Aditya Balasubramanian on Swatantra Party and Opposition Politics in India

Shruti and Aditya Balasubramanian discuss the history of a principled and conservative opposition politics in India.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. 

Today my guest Aditya Balasubramanian is a Senior Lecturer in History at Australian National University. His research focuses on various aspects of the history of modern South Asia. And he is the author of the new book, Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India. We spoke about the history of a conservative and ideological opposition politics of India, influence of BR Shenoy and more generally the Austrian economists on Swatratra party, about C Rajagopalachari, other members, and much more. 

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit 

Aditya, thank you so much for doing this. This is such a pleasure. Welcome to the show. 

ADITYA BALASUBRAMANIAN: Well, no, the pleasure is all mine, Shruti. It’s so nice to be able to be a part of the Ideas of India Podcast, which I’ve enjoyed listening to. It’s a great opportunity to talk about the book. Thank you.

Free Markets and Pluralism 

RAJAGOPALAN: The book actually surprised me. When I started reading it, I thought it’s a history of economic thought since 1950 until the emergency, or something like that. That was my prior, but the book is actually more, I think, a political history of India at the time. What you do is quite interesting. You subvert the genre. It’s not through the lens of the victor, but through the lens of opposition politics.

It plays out through a critique of centralization and planning, the way it is conducted by the ruling party. And maybe I’m dral wing too much of a parallel to present day, the big themes that for me emerged from the book was that, one, even a conservative opposition can be ideological, and it can be principled, which is missing oftentimes in modern-day politics.

The second is that opposition efforts at   building a wider coalition against centralization is not a new thing. It’s inherent in Indian polity. We’re just seeing the newest iteration of it in modern-day politics, and you’ve presented something from the past. 

The third important theme is that Indian conservatives also believe quite strongly in pluralism and minority rights, and constitutional protections, right?

In some sense, you are actually demolishing the idea of what Indian conservatism looks like, when I look at it through the modern-day lens. Am I drawing too much of a connection in trying to think through these broad themes that emerged from the book, or was that what you intended?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Well, no, I think you’ve actually stated some [chuckles] of the things I’m trying to argue, more forcefully than I was able to. I think there are a couple of things. The first is that this conservative politics is one that has a very strong influence of the nationalist movement, and one of Gandhianism. There is an idea about unity in diversity that matters a lot to them.

That is something that you see in a figure like Rajagopalachari, you see in a figure like Minoo Masani. There are also elements who are not so minded in that way like K.M. Munshi. If you look at the platform of the party and its activities, and even the difficulties that it has in forming coalitions when it tries to form coalitions in the Hindi belt, you see it’s because it’s not quite willing to compromise on those kinds of principles. 

Broadly, we’ve focused on the economic issues, and we’re not invested very much in the issues regarding religious conservatism. Now, of course, there are concerns, or considerations with respect to the way in which their ideas about capital accumulation end up reproducing certain kind of caste hierarchies. You see that especially in the Charotar Patidars

This is a distinct phenomenon from the Hindu nationalism that you see today. I think that that’s very important, in terms of understanding Indian politics of where we’ve come from, where we’re, and where we’re perhaps going.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. In fact, the idea that conservatism was built into pluralism, because that’s how India has chugged along for millennia. Everyone has chugged along together slowly, in what is this, the highly multi-linguistic, multi-cultural, multi-class, multi-religious project, and the radical thing to do it, would be to subvert it.

The conservative thing to do it, is to find a way to keep that pluralism going alongside, in a way that you can push at the margins towards different kinds of agenda people may have, whether it is women’s rights, whether it is—annihilating some very severe forms of caste oppression. I know they didn’t believe in caste annihilation altogether, and so on. That’s how I read that project.

A Democratic Conservatism

When you talked about the political movement advocating for freer markets, one of the arguments that you make is that it doesn’t always have to be anti-democratic. To me, that felt a little bit surprising, because at one sense, if I think about this from the Hayekian perspective, you can’t really have political freedom without economic freedom. That’s one of the core tenets of Hayekian and classical liberal thought.

In that sense, it’s not odd to me at all that people who advocate for freer markets, people who advocate for strong constitutional protections of property rights and minority rights, and so on, it goes hand-in-hand with democracy. That’s one part of it. The other reason I thought that’s not very surprising to me, is because in India, unlike other places, the socialist model was democratic.

It’s this Fabian gradualist socialism that needs to be pursued, not just through top-down plans, but also part of it is democratic legislation, even within the central planning. Sometimes they’re at odds with each other, like John Matthia famously resigns, because the socialism is cannibalizing the democratic elements and so on.

Given that the socialism is democratic, is it so surprising that the opposition, or the advocating of markets is also democratic? Are we bringing too much of a Cold War lens, or a post-Soviet collapsed lens into this, so to speak?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: I think, there are a couple of things. If you were to look at the scholarship on neoliberalism, and again, I don’t know that I would necessarily call my actors neoliberals. I think they are in conversation with neoliberals, and we can talk about this later, they’re able to appropriate some of the language of neoliberalism, and that’s significant. Some of their fundamental precepts, tenets, et cetera, are quite distinct from something like methodological individualism, or even international free trade for many of them, et cetera.

One of the things, but it’s significant that when you take some of this scholarship, which is interested, and I think powerfully, and for a certain reason in the question of encasement from market forces, I think what I’m trying to offer is a perspective from the southern hemisphere, which shows there’s no, actually, if you think about this from the perspective of the South Asian context, your forerunners, or your mid to mid-20th century folks who are arguing for freer markets, are not your technocrats sitting in Sansad Bhavan or wherever they are.

They are not working through IMFWorld Bank packages, nor are they intellectuals sitting in the academy. Rather these are informal economic thinkers, who think that freer markets are part of the fabric of democratic life. I think that it is in a sense in response to some of those characterizations. You’re absolutely right. If you look at Hayek’s Constitution of LibertyUse of Information [Knowledge] in SocietyRoad to Serfdom, his perspective is more nuanced than what some of that holds. There is, in certain others, [an] anti-democratic bent, which I think some of the scholarship has brought up.

