarian aspirations among its members, the caste association is exerting a liberating influence.” This is the converse of the argument made by Gould, discussed earlier, who saw “traditional” patterns of behaviour in “modern” institutions. Rudolph and Rudolph suggest rather, that traditional identities were transformed by modern institutions. Kothari saw their model as less dichotomous than others, which present modernization as a rejection of tradition, or conversely, tradition as resistant to modernization.

Political Science Mark II: The Fragmenting Nation

In a later incarnation, Kothari was to considerably rethink his thesis of the integrative model of Indian politics, but by that time, the project of the nation state was itself fraying at the seams. Francine Frankel, writing in 1978, could not see the “multi-systemic model” of Kothari, but rather, pointed to the “paradox of accommodative politics and radical social change”, processes which to Kothari had seemed compatible. In the mid-70s, only a small minority of the population had been incorporated into the high-productivity, high-wage industrial sector of the economy and 80 percent of the population continued to earn their livelihood directly from agriculture while only small pockets of modern agriculture could be created in the rural sector.

By this time, despite continuing invocations of “the modernity of tradition”, the Tradition/Modernity dichotomy re-established itself in the lexicon of political scientists – Frankel noted that among the poor, “traditional relationships based on religion, caste and family” overrode any sense of an Indian identity. Similarly, Robert L Hardgrave Jr was writing, in his book published just before the Emergency, that India’s diversity – “there are more than 2000 castes, or jati in India” – “has been accompanied by patterns of social and cultural fragmentation, historically rooted in and sanctioned by…Hindu tradition.” Hinduism and the concept of dharma creates “resignation, fatalism and passiveness”. Citing Gunnar Myrdal, Hardgrave argued that religion at a “higher level” may not be in conflict with the goals of modernization, but the “inertia of popular belief” remains a major obstacle to social transformation. Here however, it would be fair to note that his position is closer to that of EMS Namboodiripad, that while caste associations enabled peasants to rise in struggle against feudalism, such associations which foster community separatism must be transcended if the peasant is to be organized as a class.

Hardgrave also documented the fact that by emphasizing growth per se rather than development, India opted for production without social change – the disparities of the green revolution “underscore the tension between economic justice and a narrow production orientation.” Identifying the existing class structure of India as posing a challenge to economic growth with social justice, he quoted the CPI’s statement of 1968 (that the state in India is the instrument of the national bourgeoisie as a whole, in which the big bourgeoisie and landlords hold powerful influence) as “more accurate” than the CPI(M)’s assessment of 1973 that state power in India is shared by the landlords and industrial bourgeoisie, under the leadership of the monopoly capitalists. Fundamentally, he agreed with Baldev Raj Nayar’s opinion that political and state power have rested in the hands of the “middle sectors” – the educated and professional groups, town merchants and small businessmen in the urban areas, and the middle peasantry or kulaks in the villages.

Frankel comes to three conclusions which suggest a similar understanding:

a) Without radical agrarian reform the goals of economic, social and political development cannot be accomplished. b) The dominant land-owning castes that had benefited from commercialised farming and the wider market economy no longer felt under the obligation to meet the responsibilities of the traditional patron-client ties of the interdependent subsistence village economy. At the same time the vast numbers of marginal farmers and landless labourers were being pushed into greater dependency on the landowning castes. Under these circumstances, any attempt to bring about social change through panchayat and cooperative institutions in the villages only strengthened the power of the dominant peasant castes. c) Accommodative politics will have to be given up for a polarization of the political process by organizing the peasantry into class-based associations. Frankel argued that even conservative political elites would have to satisfy new criteria of legitimacy based on the premise of removing mass poverty within the foreseeable future, given that large numbers of the illiterate and impoverished were now active and vocal participants in the political arena.

The Emergency which suspended democracy and concentrated unlimited formal powers in the hands of the central government, was one attempt to deal with the impasse reached by the attempt to bring about growth without radical agrarian transformation. As Rajni Kothari was to write later – “The real fact is that growing popular expectations cannot be fulfilled except through basic structural changes. But the elite…uses a crude mixture of socialism, developmentalism and statism according to which the fate of the poor rests solely in the hands of the state…”

