The modernisation of India: “A gradual revolution”?

At first this would appear to be an oxymoron, because a revolution implies an extreme compression of historical time, with deep societal changes realised by force. However India is an example of a less abrupt model of change in which society advances, but step by step; the social structure of society and its main institutions transform gradually. The modernisation of India (or its “Reform”, with a capital letter, as L.I. Reissner termed the process) has, in my view, four fundamentally important aspects.
1. There is a correlation between the beginnings of authoritarianism and democracy in the process of society’s transformation. Here it’s worth remembering the concept put forward by N.A Simonia in the 80s of “authoritarian parliamentarianism”, which also extended to political systems such as India’s. I think we now need to review our understanding of this idea.

The gradualness of the West’s development gives us an idea of the initial stages of democracy in Western European culture; whilst the East, which was modernised according to an enforced time-plan and in a closed political context, was known to be “unliberal” (i.e. undemocratic). At the same time, which I roughly calculate as around 1947 (and perhaps this is too late a date), contemporary political socialisation only affected a quarter of the country’s adult population, i.e. they were not prepared for participation in mass politics.

It is also worth taking into account that the Principalities, which were integrated into the state structure, rarely adhered to democratic values because of their cultural backwardness.

In this way the most organised groups in terms of social development had the opportunity to manipulate the lower classes of society through political activism: through the intracaste hierarchical organisation (in the villages), or also by means of luring the higher levels of the lower classes into the elite, i.e. the “lower” strata of the traditional society which was organised hierarchically. In this case the term “authoritarian parliamentarianism” seems wholly correct, especially for the initial stage of India’s political development. However, for an evaluation of the qualitative situation of India’s (“open”) political system the regular sequence of development is significant.

2. The main stages in the evolution of the political system. After independence, stimulated by both the logic of the open political process and the modernising influence of the government itself on society, the mechanisms of political socialisation gradually subjected the whole of Indian society to the laws of its development.

This process happened in three stages.

1) In the second half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s the owners of medium and small businesses (mainly representatives the middle castes) became more involved in the political process. This significantly complicated a social compromise between the different classes of society and meant that the country’s ruling circles had to constantly amend their approach. For these reasons this period was characterised by political instability, and a consequence of this was the extreme position India found itself in at the end of June in 1975.

2) The second half of the 80s was marked by the beginnings of political self assertion (through both national and regional parties) of the wider populace of Indian society. The essence of this period was the search for an optimal socio-economic strategy, the aims of which were to combine the imperative of development with the interests of the “awakening” mass population. Therefore this period of socio-economic experimentation saw frequent changes of government in Delhi. These aims were apparently summarised in the economic reforms of 1991 (the “Manmohan Singh reforms”).

3) The beginning of the 21st century saw the political awakening of “the rest of the population”, i.e. India’s least socially and intellectually developed classes (including Indian Muslims, “untouchables”, representatives of “tribes” etc): The parliamentary elections of 2004 and 2009 distinctly reflected this process in the unpredictability of their results, the huge variety of political unions and in the course of the evolution of India’s party system etc.

3. The present condition of India’s political system is ultimately defined by the fundamental contradiction between dynamic economic growth on the one hand (which has been only partially effected by the current global crisis), and the necessity of integrating the multimillion strong mass of the population on the other (i.e. the classes who were politicised as part of the development process). In simple terms the goal is to provide not only high rates of economic growth, but also to maximise employment and to distribute national revenue as evenly as possible (“growth with equity”, as the Indian economists say). Ultimately the fate of India’s modernisation and the country’s future political system depend on the solution of this problem.

4. The role of the “subjective factor” in the process of modernisation. It is interesting to compare the style of political leadership of three of the country’s Prime Ministers – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. The unifying factor of their approach to Indian society was the imperative of development based on the three main principals mentioned above; whereas the differences of their political “hallmark” were manifested in their treatment of problems and the quality of their solutions.

The main obstacle – Nehru’s aim was to prevent socio-economic polarisation in society and to make the processes of political democratisation irreversible. To achieve these aims India’s political elite consciously started to “freeze” economic growth (for which Nehru was criticised by various economists – especially market economists). Therefore he chose the strategy of “managed” development. In retrospect we can confidently claim this was the only possible political decision which saved India from political catastrophes such as those in Iran at the end of the 1970s.

Indira Gandhi’s government’s “Socialist” measures (in particular the nationalisation of 14 of the biggest private banks in 1969) were particularly geared toward practical goals. More than anything, (through the institutionalised economic support from the state), they aimed to include the lower and medium enterprise groups into the political system, i.e. the most extensive sector of the emerging bourgeois class. In spite of the extremity of the situation, greater political flexibility, as well as greater predictability and stability for Indian society were achieved as a result of these measures.

Singh and his colleagues are solving problems which, although fundamentally different, are no less complicated. In my view there are three main tasks: 1) the acceleration of economic growth into double figures (10-11% in the annual calculation), especially under the influence of the “Chinese factor”, (dynamic economic growth in view of “geopolitical expansion”); 2) Consolidation on a new political and economic basis (strengthening the horizontal links between states and allied territories) and thereby promoting the unity and territorial integrity of India (i.e. continuing the reforms of 1991); 3) Encouraging the lower strata of “traditional” Indian society, (i.e. the “untouchables”, Muslims, representatives of “tribes”, etc), to integrate into the economic and political systems. The government understands very well that the “modernisation project” of India directly depends on a successful solution of this three-sided problem.

The Indian experience of modernisation is unique in so far as it reflects a multicultural and poly-confessional society aiming to transform the current system whilst adhering to the necessity of preserving the systems of political government and ensuring the participation of all social classes in the creation of contemporary India.

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