Economic development is a primary means by which the Indian democratic project has legitimated itself. Given an electorate of mostly poor people, no government has been elected without making development — the uplift of the downtrodden through service provision, the creation of individual freedom, and collective opportunity inherent in economic transformation — its primary objective. Unlike archetypal developmental states such as the Republic of Korea, the Indian state after Independence had to accomplish its mandate of development in the context of a diverse and fissiparous democracy that had endured centuries of British colonial domination and the expropriation of its wealth.
This historical context, and the bureaucratic and political processes surrounding the delivery of development outcomes have generated growth but also created significant structural inequities that have taken different forms across India’s post-Independence history. The inequity associated with the actions of the developmental state, the corruption, and moral outrage that constitute the state’s broken promises to the people has been the driver of waves of political conflict in the Indian polity since Independence. The moral failings of different phases within the trajectory of India’s developmental state have inspired collective challenges to the establishment throughout its history.
Critiques of underdevelopment and the promises of development were at the heart of the nationalist movement against colonial rule. For early nationalist thinkers, the idea of India itself was suffused with a claim that it was one economy and one nation, suppressed in the fulfilment of its destiny by an imperial apparatus that sought to keep it divided, while draining its wealth and sending it overseas. The Congress party, when taking the reins of power, legitimated its rule primarily through a solemn promise that it would redress structures of political, economic, and social inequality by deploying the state to implement far-reaching programmes of development. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his famous “Tryst with Destiny” address, pledged the service of a sovereign government to “the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity”.
There was a disconnect
There was, however, a profound disconnect between the promises and actions of the developmental state in the first quarter-century after Independence. The Planning Commission, chaired by Nehru, drew up ambitious plans for development that entailed significant public and private investment in industry and the encouragement of cooperatives to transform agriculture. For poor peasants and aspirant workers, the solemn promises of development and the dismantling of inequality rang hollow. Structures of domination and pervasive social inequality reigned in practice as the conservative colonial-era bureaucracy and politicians, business elites, and dominant landowners benefitted the most from this developmental state. The abject failures of community development programmes, and sclerotic economic growth led to the political turmoil of the mid-to-late 1960s.
Indira Gandhi changed the nature of the developmental state. She effected a populist resurgence from within the Congress to address the gap between lofty promises of the state and degraded reality. Her appeal, which ended up splitting the party and transforming the nature of party competition, did deliver an overwhelming electoral mandate to her Congress. Indira Gandhi’s slogan ‘Garibi hatao (eliminate poverty)’ and the subsequent 20-point programme conceived of the direct intervention by an empowered and enlarged state. The politicised state apparatus was now to address social inequalities through land reform, enforcement of the minimum wage, nationalisation of key industries, and extension of agricultural credit, among many other policies.
Controlling state resources
A main legacy of Indira Gandhi’s left-populism was that the state presented itself as the antidote to social and economic inequalities. The developmental state now looked different. The state apparatus was engorged, from the national to the State and local levels. Multiple public sector companies emerged at all levels of the economy, from the Centre to the States. Financial institutions — banking and insurance — were now in the hands of state apparatchiks. This system fostered corruption, rent-seeking and the capture of the institutions and resources of the state for the benefit of influential clients.
The increased demand for public resources to satisfy an ever-growing number of clients proved financially unsustainable. The economy underwent several rounds of liberalisation that dismantled some elements of state-directed development in the 1980s, but the basic pattern remained the same. The developmental state was now a state whose resources were allocated by and through political compulsions. And as political fragmentation grew, the pressure to control the remaining state resources for political gain expanded.
The storied liberalisation of 1991 renewed promises of dismantling inequality. Liberalisation offered a new idiom of increased opportunity. When combined with political fragmentation, neoliberal reform yielded crony capitalism, ineffective service delivery, and distrust of the system. Self-help and rights-based discourse now emerged as part of a new language of development. The United Progressive Alliance government expanded welfare-based rights, such as the Right to Education and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But the ambitiousness of these centrally-planned schemes achieved only middling outcomes on the ground, as petty bureaucrats and local rent-seekers influenced their implementation for their ends, thus failing to build a political constituency among the poor around them. The middle classes protested this new developmental state which had created a state-facing inequality, where being “known to” the state and the politicians controlling it increasingly determined life chances and the economic prospects for India’s striving citizens.
Change in 2014
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi won a parliamentary majority by promising to restore opportunity and clean up politics. His main slogan was, ‘together, development for everybody.’ He attacked the Congress leadership for its corruption, projecting himself as a humble “chaiwallah” and servant of the people. While Hindu nationalist themes were never far from the surface and have become dominant in the BJP’s discourse since the 2019 elections, the right-wing populist moment of the 2014 election brought together a broad and unlikely coalition of upper-middle-class professionals and lower-middle-class strivers. These groups were promised the end of inequality of opportunity, which had come to characterise many citizens’ interactions with the state in India’s “known-to” democracy. While Mr. Modi’s treatment of what ails the Indian body-politic has been tremendously polarising, and his own government has been wanting in delivering economic growth, his politics — echoing that of regional populists in India, from N.T. Rama Rao to Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee — tapped into a mood of widespread discontent toward the state’s development project.
Since 1991, the Indian state is no longer in the business of keeping the solemn promises of dismantling inequalities. The state now focuses on growth and passing handouts to voters — a policy honed to perfection in Tamil Nadu by the various iterations of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
A developmental ideology is inextricably associated with democratic politics in independent India. The nation’s founders made solemn promises to deliver the people from inequity and subjugation — the real meaning of development for democratic India. These ideas have been honoured more in the breach than in observance. Nehru’s developmental state could not redress inequalities and failed to grow the economy quickly enough. Indira Gandhi’s policies placed the state at the centre of political life. The state was the agent of growth, yet, despite the rhetoric, addressing social and economic inequalities took a back seat. Even while speaking in lofty tones about development, the current regime does not emphasise the state as central to changing social norms and addressing income inequalities.
All politicians in India promise development as a part of democratic deliverance. Yet, the state apparatus and the political factions that control it reproduce inequality. From time to time, populist leaders shine a light on these hypocrisies. Their electoral mobilisations dramatically transform Indian politics without changing the state’s ability to deliver on political promises. This highlights the idea that development is the most powerful idiom of Indian democracy, an ideal on which ordinary people across social stations hold governments to account. Development, in other words, is as much a moral commitment as a technocratic undertaking. Development is inextricably linked with the meaning of Indian democracy.
Adnan Naseemullah and Pradeep Chhibber teach at Kings College, London and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively