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‘In a democracy everything is political’

Richa Mishra | Updated on May 27, 2021

Turning times: Sanjaya Baru sees the concept of elitism changing, with shifts in economic, political and cultural power

Sanjaya Baru on the changing concept of elitism, the rise of the middle castes and how economic politics is always political

* It is true that in the Indian context it is difficult to define who constitutes the elite because there are so many parallel structures of power

* Those who are in power today are very different from those who are defined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the 'Khan Market gang'

* While bureaucracy has a lot of power, the meritocratic nature of it has been diluted

* Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh functioned as consensual leaders; their era was the ‘golden era of growth’

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Who constitutes India’s power elite? How has its composition changed from the 1950s? These are questions that Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to Manmohan Singh and newspaper editor, seeks to address in his latest book India’s Power Elite: Caste, Class and a Cultural Revolution.

Those who know Baru or have followed his writings are well-versed with his wit. And there is an abundance of that in this book, which helps the reader navigate diverse subjects with ease. His take on political power, industry chambers and bureaucracy all help in introducing the reader to the new elite, in which the middle castes — those occupying the middle rungs of the so-called caste hierarchy — have a larger presence.

“Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with the international elite than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street,” the book quotes former British Prime Minister Theresa May as saying. “But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

In a conversation with BLink, Baru, who teaches at the Indian School of Public Policy in New Delhi, shares his thoughts on how he sees the concept of elitism changing, the shifts in economic, political and cultural power, the rise of the middle castes, why in a democracy nothing is apolitical and how as chief minister Narendra Modi advocated cooperative federalism, but as prime minister, he has weakened federal institutions.

India’s Power Elite: Caste, Class and a Cultural Revolution / Sanjaya Baru / Penguin Random House/ Non-fiction / ₹699

 

Excerpts:

In the book you take us through the concept of elitism. Who exactly is elite? Is it a sense of entitlement that makes people think they are the elite?

It is certainly not a sense of entitlement which makes them elite. It is true that in the Indian context it is difficult to define who constitutes the elite because there are so many parallel structures of power, unlike in the West. As I mentioned in the very beginning of the book, my study was inspired by the work of C Wright Mills, an American sociologist. He was looking at the nature of the power elite in the US. And there has been a lot of work subsequently on the same. But, when it comes to India, the problem is different.

First of all, I make a distinction between those who wield power and those who constitute the elite, something very typical of India. The second thing about India is that we have both a class structure and a caste structure. And the nature of power and elitism varies between these two parallel structures.

My starting point for India was this famous statement of Ram Manohar Lohia that the Indian elite is defined by three characteristics (he was writing it in the late ’50s): Upper caste, inherited wealth and English speaking.

Today, I argue in my book, this definition may still be relevant in defining the ‘elite’, but not necessarily the ‘powerful’. When it comes to the study of power we have to recognise that power has moved away from upper castes to middle castes — what are called Other Backward Classes (OBCs) — across the country. You look at the caste composition of the ruling parties across India including the BJP which was once seen as a Brahmin-dominated party. Today it is led by OBC leaders. In terms of power it has moved from upper castes to middle castes. That is one change I try to analyse.

The second change which I try to analyse is the nature and structure of wealth itself. I have a lovely quote from a communist leader who says in Nehru’s time we called it a ‘Tata-Birla ki sarkar’ now we call it an ‘Adani-Ambani ki sarkar’. That transition in the business class is the second change in the nature of the power elite.

Then I look at provincial politics and leadership. That is another dimension. So I have tried to look at different dimensions of this change. Those who are in power today are very different from those who are defined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the ‘Khan Market gang’. Modi is focusing more on what we call the cultural elite — public intellectuals, media, editors and so on — those who dominate opinion-making. They are certainly part of the elite, but they have very little power.

What is the key difference you find between the Mumbai business fraternity and the regional business class?

I don’t refer to them as Mumbai business fraternity. My argument is if you go back to pre-91, the dominant business leadership was in the hands of people who were in Bombay, Delhi, Kolkata and even Chennai. I call them metropolitan businesses.

These were the business elite. In the chapter ‘Business and State’ I show how if you take the top 100 companies in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s there is very little change in the names. But, when you move from 1990 to 2000 there was an enormous change. Those who entered the top 100 in the 1990s, I define them as the new business class and many of them are regional, meaning not from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, but from Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune and other parts of the country. I see it as a phenomenon that started in the ’90s but gained much more after 2000 with a lot of new business communities coming into the top 100. I argue that they are children of the end of the Licence Raj. That is the change I am analysing.

It has often been argued that economics should be independent of politics, but it never has been the case. Having worked in key positions, what is your view?

I don’t take that view. I am a student of political economy, and I understand that in a democracy everything is political. We are now seeing even Covid-19 handling is political. Nothing is apolitical in a democracy. And certainly economic policy is political because different political parties have their biases and any policy change benefits some and not some others. It then immediately becomes political.

The book also hints at your stint in an industry body [Baru was secretary general, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry]. What do you see as the role of industry bodies? Are they mere lobbyists or facilitators in policy making?

It is legitimate that in a democracy an industry association functions as a lobby. They lobby in favour of policies that benefit business, so there is nothing wrong in it. It happens in all democracies. Lobbying in support of policies whether it is tax policy or tariff policy is a legitimate part of an industry body’s activity. However, a change came about after 1991 when the government started consulting them for ideas on policy. CII and FICCI started hiring professional economists. They started playing a role in policy making. This was an interesting evolution. Business leaders had a viewpoint.

But what has happened in the recent past is that the government is using these organisations to promote its policies. They want these bodies to work as spokesperson of the government, supporting whatever the government does. This is a complete role reversal. This could also be because they are getting dependent on the government for funding.

Let us talk about the bureaucracy. The book has a lot of references to the role of bureaucrats. How do you define them as members of the power elite?

Unlike in many western democracies, in India we have a permanent civil service that has been a part of the power structure, since even before Independence when the ICS was created. Having said that, I would make two more points — both the ICS and the IAS for a long time were seen as purely meritocratic organisations — selection, promotion and postings were based largely on merit. But increasingly we see that politicians have interfered at every level — at the entry level by making too many changes in the selection process; in the routinisation of promotion and in postings at every level. For example, we had a tradition that you cannot be a Finance Secretary (FS) at the Centre without being FS at the state and also JS in the central ministry. Now after many years we have an FS who has a finance background (TV Somanathan). At the state level the politicisation of postings is even worse. So what I say is while bureaucracy has a lot of power, the meritocratic nature of it has been diluted.

The second point I make is that there is a change in the bureaucracy’s caste composition. Before independence and into the ’50s and ’60s it was dominated by the upper castes, but increasingly we find the middle castes increasing their share. The power of an independent and permanent civil service was diluted from the time Indira Gandhi spoke of a “committed bureaucracy”. Today such a commitment is being demanded in ideological terms by the ruling dispensation.

The book has interesting anecdotes on the Modi era. What is the shift you see in his style of functioning?

Well, because Narendra Modi came to Delhi with an absolute majority he seems to have felt that his victory represented a fundamental shift in the Indian political system. He adopted an authoritarian approach which was more like Indira Gandhi’s. But what we should not forget is that between 1989 and 2014, the era of coalitions, we had three PMs who pursued ‘consensual and inclusive politics’. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh functioned as consensual leaders. Their era was the ‘golden era of growth’. The economy performed well. Poverty declined. There was relative social peace. Moreover, in India, regional leaders cannot be ignored. As chief minister Modi advocated cooperative federalism, but as PM he has weakened federal institutions.

Published on May 26, 2021

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