The Indian Illusion: Shashank Kela

Guest post by SHASHANK KELA

Some time ago, I wrote an article seeking to dissect certain myths about Indian politics – and the class that dominates it, despite protestations to the contrary, the middle-class.[1] It is one of the habits of this class to see, and self-pityingly portray itself as victim – of mass politics, reservation policies, the great unwashed, of politicos bent upon appeasing the poor at the cost of sound principles and policies. Its conviction, of course, is that India was great, and on the cusp of becoming so again. This unfading glory is no more to be disputed than the existence of the sun, although opinions differ upon the precise placement of our golden age.

To the rabid fanatics of Hindutva, it resides in an unspecified Vedic time, when Hindus (not Indians) mysteriously succeeded in inventing aeroplanes, dynamite, nuclear weapons, the wheel, zero, and what have you (and mysteriously losing most of these wonderful things). To the Nehruvians, it is the age of Akbar, Ashoka, Harsha, periods of syncreticism and unique tolerance, where people of different faiths lived together peacefully and a composite culture flowered. To them, and to Gandhians, it also resides in the figure of Gandhi and the tradition of practical spirituality. To the fanatics of Islam, it is probably the age of Alauddin Khilji, the reign of Aurangzeb, and so on.

The never-ending debate about India’s pasts contains a diversity of opinions; however, on its future destiny, these begin to converge. The RSS and BJP believe, for example, that India is destined to become a great industrial power. So did Nehru, and assorted Indian Marxists. Indeed, it is an article of faith for the burgeoning middle-class (mostly, but not entirely Hindu) that India can, should and will equal China to become a great power, economic and military (thus leaving Japan and South Korea in the dust).

The potential of India is discussed ad infinitum; the reality of India, and the reasons behind it, receive much less attention. Quite how risible Narendra Modi’s incessant invitations to the world to manufacture in India are, can only be appreciated by comparing the two. But comparison is by no means enough. More interesting are patterns of power and dominance, of obfuscation and self-delusion lying beneath the surface, that repay close attention. For they reveal that the middle-class, while loudly proclaiming its belief in India’s manifest destiny for sixty-five odd years (since the inception of the republic in fact) has systematically abjured and undercut every policy that might have served to bring it about. Let us try to find out how and why.

A good place to start would be its social composition. This, in turn, takes us to a (primarily Marxist) reading of India’s social structure, namely that in 1947 (some would say, until the 1970s) it was essentially feudal. A mass of verbiage, and much hair-splitting, have been devoted to the subject. The term itself is cloudy and imprecise – what it indicated, subliminally as it were, was that the social basis of dominance in India was narrow. It was assumed that a small minority of the population – the twice born castes (Brahmins and proto-Brahmins, Rajputs and the mercantile castes) dominated the economy, held much of the land, and worked the levers of political power.

Now anybody who has ever lived outside the northern plains and Rajasthan – in other words, the majority of Indians – will immediately recognize the fallacy of this argument. In the Deccan and the deep south, the immense power and influence of the dominant landed castes – technically classified as Shudras – is one of the immutable facts of life. Kunbi Patidars and Marathas in the west, Reddys and Kapus in Andhra, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Vellalas in Tamil Nadu, the Jats of Punjab, Haryana and eastern UP – none of these groups, whatever their notional position in the caste hierarchy, or lack of it, were remotely plebeian when India gained independence. In almost every case, they had thrown up an elite of zamindars, prosperous farmers, even rulers, by the 19th century (the Sikh state in the Punjab, the kingdom of Bharatpur, the Maratha ruler of Tanjore, assorted Nayaks and poligars in the south etc.).