RAJAGOPALAN: When you say anti-democratic, do you mean technocratic? Because that’s part of it, right? Is the anti-democratic coming from IMF conditionalities and things that happen much later in the Latin American countries, in the East Asian economies, is that where the anti-democratic comes from? I honestly, otherwise, don’t see too many people advocating for both simultaneously.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Sure. I think you’re right. I mean, some of that is a retrospective projection from the ‘70s onwards, and that’s something that Amy Offner has argued in her book, Sorting out the Mixed Economy. There are, I think, for example, in certain kinds of thinkers from the Austrian school. Again, you know about this much better than I do. My understanding is that there are certain people who are skeptical of some of the possibilities of democracy.

We can talk more about that. I think that that’s something that the scholarship has run with. I don’t necessarily have a stake, or a particular set of concerns around that. The way in which I was trying to characterize, this is actually—well, let’s try to examine this not so much as what is the ideal market design, and how should experts work through it, or maybe even get it passed through certain legislative processes.

If we were to take your informal figures, whose whole raison d’etre in certain ways is publicity, the press, electoral politics, et cetera. What then can we say about these sorts of people? You say that it’s actually a profoundly democratic kind of thing. It may not necessarily be progressive, in the same way that, in a sense, and I when I say that I don’t mean that it’s a regressive, but I mean that if we look very contextually, where are a lot of people who will look at this Swatantra figures and look at them as liberals. I think in an absolutist sense, that’s true, but if we’re looking at where are they relative to all of the other people, and what they’re saying in the Indian political spectrum, even though they are arguing, in a sense, for a capitalist form of development, which is quite a different sort of status quo, it’s in that perspective.

Defining Neoliberalism 

RAJAGOPALAN: I’d be more curious to continue the conversation of the Austrians and their reservations later, but before that, normally, I have noticed that whenever the term "neoliberalism" is used, on average, it is with a sneering hostility, if I may say that.


RAJAGOPALAN: You don’t use it that way through the book at all.


RAJAGOPALAN: I would first ask you how you define it, and I mainly asked this because economists don’t use the word "neoliberal" in the economics tradition. I’ve usually read only historians, or political scientists describe it. My trouble with the word is that it’s been used to describe everything from privatization efforts in Poland in the ‘90s, to the Iraq war, to university endowments, to Swatantra Party politics, in this case in your book, so I’m unable to grasp what it means. Maybe you can help us define it, especially, in the context of the book, and then we can go from there.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely. Yes. No, again, I think that one of the things that I’m very interested in this project of using this term responsibly, and in historical fashion, because otherwise, for a lot of people, neoliberalism means everything you don’t like since 1980. It can be used in a manner of speaking that it’s conflated with so many other things.

I think what some of the best scholars have shown is, a lot of the stuff that you don’t like since 1980, is actually stuff that existed since 1950. [chuckles] There are certain kinds of things with respect to the operation of capital that can be troubling, which is fine. The way that I think about it is, in the current intellectual historical sense, in terms of the terminology that is used, but it’s then later, I suppose, embraced with some ambiguity by Hayek in his essay, A Rebirth of Liberalism.

I think he even used it earlier. In a sense, reinventing liberalism after the advent of Keynesianism. Then, also this Milton Friedman essay, Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects. Now, there are various different definitions of what are the elementary aspects of that, et cetera. I think Quinn Slobodian has given a fair picture of what exactly some of the constitutive visions of that project are from the Austrian schools.

He talks about prices, he talks about signals, he talks about various sorts of things. That’s what I work with, in that sense. Again, what I’m trying to show is that it’s disingenuous to look at Swatantra Party as neoliberals. What’s interesting is that given that Mont Pelerin Society, some of its progenitors, like Hayek and Friedman, have at points used as terminology, it is significant that their Indian interlocutors are these folks. That’s the way in which I’m thinking about this. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, in that case, I guess, we’re closer than I had imagined, because I would call that classical liberal, because Mont Pelerin Society members, I like to use the terms people use for themselves. I may not agree with communism, but if someone says they’re communist, I believe them when they say they’re communist. I would call them a communist. It’s the same way with liberals. 

If someone says they’re classical liberal, I would tend to go with that terminology. Then, I think we’re a lot closer in the sense. I would call this a bigger classical liberal influence, but of course, post-war classical liberalism is a little bit different than its 19th century version, or its 18th century variant, as Adam Smith described it, and that’s fair enough. This may be to the listeners, it sounds like quibble over words, but most economists wouldn’t necessarily call that neoliberalism.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: No, I think it’s an important—it’s an intellectual conversation, our intellectual historian, our words are very important. I think that’s quite interesting. For example, some of my friends at the Center for Civil Society in Delhi, considered their project to be a classical liberal one. Parth Shah and others, including a friend of mine who reviewed this book, Sanjeet Kashyap, who’s been associated with them.

Now, I think that in an absolute sense, that’s accurate, but I guess what I’m thinking about, 1950s India, and the context of everybody ends in India. It’s a question about what relationally are they to those people, when even your Bharatiya Jana Sangh is saying that we’re kind of socialist. If everybody else is a socialist, and you’re staying a liberal, then relationally you’re conservative. That’s the question, but you’re absolutely right.

I think one of the discussions that I had about this book, there was a question of why are you using conservatives for them, when what they’re advocating for is a capitalist economy, moving from a society that, in many parts, is feudal. In that sense, that’s a very radical kind of thing. I think with terminology, you have to make certain choices, and this was the one that I made, because of the relational perspective, but if you were to think about the absolute, atemporal perspective, I think you’re absolutely right to say that there is a classical liberal, or even in certain sense, libertarian impulse.

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, maybe actually this discussion is useful, especially, for the younger students who are working in this area. I think one important distinction is, when we read things in the popular press, especially, in the English language press, letters that are exchanged with people abroad versus say academic papers which appear in particular journals, and discussions that happen at conference meetings of particular disciplines and so on. 

The way I think about the differences, for instance, you’ve talked about how B.R. Shenoy went to the Mont Pelerin Society, and he was a big hit, and he was celebrated as this very important, probably, the only free market economist between Athens and Tokyo, or something like that. I think I remember Peter Bauer saying some phrase like that.

At the meeting, he’s talking about East and West Germany, but that’s like, today, if I were to speak about pluralism in an international setting, I might start with what’s happening in Ukraine, or what’s happening with Israel and Palestine, but that doesn’t mean that my pluralism is informed by that. It probably just means I’m contextualizing what I’m talking about in India, with respect to what’s happening in the rest of the world for a particular kind of audience.