In the mid-80s, Pranab Bardhan and Sudipta Kaviraj published two important Marxian critiques of India’s political economy. These addressed the impasse reached by the Indian state’s development strategy in terms of the impossibility of bringing about a thoroughgoing bourgeois revolution without first effecting radical agrarian transformation through land reforms. Kaviraj used the Gramscian notion of “passive revolution” to explain this pattern of development. Both writers assume the relative autonomy of the Indian state from the ruling classes, for two reasons. One, as with other post-colonial societies, the Indian state at independence inherited a vast and well-developed state apparatus, that is, a civil and military bureaucracy, which had served the colonial purpose. Thus the state had the potential to be more than merely an ‘instrument of the ruling class’, a potential further enhanced by the fact that colonial policies had resulted in a comparatively weak and unstable bourgeoisie which is incapable of controlling the state apparatus on its own. It is therefore a coalition of ruling classes which controls the state, and the contradictions between the interests of fractions of the ruling classes are as crucial in determining state policy as are the contradictions between the ruling class and the ruled. Nevertheless the bourgeoisie does exercise a leadership function in this coalition because the non-capitalist sectors and types of production in the economy have been subsumed, economically and politically, under the logic of capital. The other components of the ruling class are rich farmers, the bureaucracy and the urban professional middle classes.

Another reason for the relative autonomy of the state is that since the bourgeoisie is weak and capital resources low, the state was the only agency at independence that could draw together scarce capital resources and invest these in basic infrastructural areas which need large initial investments and yield slow profits. Within the constraints posed by the dominant propertied classes therefore, it was possible for the state to act autonomously, being an important part of the economic base itself.

This explains the ‘socialistic’ pattern of development adopted by the Indian state in the three decades after independence. However, without the implementation of land reforms, which could never be effected because of the influence of landed interests in the coalition of ruling classes, the entire planning process has been a futile exercise in trying to balance short-term poverty alleviation measures with investment of resources in growth.

The Nation and its Fragments: The Collapse of Disciplinary Boundaries

Up to this point the characterisation of the post-independence state as an ally in progressive transformation, economic and social, was an inevitable hangover from the independence struggle. The rhetoric of national integrity therefore, continued to have currency, and social movements too, by and large, had an unproblematized relationship with the idea of the “nation”, so recently carved through a mass struggle encompassing different currents. By the mid-70s however, the legitimacy of the post-Independence elites had begun to erode with the economic and political crisis precipitated by the failure of development planning. There was a resurgence of militancy in every section of society. Political repression followed, and the imposition of the internal emergency by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1975, finally lifted in 1977.

This phase also marks the beginning of rethinking, both among movements and among political analysts, on the legitimacy of the national integrity argument. Critical questions were arising as to whose interests were being protected by this “integrity.” By the mid-80s various regional movements were challenging, as one observer puts it, “the inherited idea of Indian nationhood…[T]he Assam and Punjab movements had a distinct edge which was ‘anti-India’ (as distinct from the ‘anti-national’ of the officialese) – in the sense that whether or not they were explicitly secessionist, they sought to renegotiate and redraw its cultural-political boundaries.”

A significant shift was the one evident in the women’s movement’s thinking on the demand for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). A variety of positions were emerging, which basically expressed the need to turn to other agencies and initiatives than those of the state, to bring about gender justice. By the time of the Shah Bano judgement in 1985 it was becoming increasingly clear that in every way in which the nation was being constituted by dominant discourses, the powerless and the marginal were being defined out of its boundaries. Along with this, the routine invocation of “the integrity of the nation” by judicial pronouncements in cases involving Muslim personal law, in order to castigate minority communities as “anti-national”, gradually made it imperative for feminists to delink the national integrity argument from the gender justice argument. Above all, there loomed the growing presence of organised Hindu communalism in the 80s and the sharpening edge of the Babri Masjid controversy. The appropriation of the demand for UCC by these forces, which characterised the Muslim community’s resistance to the UCC as its inability to integrate into the nation, brought into crisis the hitherto unquestioned relationship of partnership between radical social movements and the nation-state.

Increasingly also, the highly questionable role of state apparatus during “communal riots” was also becoming disturbingly clear, whether in innumerable attacks on Muslims or most dramatically and incontrovertibly, during the carnage of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984.

These developments were, naturally, reflected in the discipline too. A shorthand way of characterising the shift in the discipline of political science would be to term it “From Rajni Kothari to Partha Chatterjee.” From “Politics in India” to “The Nation and its Fragments.” From nation building to understanding the collapse of that project. And at this point there is a Kothari Mark II as well, as we have mentioned earlier, and whom we will encounter more fully in this section.

