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Democracy versus Economic Transformation?

Chatterjee sets up a number of structural oppositions but a more insightful and productive understanding of ongoing change would not only dissolve some of these distinctions but also invert some of the attributes of both "civil" and "political" society.


Democracy versus Economic Transformation?

Amita Baviskar, Nandini Sundar

Chatterjee sets up a number of structural oppositions but a more insightful and productive understanding of ongoing change would not only dissolve some of these distinctions but also invert some of the attributes of both “civil” and “political” society.

Amita Baviskar ( is at the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, and Nandini Sundar ( at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

n reading Partha Chatterjee’s marvellously synoptic and yet equally provocative article on “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India”, (19 April 2008) we were r eminded of an old joke involving the arch-villain of Hindi cinema, Ajit, and his side-kick Robert. Robert, having captured the hero, asks his boss for instructions. Ajit gives a diabo lical laugh and replies, Robert, tum ise liquid oxygen mein daal do. Liquid ise jeene nahin dega, aur oxygen ise marne nahin dega (Put him in liquid oxygen. The liquid won’t let him live, and the oxygen won’t let him die). The same gruesome fate of being slowly killed while being kept artificially alive seems to have befallen India’s peasantry. Substitute corporate capital for Robert, the Indian state for Ajit, and the Indian (especially rural) poor for the hero, and we have the gist of Chatterjee’s article. Even as primitive accumulation – or the process of dispossessing the peasantry – gathers pace under the impetus of hegemonic corporate capital, the legitimacy of the government depends on the extent to which it can address the needs of those affected. The consequence is a set of ameliorative measures negotiated “politically” (rather than through the proper rules and procedures characteristic of civil society) between India’s rulers and the amorphous masses. Unlike in the classic model of industrialisation, however, where the peasantry gives way to an urbanised proletariat, Chatterjee forecasts that the peasantry will remain but “under completely altered conditions”.

While we agree with many of Chatterjee’s observations about contemporary Indian political economy, in particular his recognition of the leading role of Indian corporate capital as it begins to undertake g lobal acquisitions (thus no longer capable of being simply termed comprador), the disdain of the middle classes for what they see as the unruly poor, and the desire of villagers and the urban poor to engage with capitalist modernity, we have concerns about his overall analytical framework. Chatterjee sets up a number of structural oppositions: corporate versus non-corporate capital; civil society versus political society; both civil and political society together versus marginalised

groups (outside any society); government (as an arena of negotiation) versus capital and market (impersonal, lacking ideology, interested only in accumulation); and finally, dispossession as a characteristic of the modern economy balanced by welfare measures. The domains of corporate capital and non-corporate capital, according to Chatterjee, map neatly onto civil society and political society respectively.

A more insightful and productive u nderstanding of ongoing social change, we argue, would not only dissolve some of the distinctions that Chatterjee sets up, but also invert some of the attributes of both civil and political society. We believe that this moment is particularly exciting for the future of Indian democracy p recisely because it is not only corporate capital which has a narrative of transition and a vision of the future (p 61), but because the battle has been joined by alternative narratives put forth by a multiplicity of groups in society, with often contending visions of democracy (from the Bajrang Dal to the Naxalites to the peasants of Singur). Sadly, far from benignly intervening with ameliorative measures, the Indian state seems to be coming firmly down on one side of the scale, militarising large swathes of the countryside, including Kashmir, the north-east and the Naxalite belt. Where welfare measures have been introduced, they have often been at the insistence of what Chatterjee would call “political society” or even nonsociety/marginal groups. Take the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act, and the Right to Information Act – three pieces of landmark legislation, which owe as much to the c apacity of subaltern groups to wage sustained campaigns that range from rural India to the footpaths of Jantar Mantar, as to the prescience of the ruling class. And even as Indian electoral democracy is celebrated, deservedly in our opinion, there is increasingly an attempt to use p rocedural democracy and the existence


