Missed Opportunities and Underdevelopment: On Ashoka Mody’s “India Is Broken”

Dinyar Patel reviews Ashoka Mody’s “India Is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today.”

By Dinyar PatelJanuary 11, 2024

Missed Opportunities and Underdevelopment: On Ashoka Mody’s “India Is Broken”

India Is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today by Ashoka Mody. Stanford University Press. 528 pages.

TO JUDGE BY recent headlines, this seems to be India’s moment. “India is a true bright spot in the midst of a global downturn,” CNBC declared after last January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where CEOs waxed eloquent about the country’s digital infrastructure and its prospects as a microchip manufacturing hub. “Western leaders are making a sensible bet on India,” pronounced the Financial Times in July. With the country’s young population, democratic political tradition, growing military prowess, and robust GDP growth, how could it not make sense to cultivate economic and strategic ties with New Delhi? Not to be outdone, several Indian outlets in late November latched onto a report issued by an American credit rating agency. “China slows, India grows,” they beamed, reinforcing a long-standing hope about the “India story”—that the Indian tortoise would eventually outperform the Chinese hare.

Amid such boosterism and bullishness comes Ashoka Mody’s new book India Is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today, a scathing account of how, since independence in 1947, India’s story has actually been characterized by gross economic mismanagement, systemic corruption, dashed democratic hopes, and state-sponsored violence. An extremely depressing book, narrating a history of missed opportunities and lagging development, it is not the account that promoters of the “world’s largest democracy” and the “world’s fasting-growing economy” would want to gain traction.

And that is precisely why India Is Broken is essential reading. Mody writes with righteous indignation, providing a necessary antidote to PR and puff pieces, Davos showmanship and smug complacency about India’s inevitable rise. He condemns nearly all of India’s major leaders—from the liberal doyen Jawaharlal Nehru to the right-wing authoritarian Narendra Modi—for having failed dramatically at one essential task: generating enough jobs for their citizens. That failure has stemmed from an almost allergic aversion toward investment in public goods. India’s relative underdevelopment is the result of its neglect of primary and secondary education, quality healthcare, and the other infrastructure, amenities, and services necessary to create livable, efficient cities. (Appropriately enough, I read part of Mody’s book while sweating through a five-hour power outage in central Mumbai.) One can quibble about Mody’s treatment of particular Indian prime ministers, but it is hard to dispute his core argument.

Today’s breathless media reports have pointed to GDP growth as evidence of India’s economic performance. By shifting the focus to job creation, Mody develops a revisionist account of the India story while posing some hard questions. Why has India prioritized types of economic development that have come with limited job creation and high environmental costs? How have policymakers in New Delhi failed to learn simple lessons about human development from neighbors like China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh? Do politicians even want to provide citizens with quality education and healthcare?

In Mody’s view, India’s inability to provide public goods and generate employment is the logical result of seven decades of worsening corruption, a disintegrating social fabric, acute policymaking shortsightedness, and very misplaced priorities. It all began, he tells us, with Nehru. As India’s first prime minister, Nehru dashed the hopes of a new nation by spouting socialist rhetoric but failing to implement socialist policies. Nehru was conscious of the successful economic policies of Meiji-era Japan but instead pushed the country down a disastrous path of state-led heavy industry, which generated neither jobs nor the type of fast-paced growth that was just beginning in East Asian economies. And he pursued what Mody terms a “temples strategy”: investing in flashy symbolic projects like big dams, research laboratories, and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) rather than more nuts-and-bolts things like schoolhouses and village-level medical facilities. Private business reeled from overregulation and state control, but their complaints were merely screams into the void in an era when Nehru enjoyed unchallenged political influence.

A growing number of historians have picked apart these rather straightforward narratives about Nehruvian socialism. Was Nehru’s assessment about the transformative qualities of heavy industry too rosy? Yes, but there was broad consensus among Indian leaders, both before and after independence, that heavy industry was the way to go. Could Nehru be dismissive of private enterprise? Absolutely, but his policies could also be surprisingly pro-business, as Taylor C. Sherman has recently noted, and his government took a cautious path on nationalization.

Nor is it entirely correct to assume that business and the state were at opposite ideological poles during the 1950s and ’60s. India’s biggest businessmen, after all, practically begged for state-led economic planning. As Ramachandra Guha has argued, a 1944 document known as the Bombay Plan “gives the lie to the claim that Jawaharlal Nehru imposed a model of centralized economic development on an unwilling capitalist class.” India’s reluctance to engage with the global economy in the 1950s and ’60s stemmed from a much longer tradition of “swadeshi,” or economic self-reliance, a noble idea that did not always make economic sense and could, at its worst extremes, veer into outright xenophobia.

Did Nehru neglect primary and secondary education as well as public health? Certainly. But he was hardly alone in this regard, and some of his colleagues were even more shortsighted. While he was chief minister of Madras state in the early 1950s, C. Rajagopalachari slashed educational funding and shunted schoolchildren into hereditary caste-based occupational training run by parents. Rajagopalachari became the leader of the “free economy” opposition to Nehru in the late 1950s, which, as Aditya Balasubramanian has pointed out, was downright regressive when it came to traditional hierarchies and caste-based inequality. Nehru at least tried to tackle these problems, albeit with very mixed results. None of this excuses Nehru’s blind spots, but it does point to a wider political landscape where provision of basic public goods was, surprisingly, not always an urgent priority.