Simultaneously there is another trend at work in this period. If the object of political science in India is to grasp the nature of the Indian state and to characterise the processes that circulate around the production and deployment of power in contemporary India, then we see that the most significant contributions to debates on these questions in the late 80s and early 90s do not come from political scientists. (Except for two notable exceptions – Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj.) They come from historians of the Subaltern School, such as Dipesh Chakravarty, from sociologists like TN Madan and from the maverick psychologist Ashis Nandy. And from economists like Pranab Bardhan and CT Kurien.

It is also important to note that the shifts in the understanding of politics in India do not conform to a simple Liberal/Marxist divide. The axis along which the debates fall rather, is that of the conception of the nation-state – its role and its legitimacy. Up to the 80s, whether liberal or marxist, political scientists took for granted the legitimacy of the nation-state’s pre-eminent role in setting the agenda for development and social transformation/modernization. What we see after the 80s is a dilution of that certainty.

Related to this was a particular kind of rethinking on the meaning of “secularism.” Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy were among the significant contributors of the insight that secularism in the Indian context was but one aspect of the modernizing and nation-building project of the postcolonial elite, and could not be understood simply in terms of the relationship between state and religious community. With the challenges to that project, secularism too would have to be reconceptualised.

Ashis Nandy in “An Anti-secularist manifesto” (1985) and TN Madan in “Secularism in its Place” (1987) both responded to the crisis in this vein. Madan argued that secularism as the privatization of religion cannot work in South Asia because here, society “seethes with…vibrant religiosity.” Secularism remains therefore the dream of a minority that cannot shape society, because in a democratic polity the state will reflect the character of society. Communalism and fundamentalism are produced, he argued, not by religions, but by the marginalization of religious faith. In other words, it is secularism that is responsible for these phenomena and what secularism means in effect, is the enhancing of the power of the state to make it the arbiter among communities and their protector. Madan essentialises “religion” and “belief” considerably, but his argument is significant for being among the first in the 80s to grapple with the diminished legitimacy of the nation-state to define progressive change and to assume for itself the responsibility to bring this about.

It was Nandy’s provocatively titled piece that had fired the first salvo. He is “anti-secularist” because secularism is the ideology of the modern state, which, having rejected and nearly defeated religion as false consciousness, has set up its own “priestly classes like the scientists, the bureaucrats and the development experts” who expect the same blind obedience that religion once did. It is equipping itself with the technological means to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, like God itself. In the North, said Nandy, this is called scientific advancement, in the South, development. Nandy argued that communalism in India was produced by modern state techniques of governance, which deliberately marginalize “religion-as-faith” which is “definitionally non-monolithic and operationally plural.” The modern state permits space in the public arena only for “religion-as-ideology”, through which “those loyal to the modern idea of the nation-state…try to hitch ethnicity to the state…They try to create a social basis for secularism by linking it to the reward system of the state.” Communalism in this understanding, is the instrumental use of religious identity, by elites similarly intolerant of the eclecticism of lived religion, to control state power. By excluding religion from public life, secularism facilitates its takeover by science, and as we have seen, Nandy is sharply critical of the globally hegemonizing partnership of science and the state.

His project, that of building a more tolerant society, involves defying “the imperialism of categories” which allows the concept of secularism, inextricably linked to the state, to hegemonise the idea of tolerance. As he put it, the condition of the Indian state is such today that to expect the religious traditions to abide by the values derived from it is ridiculous. Few would believe that any religious tradition has any moral lesson to learn from the Indian state, or expect it to be an impartial arbiter between religious communities. The need is to recover the resources within religious practices which make it possible to live with “fluid definitions of the self,” an idea inimical to modern state practices which require the straitjacket of the identity of citizen.

The implied claim in Nandy that the pre-colonial communitarian space was more tolerant and that the modern public sphere introduced authoritarian impulses is problematic, as I have argued in an earlier paper. The “fluid” notions of the self in precolonial South Asian cultures may have provided protection from the alienation and objectification produced by modern rules of governance, but this fluidity did not extend to the possibility of renegotiating traditionally ascribed, even if multiple, positions within overlapping communities. This circumscription ensured the exclusion of lower castes, women and other stigmatised groups from socially valued cultural and economic resources. However, the point of Nandy’s critique that is valuable is the recognition that the sphere of secular citizenship is not inherently emancipatory either. His critique calls into question the pre-eminent role assumed by the modern nation-state in setting, defining and activating what will be “the national agenda”, and what will be acceptable values in the public sphere.

