Wide but not deep: India’s Power Elite

EducationWorld July 2021 | Books

Sanjaya Baru
Rs.699; Pages 228 pp

Currently, a Delhi-based policy analyst, writer and columnist, Sanjaya Baru has excellent credentials to write this interestingly titled book. In his eventful, and yet sure to be more productive life he has acquired rich and valuable insights into post-inde­pendence India’s power structure and establish­ment as former editor of the Economic Times, Fi­nancial Express, Business Standard, editorial page editor of the mighty Times of India, media adviser to former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh whom he outed in his best-seller the Accidental Prime Minister: the Making & Unmaking of Manmohan Singh (2014) and 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History (2016).

To this impressive cur­riculum vitae add academ­ic experience as faculty in the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Lon­don, JNU, Delhi and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.

Unfortunately, while this book is a mile wide — an abridged history of free India — it is only inches deep. At the end, the promise inherent in its title is unfulfilled. Although one learns that the English speaking up­per middle class remains a powerful elite in Delhi and metropolitan India, and caste dynamics are dominant in rural India, the author hasn’t dug deep enough.

This volume details several ephemeral elites that ruled in Delhi and the state capitals and shaped public policy, but doesn’t provide an explanation why all of them failed to make sufficient impact and whether the incum­bent new elite that has emerged during the past decade, will be any differ­ent.

Way back in the 1930s in his epic eight-volume A Study of History for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Prof. Arnold Toynbee traced the rise and fall of great civilisa­tions and societies. In this magnum opus replete with case studies, he convinc­ingly demonstrated that when dominant elites are creative and improve the lot of the masses, civilisa­tions flourish and thrive.

However, when elites cease to be creative and become self-serving, they transform into oppressive minorities which catalyses a phenomenon Toynbee describes as a “secession of the proletariat”, setting in motion a process in which civilisations become vulnerable to “barbarians”, and decline and fall.

The pathetic condition of India’s post-indepen­dence society — it would be foolish to describe it as a civilisation — and especially of the vast ma­jority at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, is living proof that every government at the Centre and in the states and their elites, failed the creativity test and severely short-changed the proletariat.

According to World Bank data, currently over 880 million citizens of free India have a per capita per day income of $2 or less which means they suffer severe deficits of food, clothing and shelter — the essentials of civilised existence. Baru recounts how several class, caste and combinations thereof rose to power and domina­tion, but has neglected to tell us the reasons for their decline and failure.

In the preface, the au­thor admits to fascination with the study of “politics and power”. “My father was a civil servant close to a succession of chief min­isters… and conversations about class and caste and the struggles for power were commonplace at home,” he writes. And true to his interest, Baru has written a very concise his­tory of independent India, highlighting the interplay between class and caste leaders who built powerful elites.

Immediately after independence when the Harrow and Cambridge educated Jawaharlal Nehru, subsequently his daughter Indira Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ruled India for almost four decades, class was the most important qualification for entry into the ruling elite. Avid followers of Nehru and his brand of Soviet-inspired inorganic socialism under which the State would dominate the commanding heights of the Indian econ­omy, this urban elite was obsessed with transform­ing primarily agricultural India into an industrial power in double quick time, with little interest in the rural hinterland which supported 80 percent of the population. As a result educationally neglected rural India continued to be ruled by dominant castes and became a vast arena of caste warfare for the next half century, with castes and combinations thereof constituting the power elite.

All this is interestingly recorded by Baru in this book of commendable scholarship and sweep. However this opus is disappointing because the author fails to examine why the Nehruvian power elite at the Centre and the caste elites in the states failed — and failed they did as testified by the per­vasive poverty, illiteracy and misery which the vast majority of the populace suffers on a daily basis — to transform into creative minorities to raise general living standards of the proletariat and maximise the potential of indepen­dent India.

In this 228-page book, Baru makes no comment about the foolish left-turn down the road to socialism of the Nehruvian-Lutyens power elite. Surely given their excellent education they should have known that pre-British raj India had been a highly success­ful private enterprise driv­en subcontinent with well-established mercantile and banking traditions. It was utterly foolish to have ignored this advantage and replace it with bu­reaucrats managing public sector enterprises which soon became millstones of the Indian economy. Nor does the author comment on how state govern­ments dominated by rural castes and combinations have deliberately and continuously neglected education — the ultimate leveller — of the masses to perpetuate their rule in the hinterlands of India which remains mired in poverty, lawlessness and misery.

Baru’s reflections on American writer C. Wright Mill’s The Power Elite (1956) which examined the US establishment, inspired him to write this book. Perhaps he should have read Anthony Samp­son’s Anatomy of Britain first printed in 1962 and rewritten by him several times subsequently. Samp­son examined the power structure of the UK and its well-networked public school and Oxbridge elite which ruled Britain and half the world for several centuries, and continues to rule the UK through the Conservative Party.

This enduring po­litical party was — and is — driven by a continu­ously evolving elite which supports this tiny nation’s mercantile and indus­trial revolution traditions and its great education institutions. This creative minority laid the founda­tions of the world’s largest empire which has since made an orderly retreat into comfortable national prosperity.

A study of Britain’s self-perpetuating public school and Oxbridge elite would have provided Baru answers to why India’s ephemeral power elites, which he has described in detail, failed, and will continue to do so.

Dilip Thakore

Also Read: Imperial perfidy: Bahawalpur: The Kingdom That Vanished

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