They also included a mass of poor smallholders, who could be effectively mobilized by their wealthier compatriots as shock troops when occasion demanded. More to the point, poverty did not equal social inferiority in their case, for in the countryside they did pretty much as they pleased, lording it over Dalits and plebeian castes. K Balagopal brilliantly dissects the power and motives of this provincial landed class (his term) in Andhra Pradesh in one of the best books on Indian politics ever written.[2]

In other words, many so-called “Shudra” castes have been embedded in the rural power structure for centuries, over large parts of India – those classical texts and (Brahmin) commentators who harp on their supposedly degraded status represent an advanced case of wishful thinking. In any case, these texts have never been a reliable guide to the actual distribution of power (a fact which Louis Dumont, that indefatigable explainer of caste, chose to ignore with typical savoir-faire)[3]. And this remains true despite the fact that, some time around the late 19th and early 20th century, the term Shudra became a synonym for oppressed, thanks to reformers like Phule, and anti-Brahmin movements in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. It is notable that these movements arose just about when the dominant farming castes sought to take advantage of new opportunities opened by colonialism in trade, administration and the professions. At the time, the city was still a stronghold of the twice born castes – it was there (and not in the countryside) that the so-called Shudra castes found themselves at a disadvantage (although this observation must be qualified in the case of Maharashtra where Peshwa rule had given Brahmins a particularly strong presence in the countryside as village and revenue officials). The result was organized and effective agitation that soon bore fruit (despite the irredeemable conservatism of British officials and their belief that the written word was always right). By the end of the first world war, the anti-Brahmin Justice Party had been founded, soon to become the dominant political force in the Tamil speaking regions of the Madras Presidency. So much so, that even the Congress, in the 1940s, was forced to remodel itself as a “backward caste” party under the leadership of Kamaraj (a Nadar), only to be upstaged less than twenty years later by its “Dravidian” opponents.

It was the castes below them which gained rather more from democratic politics: Yadavs in the north, like Vanniyars and Thevars in Tamil Nadu, began their slow and uneven rise after 1947. By the 1990s this had been pretty much achieved, and the same pattern of hostility towards Dalits persisted. The antagonism between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP is not an accident: it stems from the same reasons that make Jats so hostile to Dalit aspiration in the northern plains, and pits Thevars and Vanniyars against Dalits in Tamil Nadu – a determination to buttress their own position by firmly holding down all those lower in the social scale.

When the smokescreen of feudalism is abolished, and the dominant farming castes (unhelpfully classified as Shudras) take their rightful place in the ranks of the powerful, the social basis of dominance in India becomes more elastic and much, much more realistic. It is not, in other words, a question of twenty percent lording it over the rest, but more like fifty-fifty (which is bad enough). For three centuries and possibly more, it is an uneasy alliance of upper and middle castes that has arranged and rearranged the political and economic map of the country (whether in collaboration with colonialism or in opposition to it). Once this is recognized, the second myth about the Indian middle-class becomes easier to comprehend.

For it has been the error of a wide variety of observers to believe that it is more or less like its compatriots in east Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th century, faced with the shock of colonialism, a number of thinkers in Asia, from far east to far west, from China and Japan to Turkey and Iraq, sought ways to regenerate their respective homelands, to attain freedom from a colonial power, or equality with the West in technology, armaments and military organization.[4] These spilled over into wholesale makeovers of existing social and political structures by a reforming elite whenever conditions were ripe. The earliest and most thoroughgoing was in Japan (the Meiji Restoration, 1868); others took place after the second world war.

The aim, in each case, was to achieve parity with the West – to modernize, build an industrial economy, a strong military, an educated and productive workforce, end hunger and poverty and so on. Japan had already succeeded once, and spectacularly too, before succumbing to militarism and falling in war. Now it would succeed again, and so would South Korea, and, later, China. India did not; it could be said that we’re still trying, still certain of success. However a simple comparison with east Asian economies reveals the collective choices made by the Indian middle-class, choices that flew, and still fly, in the face of its stated aims. For class, as Balagopal presciently pointed out is what class does, not what it should do according to some preordained template.

