ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Classes, Capital and Indian Democracy

Partha Chatterjee responds to the three comments by Shah, John and Deshpande, and Baviskar and Sundar, on his essay "Democracy and Economic Transformation in India".









Classes, Capital and Indian Democracy

Partha Chatterjee








John and Deshpande are right in s uggesting that in DET, I have tried to inquire whether the apparently hegemonic position recently acquired by corporate capital in urban society in India also e xtends to the countryside. I have also tried to flesh out the dynamics of what I call “political

Partha Chatterjee responds to the three comments by Shah, John and Deshpande, and Baviskar and Sundar, on his essay “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India”.

Partha Chatterjee ( is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences C alcutta and also with the Columbia University, New York

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

t is immensely gratifying to be commented upon and even criticised by younger scholars whose work one has greatly admired and whose views are a pointer to the direction that Indian social science will take in the years to come. I am thankful to Mary John and Satish Deshpande, Mihir Shah, and Amita Baviskar and Nandini Sundar for the care and seriousness with which they have read my article “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India” (19 April 2008, hereafter DET). My response below is in the spirit of continuing the discussion.

s ociety”, earlier worked out for urban populations, in the contemporary rural context. The route I have chosen in DET is to connect with an older Marxist discussion of transition to capitalism, passive revolution of capital and the politics of the subaltern classes, and to ask if an adequate understanding of our contemporary situation r equires a reconceptualisation of those older categories. This, of course, is only one possible trajectory to an under standing of the present and, needless to say, other avenues could be profitably explored.

Hence, if Mihir Shah is convinced that class analysis of the Marxist variety is


“long discredited” and that power in India cannot be understood “without reference to the caste system”, he is of course at liberty to ignore DET altogether. However, I would like to point out a methodological problem concerning the level of generality to which a conceptual study aspires. While it goes without saying that the practices of caste discrimination are deeply intertwined with virtually all relations of power in India, I am sceptical of theoretical claims that the social scientific analysis of Indian society requires, as a conse quence, its own theoretical concepts. The assertion of some sort of “uniqueness of India”, it seems to me, denies to us the wealth of comparative resources that more general theoretical frameworks allow and needlessly imprison us within the scholarly fortifications built by Indologists. I am also unconvinced that there is anything like a caste “system” that can be referred to in speaking of power formations in India as a whole, espe cially since it is clear that the ritual significance of caste, sanctioned by religious texts and practices, has virtually disappeared from caste-based contestations in recent times. If caste has been secularised, then its only “system”-like features are given by the provisions of the Indian Constitution relating to caste, by administrative orders and by court judgments, all of which are the aggregative r esults, perennially under contestation, of national politics and many of which are subject to numerous modifications at the state and local levels.

As far as power relations in the concrete are concerned, class is, without doubt, inti mately tied to caste as practised at l ocal levels, but other than obvious generalisations such as the predominantly upper-caste character of the urban middle classes or the predominance of Dalits among the landless poor, there are few general statements I know tying class to caste that would be valid for India as a whole. By comparison, statements about class, by virtue of their conceptual grounding in general theories of economic and political change, have, in principle, much more general applicability in an all-India domain and are open to debate based on empirical findings. It is true, of course, that the electoral mobilisation of caste and the emergence of a new middle class have sometimes led to the regional consolidation of a caste at the social level, as is apparently the case with Yadavs in large parts of northern India, but it has also led, as in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, for example, to social antagonism between contiguous Dalit castes. The subject of “caste and economic transformation in India” is crying out for rigorous study but it is not one I am competent to attempt at the level of generality chosen in DET

Something similar needs to be said about Shah’s comments about the adivasi. First of all, he misquotes me when he says that I claim “tribal peoples depend more on forest products or pastoral occupations than on agriculture”. What I had said was this:

In every region of India, there exist marginal groups of people who are unable to gain access to the mechanisms of political society. They are often marked by their exclusion from peasant society, such as low-caste groups who do not participate in agriculture or tribal peoples who depend more on forest products or pastoral occupations than on agriculture. Political society and electoral democracy have not given these groups the means to make effective claims on governmentality. In this sense, these marginalised groups represent an outside beyond the boundaries of political society.