While Madan and Nandy engage with the crisis of the 80s through a critique of modernity, Rajni Kothari’s rethinking on the project of nation-building is explicitly not anti-modernist. However, he is concerned that the richness and diversity of our societies is under threat from “the new juggernaut that is taking place in the name of modernity.” This is a process that is taking away from the people their capacity to intervene in the political arena – this is “an approach to modernity that will leave no ground for creative interventions.” It is a kind of development driven by the needs of global capital, which is destroying the resource base of the country, its sustainability as well as people’s access to it. For Kothari, the crises of “ecocide, ethnocide, and militarization” are inevitable outcomes of processes unleashed by the three dominant projects of the state – Development, Secularism and Security. “The three projects are interrelated because the development project based on narrow principles of economism is centralising and homogenising and secularising.”

It seems to Kothari that the modern state has still an alien character in India. It was being indigenized through the national movement and later, the Congress Party, but this process has been disrupted. “Ironically,” Kothari writes, “the main source of this disruption has been the modern westernised and urbanised elite keen on building a strong Indian state.” This elite has a homogenising vision of “not a humane but a hegemonic state, not relevant but latest technology, not a liberating but a libertarian ethic of consumption, culture and communications.” The basic crisis facing India is “institutional erosion in the face of massive change.” The distinctively Indian model of nation-building, which Kothari Mark I had labelled the Congress System, had been identified as the ability to build a centre that would integrate the peripheries, building a plurality of centres in the process. This system had rigidified, he argues, by the late 60s. Distributive justice was not built into the nation-building design and the development model. The state apparatus became increasingly centralised and correspondingly more indifferent, even hostile to the people. This growing recognition is leading to the rise of a new political process, grassroots movements that aim less at seizing state power and more at “managing things at manageable levels.” If the state continues to adopt repressive attitudes towards such initiatives, Kothari sees no option for them but to move out of the existing democratic political framework.

Global capital and the Nation State

From the point of view of the economists, the developments of the 80s have considerably reduced the relevance and scope of operation of the nation-state. CT Kurien establishes that in 1980 the beginning of the directional change in domestic industrial policy was made in India. The theory behind the first three decades of planning had been that redistribution of incomes and property was necessary to create a market for goods and services. Since 1980 however, the rationale is that development can be achieved on a limited market. A small enclave was to be created, with enhanced purchasing power, and in addition the international market was to be opened up for Indian industry through incentives for export promotion.

Bardhan, in the epilogue of 1998 to his 1984 book cited earlier, argues that the lack of serious opposition to reforms should not be understood as proving a lack of substantive reforms. Rather, he points out that over a period there have been large-scale reforms on a piecemeal basis, which has had the effect of diffusing resistance. One important trend he identifies in this process is “diffusion of resistance through regional fragmentation.” That is, as power has shifted more to the regions, (not just to regional parties but through increased autonomy of regional wings of national parties), some regional governments, backed by regional capital, have permitted the breach or non-implementation of existing rules restricting capital vis-à-vis labour. These Bardhan calls “reform by default.” Another trend is “reform by stealth”, whereby labour laws protecting job security and automatic promotion are being increasingly circumvented by voluntary retirement schemes, use of contract or casual labour and by sub-contracting to backward areas and to the unorganized sector, where existing laws can be ignored. The net effect of these processes is the retreat of the state from large areas of the economy.

However, Bardhan points to a “major disjuncture between politics and economics”. That is, while the economic sphere is becoming increasingly market-friendly, the developments in the political field over the last two decades or so have been “essentially anti-market.” With the coming to political power of the backward and lower castes and the diminishing hold of elite control, there has been, he argues, “a steady erosion of the institutional insulation of the decision-making process in public administration and economic management.” The “propagation of group equity and caste rights…amount to a drowning of considerations of efficiency in the name of inter-group equity.” Bardhan offers the “interesting” if “cynical” hypothesis that the retreat of the state is in fact more acceptable to the upper castes and classes because they are losing their control over state power in any case, and therefore seek greener pastures in the private sector and abroad.

Nevertheless, despite his recognition of the splintering of the nation-state’s agenda, Bardhan takes issue with those he terms “anarcho-communitarians” – Partha Chatterjee, Ashis Nandy, the later Rajni Kothari and Ranajit Guha – who question “the agenda-setting presuppositions and legitimizing myths of state-directed development led by a ‘rational’, ‘modern’ elite.” Bardhan suggests that on the contrary, the rising tempo of ethnic and communal conflict could have to do with, not the diminishing of the modernist vision, but rather, the inadequate hold of this vision. The answer, his analysis suggests, lies in refurbishing the modernist project of the nation-state, ensuring that it is better administered. He urges that we not lose sight of the crucial role that a supra-local authority plays in conflicts between subaltern and local communities. Parochial and traditional communities look to the modernizing, Westernized elite as protector and arbiter against other parochial communities, he says, citing “anti-Brahmin cultural solidarities” in the South.