Let us examine what actually happened in each case. In Japan, the modernizers (drawn principally from the samurai class and the less powerful clans) abolished the shogunate, remade the emperor into a quasi-constitutional monarch (effective mask for an effective and homogenous oligarchy), instituted far-reaching land reforms, an effective system of primary education designed to make all Japanese literate, followed by equally efficient technical education on the Western model (only a few were meant to go to university). The state invested in new industries with modern technology, and sold off these enterprises after a short while.[5]

After the second world war, North Korea instituted a radical programme of land reform and the American advised and controlled southern part grudgingly followed suit; South Korean legislators, in this case, proved more radical than their president, the American stooge, Syngman Rhee. In Japan, the American military administration oversaw a second far-reaching redistribution of land (but then in those days the State Department had such eccentric advisers as Wolf Ladejinsky who believed that land reforms were essential to stave off communism).

In China, a bloody and protracted land redistribution followed hard upon the communist victory; quite how bloody is only now beginning to emerge. It is true that co-operative farming, instituted in the late ’50 was never a great success, and agricultural productivity fell steeply, but two decades later Deng was to turn the clock back to household farming with spectacular results. In both China and South Korea, schooling and basic healthcare received abundant attention.[6]

What did the Indian middle-class do? The first, basic step of land-reform, the abolition of zamindari (with generous compensation), took years and had to be rubber stamped by the Supreme Court before becoming operative. The next step, of achieving some kind of parity in land-holdings by setting land ceiling laws and redistributing the surplus limped along for two decades, subverted at every turn by Congress state governments, dominated by farming castes, who had absolutely no intention of giving any land up.[7]

As for education, the very limited (but effective) system instituted by the colonial state was expanded in scope while being run to the ground in terms of quality. By the 1970s, hardly anyone who could afford better wished to send their children to village or municipal schools – quasi private (state aided as in most “convent” schools) or private schooling were the preferred options. It had also become an axiom that a decent education could only be obtained in cities, where such institutions flourished. The state of healthcare was even worse, if possible. Here the British had done little or nothing (outside the major cities), and although Nehru’s government promised much, it did characteristically little. A network of primary health centres and district hospitals was set up – but doctors could simply exercise their sovereign right not to accept employment in them (even though their education had been subsidized by the state); and those who did accept out of necessity (for state employment represented the ultimate in job security) found that they could, like schoolteachers, do more or less as they pleased – work as little as possible, moonlight as private practitioners and so on. Nor, to be just, was this entirely their fault, for schools and hospitals, once set up, tended to be starved of funds and infrastructure and subject to so much corruption and maladministration that even the honest and well-intentioned might be forgiven for giving up.

The link between land reforms, state schooling, the provision of healthcare and industrial development may not be obvious at first sight, but a little thought should reveal the connection. A worker capable of dealing with machines and processes of increasing complexity should be able to read and write, possess a modicum of technical skill and ability to acquire more, and the capacity and motivation to work hard for low pay. This motivation tends to come from the fact that some path of upward mobility (however delusive) is felt to be open: therefore the low wages that are a sine qua non of manufacturing competitiveness become insupportable once education and healthcare are privatized (as is the case in India). And, finally, his/her work should not incur too much contempt (in every culture there is a sharp divide between the blue collar factory worker and white collar clerk, but in India this becomes a chasm). In other words, the aspiration to rise through lowly wage work should be seen to be practicable. This has never been the case in India, where the innate contempt for manual work which a child learns almost as soon as he or she is able to speak (the dire position of those who work with their hands being self-evident) ensures that aspiration is directed towards attaining some ill-paid job in the service sector. As for the education system which is meant to train these workers to handle and understand machinery, the less said the better.

Failing these attributes, it is perfectly possible to attain a mid-level industrial capacity – which is what India is chugging along at. But the dream of emulating the more advanced east Asian economies will remain just that – a dream.

It should be noted that I have made no mention of one fact that distinguishes India from most of these countries, either in the past or the present. The reason is simple: it seems self-evident that a democracy should be more efficient at social provision than non-democracies, whatever their ideological underpinnings. Yet a capitalist (though not free-market) military dictatorship in South Korea (Taiwan too), and an unfree communist regime in China managed far more than India, which should make us ponder rather more deeply upon the nature of our democratic forms and institutions.