Centrality of Peasant Agriculture

Clearly, I did not mean to suggest that all tribal peoples in India were pastoralists or gatherers of forest products. Rather, I was talking about the centrality of peasant agriculture to the issues of development and electoral democracy in much of rural India and the systematic marginalisation of those rural communities that did not have a significant role in agriculture. These would include those Dalit and adivasi groups that live alongside peasant villages but do not participate in agriculture, face deep-seated cultural prejudices and, given the inherent majoritarian bias of electoral democracy, are not easily mobilised into political society.

To continue my earlier point, let me also say that I find it analytically unhelpful to speak simultaneously of all tribal peoples in India. While the term “adivasi” may have some political purchase in certain contexts, establishing equivalences between tribal populations in central India and those in the north-east, any serious analysis must acknowledge the huge differences. There may be, arguably, something like a national and colonial question in the north-east, and the system of reservations, restrictions on property ownership and the spread of the new consumer economy have created a tribal middle class there that poses very different implications for changing power relations than in the regions of central India, including Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where tribal peoples are far more densely integrated within, and generally subjugated by, the power structures built around agriculture, mining, commercial forestry and industry. I would hesitate to bring them under the same conceptual umbrella.

I was also somewhat puzzled by Shah’s charge that in speaking about the recent changes in the conditions of peasant agriculture, I was invoking the idea of a “self-sufficient village community”. Surely there is an immense range of situations, and historical time, lying between a “selfsufficient peasantry” at one end and “peasant production where nothing is produced for self-consumption or non-monetised exchange” at the other. Indian historians, working on the period from the 16th to the 20th centuries, have explored that range of situations, pointing out the varying degrees to which peasant agriculture has been entangled in monetary and market relations and the tendencies, especially in the late colonial period, toward a differentiation of the peasantry. Alongside, there has grown a large literature on the comparative study of peasant societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America that begins from the premise that peasant communities are linked to larger power structures through taxation, credit and commodity relations. Virtually all of the Indian discussion about the transition from the late colonial to the recent period has talked about movements from one point to another within that range between complete self-sufficiency (which did exist in some places at certain times) and complete absence of production for self-consumption (which, by all accounts, was never quite prevalent until very recently). The reason why my observation about the end of peasant production for self-consumption is significant should be clear: if true, it should signify the



d issolution of the peasantry itself, in the same way that it has disappeared in w estern Europe and North America. That is what we would expect with primitive accumulation, commercial agriculture and the rapid differentiation of the peasantry. The complete absence of production for selfconsumption or non-market exchange would remove the foundations of peasant social life.

The question posed in DET was: are we seeing the dissolution of the Indian peasantry? The answer was: because of the politically regulated process of the reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation, the peasantry is not likely to be dissolved.

What Is New?

There is one question that appears in all three sets of comments: why do I insist that something dramatically new has happened in India since the 1990s? Shah thinks the process I describe began in 1971 with Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao programme. John and Deshpande say that welfarism, if that is what I am talking about, came into fashion even earlier. Baviskar and Sundar suggest that ameliorative measures to soften the destabilising impact of capitalist growth go all the way back to the industrial revolution in England and, in India, to colonial efforts in the 19th century to protect small peasants. I need to clarify the claim I am making in relation to the history of capitalism as well as to the history of the modern (colonial and post-colonial) state in India.

My claim about a process of reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation is, contrary to Baviskar and Sundar’s suggestion, definitely not one based on a “need of capital” argument. This argument was made some 30 years ago by structuralists such as Claude Meillassoux, Pierre-Philippe Rey and Harold Wolpe to explain the survival of precapitalist modes of production even after they had been articulated with the global capitalist economy. Their argument was that by bearing part of the costs of reproduction of labour and supplying cheap raw materials, the precapitalist sector was meeting the need of capital to keep its production costs low. The problem with this explanation, as even the Althusserians who made it admitted,

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

was that the articulation of pre- capital with capital could only be seen as a delayed transition to a fully developed capitalist mode of production. Kalyan Sanyal has dealt with this particular form of the “transition” argument in his book (Sanyal 2007:20-28). My claim about the reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation, as I have explained in DET, is not a “transition” argument at all. It is a process that I argue is integral to the global reproduction of capital in its most advanced phase. If one is to see it in the terms of Althusserian structuralism, one would have to say that those conditions of reproduction cannot be obtained by looking at the economic instance alone; the full set of conditions is specified by the political instance.

