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Centrist Logic of Indian Politics

The authors of Explaining Indian Democracy reiterate their view on the changing role of the state in India and the meaning and consequences of centrist politics.


was that organised capital and organised

Centrist Logic of Indian Politics

labour faced a third actor, the state, whose control of capital, market power, and standing as an employer overshadowed Lloyd I Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph the power of organised capital and labour

The authors of Explaining Indian Democracy reiterate their view on the changing role of the state in India and the meaning and consequences of centrist politics.

Lloyd I Rudolph ( and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph (srudolph@midway. are emeritus professors of the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 12, 2009

t may seem churlish to question Zoya Hasan’s (“The Enduring Challenge of Building a Just Society”, EPW, 30 May 2009) appreciative review of Explaining Indian Democracy but we would like to set the record straight about what we have to say on the changing role of the state in India and meaning and consequences of centrist politics. We preface our remarks by observing that much of the review is directed to our 1987 book, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State.1

The two topics of the changing role of the state in India and meaning and consequences of centrist politics are linked in Zoya Hasan’s comment (p 25) that:

The Rudolphs’ characterisation of Indian politics as centrist forms the pivot of their analysis of the state. They insist that politics and political economy have been and are likely to remain centrist – meaning politically and economically middle of the road. Centrism derives from the state’s role as a powerful third actor which mitigates the antagonistic relationship between capital and labour and thus minimises social and economic conflict.

Let us start with the Nehruvian state’s role as a “third actor”. We argued that the state as a third actor in relation to capital and labour dominated the organised economy making organised capital and labour2 dependent on the state and marginalising class politics. We substantiate these claims by arguing that a sectoral analysis of the workforce in the mid-1980s shows that only 10% is located in the organised economy with 23% located in small-scale and cottage industries and trade and 67% located in agriculture. Two-thirds of workers in the organised economy are employed by the state in public sector enterprises and government services. Having occupied the “commanding heights” of the industrial economy (basic and heavy industry, infrastructure) and nationalised financial institutions (banks and insurance companies) and monopolised long-term lending institutions, the Indian State came to dominate the country’s industrial and finance capital as well as employment in the organised economy. The consequence

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in the conduct of policy, politics, and market relationships.3 The state did not mediate between organised labour and capital in the organised economy; it dominated the organised economy in ways that made capital and labour dependent on the state.

The presence of the state as a third actor contributes to the marginality – not the absence – of class politics by making the state

– rather than private capital – organi sed labour’s principal counter-player. The Indian state as employer claimed to represent workers’ collective interest because of its commitment to socialism and pursuit of national economic goals. It featured itself as a model employer to the 15 million workers on its payroll. Rather than being an adversary or class enemy of organised labour and the working class, the Nehruvian state presented itself as their representative, friend and protector.

Organised capital, the second actor, also faced formidable ideological, sectoral, and structural constraints on its capa city to engage in class politics. Private capitalism in the era of the Nehruvian state’s “permitlicence raj” was a dependent capitalism. It had to rely on the patro nage and protection of the third actor, the Nehruvian state, for its profits and security.

Moving to the more contemporary scene Zoya Hasan argues that the concept of centrism “…tends to obscure the enormous policy changes that India has experienced in the post-Nehruvian period... It is well known,” she continues, “that the Congress government in 1991 altered the development strategy [in ways that] …led to a major ideological shift from state-regulated economy to a more market centred economy” (p 26). Three essays in Volume II, “The Realm of Institutions: State Formation and Institutional Change”, address this “shift” in India’s political economy, “The Iconisation of Chandrababu: Sharing Sovereignty in India’s Federal Market Eco nomy” (2001); “Redoing the Constitutional Design: From an Interventionist to a Regulatory State” (2001); and “New Dimensions of Indian Democracy” (2002). Instead of reading this shift as Zoya Hasan does as


creating “an openly pro-capitalist state”, we read the shift as one from an interventionist state that plans and directs India’s economy to a regulatory state that attempts to constrain and improve a market economy. In the process India’s economy moved from a 3.5% “Hindu rate of growth” to rates of 8% and 9%. Ironically, India’s post-1991 regulatory state has done better in dealing with the recent global economic recession than the US or European Union regulatory states because the Communist Party of India (Marxist) blocked Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance government from allowing reckless and irresponsible western banks and insurance companies to operate in India’s markets.

This brings us to the last of our challenges to what Zoya Hasan has to say about our view of the meaning and consequences of centrism. “By far the most disturbing aspect of the analysis is the attribution of the centrist institutional logic to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)…Communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 put paid” to the expectation that centrist institutional logic “would contain the more extreme and dangerous elements of the Hindutva brigade” (p 26). But did it? After its defeat in the 2004 national election, the BJP continued to lose vote and seat shares in the recently concluded 2009 national election. The prospect of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s heir apparent and the effect of his campaigning in UP is said to have contributed to the BJP’s electoral decline. Yashwant Sinha, a party vice-president, in his resignation letter to BJP the President, Rajnath Singh, suggested that the party courted defeat by ignoring “the voting behaviour of the minorities”.4


Similarly, Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser to former BJP Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, warned the BJP that it “will never come back to power without a more inclusive agenda”.5 These responses by leading BJP party spokesmen suggest that the party resists the centrist logic of Indian electoral politics at its peril.


1 Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Political Economy of the Indian State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Bombay: Orient Longman), 1987.

2 We showed how organised labour and capital were weakened by a process of “involuted pluralism”, a term explained and applied to organised capital and labour in Rudolph and Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi, pp 247 ff.

3 Much of the language in this paragraph is taken from page 23 of In Pursuit of Lakshmi.

4 yashwant-sinha-letter-to-bjp-president.htm.

5 http://news/ negatvism-in-bjp-campaign-defeated-it-brajesh.


september 12, 2009 vol xliv no 37

Economic & Political Weekly

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