Reliance on Landlords: From the Colonizers to the Congress Party

Why did India never have a class-based revolution or stark social transformation? In a letter to Engels, Marx suggested that the arrival of British free trade brought the only social revolution in India. He starts by invoking the imagery of the static village-- 
These small stereotype forms of social organism have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Tehri village paddy fields, Uttarakhand

But in Reinventing India, Stuart Corbridge and John Harriss have shown that the British left many pre-existing structures, such as the zamindari system or the village caste relations, untouched or even retrenched. Some have suggested that this was their strategy of divide and rule, since it would be to the British rulers’ advantage if supra-village structures were weakened and villages were strengthened. Others have also argued that the British colonizers could have been thinking only in terms of “Western” and “Indian” terms, saw India as a divided society, and strengthened preexisting divides in the process. Anti-colonialism sought to adapt western institutions while also understanding India as distinctly different than Western societies. Spiritual values and private practices can remain “Indian” while the public sphere becomes Western, which created new identities and contradictions. Economics definitely fell under the public sphere and has been a politically contested issue in India throughout the 19th and 20th century.

The authors provided many critiques of the Congress Party-led nationalist movement. Historian Barrington Moore suggested from a Marxian view that Gandhi provided a link between landed classes and peasants through satyagraha and ahimsa movements. Gandhi and his followers advocated for class conciliation while others saw a need for class struggle. But the Congress Socialists were divided and weak and eventually established their own party--CSP.  Therefore even though Jawarhalal Nehru’s position towards socialism was sincere, as Pramit Chaudhuri has pointed out, Nehru did not push for nationalization of land seriously within his own party for the sake of unity. He also felt personal loyalty to Gandhi’s positions. As soon as Congress Party came into rule after independence, according to David Arnold, they have strengthened rulings of the Raj, such as the civil administration and refused the interference of politicians. Some would say that the Congress Party became the Raj to some extent.
Corbridge and Harriss follow Gramsci, Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj’s idea of Nehru’s “passive revolution” to explain developments in the 1950s that substituted any real social revolution. Nehru wanted to uplift the poor through development led by a centralized state. Nehru proposed that top-heavy industrialization could reduce dependence on agriculture. He resisted conservative tendencies in the Party but he did not have the power to institute industrialization as much as countries like South Korea or redistribution of land like China. Furthermore, Nehru’s Congress Party garnered support through regressive taxation, in which the state did not tax rich Indian farmers much. This contributed to Nehru’s inability to implement agrarian reform and contributed to the 1970s’ “crisis of planning.” Due to these demand-side requirements, the state could not raise resources domestically. Used to the many concessions by the state, the New Farmers’ Movement in the 1970s also championed lower input costs such as the reduction of irrigation charges and more subsidies. This arrangement impeded planning and the passive revolution.
Partha Chatterjee and Karivaj identifies Nehruvian ideals as “high modernism” that was distant from popular support. For example, secularism through education was also an alien concept to the broader public. The English-educated elements in Congress Party realized in 1947 that in addition to these ideals, they also had to struggle and compete for local control of party organizations. They gradually lost ground to networks of important individuals with bonds to business patronage.

If nationalism had certain problems, how should we assess India’s (nationalistic) claim that it is the biggest democracy? Ambedkar, social reformer and champion of lower caste rights, criticized the lack of change over the caste-class issue. He posed the contradiction that from 1950, “In politics we will have quality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man, one vote, one value. In our social and economic life we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value.” (p34) Nehru understood democracy from the Raj and Westminister models, which nowadays people consider overly idealistic. Yet at the time mostly everyone in the Constituent Assembly agreed with him to form a centralized Parliamentary constitution rather than something close to the ground, like a panchayati government. Barrington Moore also identified the weak bourgeois class for a functioning participatory democracy in India. Karivaj proposed that due to the weak bourgeois, India requires state bureaucracies for social justice and redistribution. These institutions have been less funded since privatization led by Indira Gandhi and the Indian economists of the 1990s, which Corbridge and Harris criticize in a later chapter.

In an international context, state planning and rule by economic experts were two hegemonic ideas among much of the Third World Nationalists, such as Egypt’s Nasser and India’s Nehru. There was a brief honeymoon period between the Communist leadership and economists in China as well before Mao Tse Tung started movements to purge many intellectuals, economist and others, and consolidate in 1952, 1956-57 and 1966-1976. In India, Congress Party could not execute social justice through land reform and redistribution. Rather, the Party continuously distributed subsidies to rich farmers throughout post-independence. For example, fertilizer subsidies only strengthened the dominating landholding farmers. This strategy was also in line with the “demand side” Keynesian economics that sought to increase spending in the economy. Yet as Beverly Silver has pointed out, the Keynesian prescription was meant for the “developed” countries. High mass consumption and full employment were deemed to be beyond the reach of “underdeveloped” economies. (Silver, Beverly. Forces of Labor, 154.) Only the upper classes in India had money to spend and and rich farmers were taxed regressively. Since the money was not flowing to the state through taxed consumption, the subsidies partly caused the crisis in state finances in the 1980s and 90s. 
Banana tree in village near Rishikesh

Since rich peasants have been one of Congress Party’s main constituents’ interest, and may continue to serve as a powerful constituent of the BJP as well. Rich peasants obtained votes often vertically by coercing their tenants or dominions to vote with the rich's interest, this tendency may continue even as Congress Party support in current elections.  Rupa Viswanath argued in class that the phenomenon in which rich do not vote as much as the poor is because nowadays the rich are confident of their control over rural power. Thus it does not matter which political power is at the center. New taxes would be protested and fended off by the rich peasantry since there was a precedent of low to no taxes. More readings need to be done on the relationship between rural interests and electoral politics.