Whereas when you read B.R. Shenoy writing journal articles, it is not written in that Cold War setting necessarily. He’s really talking about—there’s a much more direct line to be drawn between him and the Austrian tradition when it comes to capital theory, where he’s talking about the relationship between prices of consumer goods, versus prices of investment goods. This is stuff he’s written in the 1930s.

This is way before the Cold War and so on. I think this is a useful thing. It also depends on what kind of material one taps into, which we can get into when you talk about the very broad range of archival work you’ve tapped into. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, the number of different languages, the range of material. I think part of this also comes from the material itself.

This is English language press, people talking at these foreign conferences. It’s happening in the heyday of Cold War politics, so it feels like that’s another place where this terminology, which is very internationally used in a particular context, seeps in.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, I think that’s right. At the same time, I think that with somebody, a figure like Shenoy, the stuff that he’s writing in ‘90s, I’ve written elsewhere about Shenoy, and I think Shenoy, actually, my hypothesis is that, he’s there when Hayek is delivering prices in production. He’s at the LSE when—

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: —Hayek is doing this in ‘31, ‘32, if I’m not mistaken. He works with Philip Barrett Whale, and he takes a class with Theodore Gregory, so that milieu certainly shapes him. Now, I think one thing that is, and even his professors in the Banaras Hindu University, one of them is an Australian-trained economist.

Now, one thing that is interesting, though, is that by the time he’s delivering a piece like free versus controlled economy, and going to the Mont Pelerin society, he has almost shifted from academic articles to newspaper articles. He’s moved to Gujarat where he is Director of Social Sciences. He’s no longer Professor of Economics or RBI economist. He was in Ceylon, very involved with Central Bank in there.

Actually, interestingly, Shenoy is considered a hero in Sri Lanka today. One of the people invited me to come to the Advocata Institute over there to speak. It’s quite interesting, the report that he produced on Ceylon. My point is that, by the time that he’s writing in journals and advising Swatantra Party on moving to a free economy, he has shifted to more of public affairs common data.

In India, he’s talking mainly about deficits, overspending, inflation, and profligacy. Yes, overseas, he is talking about Mont Pelerin Society. He gives I think four speeches or four papers to them over his career, and he’s invested in more of a kind of Cold War binaries, as a matter of speaking.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s so hard for me to separate the core Austrian from B.R. Shenoy, because somehow, even in his later work, it comes through, because he rarely uses these standard neoclassical equilibrium conceptions. He’s like such a market process economist. He’s really Hayekian, in that sense, that somehow even when I read his popular stuff, I’m able to parse that out.

I guess, I understand what you’re saying that, that may not be so obvious to someone who’s not read his QJE articles, or his critique of the socialist plan and so on. 

BALASUBRAMANIAN: No, sorry. You’re absolutely—I think that’s right. I think that if you think about the way in which—there are certainly a theoretical base from which he is operating. I think the specifics and the nature of the genres of knowledge production were in shift over times.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. No, that there is no question, and it’s clear. That’s why I said that I characterize this more as a political history than history of economic thought, because most of the material that you’re using is actually publicity material. This is very clearly to propagate particular ideas about the economy, raise questions about price controls, about inflations, about this kind of overly centralized model.

A lot of it is political pamphlets, not just libertarian material that is translated, or adapted to the Indian context, or so on. I think there, I completely understand what you’re saying. 

The Swatantra Party's Struggle

In one sense, it’s always useful to see the counter. In the case of Swatantra Party, the counter is really the Congress. That’s the big one. The communists on the other side if you were to think about it.

It seems that the conversation is really Swatantra Party compared to—well, compared to Congress, which happens to also be the ruling party. This is a huge, enormous force in Indian politics. At multiple points, I don’t disagree with your categorization of the Swatantra Party as conservative, mainly because, I think on social questions, they were quite conservative.

There’s a question of social versus political versus economic life. I think on a political and economic life, they’re very classical liberal/libertarian. On social questions, they tend towards being quite conservative. We can get into that. Relative to them, the way you’ve characterized the Congress is that they were progressive, and that somehow didn’t quite fit right. I’ll tell you where I’m going with that.

In one sense, if we go back to say Rajni Kothari’s idea of the Congress, he talks about how it’s not one thing, in fact, even they don’t know what they really are, because there is a progressive faction, there is a deeply conservative faction, there is a feudal faction. There was initially many of the native princes and monarchs used to fund and support the Congress, and that eventually fell away.

There is a very strong, big business faction that supports them. I would describe them from the point of view of the governing party as socialist because that’s the main economic plan that they’re trying to propagate. I was curious about your description of Congress as progressive.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. No, absolutely. I guess the way that I have thought about this. Yes, I did, [chuckles] but the thing is that, after Patel dies, the balance of power in the Congress is shifted towards Nehru, and Sudipta Kavirajin a very famous essay writes. He essentially relies on the bureaucracy to implement policy in a progressive fashion around certain kinds of policy that he often passes through executive fiat, or having managed the numbers in the legislature, because he can’t, for example, or something like land reform.

The balance of power in the Congress is such that, you can’t actually do very much. It is progressive in that sense, in so far as the Nehru-dominated Congress is able to pursue a certain set of policies, with respect to the price controls, to try to keep prices at a particular level, whether or not that succeeds is a different story. This is the kind of impulse. It’s pretty much around the idea of Nehru as the driving force of the body.

Now, of course, as Kothari points out, there are many different factions vying for influence. There are plans that are thwarted. At the same time, the progressive is limited in that, and this feeds into the fact that one of the characters is not actually a CIA agent, Masani, because [chuckles] Nehru dismisses the communist government using Article 356 in 1959. There are limits to that.

I think one of the things that Francine Frankel says is that, actually, in a certain way, the Swatantra Party resembles in a certain fashion the various elements that comprise the Congress. I think that that’s important in that, when you think about the Swatantra Party fizzling away in the 1970s, the feudal elements go back into the Congress O.

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, the reason that also—it just stuck out to me, the progressive labeling of the Congress is, later you get into the discussion of caste and women, and on these two fronts, Swatantra Party politicians score particularly poorly, compared to the others.


RAJAGOPALAN: To me, the only people who really do well on that scorecard are the communists, especially the Kerala Communists. Not even communists in the hinterland or Bengal. If we talk about, even within the Congress, even though they have the Hindu Succession Act, and they’re trying to modernize certain things, and try to bring in progressive elements, once it comes to women, things just come to a standstill.