While agreeing with these critics that decentralised development is in principle a good thing, he points out that the highly complex structures of production and exchange require the state inevitably to take a central role. Local communities are marked by inequality of access to resources and power, and in addition, are not capable of seeing the larger picture, since they would naturally prioritize their local concerns. This can have disastrous consequences for the environment. Autonomous local development can in addition lead to regional inequality; a weak centre may work to the advantage of more powerful regions. And finally, given the powerful interests of multinational capital at work, a strong nation-state is an absolute necessity for countries of the global South.

In Bardhan’s defence of a strong state, it is interesting to note the possible outcomes, as he outlines them, of the retreat of the state. The alert reader would note that the very phenomena that critics attribute to the success of the logic of the Indian nation-state are those which Bardhan presents as the eventualities that a strong centre can mitigate. In other words, ecologically unsustainable development, regional inequalities, and the growing control of the economy by global capital – these are not trends that have emerged despite the nation-building project of Indian elites, but precisely are what “anarcho-communitarians” point to as the result of that project.

“The Indian Communitarians”

Bardhan’s critique of the “communitarians” locates the tension in their work in the positing of community against state. He also seems to recognize, as is evident from the discussion above, that “community” in their work refers to solidarities that are not necessarily “traditional.”

In this respect, his is probably the only critique that escapes the mould into which other critiques have tended to fall. Broadly, there are two types – those that tend to take “communitarianism” in India to be set against liberal individualism and those that recognize it to be posited against the state. (While the liberal individualist position presupposes the state as the guarantor of individual rights, the second critique of communitarianism is directed more specifically at the attack of the communitarians on the agenda-setting legitimacy of the state.) Both understand the alternative being suggested to be some sort of “authentic tradition.” Historian Sumit Sarkar noted in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid that the valorization of the authentic indigenous by Nandy and others opens up common ground between Hindutva and its anti-secular critics. Sarkar labels this as a “traditionalistic critique, “situated in the past rather than in the present.” A more recent argument is that of Sarah Joseph, who uses the term “Indian communitarians” to refer to the work of Nandy, Chatterjee, Kaviraj and Madan. Joseph sees their work as mounting a strong critique of what they consider to have been the dangerous consequences of “trying to understand Indian society and politics through the lens of alien and individualist categories…The revival and strengthening of community has been put forward as a way of coping with the increasing alienation and violence of social life in India, and as a way of bringing us back into relationship with our cultural traditions.”

I think that the kind of understanding discussed above, of the work that emerged in the 80s as a response to the diminishing legitimacy of the project of nation-building, misses two very crucial, inter-related points. First, that the “indigenism” prioritized in this body of work cannot be simply taken to be traditionalism, and second, that the work is predicated on the problematization of the very process by which the categories of tradition/modernity have been produced. (Although there are important differences in the arguments of Nandy, Chatterjee, Kaviraj and Madan, I will here take them as one body of work, as do their critics.) In other words, the plea for “community” vis-à-vis the state does not imply going back to some assumed traditions, but rather, must be read as part of a larger body of scholarship that raises questions about the process of the formation and concretization of community identities as we encounter them today.

Dipesh Chakravarty and Sudipta Kaviraj have explored the construction of “community” boundaries through the modern practices of the colonial state. The colonial state used techniques of measurement – surveys, censuses –to carry out its task of governing India more effectively. Although pre-modern government too used statistics of produce, land and revenue, Chakravarty argues that it was not systematic or regularly updated in the way it was with modern government. This systematic, regular process of census-taking which the colonial government introduced, led to the hardening of community boundaries and the fixing of religious and caste identities. The “fuzzy” boundaries of pre-British times became, through enumeration, distinct and discrete. Further, the logic of modern electoral democracy, the fight for numbers, operating at every stage of the nationalist movement, meant that “communities” had a vested interest in enumerating and clarifying their boundaries. The “religious communities” being identified as “traditional”, in other words, were created over a period of less than a hundred years, over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Some recent historical work could be read in a similar way, as suggesting that the functioning of colonial jurisprudence erased ambiguity and multiplicity in existing forms of jurisprudence, transforming indigenous notions of justice and honour, and bringing them in line with the requirements of modern legal discourse. In the process, “custom” was created, codified and protected as “tradition.” The participation of indigenous elites in this process, of course, was crucial. The colonial state was the bearer of modernity and modern values, which, while empowering many subaltern sections against indigenous elites, was not unambiguously emancipatory for all. Many subaltern sections – sansiahs, nayar women, female mill workers in Bombay – as the essays in the collection cited above show, were drastically marginalised and disciplined by the operation of modern codes of identity and governance. By reading such historical work in this way, I would point to the casting of the present as the product of certain historical processes, thus enabling the questioning of seemingly fixed and given boundaries and opening up the possibility of their renegotiation through political practice.