of independent statutory institutions to s ubvert a more substantive democracy.1

Let us begin with the terminological oppositions that Chatterjee sets up. While recognising the need to signal the existence of an overarching capitalist system (as against the semi-feudal, semi-capitalist system beloved of an earlier generation of analysts), we fail to understand why he uses the term corporate and non-corporate as against simply capital and mercantile exchange. The classic definition of capital per se (and not just its corporate variety) is that it is driven by the logic of accumulation, as against subsistence or exchange. But more importantly, this distinction fails to capture the interlinked nature of much corporate and non-corporate capital in a world where flexible production connects multinational firms to domestic production, and rural livelihoods are falling apart under the onslaught of corporate capital, and where the moneylender also doubles up as the fertiliser and seed agent. In fact, a closer look at some of the “welfare programmes” that Chatterjee describes as offsetting dispossession, actually serve as forms of “welfare colonialism” where access to micro-credit is premised on buying diesel pumps, fertiliser, etc, which actually tie peasants closer into a dependent m arket economy.2

Second, the idea that there is something new about measures like employment guarantees, subsidised food, and primary education, in response to a new phase of primitive accumulation, is debatable – the poor-house goes back to the days of the industrial revolution. Even when exercising eminent domain, the colonial state, at least in principle, recognised that existing rights needed to be compensated. The difference, if any, in people’s ability to demand rehabilitation today comes not from increased government recognition of the legitimacy of their demands, but their own degree of organisation and their increased ability to speak in terms of the very law that is used to dispossess them (but more of that in the next section). Indeed, the stop-go policy of the government between the preservation of the peasantry and the needs of capital that Chatterjee outlines are familiar from a 1980 article by David Washbrook, describing the colonial state. What is new now is that a paternalistic discourse of welfare, whether state-led or in the form of corporate social responsibility, has to contend with the counter-claims of subaltern rights and entitlements. Our main concern, however, is with Chatterjee’s distinction between civil and political s ociety and it is to this that we now turn.

Civil Society and the ‘Rule of Law’

Chatterjee’s argument rests crucially on the distinction between civil and political society in India. The former coincides with corporate capital and is governed by the rule of law. Political society coincides with non-corporate capital and is marked by its inability to summon the legitimacy of law. In Chatterjee’s analysis, the present moment in Indian political economy is marked by the “ascendancy in the relative power of the corporate capitalist class as compared to the landed elites” (p 56). At the same time, “the urban middle class, which once played such a crucial role in producing and running the autonomous developmental state…, appears now to have largely come under the moralpolitical sway of the bourgeoisie” (p 57). These middle classes make up the domain of civil society in India; they are treated by the state as rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the Constitution. However, large sections of the rural population and the urban poor are excluded from civil society. They inhabit the domain that Chatterjee terms “political society” and “make their claims on government, and in turn are governed, not within the framework of stable constitutionally defined rights and laws, but rather through temporary, contextual and unstable arrangements arrived at through direct political negotiations...” (ibid). The claims of political society for governmental benefits always remain illegitimate: “these cannot often be met by the standard application of rules and frequently require the declaration of an exception” (p 61). Members of civil society resent the “unruliness and corruption of systems of popular political repre sentation” (p 62). The task of managing these tensions between civil and political society is the “difficult and innovative process of politics” (ibid) in India today.

However, when we examine the workings of corporate capital and the urban middle classes in India, what is striking is their manifest disdain for the Constitution and for the legal process. Marx did not describe primitive accumulation as an orderly, lawful process but noted that: “In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” (Marx 1990: 874). The description holds for India today: the violent crushing of peasant opposition to land acquisition shows the collusion between corporate capital and the state, a compact that cannot be described as “civil” by any stretch of the imagination.3 Equally notable are the extraordinary concessions granted to corporate firms in the form of land for mining, ports, special economic zones, which set aside labour, environmental and procedural rules. Even the judiciary have been complicit in allowing “exceptions” when the defendants have been powerful enough. For instance, the Supreme Court condoned the well-connected Swaminarayan sect’s construction of the Akshardham religious theme park in Delhi on the Yamuna floodplain, encroaching on an area designated in the city master plan as an ecological zone. On the other hand, the eviction of poor squatters as well as l egal farmers living in the vicinity was e ndorsed by the court on the grounds that the law must be upheld. More recently, the Supreme Court glossed over the illegalities of the Vedanta Group by the simple expedient of giving its flagship company Sterlite a bauxite mining lease in Niyamgiri in Orissa, overriding strong objections by the resident population.

