The Enigma that is Politics in India
Politics in India is a classic waiting to be read. If a classic is ‘a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it’, Politics in India attained this status instantly upon its much awaited arrival in 1970. Its publication was described as ‘something of an event’. Much and justly celebrated, the book has retained this iconic status as perhaps the only classic so far on India’s democratic experience (Kothari, 1970; unless specified, all page citations to this book).
Yet there is something odd about this status. For one thing, very few actually read this book in its entirety. Dated jargon and dense prose make sure that very few survive the first chapter. No wonder, the book has been known more through hearsay than actual reading. Or, to be precise, the book is skimmed in search of the one or two capsule-like formulations—the ‘Congress System’ and ‘politicization of caste’ are the top contenders here—that were already famous through his writings in the run up to Politics in India. The book was widely admired (for early and positive reviews see (Morris-Jones, 1971–1972; [Narain, 1970; Palmer, 1971; Weiner, 1974]). Norman D. Palmer was being matter of fact when he described the book as ‘by far the most sophisticated general study of Indian politics that has yet been written’. A Marxist critic chided Kothari for ‘producing an ideological justification for the decaying Indian polity’ (Chopra, 1972, p. 76; see also Khaliq, 1978). But it is not clear if the book was really understood by its admirers or critics. It may have sedimented into our collective unconscious even before it was properly digested. All this makes Politics in India odd, but what makes it unique—in the club of oddballs that classics are—is the peculiar indifference of the creator to his creation. Although there is no trace of authorial reticence in the book itself, Rajni Kothari appeared to have turned his back to his magnum opus soon after its birth. This commercially successful product never had a second edition; apparently the author was reluctant to allow reprints. It had to be substantially rewritten for a recent Hindi trans-creation. The book gets a passing mention in his Memoirs (Kothari, 2002, p. 113, 121–2) and other autobiographical reflections. Although he did not repudiate the book, much of his subsequent writings effectively distanced him from many of the substantive positions in Politics in India. There is no clear moment of epistemic rupture, yet his post-Emergency writings move beyond the frame set out in the book. It would be hard to recognize that the same man was the author of State against Democracy and Growing Amnesia.
Some reasons for the author’s apparent unease are not hard to guess. There must have been awkwardness about the inability of the book, just as most other academic writings of that time, to anticipate the dramatic events that were to unfold almost immediately after its publication: Indira Gandhi’s spectacular victory in the 1971 elections, resurgence of one-party dominance, protest movements in Gujarat and Studies in Indian Politics, Bihar, Emergency and the extraordinary elections of 1977. In retrospect, it seems that Kothari read 1969 as if it was 1989, the beginning of the era of multi-polar competition, regional parties and coalition governments. More than the inability to predict the short-term political future, the author may have felt awkward about the value slope of the book. Though couched in a language of value-neutral social science, the book was held together by an unstated Nehruvian ideology. As in the case of many of his contemporaries, his naïve faith in the Indian state upholding this ideology was shattered by the developments beginning with the Emergency. This disenchantment made Kothari move away from some normative beliefs. His new willingness to question the benevolence of the liberal state, attentiveness to the ways in which this state can turn against its people, sensitivity to the poor and the marginalized, and openness to alternatives must have made him look back at his magnum opus with greater distance than warranted by the passage of time.
There are some other reasons why this book’s status as a classic appears enigmatic. First of all, although the book has a theoretical orientation and was welcomed as ‘an essay in empirical democratic theory’, it appears to have limited its theoretical ambitions. It opens with a theoretical framework, but on first reading its theory appears a modified version of the then dominant and now largely forgotten systems theory of politics. The author appears keen to eschew theoretical ambitions and willing to settle for a ‘case study’ which is not in the business of dealing with ‘broader issues of theory’ (p. 295).
