Imaginings: Where is India Headed?

By Anjum Altaf

I see the future in India being shaped by the intersection of three major tendencies playing out in the context of one major trend, the difference between a tendency and a trend being that the former is reversible and the latter not. And there is one joker in the pack.

The three tendencies are increased empowerment of some of the poor via the democratic process, the recourse by the marginalized to rebellion, and the attraction of the middle classes to soft authoritarianism. The trend is urbanization. And the joker in the pack is economic growth.

Let me speculate on how these forces might make themselves felt over the next decade or so.

We have highlighted the uniqueness of Indian democracy a number of times; it is serving the function that was performed in Europe by the social revolutions that preceded the introduction of democratic governance. Such a social revolution never occurred in India; instead the British left it with the institution of parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage. And the poor are leveraging the power of their votes to wrest some political and economic power for themselves. Not surprisingly, the process is slow, painfully slow for some, especially compared to the leveling that accompanies social revolutions.

Of course, this process only works for those segments of the poor that are in a position to leverage the vote, a process complicated in India by the fracturing of identity along lines of caste and religion. Thus only those identity groups that are numerically large enough and physically contiguous can effectively use the vote to make their numbers and preferences count.

The identity groups amongst the poor that are numerically small, geographically dispersed, or bereft of popular sympathy, are unable to leverage the vote in the same way. Their only recourse to further marginalization is resistance. And such resistance is quite apparent in many districts in the country.

The middle class does not embody any coherent ideology. One can detect a strand of indifference to politics based on the unstated premise that things will somehow continue on their own accord along the trajectory of the recent past. There is a strand that is apprehensive of the long-term implications of democratic empowerment. There is a strand impatient with the democratic process that, in its view, holds back the development of the country. And there is a strand annoyed with the resistance that it believes prevents access to resources vital to fuel the much desired development.

The last three strands come together in various ways in their denigration of politics as usual as a racket manipulated by the unenlightened or the corrupt for their own benefit. They are attracted to some variant of a managerial capitalism that is guided by competent autocrats who can override the constraints that slow down the attainment of the only goal which matters – economic growth.

And this brings in the joker in the pack – economic growth. The scenarios alter significantly with the nature of economic growth. Without economic growth, democracy would have nothing much to deliver. The poor with the vote would be no better off than the poor without the vote and one might expect to see the numbers of those engaged in resistance to swell over time. At the same time, the numbers of the middle class would remain small in relative terms. So the scenario would be one of stagnation, without effective resolution, and a slow progression to the point where a social revolution would appear to be the only route out of the status quo.

With economic growth, which has been the case in India since the 1990s, the scenario looks quite different. Democratic empowerment is yielding slow gains; the marginalized are being exploited more aggressively; and the middle class is growing rapidly in numbers with its attraction to authoritarianism. The questions, difficult to answer at this time, are the following: As inequalities widen, would the slow gains from democratic empowerment be sufficient for the poor to keep faith with democracy? Would the burgeoning middle class attain the critical mass to assert its authoritarian preferences with more vigor? And would the groups in resistance be able to come together or would they be overcome one by one by the increasingly legitimized repression?

These social and political tensions, unleashed by the dynamic of growth, would inevitably feed back on the growth itself. And if growth is negatively affected by the conflicts there could be a switch to the no- or low-growth scenario described earlier. Managing these tensions and the expectations of the various constituencies would be the biggest challenge facing India and Indians in the near future.

It was mentioned at the beginning that all these forces would be unfolding in the context of the major trend of urbanization. In general, urbanization is a positive factor both socially, because it dissolves the differences of identity, and economically, because larger labor markets add to productivity. But once again, India is a special case in many ways. First, India has not invested sufficiently in its rural human capital to enable it to contribute to a modern urban economy in the short run without significant additional investment, an investment that needs at least a decade to yield meaningful results.

Second, India is beset not only with differences along caste that could be expected to dissolve with urbanization but differences along religion that are just as likely to be exacerbated with increased urban competition. Third, Indian cities are by no means prepared to handle the influx of people in terms of housing and social services. And fourth, the autonomy of Indian cities to deal proactively with their issues or to leverage their potential is severely circumscribed by the existing balance of power between the municipalities and the states. All these, without adequate attention, can portend ill-served congested slums and ghettoized communities that are forever on a short fuse to real or contrived conflict. And there is little doubt that the soft authoritarians would from time to time clamor to have them demolished to realize the value of prime real estate while banishing the residents to the ever-receding outskirts of the growing cities.