Some, at least, of the arguments advanced thus far are not particularly new – they echo a well established social-democratic critique of India’s development policies. Gunnar Myrdal, after all, gave up on Nehru’s administration for roughly these reasons. But repetition does not appear to stale, if not their variety, than their novelty, for they have been lost sight of for decades. Indian Marxists were not particularly concerned about the lack of education or healthcare (though vocal about land reforms), having more pressing things, such as the revolution, to think about. As for free market capitalists, who view state investment in anything except physical infrastructure, defense, and policing with a bleak eye, they are not concerned to draw attention to these things either. Thus Jagadish Bhagwati and his acolytes can advance the ludicrous argument that investments in social infrastructure depend upon growth (which provides the money), ignoring the incontestable fact that historically nations have managed to provide basic education and healthcare without much money (the investment required is primarily in people, since teachers and doctors are not paid princely salaries); and, besides, this investment, even if it were, in fact, to cost much more than it actually does, is nevertheless essential in the long-term.

It is also the case that the passage of time has brought the results of this failure into sharp focus. Myrdal’s critique remained in the realm of prognosis. No prognosis is required any longer to deduce that India is unlikely to become an advanced manufacturing power like Japan, South Korea or China. It is the domestic market (our pockets) that foreign firms are interested in, not the prospects of making things here.

It deserves to be pointed out that the persistence of entrenched social inequalities, the appalling state of public education and healthcare (among the most privatized in the world) are no accident: they are a result of deliberate choices made by the middle-class, choices that flew in the face of its stated ambition for the nation’s future. Why were these choices made? One can only guess at the answers, cloudily, perhaps simplistically. In Japan and South Korea, a modernizing elite cut the roots of the traditional system, which had hitherto underpinned its wealth and power. It did so, not with the aim of giving up its primacy, but out of pragmatic calculation that its compeers would be able to adapt and preserve the basis of their dominance, albeit in altered form. Meanwhile the country would advance; they themselves would, in the fullness of time, become richer, more powerful.

This calculation seems never to have occurred to the Indian middle-class, overwhelmingly composed of upper and middle castes in an uneasy, often strained alliance. Neither component was willing to alter the social conditions upon which its primacy was built – the unwavering subjection of their inferiors, not just in economic, but social and ritual terms. For the middle castes, the equation was simple: it is precisely because so many of them are poor smallholders that they fight so energetically to preserve the social distinctions that separate them from Dalits and plebeian castes, and every attempt by the latter to better their lot. By keeping them firmly in their place, they maintain their own place in the rural hierarchy, and apply the profits from agriculture to an urban setting – in trade, professions, and administration – for their sons and sons-in-law.

The upper castes should have been more self-confident. In actual fact, they were even less so as they tried desperately, especially in the north, to stave off competition from middle castes (and failed, since they could, in the final analysis, be outvoted). Meanwhile entrenched prejudices and habits predisposed them to regard the plebeian castes as a race apart, dirty, barbaric and irredeemable, whose function was to labour for little pay, and never to be allowed to rise in the social scale.

At bottom, this failure can be put down to ingrained notions of hierarchy, class and caste embedded in the collective psyche. It goes back all the way to the founding fathers, who almost to a man (and woman) were upper or middle caste, and thus imbued with the idea of India’s once and future greatness, lacking entirely the cold-eyed scrutiny that could have told them how much of the traditional system needed to be swept away in order to modernize India according their own ambition. Gandhi (who did not share this particular dream) believed that it was possible to abolish untouchability without abolishing caste, a cack-handed opinion if ever there was one, and what he said openly others thought covertly (though with less self-examination).

Thus, the inherently coercive scaffolding of the colonial state was kept intact – down to most of its laws, the opacity of appointments, the complete lack of accountability of any government functionary towards the citizens he (or she) is ostensibly appointed to serve. Over this was superimposed a veneer of democratic institutions and procedures (an independent press and judiciary, elected legislatures, elections, above all), that blithely ignored the deeply undemocratic nature of the underlying structure. If the idea was to unleash India’s human potential, it was bound to fail.