Second, though the book was then seen to be empirical, if not positivist, it may not have met rigorous standards of empirical work in its own time. The book has many tables that present some fresh evidence from the newly instituted survey research at the CSDS, yet the author has fairly limited sources, techniques and indeed interest in quantitative data analysis. Therefore, empirics mainly serve to illustrate his experiential and intuitive understanding of politics rather than form its principal basis. Third, the method followed in the book remains under-specified. While the book was perceived to be a part of the behavioural revolution in the discipline, and it does prioritize substance over form, it follows an eclectic method that draws upon various resources and comes up with its own way of analyzing these. As we would see below, the methodological status of the ‘Indian model’—the centre-piece of the book—remained unclear. Thus, behavioural persuasion was more a gesture than a method. Fourth, and following from the first three, the book has not had the kind of legacy for students of Indian politics that one would expect from a classic. While it is mandatory for every major study of Indian politics to refer to Kothari, there is hardly a tradition or school of interpreting Indian politics that can be traced back to Politics in India.
We are thus dealing with an intellectual puzzle. We know that Politics in India is a classic, but we are unable to specify why. More than four decades later, it is unclear as to how one can place the book in the journey of Indian democracy, in the evolution of the discipline of Political Science and indeed in the intellectual biography of its author. In the absence of a living intellectual tradition that might follow in its footsteps, the book has not had the benefit of exegeses. Therefore, as long as we confine our search within the frame and the language provided within the book, we are unlikely to understand Kothari’s magnum opus. We need to look at the book from outside and read it against its grain to understand its meaning and the reasons for its lasting significance. Perhaps the best tribute to this classic is to pries it open, look for apparent cracks that may offer a clue to the unstated assumptions that operate in this text and point the way to resolving this enigma. That might tell us what makes this book a classic and how to recover and reconstruct its intellectual resources for our times.
An Unresolved Tension
There is a tension that runs through Politics in India and in a sense through Kothari’s intellectual biography. Reading the book more than four decades later, its analytical frame and normative preferences seem to pull in opposite directions. The Nehruvian ideological preferences appear rather complacent; while his analysis of India’s political modernity promises a radical departure from the established ways of thinking. In some of his subsequent writings it comes up as a tension between his alternative vision and his preferred political modalities, except that here the vision is radical but the political understanding is somewhat flat-footed.
The ‘Indian model’ that constitutes the core of the book also lies at the heart of this tension. The perspective that informs the entire book and holds it together is that India’s route to modernity is distinct from the European route. While modernity is the ‘central tendency of our times’ (p. 1), both in Europe and outside it, the principal vehicle of modernity in India is politics. The form, substance and the trajectory of this Indian political modernity is quite distinct from Europe or elsewhere. Since modernity does not erase the pre-existing social and political order but builds on it, the historical absence of a ‘political centre’ in India played a vital role in shaping modern politics in the Indian context. It meant that political modernity in India was about creating a ‘political centre’ that included a powerful state and equally powerful political forces that would ensure a wide and deep reach of this state in order to bring out simultaneous change in multiple dimensions. Thus, famously:
The Indian model of development is characterized by politicization of a fragmented social structure through a penetration of political forms, values, and ideologies. Operating against the background of an essentially apolitical condition of society, such a process involves the building of a political center, the diversification of this center through a network of benefits and obligations, and the mobilization of diverse sections of society in this network. (p. 11, also summarized at p. 193; for detailed exposition see pp. 420 ff.) This ‘Indian model’ helps understand much of what this book espouses and warns against. At a general plane the book argues against ‘doctrinaire complacency’ (p. 144) in thinking about modernity that is often reflected in ‘a simple-minded, unicausal, unilinear, and largely dichotomous view of the developmental process’ (p. 12). In the Indian context, it leads him to argue forcefully against the idea of a predetermined sequence of political development that rules out simultaneous change and leads to a paranoid concern with stability (p. 163). His general insistence on the autonomy of politics has a specifically Indian angle to it, for the tendency to view political institutions as superstructure and political elites as simply recipient of inputs from society is what prevents observers from acknowledging the creative role of politics in the Indian context. Specifically, the Indian model enables Kothari to take on the tendency to view Indian politics in terms of a series of absences. He seeks to replace this ‘empty’ understanding by articulating and defending the specifically Indian forms of political modernity. Kothari’s genius lay in demonstrating that what appeared to outsiders as distortions and maladies of Indian politics were more often than not just historically different forms that modern politics took in the Indian context.
