In India, everything is political; who you know counts as much as what you know. The conniving politician is a standard ingredient in movies, books and newspapers, and a common theme runs through all of them - if honest police officers and bureaucrats were allowed to do their jobs without political interference, if entrepreneurs were allowed to start and run their businesses without interference, we would be a much richer, more efficient and more creative society. Politics, clearly, has a bad name, while economics is increasing in influence.

Nevertheless, the institutionalisation of politics is the single biggest achievement of modern India, a structuring of the nation that started with the anti-colonial response in the late nineteenth century and made enormous progress during the Congress-led freedom struggle, especially in the Gandhian era. Many respected Indian figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are politicians: Tilak, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, Maulana Azad, Ambedkar, JP, the list is endless. We may disagree vehemently about their ideas and policies but we cannot deny their importance.

Compared to that illustrious list, the current crop of politicians comes across as self-serving. The quality of politicians and the standing of political institutions have fallen tremendously since independence. Why did that happen?

Some of the reasons for the decline of politics are contingent: Indira Gandhi's subversion of the political process and the end of Congress' overwhelming dominance. Other causes for the decline of politics are structural, such as the increasing role of money in politics and the intensely competitive character of Indian electoral democracy. When Mayawati is more than happy to receive a multi-crore rupee garland and even happier to defend her decision, we know that something is wrong in the state of Indian politics.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are deeper reasons for the decline of politics, reasons that are common to the decline of politics and the decline of other aspects of public reasoning such as the quality of scientific research. After all, our scientists are not being given multi-crore garlands and yet their quality too has decreased since J C Bose. I believe that the deepest underlying cause of the decline of politics (and of intellectual discourse) is related to the struggle between politics and economics as the arbiter of the moral commons and the role of the developmental state in this fight.

Politicoeconomy or Econopolity?

In order to understand the role of the developmental state further, let us invent two terms: econopolity and politicoeconomy. An econopolity describes a society whose economy has greater legitimacy than its politics, while a politicoeconomy is a society where political concerns trump economic concerns. Historically, Western Europe and the United States are econopolities, where economic concerns have a far longer lifetime than political ones. In these countries, the industrial revolution and its economic consequences preceded full adult suffrage by more than a century.

The history of India is divided between economy and politics with the colonisers caring more about the economy and the independence struggle giving a bigger role to politics. In pre-independence India the economy was mostly the preserve of the coloniser, i.e., Britain, leaving Indians to concentrate on politics. I think the decline of politics and of intellectual inquiry has to do with the fact that until independence, politics had more moral legitimacy than economics, but the developmental state (and its crises) precipitated a reversal of roles, leading to the current econopolity.

Econopolities and politicoeconomies are different ways of structuring the moral commons. If you recall from a previous article (see this link), the inhabitants of the moral commons are all treated as moral agents. To understand the tussle between economics and politics, we need to understand two related but distinct challenges that arise while shaping the moral commons, namely, 'inclusion' and 'coordination'.

Inclusion is about deciding who the legitimate occupants of the moral commons are. Can only propertied upper caste men inhabit the moral commons, or does it also have space for poor people, women, minorities and lower castes? The inclusion problem is about setting the boundaries of the moral commons. In contrast, the coordination problem is about the distribution of resources within the moral commons. Should we follow principles of efficiency or of fairness? Should we privilege individual autonomy and property rights or the reduction of inequality?

The inclusion problem wasn't really solved by creating a constitutional democracy and elections. Further, the coordination problem cannot be solved without solving the inclusion problem.

 •  The nation as a person
 •  The Indian empire
 •  The vanishing moral commons
 •  Democracy as vaccine

If the independence struggle taught us anything, the most powerful method of expanding the borders of the moral commons is through the practice of politics, through the invention of various institutions such as political parties, legislatures and people's movements whose goal is to broaden the tent to include as many types of human beings as possible. Once the borders of the moral commons are settled, economic rationality can take over; making sure that the distribution of resources is fair and efficient. The literal, physical creation of borders - as in the formation of independent India as a nation state - can mark a transition in the evolution of the moral commons as well, from a politicoeconomy into an econopolity.

Thrice bitten

Economics was central to the colonial enterprise in India, which was a proto development state. The British legitimised their rule by arguing that they were creating a modern India as a true econopolity, that the alien character of the ruling race was offset by the introduction of a fairer and more efficient modern economy. In practice, the British systematically converted India into a resource centre for their own expanding industrial revolution. These colonial policies made the creation of a modern economy harder, not easier. Under colonial rule, the Indian farmer was impoverished to the point of starvation; famines killed Indians by the millions.

The colonial econopolity was undermined by its own rhetoric. It did not achieve its stated aim of being a civilizing mission. The nationalist response was to put politics before economics, to argue that until India was independent and Indians were included in the moral commons of their own country, resources will not be shared equally.

Inclusiveness is an important criterion even in economic affairs. As Amartya Sen's work has shown, post-independence Indian democracy is better than the imperial regime at preventing famines. The inclusion problem has to be solved before the coordination problem can be solved. Dharma has to be established before Artha and Kama can be pursued. Unsurprisingly, politicians in the politicoeconomic era of Indian nationalism were impressive individuals engaged in the establishment of a moral commons, unlike their current counterparts who are resource managers.

As soon as we got independence, we re-focussed our energies into creating an econopolity in the form of the developmental state. It was assumed that the inclusion problem was solved and that the coordination problem can be addressed without any crises of legitimacy. The difficulty, as before, is that the inclusion problem wasn't really solved by creating a constitutional democracy. Further, the coordination problem cannot be solved without solving the inclusion problem.

Independent India rightly has high expectations for the efficiency and fairness of governance than either the old command economy or the new capitalistic economy can deliver. These expectations are primarily political, i.e., they are natural consequences of being a part of the moral commons. We now laugh at the "Hindu rate of growth" but that rate is much higher than growth rates were during the British period, and yet we were not satisfied with those rates of growth. Through the sixties and early seventies, these raised expectations of the developmental state created an increasingly divided polity which eventually precipitated the emergency.

The emergency was a brief interlude of pure econopolity - many middle class Indians have fond memories about trains running on time and hoarders being prevented from raising prices. Fortunately, Indian voters realised that a pure econopolity comes with a high price tag of curtailed freedom and authoritarianism. However, even with this realisation the inherent contradictions of the developmental state were never resolved, they were only postponed. These contradictions accumulated in the crisis of 1991, which started the process of liberalisation. The Shining India story that followed liberalisation is well known to all of us.

We also know that much of that shine is the glitter of fool's gold. Indians do not have the luxury (nor should we have the desire) to colonise other parts of the world. In the absence of geographical 'externalities,' Indian econopolitics will be forced to eat its own denizens. As usual, the weakest will suffer the most; not only will tribals, dalits and other underprivileged people be the target of this third phase of econopolity, this expansion of econopolitics will destroy the non-human world that inhabits India. In fact, as I will argue in my next article, violence to the non-human world is a defining feature of econopolitics and a feature that we cannot ignore any longer.

For those of us who are anthropocentric, econopolitics has plenty of violence in the human world as well; the Maoist rebellion should give us pause and make us reconsider our third attempt at econopolitics.