Politics, Economy and Society in India – Lecture – Fall 2016

Roughly 1.2 billion people live in India. In other words, every sixth person in the world is an Indian. This course will present an overview of India’s politics, economics and society. The primary focus will be on modern India, though the materials will be presented in a historical as well as comparative perspective.

The stories of India’s economic boom over the last decade are now commonplace in diplomatic, business and journalistic circles. But India’s chronicle of achievements, economic as well as political, coexists with several unresolved problems. We will concentrate on three aspects of the “Indian experience”: democracy, ethnic and religious diversity, and political economy.

First, defying democratic theory, India has continued to be democratic since 1947 (with the exception of a brief period during 1975-77). In the developing world, India’s democratic record is unparalleled. It should, however, be noted that India’s political freedoms exist in a land of remarkable socio-economic inequalities, raising issues about how freedoms are actually experienced by millions of people.

Second, remarkable cultural and religious diversity marks India’s social landscape. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Sikhism constitute the religious tapestry. More than 15 languages, with long histories, developed grammar and literature, are spoken in the country. The term “race” does not have a clear meaning in India. Therefore, unlike the US, racial diversity is hard to sort out. Generally speaking, caste and religious cleavages, rather than class (or racial) cleavages, have played the most significant role in politics. Of late, “tribal” cleavages have also acquired considerable political salience.

Third, Indian economy has been going through a market-oriented reform since July 1991, raising prospects of a serious economic transformation. India’s corporate sector has entered a period of remarkable wealth, and a very sizeable middle class, numbering 200-300 million, has also emerged. Though millions remain poor, the signs of economic, especially corporate, dynamism are plentifully evident. That China and India will be the economic superpowers of the 21st century is now widely believed.

Since so many of India’s contemporary developments cannot be fully understood without paying sufficient attention to history, the course has an inescapable historical dimension to it. To understand the debate on Hindu-Muslim relations, for example, one has to go back to a period when, centuries back, Islam arrived in the subcontinent. The British period of Indian history – roughly 1757 through 1947 – also has played a pivotal role in the evolution of contemporary politics. History lives in the present in interesting ways, sometimes constraining Indian citizens, at other times liberating them.

On India, our main questions will be as follows: Given its multireligious, multilinguistic and generally multicultural social and historical context, how has India defined its national identity? How was India transformed under British rule (1757-1947)? After independence in 1947, how has a liberal political order, defined by political equality, interacted with India’s social order, defined by inequality and hierarchy? Is the former undermining the latter? What sort of economic transformation is underway?