Sixty odd years after independence what is risible is not that the prime minister of India should, in his first major public address, harp upon the necessity of building so many million toilets, but that his audience (all of us) should accept this statement at face value, without reflecting that such things as toilets should, all in all, have been  provided forty years ago. It is noticeable that Narendra Modi was deafeningly silent on the appalling state of public education and healthcare, and this silence is faithfully reflected in the press, amongst his admirers and critics alike.

It can be no one’s case that the machinery of India’s social infrastructure is in any way adequate. Why is more noise not made about it? It may be that those who energetically defend welfare and welfarist policies are chary of advocating wholesale reform in this sphere in the belief that government functionaries such as schoolteachers, nurses, doctors are part of the labour force whose rights must be defended. Certainly the conditions under which they work could do with considerable improvement, but it is worth pointing out that, in comparison to the mass of poor, they occupy a privileged position. As it stands, their unions are a real political force in many states (Madhya Pradesh, for example), but this influence is rarely exerted for the common good.

How many of India’s hundreds of thousands of policemen, government teachers, nurses, doctors etc. are adivasi, Dalit, or representatives of put-upon and plebeian castes? Not many. How many of these take the same approach to their work as most upper and middle caste employees when they do reach these exalted positions? All too many. The problem is that no government functionary is ever accountable to those whose lives are affected by the duties he or she is supposed to perform; he is only responsible to his superiors. Lacking any impetus for reform, either from above or below, the status quo remains firmly in place.

To most people (including the poor) the shambles of social provision passes unnoticed and unremarked: it barely impinges on elections, which are fought or won on other issues, nor does it provoke popular unrest. There has never been any shortage of debate at any time in the history of independent India about the economic direction it should or should not be taking. There is scarcely any discussion upon our continuing failure to provide elementary social infrastructure of the kind which east Asian and Latin American countries take for granted. Thus, no poor child in India (unless by a stroke of uncommon fortune) can hope to obtain so much as a decent education unless her parents make a superhuman effort (and even then the chances of rising appreciably in the world are bleak). There is no better index of our collective amnesia.

Lest it be deduced that I am here defending the orthodox vision of India’s future, I hasten to make it clear that this is not the case. The aim of this essay is to point out how conspicuously the middle-class has failed to attain its stated objective (of building an advanced industrial economy), and the reasons for this failure. A failure magnified by the colossal environmental devastation it has overseen, for comparatively meagre results industrially speaking. After all, it is not many economies which can boast of building as many dams and assorted power plants as India, while transmission and distribution losses run at 24 percent (in other words, about a quarter of all electricity generated is wasted before it reaches the consumer, or stolen).

This ecological devastation is another symptom of the moral blindness of the middle-class; the brunt, after all, is borne and will be borne by the poor (who also contribute to the damage, albeit in a different way): the rich can always retire to gated communities and air-conditioned homes. A succinct graphic in Scientific American shows that Delhi’s air pollution is worse than Beijing’s (for far less is done to tackle it)[8]  – which should calm the envy of those of us who deeply resent China’s dominance in everything.

It takes talent of no mean sort to destroy the environment so thoroughly in the course of building a second rate industrial capability. And it is the accumulated consequences of environmental destruction on a global scale – embodied in climate change – that have spelled finis to our chance of achieving industrial superiority. The moment has passed. One of its elements was a conjunction of political forces (the Cold War) which enabled east Asian economies for thirty years (from roughly 1950 to 1980) to take advantage of favourable patterns of global trade to engineer export-led growth, while energetically protecting domestic industry – the US tolerated this behaviour in the interests of enlisting allies to roll back communism; China, of course, began its upward trajectory at the end of this period taking advantage of other propulsive forces (and a different pattern of state-backed investment).

The other was a blithe ignorance of the long-term consequences of what everybody was doing. Those consequences and costs are all too apparent now – rising seas, erratic rainfall, acidic oceans, dying coral reefs, declining harvests, social unrest. The dominant economic theory has changed too, with free-market fundamentalism ascendant. Which means that the old dream is no longer tenable (if, indeed, it ever was). And its costs, as embodied by China – even greater ecological devastation, sterile cultural uniformity, hyper consumerism – should make its abandonment no bad thing at all.

