Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.10, no.1, Carfax Publishing, Bradford, U.K., 2000.

Rob Jenkins, Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

For better or for worse, in most countries of the post-Cold War world, a fairly generalised packaging of liberal-democratic state institutions and neoclassical market economics has now achieved hegemony as the prescription of the possible future. A host of international financial and trade institutions, aid agencies, global policy elites, and their state and non-state apparatuses now debate the dynamics of making “transitions” to this model, and the “reforms” necessary to “complete” this effort successfully. Neoliberal ideology constructs this as a universal and ineluctable process, eliding the complex politics of market-oriented reform by trumpeting an ideal notion of democracy, almost entirely emptied of meaning.

This recent book attempts to analyse this contingent, political dimension of the change in India’s development strategy since 1991, examining the commitment of governing elites to market reforms in a long-established democracy. Their commitment is by no means inevitable and irreversible, India’s liberalisation being undertaken in a competitive political system, where powerful interests could pose obstacles to thwart market reforms, unlike other “transitional” societies in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia. In this, Jenkins intervenes in debates on the relationship between democracy and market liberalisation, arguing for the importance of political incentives, political institutions, and political skills.

The book is divided as follows: the first three chapters respectively introduce the book; map the history of economic reform in India — including the failed attempt by Rajiv Gandhi in the late eighties — and discuss methods and approaches to the political economy of reform. The following three chapters unfold the central themes of the argument on the political dynamics and durability of liberalisation.

Firstly, he argues for the incentives available to governing elites through new sources of profit and patronage in a scenario where state control of the economy is receding, and where they can carve out a new role for themselves in the market; additionally, the fluidity of the structure of interest groups makes it clear to politicians that resistance could be manipulated and new, pro-reform groups cultivated.

Second, the chapter on formal and informal political institutions examines Indian federalism and how the logic of reform has provided new life to state-level politics, where resistance to reforms is quarantined, while policy initiatives continue to come from New Delhi. States now compete against each other in the pursuit of more market-oriented policy measures. The salience of informal institutional mechanisms like party political arenas and networks of influence of power-brokers to the reforms process, neglected in analyses of liberalisation, is also addressed here.

Thirdly, the tactical skills of democratic politicians in managing the process of reform, obfuscating its effects, disarming its opponents and manipulating new short-term alliances to buy time for the rooting of the reform process is discussed. The final chapter contextualises India’s reform in a global context, critiques the naive notions of democracy and good governance in development discourse, and discusses India’s institutional capacities in the wake of liberalisation.

Written at a time when these changes were being put in motion, and while in many ways outdated by the new policy initiatives since the 1999 general elections, this book retains useful insights into India’s democratic institutions and its policy apparatus. Most importantly, Jenkins highlights how liberalisation has been orchestrated by elites without much public fanfare or debate, and implemented in an ad-hoc, underhanded and opaque, but increasingly determined manner, belying the happy rhetoric of “democracy” and “civil society” in neoliberal ideology.

The chapters are often plagued by heavy-handed repetition of the central thesis about the sustainability of liberalisation despite the rapid changes in governments in the past five years. However, with its strong and representative sample data from four different states — Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka and West Bengal — this book is worthwhile reading for students of sociology, economics and politics, and development studies.