Reversing the Facts

Chatterjee inverts what is actually the case: generally, it is members of the socalled civil society who break laws with impunity and who demand that the rules be waived for them, whereas members of political society strive to become legal, to gain recognition and entitlements from the state. The state’s differential treatment of these two classes is exemplified in the case of encroachments and irregular land use in Delhi. While the law was e nforced to demolish the settlements of working class squatters, penalising people who were victims of the state’s failure to build low-cost housing, it was amended to “regularise” the illegal construction and

november 15, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly



violation of zoning codes by well-to-do traders and homeowners. It was the poor ‘jhuggi’-dwellers who desperately displayed their documented claims to citizenship – voter IDs, ration cards and t okens issued by the slum department. The rich encroachers simply demanded that their illegality be condoned and they succeeded in getting their way.

Civil society is thus not a domain of hegemony as Chatterjee describes, but of domination. Its attempts to make economic liberalisation the common sense of our times are accompanied by brutal state repression and the anomalous exercise of law. At the same time, the category of political society is inadequate for describing the variety of social formations that stand ranged against or in collusion with the corporate and urban middle classes. For example, the silence or tacit support given to Bajrang Dal activists to burn Christian homes in Orissa and Karnataka, or to selfstyled custodians of culture to attack exhibitions, burn books, etc, suggests a growing intolerance precisely in that sphere of civil society which Chatterjee claims lives by the rules, as well as a growing state unwillingness to curb this.

If one perceives peasants as political beings, and the state is perforce bound to do so, a functionalist formula of preservation-dissolution falls apart. Instead, attention must be focused on how the “great transformation” of our times (Polanyi 1944) – the attempt by the economy to dominate society – summons forth powerful counter-movements that resist the commodification of land and labour, as well as groups that are set up precisely to divide society. The career of corporate capital in rural India is more complicated than Chatterjee allows; besides primitive accumulation it includes forays into the formal subsumption of labour to capital (e g, contract farming) as well as the real subsumption of labour to capital (e g, direct takeover of land for agroforestry). Most recently corporate capital has not been content with ruling behind the scenes, but its members have actually entered Parliament or state legislatures themselves. The counter-movements that resist corporate moves are also diverse and deploy a range of political resources that far exceed Chatterjee’s description. Categories such as civil society and political society fail to capture the character of domination in India today, thereby missing the brutality and desperation and, despite these, the inherent dynamism and hope that still persists.



1 For example, the Bharatiya Janata Party used Modi’s electoral victory in 2002 to justify the genocide in Gujarat; the existence of institutions like the National Human Rights Commission is used to deflect attention from India’s human rights record; and even as the cash for votes deals in the 2008 trust vote became an “open secret”, they were subsumed within a framework of parliamentary procedure.

2 This is brought out clearly in ongoing research by Malwa Muniswamy, a PhD student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, on the Velugu programme, a World Bank funded microcredit scheme in Andhra Pradesh.

3 See for instance, police firings at Maikanch village in Rayagada district, Orissa, in which three people were killed protesting against land acquisition for bauxite mining in 2001; at Tapkara in Ranchi district, Jharkhand in which nine were killed protesting against the Koel Karo dam in 2001; at the Khuga dam site in Churachandpur district, Manipur in which three were killed in 2005; at Kalinganagar in Orissa, in which 12 were killed protesting against a Tata steel plant in 2006; at Nandigram in West Bengal where some 15 were killed in 2007 protesting against land acquisition for a special economic zone. This is by no means an exhaustive list of recent police violence related to land acquisition. Increasingly too, as in the Posco steel project in eastern Orissa, the Alcan bauxite project in Kashipur and the SEZ in Nandigram, armed gangs supported by the company and assisted by the local administration and police have been used to coerce villagers into parting with their land.


Marx, Karl (1990) (1867): Capital, Vol 1 (London: P enguin Classics).

Polanyi, Karl (1944): The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

(Boston: Beacon Press).

Washbrook, David (1981): “Law, State and Agrarian Society in Colonial India”, Modern Asian Studies, 15 (3).

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

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