As far as India is concerned, it is certainly possible to trace back the genealogy of specific governmental technologies of “looking after” populations to the days of Nehru and Indira Gandhi and even further back to colonial times. But the key difference marked by the period since the 1990s is the following. The developmental state of the passive revolution in the decades after independence was the dominant formation claiming the moral high ground of modernity, national interest, equity, justice and even efficiency. The big bourgeoisie, seen to be mired in the parochial ethos of traditional merchant communities and unwillingly to break out of its protected monopolistic shell, was s ocially weak. Primitive accumulation was then carried out with the full legal, fiscal and coercive powers of the state – u napologetically, since the rational neutrality of decision-making organs such as the Planning Commission was supposed to ensure that such decisions of the state were always equitable and in the overall national interest.

When the state entered the arena of industry, commerce and services, it projected itself as a better employer than the private sector and claimed to set the standards of labour law implementation, employee benefits and social responsibility. When it took up populist welfare projects such as those under garibi hatao, it did so by loudly proclaiming the leading role of the state in independent and equitable national development and, in the voices of some of the more enthusiastic official spokespersons, as steps in the transition to some sort of socialism. The situation could not be more radically different t oday. Every single term of justification for expenditures in the so-called “social sector” has been transformed. That is what is new.

Civil-Corporate and Political-Non-corporate

Baviskar and Sundar have sternly questioned my key distinctions between civil and political society, on the one hand, and corporate and non-corporate capital, on the other. They have argued against the usefulness of these binary distinctions (or do they, in fact, object to all binary distinctions?) and have suggested that if they are to be used, the characteristics I have attributed to each of the terms should be i nverted. To reiterate my distinctions: C ivil society is the domain of associative life of citizens enjoying legally protected rights of freedom, equality and property, while political society is the space where populations are governed and looked a fter, often by ignoring or violating civic norms. Corporate capital refers to business organisations that are typically incorporated as joint stock companies, fully regulated by the law and engaged in business transactions on the basis of legally enforceable contracts, while non-corporate capital refers to the (admittedly diverse) array of enterprises that are insufficiently regulated by the law, that frequently operate on trust based on kinship or political loyalty and that could, if necessary, subordinate the maximisation of profit to the need to secure a livelihood. There is no doubt that the category of noncorporate capital has been named negatively, and it is possible that the positive features attributed to it will, after more extensive empirical study, yield a class of enterprises that is smaller than everything that lies outside the domain of corporate capital. But those are my provisional d istinctions.

Baviskar and Sundar point out that there is no dearth of illegality in the civic world of the middle class in India. True enough. But unlike the claims of survival needs in political society, they do not have the moral stamp of legitimacy. Middle class property owners, entrepreneurs and


even corporate firms may engage in a host of illegal activities and get away with them by resorting to evasion or subterfuge, or by greasing the palms of those responsible for catching them. If they talk about it in public, they do so shamefacedly, even though some may privately flaunt their impunity. But unlike squatters in Mumbai or Kolkata, or vegetable traders in various north Indian towns who recently vandalised the glitzy new stores of Reliance Fresh, they cannot proclaim the righteous demands of livelihood and survival. Moral legitimacy counts for a great deal in democratic politics. If one could invoke a Nietzschean insight, it is mistaken to claim that the dominant and propertied classes any longer set the standards of morality for society; rather, in a democratic age, the moral passion of entitlement and outrage is on the side of those who have little.