The ‘Indian model’ was indeed a new and illuminating way of organizing insights and evidence about recognizing the specificity of the working of democratic politics in India. The brilliance of the move, however, prevented the readers from asking two basic questions about this model. First of all, what kind of a model was this? Initially it appears as no more than an analytical construct, an ideal type that summed up the specific form that Indian modernity happened to have taken. But soon it becomes clear that the Indian model is something of a norm that the author approves of, indeed recommends to the Indian elite. The success or failure of India’s historic transformation, a ‘race with time itself’ (p. 452), depends on living up to this model. He believed that the success or failure of this model would have larger repercussions beyond India (p. 451).
This prompts the second question. Given how crucial the model is, both as an analytical construct and as a normative standard, how do we know that we got this right? Or, to put it more starkly, whose model is this? Again, a cursory reading of Kothari’s formulation might suggest that he thought of the Indian model as something India’s modernizing elite, like Nehru, believed in and consciously pursued. But a careful reading dispels this notion. He firmly rules out the claim that the Indian model was a conscious design:
Modern India’s history—like the history of most nations—is full of vague intentions, dim perceptions of reality, and a lack of clear anticipations even while thinking in terms of a ‘strategy’ of progress. What is relevant for us is not the intent but the content of the strategy. (p. 151)
This makes the Indian model at once more robust and fragile: robust because it is not tied to history of ideas, but fragile because it now needs an independent justification. The questions now are: how do we verify the analytical construct? And how do we justify the normative standards?
Asking these questions brings us face-to-face with the tension between the normative and the analytical frame built into the Indian model. The core analytical frame of the Indian model in Politics in India follows a hermeneutic method and offers an insider’s account. It is an attempt to explicate the logic of the system from within, recognize its features as such and not as deviations or distortions of another expected path. Such a reading could not but have a normative slope. It invited the reader to affirm the path India had taken so far. To be sure, there was room for criticism of the practice of this model, for the inability of the elites to understand the spirit of the model, but not of the model itself. The insider’s account did not prevent a recording of some of the worst effects of the performance of the system, but it did prevent a recognition that these were systemic effects and not aberrations. The Indian model opened fresh and radical possibilities of the specificity of political practices in a young democracy, yet it pushed him into being what Kothari himself was to describe later as a ‘spokesman’ of the system. This version of the Indian model was ill-suited to absorb external shocks that arrived in the form of Emergency or to insulate itself against harsh but everyday realities of poverty, deprivation and degradation for a vast majority of India’s citizens.
A cataloguing of the systemic deficits came from an external or outsider’s standpoint. Such a critique tended to draw its normative standards from a universalist theory, Marxist or liberal. The universalist theory in both its analytical and normative versions tended to draw its model from the historical experience of European and north American societies. It provided critique alright but did not leave enough imaginative room to permit recognition of the historical specificity of the Indian experience. Politics in India firmly rejected such an external critique but largely by turning its eyes away from some of these harsh realities or by somewhat naïve acceptance of wisdom of the pro-establishment economists that this hardship was transient.
Rajni Kothari did not overcome this tension between the ‘insider’ and the ‘outsider’ perspective on India; his writings oscillated between the two. Politics in India stayed with the hermeneutic at the cost of appearing conformist in values. With the passage of time, Kothari was to shift the burden of his argument to an external critique of the Indian state, often at the cost of losing his analytical grip over the inner working of the system. For all its limitations, Politics in India carried the promise of an immanent critique, one that drew its standards from within the practices that it sought to evaluate, even if it fell short of realizing this promise.