If I remember correctly, only Kerala passed the amendment to make women coparceners in the Hindu Succession Act in the ‘70s. The other states, which are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, all of them passed these amendments in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think of these five states, I think three or five are non-Congress. Even with there, I feel like in India, all political parties were socially conservative, just varying in degrees. The only truly radical people are the communists. In this front, they deserve a lot of, I guess, praise for setting out that agenda right at the beginning in the ‘50s.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I think, at the same time, I would say that there is probably a little more space within the Congress. When you think about figures like Hansa Mehta and this sort of thing, and the Congress Women’s Committee, and the National Planning Committee, in terms of the parallel— 

RAJAGOPALAN: There are more women. Certainly, there’s better representation.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: There’s better representation. I think that the other point is the idiom with which leaders like Lilavati Munshi and Gayatri Devi in the Swatantra Party spoke. In that, some of the—if you look at Nirmala Banerjee’s classical article Whatever Happened to the Dreams of Modernity, there was a slightly more liberatory valence to some of the visions that are being put forth in the Congress from the ‘30s.

I think that the leading women of the Swatantra Party of whom there were not very many, are very much invested in   the whole, “We are householders, this matters to us because we buy the vegetables,” that sort of thing. I think that’s the sort of change, but you’re absolutely right.

I think one of—someone who’s probably a friend of yours and mine Niranjan Rajadhyaksha actually when he read the book, he said, “Look, was anybody really that progressive at that time, even the communists?” I think that that’s fair. My humble submission is that I think there’s a slight way in which the Swatantra Party figures are invested in the gender division of labor, in the matter of speaking.

RAJAGOPALAN: You know the way we also think about—now, I’m thinking, I guess this is partly the disciplinary lens coming in again. When we think about progressive economic models, we’re really thinking about welfare spending. In that sense, modern-day, both parties on the left and the right, are able to have far greater welfare spending, because they can raise more revenues.

Post-liberalization, the economy has grown, and so on, much more than those of the past. In a bizarre sense, if you think about welfare spending on women in particular, Modi’s BJP government would far surpass any kind of progressive agenda there of the old Congress governments. In fact, probably, Manmohan Singh’s 2004-2009 government probably did the best on that agenda. Setting out a new progressive goal, so to speak.

That’s where I feel like, of the old Congress lot, I would just really call them socialists, because they’re tinkering with prices, and they’re tinkering with capital, they’re not really trying to grow the size of the pie, and then redistribute through non-distortionary ways through other instruments. They’re really just relying on price controls, quantity controls, licenses, things like that.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I think that there is—when we think, or go back to the Mahalanobis model and all of that, the import-substituting industrialization framework, when we think of its aims, and we think of what it achieved, and one of the things I described in the first chapter, and those are quite at odds with each other. At the same time—again, obviously, we can think about the counterfactuals, but given the menu set of choices, the way people were thinking at the time, we do move from a 0% growth rate to our whatever, what Raj Krishna called it Hindu rate, or whatever it is.

I would say that, in that respect, the capacity for welfare service delivery based on the model of accumulation is deficient, maybe compared to what we have today, but relative to the colonial growth trap, it’s a change. I think that was what I was trying to indicate.

Imagination of the Swatantra party

One other question I had was, I really want to get to the bulk of the book which is about the Swatantra Party politics.


RAJAGOPALAN: Now, that you know some of these definitional quibbles are out of the way. When I read say Rohit De’s book, to me, it’s quite clear that a lot of the initial response to this kind of Indian statism, or state control, and interference in everyday life was—the response was for regular people to claim their individual freedoms, and he writes about this.

This is like butchers and prostitutes and cotton and textile sellers, basically, petitioning the court and asking for protection of their individual freedoms, their right to trade, and so on.

From that, it seems to me that there was a broader coalition to be formed against this large statist socialist planning machinery, but it seems like from your characterization, the Swatantra Party was very limited to a middle-class imagination, where the enemy is just the Congress politician, bureaucrat, or big businessman, who is interfering with the middle class urban dweller, in some sense.

That broader coalition of butchers and prostitutes and bus transport operators and cotton sellers, that just disappears. Do you think that was really their downfall, or the roadblock in rising into this big coalition?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: I think that’s certainly part of it, but I guess I also have a slightly different reading of the Rohit De argument, which is that, the Rohit De argument is also—again, this is maybe downplayed in some ways—is also about the community forces that shape. The community forces that shape the person who put the petitions, and this sort of thing. There’s a certain pressure that comes from the group as a social formation.

Secondly, there is a question about, which he doesn’t really get into, which I suppose is getting into in his new project is about the mediation by the lawyer. It’s the lawyer who is essentially arguing this for the butcher or whatever, and using, in some sense, the language of individual rights and all of that. I think it’s still an open question of, to what extent is your butcher, or your Marwari trader, and whatnot conscious of practicing individualism in that sense? That is one question.

I think you’re absolutely right with respect to the fact that the Swatantra Party unable to appeal to the—I think that there are individual sentiments at broad, broad base at this time, even if things are dominated by family, caste, et cetera. You do have— everybody is giving a vote that’s then their own. There is a compulsion to allow people to—even if you are paying people to vote based on caste, or whatever this—ultimately when they go on the ballot, and they push you the vote, that’s their choice. I think that that’s something that the Swatantra is not able to take advantage of.

RAJAGOPALAN: Where does this imagination of, who is their audience coming from? You describe what it is, but I was more curious. Now, that you’ve gone over the archives so carefully, are they somewhere explicitly, or implicitly saying, “Okay, these are our kinds of people, those are not our kinds of people.” That’s the part that I couldn’t quite grasp. It’s quite clear that they don’t include it, but how are they going about that decision-making as a political entity?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I think they are also, and they themselves are not particularly clear about that. [chuckles] I think this is part of the problem. I think that in the feudal areas, they’re absolutely clear. I mean, the contradiction is that, ideologically, this is a party that is driven by land and mercantile communities, transitioning to forms of capitalist accumulation, et cetera.

Then, the vote bank story is essentially about your former feudal landlords trying to convert those kinds of relationships into seats in the legislative assembly, and parliament. How much does your appeal to a particular kind of middle-class citizen, and all of that actually help you in the ballot box? At a very minor level, because I don’t think that they’re very clear themselv es about who’s their particular constituency.

It depends on who you ask in the party. Minoo Maasani’s definition of middle-class person is very different from N.G. Ranga’s definition. It’s different from C. Rajagopalachari’s definition, et cetera.