Thus for Nandy, as we saw in an earlier section, traditional community structures have more effective civilisational resources to resolve conflicts and tolerate difference than the modern state, but the “community” he sees is already a construct of modern governmental practices. If there is a “going back,” it is in order to access those resources, that style, to deal effectively with current dilemmas and conflicts, to evolve ways of living together in the present, not to recreate an assumed past. That past is lost.

I suggest that what is understood as “indigenism” in the work of the Indian communitarians is better understood as a recalling to memory of the manner of entry of modernity into our societies. On the one hand there was the despotic colonial state strategically making adjustments at various levels with different sections of the subject population, and on the other, there were the differing investments these sections had in the modern norms and institutions brought in by colonialism. The fact that this encounter with modernity occurs through a political system that was at its core, violent, distinguishes “our” modernity (to use Partha Chatterjee’s evocative phrase) from modernity as it emerged in Europe. The dislocation caused by modernity in Europe four centuries ago was equally brutal, but in Asia and Africa there was a double violence involved – the simultaneous disruption caused by modernity and colonialism.

The move from the early theorising of Indian politics to this point is quite sharp. Contesting the reading of modernization theorists, Rajni Kothari in Politics in India was concerned with demonstrating that India was not unique, not different from the West. Discussing a feature peculiar to India – that democracy here preceded industrialization and rapid social change, unlike in Europe, where democratic compulsions did not hinder rapid capitalist transformation – Kothari argues that this is not a problem in any way, as modernisation theorists suggest. Rather, it enhances the true spirit of democracy. Development here was based on reconciling common good with self-interest, through a process of drawing new sections of society constantly into the arena of power. He compares India to its advantage both to Europe as well as to revolutionary experiments in which political competition was barred from the process of development – while in India “politics provides the larger setting within which decision-making in regard to economic development and social change takes place.” The understanding of the Tradition/Modernity split here is that India should not be seen as having not modernised yet. Rather, we are simply extending the true spirit of modernity.

For later theorists, there is a difference. “Our” modernity is qualitatively different precisely because of the mode of its entry into our societies. Sudipta Kaviraj, for instance, sees in the same phenomenon – of mass democracy preceding industrialisation unlike in the West – the possibility that the simultaneity of these processes could mean that “the logic of one could seriously affect, hinder or alter” the logic of the other.

The task of the non-Western political theorist, according to Chatterjee, is “to find an adequate conceptual language to describe the non-Western career of the modern state not as a distortion or lack, which is what inevitably happens in a modernisation narrative, but as the history of different modernities shaped by practices and institutions that the universalist claims of Western political theory have failed to encompass.” Chatterjee’s “community” is composed of “concrete selves necessarily acting within multiple networks of collective obligations and solidarities to work out strategies of coping with, resisting or using to their advantage the vast array of technologies of power deployed by the modern state.” The instance he uses to work out this definition is the study of a group of squatters, poor migrants living close to a railway track in Calcutta, on land belonging to the state-owned railways. Chatterjee here makes a distinction between civil society and political society, which is central to understanding the ramifications of “our” modernity. The struggle of the squatters not to be evicted from government land is not conducted on the site of a “civil society of citizens” dealing with a state in whose sovereignty they participate. They are located, rather, in “political society” where they negotiate claims and benefits with governmental agencies for whom they represent obligations based on calculations of political efficacy. They have to use strategies that build links outside the community, both with other such groups as well as with more powerful sections with which they engage in social and economic exchanges (such as employers and middle-class neighbours).

The distinction made above between civil society and political society is key to reconceptualising democratic politics today. “Civil society” according to Chatterjee is constituted by the institutions of modern associational life, while “political society” is a domain of mediating institutions between civil society and state. The mark of non-western modernity is the hiatus between civil society, composed of a small section of “citizens”, and political society, composed of “population.” Population groups, unlike citizens, are not the product of rational contractual association, but rather, are the target of the “policy” of the legal bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The civil society of citizens, shaped by the normative ideals of western modernity, excludes the vast mass of the population, towards which it assumes a “pedagogical mission” of enlightenment.