It is only fair to recognize that reconciling both these perspectives is incredibly difficult, and was far more difficult four decades ago than it is now. Kothari’s intellectual context was defined by high modernism: the aspiration for law-like universal generalizations in the field of social sciences, teleological accounts of stages of modernization and the narrow, procedural models of democracy. Politics in India could not have drawn upon post-positivist philosophies of social sciences to connect the analytical to the normative. Kothari was not writing in the wake of post-colonial theory, or following in the footsteps of formulations of alternative modernity, which made it possible to capture the specificity of the modern experience in the ex-colonies. Nor did he have the benefit of current theorizations on the role of social imaginary or ‘culture of democracy’ that would allow democratic norms to be localized. Yet Politics in India forged ahead in this direction, without waiting for a neat theoretical articulation to emerge, and opened the possibility of an immanent critique. It did so before Indian democracy had experienced its post-emergency consolidation and entrenchment in the post-Congress phase. It made a bold intellectual move much before there were any signs of the shift in global balance of power away from the US and Europe. A classic work of ideas needs a context for it to emerge and be recognized. Politics in India was a classic that arrived well before there was a context for its production and reception. This, perhaps, is what accounts for its enigma, its unresolved tensions, its peculiar reading and its oddity as a classic.
An Unrealised Promise
How do we then relate to Politics in India, more than four decades after it was published? If the argument so far has any merit, this enigmatic classic has more to offer than was realized by its initial readers and the author himself, much more than has been mined so far. But what it has to offer is not self-evident. We need to excavate carefully, remove not just the layers of earth but also the shell that covers the pearl, before we can recover the ideas and insights that this book has to offer. This requires a focused approach that needs to draw its tools from history of ideas. Students of intellectual history have often drawn attention to how modern Indian thinkers creatively adapted western concepts and theories that they deployed. What might appear to an outsider as a derivative transfer of political theory could involve subtle transformation of the received theory. Very often it could be ‘new wine in old bottles’ and ‘strange objects masquerading under familiar names’, to quote Kaviraj’s inimitable expression.This may be a useful frame to understand Kothari’s relationship to the American science of politics that travelled to India under the label of ‘behaviouralism’, ‘systems theory’ and ‘structural functionalism’. On the face of it, Politics in India is shaped by this new vocabulary of politics. This is how it was perceived by its first set of readers, admirers as well as critics. Myron Weiner began his otherwise favourable if a tad patronizing review of this book in the American Political Science Review by presenting Kothari as ‘our man in India’. His critics too condemned him for being an agent of an alien and conservative American science of politics (see, for example, Chopra, 1972). But a careful re-reading of the book shows that Kothari was far more selective and creative, if not strategic, in his relationship to the received wisdom of the new Political Science than has been granted so far.
Notwithstanding popular impression to the contrary, Kothari had at best modest investment in structural functionalist account of society and systems theory politics. He used its vocabulary quite liberally—and that is what caused the popular confusion—but he wore its theory lightly. To be sure, his was not a consciously strategic usage of a dominant language in order to subvert it. His use ranged from genuine theoretical conviction to purely pragmatic deployment. On balance, it is fair to say that he deferred to the dominant language of his time to package his new way of looking at Indian politics, but at no stage did he allow this language to alter his substantial observations. He did not allow the dominant theory to frame his inquiry. The chapter scheme and the organization of each chapter followed a very loose theoretical frame. The author carefully eschewed meta-theoretical debates. Instead of engaging with theoretical debates that could distract him from his observations, the author often took shelter under bare-foot empiricism by way of a randomly organized laundry list of his observations (see, for example, his listing of the characteristics of the party system, pp. 160–167). In retrospect, this apparent weakness of the book turns out to be a hidden weapon: this was his way of subverting the neat but derivative analytical structure that he was unable to fully challenge at that time. The excavation proposed here would thus involve stripping this book of the dominant vocabulary of its time so as to recover lasting conceptual, theoretical and methodological resources for the study of Indian politics. Briefly, such a project could take us in four directions. First of all, Kothari’s uncanny ability to read broader trends and patterns implicit in everyday developments of politics provides a rich resource and a model for empirically grounded political judgments and middle range generalizations. In more ways than is realized, the book has stood the test of time. Above all, the book stuck to a bold assertion that India’s democratic experiment was here to stay and that it will not follow either the fate of other post-colonial polities, or the Western script. He stuck his neck out to argue that the crisis of mid-1960s, especially after the 1967 elections, posed no threat to the democratic order. The book anticipated, too early, the differentiation in the patterns of state politics, the rise of regional parties, regionalization of national parties and regionalization of party politics and the rise of coalition governments at the centre (pp. 189–192). His reading that Panchayati Raj leads to ‘integrating [Indian polity] into a common frame of institutional allegiances’ and creation of a national continuum of power (pp. 132–135) is another example, not just of insights that have stood the test of time, but as exemplar of linking the micro to the macro. This remains on the agenda of the students of Indian politics.
