- A Story of Four Revolutions:Mechanisms of Change in India
Sumit Ganguly and Rahul Mukherji's India Since 1980 presents a bold and ambitious argument about change across and within India. Its unique contribution lies in its description of four distinct revolutions: social-political, economic, foreign policy, and religious. While many recent books have noted changes in India's economy and foreign policy, India Since 1980 will be known for its juxtaposition of four different themes in one short, pithy volume. Even if one may disagree with the authors' choice of the four dimensions of change, the book's dominant message is that India is changing across a whole range of policies and arenas.
India Since 1980 represents an emerging, although not fully accepted, consensus of the need to privilege change over continuity in our understanding of India. The conventional understanding of India is of strong historical legacies and path dependence. Most tend to see India through the lens of continuing chaos, disorder, and persistent violence and conflict. This is usually attributed to the nexus of old vested interests that are locked in. In contrast, this book gently urges us to shift the frames and thematic lenses through which we view India. India Since 1980 tells a story of a country experiencing multiple and simultaneous transformations. The book is also notable for its optimistic tone, with its focus on the making of India into a more "representative polity" (p. 2) as well as on positive trends such as the resilience of independent regulatory institutions (p. 9). The authors observe: "The rise of violent religious intolerance, the failure of national governments to curb it, and the growth of political corruption are all dangerous and corrosive trends. Yet focusing on them alone [End Page 122] would provide a sadly incomplete account of Indian democracy" (p. 9). Conflict and violence is an ongoing reality in India but so is change and the persistent demand for development.
According to the authors, this change in India has been long in the making but is no less significant as a result. I agree. Even if India, unlike many countries of the post-Communist region, did not experience a massive change in one instant, it is reaching a tipping point, when all the slow and incremental changes over the past decades are cumulating and coming together. In this respect, the book is not alone, as many scholars on India have grappled with this issue.1 These books together paint a picture of India that is at odds with our preexisting conceptions and ideas about the prospect of change in India.
While there are some problems with the authors' specific claims, given the book's ambitious frame, the arguments would be best served by taking the research agenda suggested by the book's foreword. The important analytical question is: Do the changes described by the authors demand a new research agenda for the study of Indian politics and political economy? I would argue for such a new framework and new research questions to understand the combination of the four revolutions.
First, however, I have a few specific problems with some interpretations in the book. The Indian story of change needs to be placed in comparative perspective. The revolutions in India are different from changes in post-Communist countries and in Latin America, and are even more striking for that reason. Comparatively, the changes in India represent a "change within institutions" rather than "a change of institutions."2 Change in India has been rapid but has also occurred within the institutional framework inherited from the past. India did not undergo a democratic transition or the kind of "big bang" economic shock that required not only policy reform but also the creation of new markets and private actors. This comparative perspective implies that the puzzle of how change happens deserves serious analysis and that we [End Page 123] should attend to the institutional fabric and global levers of change that may have created the conditions for many revolutions. As the authors themselves document in the four chapters, change has crept in slowly and sometimes without design or intention.
The book could also have focused attention on the...