In order to understand the principles that govern political society, we must begin with the relationship of the “development state” to population, which it attempts to regulate through the governmental form of “welfare.” Political society – parties, movements, non-party political formations – channelises popular demands on the state through a form of mobilisation we call democracy. “The point is that that the practices that activate the forms and methods of mobilisation and participation in political society are not always consistent with the principles of association in civil society.” Democratic aspirations in other words, often violate institutional norms of liberal civil society.

In the context of the latest phase of globalisation of capital, a transnational public sphere has emerged whose moral claims proceed from the assumption of the existence of a universal civil society. Chatterjee includes in this domain “many United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, peace-keeping missions, human rights groups, women’s organizations.” These act as an external check on the sovereign powers of the nation-state, “assessing the incomplete modernity of particular national political formations.” This framework of global modernity can only structure the world in “a pattern that is profoundly colonial.” The framework of democracy on the other hand, will “pronounce modernity itself as inappropriate and deeply flawed.” However, the domain of political society cannot be understood as “traditional” as opposed to the “modernity” of civil society. Rather, the argument here consistently is that what we are dealing with is different forms of modernity.


For over a decade now, the boundaries of the discipline have been opening up with the theoretical challenges posed to the centrality and legitimacy of the state and nation. On the one hand, practitioners of the discipline have recast their theoretical understanding in the face of political developments over the 1980s, and on the other, the very shift in focus away from the state is also an attempt to reshape the political terrain. Further, it looks like we can finally start to think seriously about the much used term “multidisciplinary approach”. What are the implications for any discipline if its boundaries are breached by a serious multidisciplinary intervention? How can we engage with methods and insights generated by other disciplines without losing the training of our own? And finally, today in the 21st century, when the exalted status claimed by “science” has been sufficiently challenged for over five decades by philosophers of science, isn’t it time we dropped the tag of “science” from the nomenclature of this discipline?


Introduction to Political Theory and Institutions, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi 1989, Block 1, P7.

Op cit P 17

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Politics of the World Economy The States, the Movements and the Civilizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1984 (See Ch 17)

Agnes Heller, “The Concept of the Political Revisited” in Political Theory Today ed. David Held Oxford: Blackwell, Polity Press, 1991

See Sarah Joseph, Political theory and Power Second Edition New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2004

David Held Political theory and the Modern State Stanford University Press 1990

Immanuel Wallerstein, op cit

WH Morris-Jones The Government and Politics of India BI Publications, New Delhi 1984. First edition 1964, revised (third) edition 1971.

Op cit P 39

op cit P 43


op cit P 64

op cit P 66

op cit Pp 69- 70

op cit Pp 246-50

Rajni Kothari Politics in India Orient Longman, Delhi 1986 (first published by Little Brown and Co., 1970) P 114 n 20.

Op cit P 17

op cit p 4

op cit Pp 15-7

op cit P 6

Lloyd I. and Susanne H. Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition, Chicago, Chicago University press, 1967, P3. Quoted by Robert L Hardgrave Jr in India. Government and Politics in a Developing Nation Freeman Book Co., Delhi 1979, P 111

Lloyd I. and Susanne H. Rudolph, “The political role of India’s caste associations” Pacific Affairs Vol 33, March 1960 pp 5-6. Quoted by Robert L Hardgrave Jr, op cit P 114

Rajni Kothari, op cit P 86

Francine R Frankel, India’s Political Economy 1947-1977. The Gradual Revolution OUP Delhi 1978 P 3 (Emphasis added)


Francine Frankel op cit P xii

Robert L Hardgrave Jr, India. Government and Politics in a Developing Nation Freeman Book Co., Delhi 1979, (First Indian edition ) Pp 6-9

op cit P 115

op cit P 79.

Op cit P 137

Francine Frankel op cit pp 548-50

Rajni Kothari, State Against Democracy. In Search of Humane Governance Ajanta Publications, Delhi 1990, p 257.

Pranab Bardhan , The Political Economy of Development in India, OUP Delhi 1985 (First published by Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1984); Sudipta Kaviraj, “A critique of the Passive Revolution”, EPW 1988 Annual number.

Aditya Nigam “Antinomies of secularism” (Review of Secularism and its Critics ed. Rajeev Bhargava, OUP Delhi 1998) Summerhill

See also Pranab Bardhan, who makes a similar argument about the social sciences in “The State Against Society. The Great Divide in Indian Social Science Discourse” in Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal eds., Nationalism, Democracy and Development. State and Politics in India OUP Delhi 1997.