This takes us to the second aspect. Kothari’s preference for empirically understanding of political behaviour as the starting point of understanding Indian politics needs a fresh look. This move was presented and perceived as a privileging of survey research based quantitative analysis in Political Science. Kothari initiated and used survey research in political values, attitudes, opinion and behaviour. But as we noticed above, much of his empirical sense in the book does not draw upon this resource; instead he derives his insights from his own extensive travels, conversations with political actors and his intimate observation of political reality. Thus, his empirical moves beyond the positivist prescription; it is as much hermeneutic and phenomenological as ‘scientific’ in a narrow sense. Thus re-interpreted, this book is an invitation for a new generation of empirical work that encompasses ethnography, history of ideas, case studies and survey research, among others.
Third, the book offers a rich and readily accessible resource for contemporary efforts at uncovering the logic of political modernity. The approach to modernization that he spells out in the third chapter offers an alternative account of modernity. He simply assumed that the trajectory of modernity was going to be different in India and could not be derived from elsewhere: ‘Analogies from other countries have little relevance in understanding [India]’s problems. Nor are conceptual categories or empirical insights drawn from the European experience of the nineteenth century of great relevance’ (p. 322). His critique of the ‘colonial mind’ (p. 7), the idea of a ‘pre-ordained path’ (p. 14) and the insistence on necessary sequence and stages implicit in the dominant modernization theory of his time anticipated and paved the way for contemporary perspectives on alternative modernities in post-colonial setting. He provides a painstaking inventory of how political modernity was carved out, piece by piece, from blocks of tradition, how in each case the pre-existing facilitated and resisted this change, and how, despite significant difficulties, the task was accomplished. More than his more famous formulations of the Congress system etc., it is his nuanced cataloguing of how an encounter with India’s pre-modern context provided political modernity its unusual ‘depth, flexibility and maneuverability’ (p. 83) that constitutes the richest intellectual legacy of Politics in India, a legacy that can inspire a new generation of scholarship.
Fourth, although the book does not discuss the concept and theory of democracy at length, it can help us think of a new democratic theory that draws upon the varied experiences of real life of democracy in most parts of the world. His insistence on ‘empirical’ view of politics implies that democratic theory may take political practices as its point of departure. Rajni Kothari consciously resisted two tendencies prevalent among students of Indian democracy prior to him. He avoided the pitfalls of treating India as an under-developed democracy on its way to the proper path taken by western democracies, at the same time he resisted the essentialist reading of India that drew upon India’s uniqueness. It was not an easy position to take in his time; it is still not an easy position to spell out. It required, and still does, intellectual, cultural and political self-confidence for which the objective grounds were much weaker then.
Politics in India was among the first books to overcome the ‘Euro-normal’ assumptions of democratic theory. In one stroke the book shifted the locus of normality away from global north to the rest of the world. The grand achievement of this book was simply this: it made possible to think of India as yet another ‘normal’ democracy. This achievement did not become the collective unconscious of his time and is still an unfinished intellectual agenda for our times.
The methodological, theoretical and substantive resources that this extraordinary book can offer to the students of Indian politics in particular and democratic theory in general are still a promise. The indifference of the author and the peculiar trajectory of the discipline of political science in India has meant that this resource was neither discovered nor utilized. The promise of a critical hermeneutics, of an immanent critique that dissolves the dilemma of insider or outsider, is yet to be realized. To the extent to which democratic politics in India is a work in progress, Politics in India is also a work in progress. It is a classic waiting to be (re)written.
(Review piece of Rajni Kothari’s classic book, ‘Politics in India’ which I wrote an year ago for the journal, Studies in Indian Politics.)
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