In theory it is possible to envisage a third way in which investments in technology, scientific research, and a carefully calibrated industrial policy go hand in hand with a reformed agriculture, respect for subsistence and systems of traditional knowledge, and lower consumption. In theory – for we are venturing into unknown territory here. But this too would require a radical overhaul of our social policies – the rock upon which everything else founders.

Somewhere in his oeuvre, the great Italian novelist and man of letters, Leonardo Sciascia, defines the Sicilian mafia as a parasitic middle-class that exploits instead of producing. An apt definition, and one that could be applied to a large section of our home grown middle-class as well, whose routine crimes pass almost unnoticed, so normal and accepted are they. Its basic, cardinal failure, the failure of inclusion, infects all our institutions. Inevitably this failure has had a profoundly regressive effect upon politics (where the dominance of the middle castes has now spread pretty much over the country; electoral victory is impossible without their support, a fact the BJP has finally learned). No political party, and certainly not the organized left, has ever championed the basic interests of the mass of poor who work in what is euphemistically called the informal (unorganized) sector (as opposed to a tiny, well organized section of the workforce). No Dalit or adivasi party has shown any discernible concern for the reform of schooling or healthcare – a matter of considerable urgency to their constituents, who are dependent upon public services. The steady rise of the Hindu right since the mid ’80s is the inevitable consequence of the failure of decades of “socialist” and “Marxist” politics (where jargon substituted for coherent and effective action).

The welcome that Modi’s government has received testifies to an inherent and enduring cravenness. The mainstream media has always shown its readiness to genuflect to power – this was true in the days of Indira Gandhi and remains true in the time of Modi as well, enormous expansion notwithstanding. Conformism prevails – witness the embarrassing encomiums showered upon Modi by the Economic Times, for example, and not just by it, even when he has yet to fulfill all its wishes.

Nor have other institutions, now or ever, been immune to the prevailing winds. The Supreme Court has already beaten a retreat over the appointment of one inconvenient judge (Gopal Subramaniam); should it fail to rule against the speaker’s (read BJP’s) decision to dispense with a leader of opposition, Modi will have a free hand in constitutional appointments. The loopholes and ambiguities in the judicial appointments bill give the executive far too much leeway in keeping out those it would rather not see appointed.

Meanwhile reform (except in the economic sphere, where it serves as shorthand for giving business free – well, even freer – rein) hardly receives a mention. A great deal of ink is expended over the supposed shortcomings of secularism, pro and contra, a debate in which Ashis Nandy and his disciples, as ever, play a prominent part. In another corner, the historic role, shortcomings, and possibility of reinvention of the organized left are endlessly discussed. It is striking how both debates pointedly ignore the practical questions at issue now, questions of politics and practice, rather than theory. But that is par for the course, and a story for another day.

Shashank Kela is the author of A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi Resistance 1800-2000. He writes occasionally on politics and current affairs.


[2]     K Balagopal, Ear to the Ground: Selected Writings on Class and Caste (Delhi: Navayana, 2011).

[3]     Luis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: the Caste System and its Implications (Delhi: OUP, 1998).

[4]   See Pankaj Mishra’s far ranging study, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia.

[5]  See William Lockwood, The Economic Development of Japan: Growth and Structural Change, 1868-1938 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).

[6]  For South Korea and China, see the able summaries by Joe Studwell in How Asia Works, Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region (London: Profile Books, 2013).

[7]  The best study is still by Francine R Frankel, India’s Political Economy 1947-1977: The Gradual Revolution (Delhi: OUP, 1978).

[8]  Scientific American,

5 thoughts on “The Indian Illusion: Shashank Kela”

  1. Having trolled relentlessly on kafila, i must say this is one article that i find is really well thought of and well written…


  2. Unlike most Indians who lack ‘entirely the cold-eyed scrutiny’, Shashank Kela has it in full measure!


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