The three dimensions of opposition politics

RAJAGOPALAN: Here there is something odd going on, and in a sense you’re right that Swatantra Party becomes like a mini-Congress umbrella party in itself, right? You have Ranga for instance, who is strongly pro-property rights, but against feudalism. He’s all about the Ryotwari farmers, but against zamindari, and is quite pro abolition of feudalism and zamindari in some sense. On the other extreme, you have their most popular political candidate, who is direct descendant of the monarchy, who is Gayatri Devi, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: How much of this is just coming from, “We are all against the Congress, so stitch the coalition together in that sense.” That’s one part of it. In one sense, they seem much more principled, but on the other hand, the moment it goes into politics, you have this bizarre coalition, which in some sense, I think almost dilutes the message compared to the communists or the socialists.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely right. When we had to think about the Swatantra Party gets 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1967, which is more than the other parties. Part of that is because the way in which you stitch together the coalition involves a certain kind of heterogeneity. It involves people from formerly zamindari areas who continue to have unbelievably unequal land relations.

That’s not the whole story. Unfortunately, that has been the characterization of the Swatantra Party in our social scientific literature, which is that this a party of reaction of zamindar maharajas, et cetera.

To view it in that perspective is to miss the other set of phenomena taking place which are what Harish Damodaran calls the new capitalists. I think it’s broad then, but you do have some lowest common denominator, and I think the difference of the right to property is one.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Coming to the right to property, again this is one area where part of it is being fought on a political platform, but a bulk of the work is being done by Swatantra Party members/supporters through the courts. Right?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: That I think is another super interesting theme. How is that split taking place? Is it just again an opportunistic question of these are battles better fought in court, or is there some deeper strategizing going on within the party of what kinds of questions are constitutional, versus what kinds of questions are political, versus what kinds of questions are social?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely. I think that if we are to think about the three dimensions of opposition politics as I described them, one is the imagination of a conservative party as salutary for, and a two-party system as salutary for the health of a democracy, even if it has different kinds of ends. The second is about mobilizing and communicating people around economic ideas, and part of their democratic politics.

The third is, using the three branches of government to check the party of the government in power. In that sense, it is all part of a coherent project. If you look at the different things that happen with respect to defending the right to property, you have the Bank Nationalization Case, the Privy Purse case, but you also have the creation of a fundamental rights front.

You also have these massive signature campaigns against the 17th Amendment, which are not successful. You combine the popular mobilization with the four challenges, and I think that, that is significant, and makes Swatantra quite interesting in that respect.

RAJAGOPALAN: In hindsight, and again, I don’t want to draw too many links to present day in a way that distorts your main point, but sometimes, when I think about the Swatantra Party, I almost feel like, I think they got the idea of how conservative Indians are. In the sense that, a big part of the Swatantra Party conservatism is not necessarily that this kind of patriarchal system is good, or caste is good, but more that, if you try to enforce something top down, and if you try to use state coercion and state instruments to change this, you are not likely to get a good outcome. These things have to evolve bottom up. In that sense, we’re also very Gandhian.


C Rajagopalachari and N G Ranga

RAJAGOPALAN: In the second part of the book there are some very interesting almost they’re like tiny biographies of individuals that you’ve managed to bring out in a particular political context. First, I wanted to talk to you about CR, this is C. Rajagopalachari [Rajaji] who is this giant even before Swatantra Party politics begins. In fact, he’s had this long career as a nationalist. He’s been in the Congress Party, he’s agitated in the south, he was Governor General, and so on.

Then of course he eventually starts getting sidelined, and this is almost a post-retirement second coming of Rajaji. In one sense, what is Rajaji’s intellectual journey, and where does it converge with Swatantra Party politics and where does it diverge? That would be my big-picture question on Rajaji.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Absolutely. In the case of Rajagopalachari, in a sense there’s no Swatantra Party without Rajagopalachari, so he’s the person who—

RAJAGOPALAN: There wasn’t once he died actually.


RAJAGOPALAN: Kind of collapsed.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Exactly. He’s somebody who from the very early stages of his career, even though he is not necessarily thinking about the economy as something that is separate from other domains of lives, he’s certainly thinking about administration and the capacity of the empowerment of the officers of the state to corrupt. He’s also operating in a particular context in which the Madras Presidency is being commercialized and recognizing that while that creates various kinds of opportunity, so he’s not like Gandhi in that sense in terms of that attitude to accumulation of wealth.

He recognizes that people should be cautious about. There’s always a moral valence to this and that it can create certain kinds of versions of morality. He is somebody who is also invested in certain kinds of measures to mitigate the suffering of people in rural areas and those of sort of thing by the state. The really interesting and again somebody who never studies formal economics, it does happen and really even discuss economic discourse with until he takes it up with BR Shenoy in the 1950s.

He’s somebody who has a sense that the state and its officers have the power to corrupt. That skepticism remains throughout his life, and that is I think a very fair concern that he has. When he becomes the Chief Minister of Madras in ‘92, he abolishes price controls, because that’s something that’s unpopular. That is something that is essentially leading to hoarding or black-market activity by traders, et cetera, et cetera. He’s also somebody who is invested in this project of asking people what are the second-order consequences behind your dirigiste approach? What kinds of perversions can it create?

He’s somebody who like a good kind of accountant is also interested in balancing budgets. This whole idea of a deficit you can actually see as in some sense the extension of a family that owes more than it owns or owes more than its incomes that comes in every year, and that then becomes a sort of bricolage over the whole economy a set of ideas. Not a Keynesian. I think that’s—

RAJAGOPALAN: I understand the parallel that you are drawing, but he does seem to have quite concrete views on inflation, for instance. It’s not a very rudimentary view. This is the moment you start spending beyond your means you’re going to go into inflation and the inflation is basically attacks on everyone. It tends to be more regressive because it affects the poor the most. There is some sophistication in his economic thinking even if it’s not trained, or am I reading too much into it?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: No, so I think that there is a certain internal logic to his critique of inflation. I would say that that’s something that he learns from Shenoy, because Shenoy is giving him that kind of material. Then there are times when he’ll then make a leap and say, "Then this will lead to the bankruptcy of the state, and we’ll all collapse and the next step to authoritarianism." I think that is where it gets a more political valence because India’s rate of inflation at that time is increasing as I mentioned in the book certainly more than it was. The way that sometimes he talks about it’s as if we’re hyper-inflation in the interwar in a Weimar Republic.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is he really that wrong? When I saw the bits about like, oh, this is this crazy slippery slope and we are going to end at authoritarianism, a few years after his death we do have crazy emergency kind of situation. Emergency rhetoric very much goes with the commanding heights of economic control rhetoric. In ‘66, we have a serious balance of payments crisis, which is another way of saying bankrupt. In 1990, we actually have a very severe balance of payments crisis. In fact, in 1991 very similar to the Rajaji analogies, we have to actually pledge our gold, send our gold in ships so that people can lend us money for short-term cover. In a sense, was he really that far off the mark?