It is harder to disagree with Mody’s treatment of Nehru’s successors. Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, embraced populist policies, let corruption flourish, and did so little for education that—incredibly—the number of illiterates in India actually grew on her watch. Her contempt for democracy led to the Emergency in 1975–77, when thousands of political prisoners were crowded into India’s fetid jails in the name of an economic development that never materialized. One person, at least, secured a good job: her son, Sanjay, India’s poster boy for 1970s nepotism. Sanjay, who compensated for his mediocre intelligence with shocking ruthlessness, was put in charge of a slew of projects ranging from the construction of an automobile composed entirely of Indian materials and technology (an abject failure) to the violent dispossession of poor people (a marked success). After he died in a fiery plane crash while stunt flying over Delhi, one of his own relatives eulogized him thus: his passing “saved the nation from great tragedy.”

Following the lead of economists such as Robert Solow, Amartya Sen, and Jean Drèze, Mody is skeptical about the palliative effects of free-market reforms, finding them quite ineffective without sufficient provision of public goods. For this reason, he is quite critical of P. V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, prime ministers who are otherwise applauded for their policies of economic liberalization. According to Mody, they took the “minimal steps to promote a market economy,” and their efforts resulted in very little job creation. Worse still, they let corruption and the political-criminal network fester while paying scant attention to human development. Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership saw the job-demand backlog balloon while a handful of politicians and business oligarchs raked in fortunes. Indian elites sequestered themselves in gated communities or emigrated. This environment was ripe, Mody continues, for the “Gujarat model” touted by Narendra Modi, who became prime minister in 2014 while promising to create millions of jobs. The Gujarat model matched favors and handouts to big business with neglect of health and education, and—you might now notice a pattern—it failed to generate sufficient jobs. Modi’s aggressive ideology of Hindutva, meanwhile, fed upon the simmering frustrations of millions of unemployed or underemployed young Indians.

It does not take a historian or political scientist to realize that something is rotten in the state of Indian democracy today. Politicians charged with murder, rape, and worse increasingly populate the halls of power. They win elections by cynically dangling access to services that the state is already obliged to provide, but which they can turn on and off depending on voters’ whims. India’s political discourse more and more revolves around questionable historical grievances rather than underperforming schools, increased poverty, toxic air quality, and anarchic urban development—not to mention erosion of fundamental rights and democratic norms. To observe the country today—with an eye cast to global comparisons—is to realize that Boss Tweed was a paragon of ethical behavior when placed next to many of India’s elected representatives; that the industrial slums of 19th-century Manchester must have been lovely, airy places in comparison to the hovels in which millions live in Mumbai, Delhi, and elsewhere. To be fair, Indian politicians, including those in the current government, have made notable investments in public goods in recent years, but nowhere near the amount of their peers in places like Bangladesh and Vietnam.

How did all of this come to pass? Mody’s narrative is particularly depressing for those of us who study India’s anti-colonial nationalist movement. The first generation of anti-colonial leaders made popular education one of their central demands. As early as 1882, some of them called for universal, state-sponsored education. Decades before terms like human development and human capital were invented, Indian nationalists were arguing for them, excoriating the British Raj for denying skills training, vocational education, and job opportunities to their subjects. Once they established the Indian National Congress Party in 1885, they charged the colonial government with corruption at its highest and lowest levels (colonial officials, for their part, returned the favor: one memorably described the Congress under Mahatma Gandhi as “Tammany Hall presided over by St. Francis of Assisi”).

Mody dismisses the role of caste in explaining policy choices. But caste actually has a big role in explaining India’s fractured democracy and its meager provision of public goods. And caste bias played a formative role in modern India’s political evolution. India’s anti-colonial leaders might have talked about popular education, but they became more circumspect when Dalit and lower-caste students hovered around the threshold of the schoolhouse. Such prejudice was common in other forms of liberalism around the world in the 19th century. It was more egregious in the 20th. By the time of independence, B. R. Ambedkar, the towering Dalit intellectual and politician, worried deeply about how caste would undermine those essential building blocks of democracy: liberty, equality, and fraternity (this is a central theme in Ashok Gopal’s wonderful new biography of Ambedkar). How were equality and fraternity possible when Dalit students were still turned away from schools and when upper-caste doctors refused to provide them with life-saving medical intervention?

Caste-based prejudice continued to affect the provision of public goods by the time American political scientist Myron Weiner published The Child and the State in India in 1991. Weiner’s book, perhaps as depressing as Mody’s, demonstrated how Indian elites and policymakers unabashedly saw educational access as a lever to maintain class and caste hierarchies in Indian society. Since then, India has achieved near-universal primary school enrollment, a commendable feat—but this masks a reality where too many government schools are plagued by low-performing or absent teachers, regimens of meaningless rote learning, and terrible infrastructure. Access to quality education is the new lever of control and differentiation.

What is the way forward? Mody suggests that radical decentralization of power in India is the “best and perhaps only hope for cleaning its rot in politics.” He cites the southern state of Kerala as an example of how local self-government can boost accountability and public goods provision. But Kerala has benefited from decades of vigorous social reform and grassroots political activism. In less-developed West Bengal, by contrast, local devolution of power has been accompanied by shocking levels of political violence: gangland wars over resources and power. To be successful, decentralization must be coupled with a progressive political impulse, one that affirms, as Ambedkar recognized, the interconnected principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all Indians. Politicians must aggressively prioritize equality over maintenance of traditional social hierarchies. And that will be a tall order.

India Is Broken is a brave book, flying in the face of both the chest-thumping nationalist narrative of a rising India and the collective wisdom of various finance bros, investment gurus, CEOs, and talking heads. Narendra Modi has proclaimed India a “vishwaguru,” a glorious civilization that can be a teacher to the world. Ashoka Mody would instead suggest that India take a seat in the classroom and learn some basic lessons in development from its more prosperous, egalitarian neighbors.

LARB Contributor

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR) in Mumbai and a research affiliate at the Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2020), which was awarded the 2021 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize.


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