Once again, economic growth is the joker in the pack. While economic growth in India has been high, it is concentrated in sectors that do not generate significant numbers of jobs of the type that can be filled by rural migrants. This is likely to lead to a mismatch between the supply and demand of labor and a widening gap between the more skilled urbanites and the less skilled rural migrants. How the benefits of the existing economic growth are distributed and what new engines of economic growth are favored, and where, would have a significant bearing on the absorption and uplifting of the new residents of Indian cities. A major investment in employment intensive infrastructure development combined with a spatial urbanization plan would be an obvious contender to consider.

This, by its very nature, is a very speculative exercise. Its objective is to invite responses that would refine the analysis, elaborate the scenarios, offer new ones, and suggest the measures to ensure the inclusive, just, orderly and stable development of India.


  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:50h, 06 November Reply

    You have not mentioned the trump card. The powerful media will influence trend. And also there is one more powerful player. The young and purposeful India. The young are impatient with the old India symbolic of corruption, inefficiency and ‘chalta hai’!

    • Vikram
      Posted at 21:25h, 06 November
    • Vikram
      Posted at 21:28h, 06 November

      Btw, based on the opinions of these young folks, it would seem that it is really the lower middle classes who have more authoritarian tendencies than the young middle class.

      Although, I broadly agree with South Asian on the opinion that the great Indian middle class favours soft authoritarianism, I think we need develop a slightly more nuanced view.

      We will perhaps need a series of posts and discussions to do this.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:58h, 07 November

      Vikram: I agree, we need to look at the young in a disaggregated fashion. The simplest, to start with, might be to look at the new generations in the three segments employed in the post – the poor benefiting from democratic empowerment, the excluded, and the rising middle classes. We need to speculate on how the attitudes of the new generation in these segments might differ from those of the old. Some obvious questions to ask would be the following:

      Would the young in the first category be satisfied by the slow gains from democratic empowerment? Would they be more or less patient than their parents? Here economic growth would be the joker in the pack because if inequalities widen, slow growth might not be enough to provide satisfaction.
      Would the young in the second category be more or less militant than their parents? Here the answer might be easier. In addition, economic growth is likely to increase exploitation unless a major attitude correction takes place or is forced.
      The third category is fairly unambiguous.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 00:00h, 10 November

      What I feel is that we need to rigorously evaluate the opinion that the middle class and the under classes have antagonizing interests. At this point, the middle class is hurting the marginalized mostly by its silence. I feel if we disaggregate the middle class, perhaps we will find that the opinions/beliefs of the people in it vary widely by age.

      I think the issue here is not so much of opposing interests as much it is of lack of knowledge and a poor education to begin with.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:31h, 10 November

      Vikram: There is diversity even within what we think of as homogeneous groups. And then there is diversity across groups. India is a very diverse country so one should expect very wide variations. Still, social scientists pick up on some commonalities that identify some unifying traits – for example Gen X or Gen Y in the US. In the 1960’s there was the Hippie Generation. Not all young people were hippies by any means but there was a large enough counter-culture movement to be significant and noticeable.

      In the case of India, everyone talks about the soft spot for soft authoritarianism of the rising middle classes. One has to determine if there is something real to this or if it is just a speculative characterization that has been adopted without rigorous analysis.

      My suggestion would be to examine if there is some central tendency that could be associated with the middle classes. One could take a particular age bracket (say, 25-35 years) and an income bracket that defines the middle class in this age bracket and then canvass their views and opinions. My guess is that income shapes a lot of things and levels out the differences that are associated with other sources of diversity (religion, caste, gender, etc.). People of a certain age in a certain income group begin to share lifestyles, aspirations, and preferences. If a preference for soft authoritarianism exists it is likely to be found here but this should be an empirical determination.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:03h, 07 November

      Isn’t this preference for soft authoritarianism in young a consequence of more fundamental desire for things to move faster. Once the original reason is set right, this manifest desire for authoritarianism also will disappear.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:56h, 08 November

