It is easy to be awestruck by the sweeping changes that have transformed India’s political economy in recent decades. India’s economy, once rooted in autarky and socialism, has embraced market capitalism. Politics are no longer monopolized by the Congress party; instead, there is robust political competition at the national, state, and local levels. India’s society has also made great strides, as traditionally disadvantaged groups have successfully clamored for greater political voice. These changes, paradoxically, are taking place amidst a great deal of continuity. Economic reforms are a work in progress, with the state reluctant to fully relinquish its reins. The Congress Party still looms large in national politics, whereas the “silent revolution” of India’s lower castes has been met with fierce resistance by traditionally dominant groups.
India Today admirably captures this tension between progress and inertia, and provides a readable synthesis of contemporary India’s politics, economics, and society. As the authors write, “India today is a scene of great change. But it is hard not to be struck as well by how much has not changed” (p. 304). The book is cleverly structured around 14 interesting and timely questions. This creative framework not only makes the book extremely readable, but also allows it to function as a handy reference for scholars interested in particular thematic issues, such as “When and Why Did India Take Off?” or “Has the Rise of Hindu Nationalism Halted?” The chapters themselves employ what the authors refer to as a “T‐shaped” framework: they begin by providing possible answers to the question raised in the chapter’s title that can be derived from the comparative literature.
The authors then do a deep‐dive into the issue from an Indian context. In essence, each chapter is a self‐contained literature review, guiding readers through the most‐seminal pieces on a given topic. The authors do well to avoid monocausal explanations of complex phenomena. For example, on the rise of Maoist violence in India’s countryside, the authors provide a nuanced view, arguing that the traditional “greed,” “grievance,” and “feasibility” explanations emerging from the conflict literature interact in the Indian case. Corbridge, Harriss, and Jeffrey also prove that they are willing to go against the grain on certain topics, namely, India’s economic rise. The conventional narrative around India’s economic performance in the immediate post‐independence era, espoused by economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati, speaks of the “failure” of Nehruvian socialist policies, leading to an extended period when India’s economy plodded along at a “Hindu rate of growth.” The authors back a revisionist account, which suggests that Nehru’s statist policies actually laid the groundwork for India’s takeoff by investing in strong institutions and safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity. Thus, “India’s accumulated institutional advantages were sufficiently great by the 1970s … for the country to turn even small pro‐capitalist policy shifts into large economic gains” in the 1980s and 1990s (p. 45).
The volume suffers from minor sins of both omission and commission, which are unavoidable given the sweep of contemporary history the authors seek to cover. One danger of writing a book on the contemporary period is the inability to fully grapple with the burgeoning social science scholarship on India. The book also fails to take up issues of India’s foreign policy, which too has seen significant shifts since 1947. Finally, the chapter titled “Does India Have a Civil Society?” suffers from excessive jargon and is not in keeping with the book’s overall accessibility.
All told, however, India Today is highly recommended for comparative political scientists as well as members of the broader public interested in the great debates taking place in India today. Indeed, the extensive 51-page bibliography itself makes this book a worthwhile companion.
This article originally appeared in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 128, No. 3, Fall 2013.