Results and Intentions

All three sets of commentators raise the question of actual results as distinct from the intentions of reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation. This is an important question and, although I did address it in DET, it deserves more attention. The intention here is driven by neither the b enevolence nor the economic needs of capital. Rather, it is formed within the i nstitutions of government as a set of policies designed to tackle the political problem of governing populations that make demands for livelihood, security and wellbeing. Since the intentions emerge from the arena of politics, it goes without saying that they are shaped by the struggles between rival groups and classes in that arena. Baviskar and Sundar note very rightly that the rural employment guarantee, forest rights and right to information are the three major sets of governmental policies designed to help the marginal and underprivileged sections of the people that have been won through protracted struggle. Shah, similarly, argues that the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on the ground is a battle that continues to rage. I could not agree with them more. The interesting question is not why such governmental policies come after a spate of agitations and vigorous movements, but rather why these are the policies that are chosen, as against others, and why these are the specific institutional forms that those policies take, as distinct from others that might also have been available. Even more interesting, it seems to me, is the question: why were these the most effective forms in which the demands could be framed by the movements so that they might elicit a policy response from government? These are the nitty-gritty of the politics of governmentality that the rational-technocratic language used by administrators and economists is designed to hide. But the student of politics should easily see through it. As I have argued, in DET and elsewhere, policy and politics mutually constitute each other on the field of mass democracy.

Come to think of it, politicians, whether in government or in the opposition, seldom shy away from talking about the politics of governmentality. Indeed, one might truthfully say that the overwhelming bulk of the political rhetoric expended in electoral campaigns today concerns what governments have or have not done for which sections of the population. The function of rhetoric here is to turn the heterogeneous demands of populations into the morally coherent and emotionally persuasive form of popular demands. In this sense, as Ernesto Laclau (2005) has argued, populism is the only morally legitimate form of democratic politics today. I have suggested, in DET and elsewhere, that presentday critics of populism must, to make their case, necessarily demand the restriction or modification of democracy. This also clarifies, I think, why we see the proliferation of the tactical use of violence, not so much to intimidate or punish (although there is that too, but that is familiar political violence of an old kind) but to display in the public space, in spectacular fashion, the anger and moral outrage of “the people”. Violence here serves the rhetorical function of converting populations into a people.

I agree with John and Deshpande that my account of political society in the rural areas is underspecified. The problems are both conceptual and empirical. I tried to approach them by working on two sets of contrasts. One is the contrast with an o lder understanding of peasant politics, where the state was an external entity to peasant consciousness, mediated, often quite ambiguously, through landlords, moneylenders, traders or power brokers. This was the basis of the old patron-client model of Indian politics. There is moun ting empirical evidence that this situation has decisively changed. But have peasants now become citizens? The evidence on electoral participation and expectations from government produced by recent large-sample surveys (such as those carried out by Yogendra Yadav and his Lokniti collea gues) are i mmensely suggestive. But I am still u nable to give to them a specific conceptual description.

The other contrast is with political society in urban formations, where there is evidence of new forms of political association coupled with the organisation of l abour and enterprise in the so-called informal economy which is giving shape to quite sophisticated forms of strategic politics in the field created by governmentality. Based on this urban standard, my provisional conclusion is that although non-agricultural occupations are rapidly on the rise in rural areas, political society there has still not acquired a distinct shape. Hence, the lack of descriptive clarity. The most I can do at this stage is point to the need to move away from the traditional politics of the demands of the kisan and formulate, in strategic terms, a politics of organisation of non-corporate capital in rural society.1

Shah makes an interesting point that I had not thought of when describing recent changes in the conditions of peasant agriculture. He mentions the general “privatisation-centred policies” since the 1990s which led to a decline in bank loans in the agricultural sector and to the rising importance of the professional moneylender. I have no doubt that Shah is correct in his observation. However, I would be more careful before concluding that there is therefore a return to the old forms of exploitation. What has clearly changed is the earlier role of nationalised banks as an active agency of distribution of governmental welfare. State-owned banks, we know, are now instructed to give priority to the commercial viability of their operations. But, at the same time, there has been an enormous expansion and deepening since the 1990s of the panchayat institutions which are now the principal agencies of “social sector” expenditure in infrastructure, health, education, housing,



sanitation, employment guarantee and emergency relief in rural areas.