I know when you say he made this leap, but is one way of thinking that he was prescient or just he was making a leap?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: I think in the sense that if you identify the foreign exchange, so there was certainly a valence to what he is saying that resonates with challenges that are taking place in the Indian economy at that time. We’re going on a flying holiday and this sort of thing, but I think to read the emergency as something that is set because of the template of economic policy followed at that time, I would be hesitant to assume and to draw that conclusion from it.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’ve actually argued that in a paper. I’ll send it to you.

 RAJAGOPALAN: Not so much directly about the economic planning leading to emergency, but that the way economic planning led to consistent amendments to the constitution, which eventually weakened checks and balances sufficiently that they make room for something like the emergency.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Sure. That’s true.

RAJAGOPALAN: Because the amendments to the Election Act protecting the prime minister’s position from judicial review. One part of it is directly in the Ninth Schedule, which is the 1951 innovation for land reforms and other kinds of socialist policy. I draw that line, but that’s a constitutional line that is drawn. Not so much that you have one particular plan outcome of X amount of saving and tomorrow it could get you the emergency. That’s not the argument, but I’ll send that to you. I’d be curious to know what you think.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Absolutely. No, I can agree with you.

RAJAGOPALAN: The other character that you have is Ranga. The similarity with Rajaji is that he is Gandhian. He’s like this grassroots politician, of course, in Andhra Pradesh as opposed to Tamil Nadu, that’s an important distinction. The other difference is, he’s in some sense much more rooted. I know he sides with the landed class and the Ryotwari class in this instance, but on the other hand, Rajaji is very much the Brahminical elite in Tamil Nadu. The fact that he has larger following is a bit bizarre in the sense it’s unusual.

Whereas Ranga seems much more rooted to the landed politics and the socio-economic politics of his time. Is that a reasonable way to distinguish the two, that the kinds of coalitions they’re building are quite different, the kind of project they are engaged in, one is quite elite, the other is quite grassroots? Is that a good way to think about the distinction between the two?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I think that’s broadly fair. The only thing is that the grassroots from which Ranga is operating, I would say the rural landed interest. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are necessarily egalitarian, in that part of what he’s trying to do is to collapse the distinction between the owner and the cultivator because there is quite a hierarchy even within the Ryotwari land space. The fact is that even within areas that are broadly Ryotwari, you have various types of Inam lands, you have various kind of special tenures, all of that.

There is a particular kind of political work that that is doing in terms of bringing people together. I think that is something that pays political dividends to him. Unlike Rajagopalachari, who never wins. I think other than the Salem Municipal District, or Municipal Council election, I don’t think he ever wins a popular election in his life. Rajagopalachari’s ability to build political capital is based on one, or well, originally relationship to Gandhi and the ability to bring the Congress behind Gandhi from the Mofussil areas. Then later on, because of his extraordinary presence in the print sphere.

A figure who is based on marginalized, multiple times cast off into oblivion is being canonized by Kalki, which has a population of 100,000. He is the Iraṇṭāvatu Socrata, the second Socrates. All of his economic ideas are being translated into the Tamil. Every birthday of his, there is a geographical set of articles written about him. In Swarajya, he’s writing in a magazine across India, that circulates across India, for about 16,000 people. His translations of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, phenomenal bestsellers. He’s written 50-60 other things as well.

He’s somebody who uses the print to amplify, whereas Ranga is somebody who is a member of parliament for over 30-40 years from one area where he has done extremely well in terms of getting the vote banks behind him. Also, he’s very invested in the earlier period, in the interwar period, in the Kisan Sabhas. Then the Kisan Sabhas are crucial in terms of getting the masses behind Gandhian politics, both in Northern Sarkar region but across India also.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and you know Ranga also is a parliamentarian through and through, right?

There is this sense I get from Rajagopalachari’s work and writing and also his demeanor that he was too cool for all of it. He’s truly the elite and clearly not someone who is meant for canvassing door to door and standing for election and going to parliament and those sorts of things. There seems to be that difference. The other thing I find fascinating which you bring out in amazing detail in the book is the coalition that he stitches together in Madras Tamil Nadu during that time, both before and after the reorganization of the state. They’re strange bedfellows. Like, you don’t think of someone like Rajaji and the DMK politicians as allies.

One, how does this come about? Was it always fragile? How much of it is to do with what we see mirrored today in the south, which is this linguistic sub-nationalism, other kinds of sub-nationalism, which are quite unique to certain parts of the south, versus something that was just a moment in that time that they all needed to form some kind of coalition against the large looming party, which was the Congress.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I think DMK in the sense it’s mission as an anti-casteist and Dravidian party, et cetera. It draws very much from the ideas and work of Thanthai Periyar who is in many ways the anti-Rajaji, although they’re in a very close personal equation. There are three things on which ideologically they come together, despite one being a left party and one not being a left party. One is this issue of Hindi. You mentioned the sub-nationalism. By 1965, Rajagopalachari’s changed his views. Whereas in the ‘30s, he had implemented the Gandhian agenda of learning Hindi.

This is something that if you go back to the origins of free economy, free economy discourse in the Libertarian Social Institute, which is where I start my book, it’s about English as the lingua franca for India rather than Hindi. It’s always non-Hindi, so that’s one thing. The second thing is a mutual interest in decentralization of economic policy. Things are not directed from Delhi; the states are strong in terms of determining the federal allocation of resources and that sort of thing.

The third thing is inflation. The 1965 anti-inflation protests, Vilai Vasi Porattamprotests et cetera, are very influential. You actually can see that the DMK sympathetic newspaper, Dina Thanthi, publishes stuff. Even if you have a 2% increase in inflation, it says that prices are rising in a really fast, rapid way. One of them says, Visam pola uyarvu. In other words, the poison-like increase in prices and taxes and this sort of thing. There is a similarity on both left and right about inflation and what it does to people. That’s something that they can come together on.