      True Anil. That desire needs to be tempered with the desire for empathetic justice. I believe it is the lack of empathy combined with a significant lack of awareness of the causes of the subaltern that is leading to the hasty choice of soft authoritarianism.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:49h, 07 November

      Anil: Could you elaborate on what impact the media might have. On the young, I feel we would have to disaggregate the category to have a better grasp of the aspirations of its various segments.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 07:03h, 07 November

      I am not able to articulate it quite yet but some how its role seems important in shaping future of India. If not anything at least it is a force multiplier i.e. if there is a discernible trend it can and will give tremendous push to that trend. In that sense it will accelerate pace of change.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:43h, 07 November

      Anil: For a number of reasons the media is likely to be selective in its impact; it would reinforce some trends, oppose some, and ignore others. In addition, it is not a passive force; it would also create public opinion and again the orientation would be selective. The role of the media would be important but not in a straightforward way.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:10h, 07 November Reply

    There is hope for India only if the rising middle class lets go of the preference for soft authoritarianism and is willing to look beyond its own self interest. If the middle class ignores the conditions of the poor and those rebelling then the nation runs the risk of chaos because the other two groups will not be too kind to the middle class as the repression continues. Any retaliation against the middle class will not be because of any active fault of the middle class itself. Its apathy to conditions around may lead to such a situation. The question is which way will the rising middle class go? Will they learn it the hard way or will enlightened thinking start to take hold soon? Will India have to suffer heavily before it wakes up to the path of compromise? The rising middle class have a strong voice in the media. The media have a strong influence on the political arena. The viewpoints emerging from the media will confront that which emerges from the striuggles of the marginalized and those using the democratic process to get power. The numbers on each side are huge enough to never be quelled. I wonder whether desperation and frustration will lead to some knee jerk actions being taken or whether the exhaustion of it all will actually prompt people to belt up and think again. It comes down to the character of the individuals that we are making as a nation. What kind of individuals are we making and placing at the decision making junctures of the political space?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:40h, 07 November

      Vinod: The lines along which conflict could occur and where it needs to be avoided are drawn fairly clearly in my view. What role can we expect the media to play in this? At one level, the media is largely beholden to corporate interests so it is likely to reflect the viewpoints of the contending groups in a skewed and uneven way. At another level, most of the personnel in the media belong to the middle class so they might be able to bend it to their viewpoints. So, the question will be how the viewpoints of the middle classes evolves? And here your last question is the key one: What kind of mindset are individuals acquiring during their education? At a very broad level, this takes us back to a debate we have had before: What is the relative ordering of justice and growth and how do we think of the sequencing that would suit India best? Do we sacrifice some growth now for justice and ensure social order; or do we grow first and redistribute later at the risk of disorder? It is a very fine balancing act and a lot of deliberation and input would be needed to get the balance right.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:03h, 08 November Reply

    Anil: You have posed the following question:

    Isn’t this preference for soft authoritarianism in young a consequence of more fundamental desire for things to move faster. Once the original reason is set right, this manifest desire for authoritarianism also will disappear.

    In this formulation the key is to set the ‘original reason’ right. How can that be done? Let us consider a concrete situation. Some sections of the middle class are antagonistic toward the tribals because the latter are felt to be holding back development. How can this be remedied?

    Other sections are impatient with democratic practices because these require compromises and are time consuming. How can this be fixed?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 10:15h, 08 November

      I think it is not the question of tribal holding back development but ambivalence in government/bureaucracy. Young people want a decisive step one way or the other. For instance if tribal land is to be acquired for development then it must be acquired in a just manner which is clearly visible if not then the case be closed. Situation should not be allowed to remain open for indefinite period. However fringe cases like these will always be there but generally a decisive government will be good enough for the young to change their stance.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:02h, 08 November

      Anil: I agree with you but it’s an open question how decisive a national government can be in a country like India where there are so many constituencies to placate. Decisiveness at the cost of consensus generates its own problems which people in a hurry tend to under-estimate till it is too late.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:20h, 09 February Reply

    Ramachandra Guha believes instability is in store for India and its future is in peril:

    “In 1952—the year of the first general elections—the state was the most secure of the three legs of democracy; now it is the most corrupt and corroded. If the state had not performed as it did in the first decades of independence, India would not have been united nor a democracy. Now, unless the state is more capable and focused, India’s future is in peril.”

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