Ashoak Upadhyay

A tale of two Indias

ASHOAK UPADHYAY | Updated on February 07, 2011


The state in its earlier avatar failed to bridge the socio-economic gap between ‘modern' and ‘traditional' sectors. The duality persists in the current regime of market-led prosperity.

In 1954, William Arthur Lewis, arguably the father of development economics, proposed a theory of the ‘dual economy' in developing countries that constituted a ‘modern' sector of manufacturing, mining and commercial agriculture, driven by profit, and a traditional agrarian sector blessed with “unlimited labour supply” that he concluded could be used to drive the modern sector.

When Gunnar Myrdal adopted the concept in his seminal work Asian Drama to describe India, he provided the context for a development plan based on the laudable objective of bringing the ‘great unwashed' into the mainstream and eventually creating a unified economy of equitable prosperity.


India's twentieth-century modernism, based on a typically confused social democratic platform, began at the point when the state assumed the awesome responsibility of growth premised on distributive justice. Successive governments were judged by their capacity to carry out this self-assigned task; when ordinary citizens perceived the failure of the modern state's welfarist contract, they took to the streets; in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the social compact, quixotically termed “democratic socialism”, came under threat.

Angered by food inflation and devaluation, workers' went on strike across metros and in the North-East part of West Bengal, while the Naxalite movement, not to mention a series of railway strikes, also broke out during this period.

The following decades tilted the modern state even more decisively away from its welfare-inspired origins. The Emergency and the carnage following the assassination of Indira Gandhi exposed the modern state's claims to an impartial mediation in civil society's fractious and competing interests. India's modern state, the “soft state” of Gunnar Myrdal, was fast becoming a failed project even as the old duality lingered, often along freshly mutated communal lines.


Then two things happened to give the tattered image of the Indian state a new life. Internet-based services and the phenomenal rise of the Indian IT enterprise meshed to fruition in unprecedented GDP growth, fortuitously coinciding with the UPA's first term in office.

By 2005-06, the second year of that term, rubbing its eyes in disbelief as it were, Dr Singh's team quickly claimed authorship of the Cinderella-type fairy tale of GDP numbers. In the process, it also created for itself a new discourse of policymaking based on the increasingly firm conviction that an aggressive (usually discriminatory) encouragement of the IT sector and services would expand incomes more universally than any welfare scheme the government could rustle up: The old duality would vanish under the inexorable march of market-led prosperity.

As the first term wore on it became difficult to separate the state from its discourse of wealth creation, and both from the narrow band of urban-based beneficiaries; each spoke the same language, and still speak to one another in the narrow confines of air-conditioned halls, global talk-fests, the meaningless rhetoric of a magical world of growing numbers alien to more than 700 million on the leeward side of the glittering lights.

Poverty alleviation does not need proper governance and grassroots democracy so much as the right computer software, internet connectivity and the former chief executive of an IT firm to advise the Prime Minister on skill development. Who else but the ones already blessed with this wondrous technology and its spin-offs could respond with gusto?


But the post-modernist state has failed as much as the old one in resolving Lewis' duality. Attempting to create the illusion that it is meaningless, the New Age discourse let the duality mutate into two separate ‘countries'. One, a narrow strip of privilege consisting of no more than a third of the population with its own cultural benchmarks (life as Spectacle, Bollywood as life), value systems (the superfluous as necessity and vice-versa) a universe constantly honed by television; and the ‘Other' a vast hinterland behind the broken lights of GDP numbers and home-grown billionaires, the ‘invisible republic' of the dispossessed and symbol of the failed social democratic project.

For the new age UPA-II, entwined in the discourse of wealth accumulation, that large area of darkness will have to wait for the market to reach its shores. Problem is, the Maoists have already landed.

Published on February 07, 2011

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