In the 1990s there has emerged a rich body of work on democracy, secularism, development, civil society and electoral politics by a number of political scientists. I should clarify here that in this essay I cannot possibly engage with everything written on contemporary India. As I specified at the beginning of the essay I focus on a particular strand of work in order to highlight one particular shift in the understanding of the nation-state that I consider to be significant in the study of Indian politics.

Ashis Nandy, “An Anti-secularist manifesto”, Seminar 1985, Vol 314 pp 1-11; TN Madan “Secularism in its Place”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 46 No. 4 1987 pp 747-59

TN Madan op cit., republished in Secularism and its Critics ed. Rajeev Bhargava, OUP Delhi 1998 pp 297-315

See also Rajeev Bhargava’s discussion of Nandy in Secularism and its critics op cit P

Ashis Nandy, op cit. Also see Nandy, “The politics of secularism and the recovery of religious toleration” in Rajeev Bhargava ed. Secularism and its Critics op cit. Pp 321-344

Nivedita Menon, “State/Gender/Community. Citizenship in Contemporary India” EPW January 31 1998, P PE-4.

Rajni Kothari, State Against Democracy op cit P 230


op cit Pp 2-3

op cit P 96

op cit Pp 32-33

op cit P 95

CT Kurien Global Capitalism and the Indian Economy Orient Longman, New Delhi 1994

Pranab Bardhan op cit, Epilogue in 1998 edition, P125.

Op cit P 126

op cit pp 132-4

op cit pp 134-5

Pranab Bardhan, “The State Against Society. The Great Divide in Indian Social Science Discourse” in Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal eds., Nationalism, Democracy and Development. State and Politics in India OUP Delhi 1997 P 184.

Op cit. P 191

Op cit. P 194

Op cit. Pp 192-4.

Term used by Sarah Joseph, Interrogating Culture. Critical Perspective on Contemporary Social theory Sage, Delhi 1998. P 152

For example, Sarah Joseph op cit. Gurpreet Mahajan too, thinks “community centred perspectives” associate liberalism with individualism, although she argues this is a mistaken understanding of liberalism. Identities and Rights. Aspects of liberal democracy in India OUP Delhi 1998. P 26

Sumit Sarkar “The Anti-secularist Critique of hindutva: problems of a shared discursive space” in germinal vol 1 1994.

Op cit. P 102

Op cit. P 104

Sarah Joseph op cit. P 152. Emphasis added.

Dipesh Chakravarty, “Modernity and Ethnicity in India. A History for the present” in EPW December 30 1995; Sudipta Kaviraj, “The Imaginary Institution of India” in Subaltern Studies VII ed. Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey, OUP Delhi 1992.

Kaviraj, op cit.

See essays by Sumit Guha, Radhika Singha, G Arunima, Sandria Freitag and Radha Kumar in Changing Concepts of Rights and Justice in South Asia ed. Michael Anderson and Sumit Guha , OUP Delhi 1998

From the title of Chapter 11 of A Possible India. Essays in Political Criticism OUP Delhi 1997.

Politics in India op cit. P 9

“Dilemmas of Democratic Development in India” in Democracy and Development ed. Adrian Leftwich, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996 P 132.

Partha Chatterjee, “Community in the East”, EPW February 7 1998 P 279.

Op cit. P 282

Asok Sen, “Life and Labour in a squatters’ colony”, Occasional paper 138, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, October 1992. Discussed in Chatterjee op cit. P 281.

The following discussion is based on “Beyond the Nation? Or Within?” EPW January 4-11 1997 Pp 30-34, where Chatterjee initially worked out this distinction more fully.

If we accept this understanding, then it is clear that the struggle to reclaim and produce meaning will have to be waged in this uncomfortable realm, that of political society. I have explored the consequences of this understanding for a radical political practice in my book Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (Permanent Black, Delhi and University of Illinois Press, 2004). In reading “political society” in this way, I unhitch Chatterjee’s notion of “political society” from its link in his argument to the “welfare” function of government, and relocate it as the realm of struggles to produce an alternative common sense – alternative that is, to the common sense of civil society. It seems to me that the kind of political practice with the capacity to challenge the hegemonised will – radical politics in short – can be carried out only in political society understood in this sense, not in civil society, the domain of constitutionalism.

  1. sordidday says:

    Reblogged this on sordidday.

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