Even very senior historians of the Dravidian movement will say that was very crucial in unseating the Congress in 1967. Not to take away from the Dravidian ideology. This is not merely a story of that.

The Bombay Cohort

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. No, I want to get into the Dina Thanthi archives later just because I love the phrasing of all of it. They take something boring like inflation, they just turn it into something completely different. I want to get to that in a minute, but the other figure that I want to discuss we haven’t gotten much into the Bombay group of the Swatantra Party. Now, this has always been a slightly different kind of group. One, they’re a lot more plugged into a sort of global capital and also global literature. The libertarian library that you talk about, that you begin the book with, that is very much in Bombay.

That’s where people are writing and exchanging notes with libertarians abroad, Institute of Economic AffairsThe Freeman, trying to pull this literature together in a more global sense, and with English as the lingua franca. Also, that is where you get this coalition of businessmen who are not necessarily cronyist or against a particular kind of cronyism to chip into the Swatantra Party movement, give speeches, have space for things like Forum of Free Enterprise, have space for Nani Palkhivala giving his famous lectures on the budget. That was, of course, many years after the Swatantra Party movement. The Bombay Swantatra Party—

BALASUBRAMANIAN: It starts in ’56.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but it goes on so much longer than after the Swatantra Party, but for me, the Bombay Swatantra Party cohort is quite different from the people in the south that we discussed. First, I want to pick your brain on what you thought were the differences. There are some very obvious cosmetic differences, including a lot of the Parsi influence, a lot of the business influence, but I’ll let you answer first and then we can maybe peel the layers from that.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely. I think the interesting thing is that traditionally, when you hear the Bombay story of Swantatra, it is around the Tatas and it’s around big business. What I was able to find was that it’s not necessarily just that. It’s also people who are your Gujarati flour mill owner, who’s kind of minor. It is people who are in varying occupations, and if you look at the membership of the Forum of Free Enterprise, it’s not just your Lalbhais or your Tata directors or whatever. It’s somebody who runs a whatever, an underwear shop in Colaba.

These are the kinds of people that are coming together, and they’re dealing with the problems with elite bureaucracy and questions of foreign exchange problems in the planned economy.

RAJAGOPALAN: Prohibition, that’s a big one.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Prohibition, absolutely. Absolutely. Prohibition is a big thing. This is a group of people that are coming together. The other kind of point is that this big business in a way continues to support the Congress. The idea that Swatantra is a big business party is one that is fairly disingenuous in that somebody like GD Birla never disavows at all their support of the Congress. Even if these economists are saying some not very charitable things to them before he goes for FICCI meeting, he asks Nehru, GD Birla “What are the orders?” Tatas are supporting the Swatantra Party for sure.

Former director of Tata, AD Shroff, former public relations guy for the Tatas, Masani are very involved with Swatantra Party, although he has to demit from his official role in the Tatas when he gets that position. At the same time, Tata said look, they ask Nehru for permission first, and he says, “Yes, go ahead and donate to opposition parties.” Secondly, they end up donating more money to the Congress because you don’t want to ruin your relationship with the dominant party that’s getting you permits and as the Mahalanobis Committee finds out in 1964, the permits and license got disproportionately go to the big business houses. So, what you have in the Bombay Swatantra Party is fraud. There are some people who are aligned or whatever, probably in business, but you also have your petty urban professionals, smaller business, maybe the regional notable, sub-city notables who are involved in this movement as well. They cut across both the anglicized Parsi kind of community, but also you do have elements who are maybe bilingual vernacular traders as well.

RAJAGOPALAN: Somehow to me, and maybe I’m imagining this, the Bombay side of the Swatantra Party always seemed much more cosmopolitan and less conservative than the southern parts of the Swatantra Party. How much of this is true? Or is this just my imagination of reading Palkhivala and Shroff and Masani, and actually the rest of the people who were part of the Swatantra party were really Marwari and Gujarati traders and flour mill owners, and they were about as conservative as the landed gentry in Andhra Pradesh or somewhere else. What is a good way to think about that?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely. I think the votes and all that that they get in Bombay are really, really very limited. If you look at the membership rolls from Bombay, you see that it is actually heavily a Parsi or anglicized professionals, lawyers, and this sort of thing. The lawyers, that kind of thing, who are not necessarily Parsi, but maybe Hindu Upper Castes. Whether it’s a south figure, like Lotavala is a kind of Ranchoddas. Thus Lotavala who forms this Libertarian Social Institute who comes from a Lohana caste, he happens to go operate in bilingual worlds.

I think that the main membership is this anglicized kind of group, and those people would fit your definition in some way of classical liberals. In there a figure like Minoo Masani is for the uniform civil code. He is broadly an individualist. He’s not very religious at all. He believes in his book The Growing Human Family, it compares the tariff-laden European states of the interwar period with the free trading America. It’s a very evocative image, so I think that that would be a fair thing to say, absolutely, and that their leadership as well.

RAJAGOPALAN: Was there ever any conflict on the social side? Because on the political and economic, I can see that all the different groups are allied, but on the social side, the conservatism of the south is quite different from the Bombay group. Was this ever a source of tension? Did it ever come up in their exchanges and so on or meetings?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Actually, even within Bombay there is some tensions, because the other organization leadership that is involved in the Swatantra Party is that of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan by KM Munshi. Again, I would argue that KM Munshi had very little to do with the day-to-day running of the Swatantra Party.

RAJAGOPALAN: But he’s an important figure who’s kind of looming large.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Exactly. He’s a vice president, and that in terms of a constituent assembly, he’s very important as the author of the fundamental rights section, and he is somebody who runs some of the sessions on the welfare state and its problems. He brings certain kinds of individualist literature, so there’s a sort of question there. Where this becomes a tension is in terms of where do you form coalitions in Bihar. Do we ally with the Ganesan? With Udham Singh Nagoke who is a Akali Punjabi politician, he’s one of the first people to come behind the Swatantra Party, and something I mention arriving at the inaugural convention a little bit after Rajagopalachari.

Akalis are not going to ally with the Ganesan in Punjab. You do have these certain kinds of tensions that crop up. You put a Rama and a Mahabharata written by Rajagopalachari in the hands of Forum Free Enterprise Parsi, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to be read.

RAJAGOPALAN: Incidentally, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Press publishes those books, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: Those are like the KM Munshi side of things that are publishing now.