What is also new, compared to the earlier regime of welfare distribution, is the carefully targeted form of these programmes, specifying in each case the particular population group, whether scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, below the poverty line, women, children, etc, for which a scheme is intended. Even when their scope is territorial, such as the schemes meant for backward districts or, most recently, minority concentration districts, the specific programmes are targeted to meet the needs of specific population groups. Besides, it is debatable how far bank loans contributed, even in the 1970s and 1980s, to the subsistence needs of poorer peasants; if anything, traditional forms of borrowing from relatives, neighbours or moneylenders were persistent features even then. I am sure what has changed in most regions of India since the 1990s is the increasing need to borrow ever larger amounts to meet the costs of production of commercial crops, and here the banks are no longer forthcoming. Hence the emergence of other creditors who, unlike the older landlordmoneylender-trader, usually have little interest in the land or labour of indebted peasants. If I may put the contrast somewhat simplistically, why does the response to indebtedness now take the form of suicides rather than attacks on moneylenders? The answer must come from the domain of politics.

Is Power More Repressive?

No one with a sense of realism will claim that the coercive, violent or repressive a pplication of state power has disappeared from India. The evidence is abundant and all too obvious. If, nevertheless, I am pointing to forms of power that are nonrepressive, I am asking the question whether there is more of the latter today than was the case before. In other words, I am asking a question about tendencies, of preferred methods, of a growing sophistication in the deployment and use of power. It is, if I may return to the theoretical lineage of DET, a Gramscian question about stages of maturity of the passive revolution of capital. Our answer to the question will have major implications for

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

the way in which we think about the political options that lie before us.

All three sets of comments show, I believe, a strong urge to find evidence of the continued repressive power of the state and to build around it a political response of condemnation. Needless to say, I lend my voice, for what it is worth, to the condemnation of state violence. But I fear we may be missing a far more subtle p rocess of the induction of ever increasing sections of the people, individually as well as in the mass, into a web of power relations in which they are being transformed into the subjects of power. As I keep saying, they are not necessarily turning into republican citizens, but they are none theless acquiring a stake, strategically and morally, in the processes of governmental power. And governmental power, we know, is no longer restricted to the branches of the state but extend to a host of non-state and even non-governmental agencies.

The implication is that even the most fervent activist of the rights of the underprivileged, or the most resolute and incorruptible non-governmental organisation, is being deployed, even in its opposition to the state, into a constituent element of the strategic war of posi tion of the passive revolution of capital. It is important to

CD-ROM 2006

The digital version of Economic and Political Weekly is now available for 2006 on a single disk.

This electronic edition contains the complete content of all the issues published in 2006. The CD-ROM 2006 comes equipped with a powerful search as well as utilities to make your browsing experience productive. The contents are indexed and organised as in the print edition, with articles laid out in individual sections in each issue. Users can browse through the sections or use the sophisticated search facility to locate articles and statistics of interest.

Price for CD-ROM 2006 (in India) Individuals – Rs 285 (Rs 250 plus postage and handling charges of Rs 35) Institutions – Rs 535 (Rs 500 plus postage and handling charges of Rs 35)

International – US$ 40 (including airmail postage)

Also available 2003, 2004 and 2005 on three separate CDs, individual CD price as above

Any queries please email:

To order the CD-ROMs (please specify the year) send a bank draft payable at Mumbai in favour of Economic and Political Weekly. The CDs can also be purchased on-line using a credit card through a secure payment gateway at

Circulation Manager,

Economic and Political Weekly

320, 321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013, India

be self-conscious of one’s location in the emergent dynamics of power. Just as the indiscriminate worship of state power once led to many disasters, so can the instinctive horror of state power prevent us from recognising political traps as well as political opportunities.

My claim that there is no credible transition narrative available to us is partly the recognition of this new reality where political change is necessarily molecular, l ocal and perhaps impermanent and even reversible. But partly it is also a provocation to think of democratic politics outside the familiar mode of undivided concentration on resistance to coercive power.


1 I should cite here the recent study by Barbara Harriss-White (2008) which describes, for West Bengal which has a distinguished history of thought and political action on land reform and improving the conditions of small and landless peasants, the astonishingly unregulated nature of the markets for agricultural commodities and the shockingly exploitative modes of agricultural trade.


Harriss-White, Barbara (2008): Rural Commercial Capital: Agricultural Markets in West Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Laclau, Ernesto (2005): On Popular Reason (London: Verso).

Sanyal, Kalyan (2007): Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-colonial Capitalism (London: Routledge), pp 20-28.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top