Archival Research

RAJAGOPALAN: You have Sadasivam who is publishing the sort of things in the south through Kalki and through those local presses and so on. It’s such a fascinating story of how this coalition gets formed. Now, before we end, I’m very curious about the range of materials, both in terms of language and in terms of the different outlets that you’ve tapped into for this book. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Are you fluent in Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati? Did you use translators? How did you decide on this set of archives versus another, and so on?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely. In terms of languages, I don’t read or speak Gujarati, but I did have a key source which was the autobiography Bhailalbhai Patel. He’s the key figure for the Gujarat Swatantra Party, and he’s associated with the model educational town in Gujarat that compliments these private cooperative production of milk in Anand Milk Union Limited, which is India’s largest dairy cooperative. The Hindi sources I worked out on my own. The Tamil sources, I kind of learned to read Tamil during the process of writing my PhD.

I read and write Tamil, although I speak Tamil natively, and of course when there were more challenging things, I would get help from either AR Venkatachalapathy is a professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, or from my father to get clarification on various sorts of things. I worked with those materials, and I think that was one of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of this process. The book uses various kinds of sources.

On the one hand, I do use the conventional archival sources from private papers of the likes of Rajagopalachari, KM Munshi, et cetera, but I also delve quite deeply into print culture, both in English and in Indian languages, particularly Tamil, and use various kinds of fragments from other places, everything from a kind of gramophone recording to Reuters video footage of the first Swatantra Party convention, et cetera, et cetera, and try to suture them.

The Concern with Cronyism

RAJAGOPALAN: One question I had to ask there was when you are doing a political history where a big portion of it is about economic policy, are you worried about this telephone game or Chinese whispers where everything gets diluted or the message or the ideas get diluted a little bit? 

I ask because recently on the ‘91 project, we published a piece on how when Indira Gandhi asked economists, she consulted economists about the 1966 devaluation, she didn’t really understand the nuance difference between what KN Raj was telling her and what Jagdish Bhagwati was telling her.  

Some of that just got lost in translation. Is that even more of a problem when you’re reading things in Dina Thanthi and so on? Because that’s written in such a sort of exciting way. It’s written in like publicity and to catch attention of people. How do you deal with that when you’re doing this kind of an academic project, and you have to match what their original ideas are with what the print media is saying?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. I think a couple of things. With respect to that, fundamentally, I’m not dealing with the KN Rajs and Jagdish Bhagwati in terms of the historical subjects. Probably the only person who has formal economic training that I talk about really is the Shenoy.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re not looking at his academic work, you’re looking at his popular work more than that.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Exactly. I’m not looking at his 1932 or 1933 essays and all of that stuff. Having said that, even these political figures speak in different registers in something like a popular protest than they do in their private correspondences. I try to draw attention to that. For example, with Rajagopalachari, I mentioned that he writes to Lal Bahadur Shastri about a rural road-building program. There are certain things that you say when you’re in the field and there are certain things that you say when you’re trying to have a calm, cool discussion.

One of the things I’m trying to do is to say that we actually need to study those varieties of political idioms because very often, the ways in which we have communicated is not through something that’s very crisply written, like one of Friedman’s essays in positive economics. Very often we are communicating through a column and very often that column is not written by a Nobel laureate like Paul Krugman. That column is written by a figure like, let’s say, Walter Lippmann, who doesn’t have very much of an understanding of the innards of economic policy.

Then, it is then perceived by somebody who is operating in a very different context. Part of what I’ve been trying to do is to understand how does the game of telephone get played. Because in a manner of speaking, that is the majority of the economic discourse that we see in our lives.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. No, and I found that portion of the book truly fascinating. When you start digging into these political speeches, you even have some photographs of posters and ads, and so on in the book. It gets so interesting. Even now, I’m fluent in Tamil, but I’ve forgotten how to read it. My grandparents taught me at some point and read zandu balm ads in  Kalki, and Ananda Vikatan, but it’s all gone now. Hopefully I’ll pick it up someday like you have. When I listen to the Tamil political discourse, to me, I could draw such clear parallels between what the discourse is now and what you describe in the book.

There you know that regional language colloquialism, how this is getting communicated is quite extraordinary. The last question I had was, there seems to be another thing that’s looming large in the book, which is the discussion about cronyists. I’ve always argued that India went from crony socialism to crony capitalism and nothing in between. The crony capitalism seems to be particularly bad now and many people have brought their attention to it. You already spoke about things like election—

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Including Hindenburg. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. The earlier version was license permit Raj and campaign financing, which you do talk about in the book. Now it is electoral bonds and what is happening with Hindenburg and so on. Is this again, just, I’m just dragging too much into the present or is this a very large part of opposition politics in India that has been the mainstay? Cronyism is truly the enemy, just like inflation is truly the enemy. It’s not about capitalism. It’s not about socialism. It’s about the unfairness of it all and how someone else gets to control our everyday lives. That seems to be the overwhelming theme that connects the past and the present. Is that something you think about when you do a work like this?

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes, absolutely. Because I think that that is a criticism that a Swatantra can levy on the Congress and that’s something that a Congress can level on, or whatever. Maybe not Congress with very much locus standi, but that’s something which an opposition party could level against the BJP today. I think that there is that level of consistency. The question about this whole notion of the permit license Raj, the permit license Raj, which we tend to associate today with that which is part of the planned economy that is a hindrance to business is actually in its original coinage a wider phenomenon which is about the oligarchic coalition between big business, the Congress Party politicians, and bureaucrats.

Now, it’s clear to me that in a sense, bureaucracy has been disempowered since 2014. Maybe the form of cronyism has changed, but we certainly see that just as the permits were disproportionately accumulating to Dalmia, Tata, et cetera, in those days, there may be a slightly different set of firms today. You may have Reliance, Adani, et cetera. Tata is probably still up there, but that is there. Whether or not the bureaucratic nexus part of it exists, I’m not for sure.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it exists in some shape or form, just not the same people and the same ministry.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Fair enough.[sr3] 

RAJAGOPALAN: Today the Enforcement Directorate would be the new version of that bureaucrat as opposed to Udyog Bhawan or the people who are handing out the permits in the ‘60s. Maybe the specific bureaucrat has changed, but the nexus between big bureaucracy, big government, big business, I think, seems to be the consistent trend.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Yes. Absolutely.[sr4] 

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for taking time to do this.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Thank you so much, Shruti, and looking forward to being in conversation in the future.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app