Politics and State-Society Relations in India

Mithilesh Kumar Jha

Politics and State–Society Relations in India by one of the foremost India experts James Manor offers fresh approaches and methods to study Indian politics. Politics in India is not and cannot be limited to its constitutions, laws, institutions, or identity politics. Continuous interactions between state apparatuses and social forces shape the major shifts and transformations in its politics. In this collection of articles and papers, written mostly in 1980s and 90s and few in the early 2000s, Manor provides a comprehensive account of these interactions. In doing so he maintains a judicious balance between narratives from ‘above’ by examining the role of leaders, institutions and political parties; and from ‘below’ by exploring the roles of ‘fixers’ (or naya-neta) and functioning of local self-governments (or panchayati raj) in Indian politics.

A distinctive feature of his analysis is his equal attention to the importance of both – state institutions and societal forces. Although, Manor is mindful of growing disenchantments with the state and political parties (as in Rajni Kothari and D L Sheth); governability crisis (as in Atul Kohli); he pays equal attention to the emerging dynamics and resilience in Indian politics. Thus, he studies the role of state leaders like Devaraj Urs, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Digvijay Singh; coalition politics, regional parties and changing nature of federal structure; reassertion of public institutions such as Election Commission and Supreme Court; shifting of power from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to chief ministers' offices (CMOs); weakening of organizational structure of mainstream political parties and rise of ‘fixers’ as intermediary between the state and communities; local self-governments and political awakening among the masses.

This volume is divided into five sections that deal with different aspects of Indian politics and together present a comprehensive account of it. First section deals with the origin, expansion, decay and regeneration of democratic, ‘liberal’ and representative state institutions in India. Section two deals with political parties and their organizational strengths and weaknesses. It focuses primarily on two national parties – Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Section three is about growing political awareness and assertions of communities/social forces and their management by the political elites. He provides a refreshing analysis about the role of ‘fixers’ in democratization and changing nature of ethnic and federal polity. The last two sections are somewhat overlapping and deal with the state politics and the role of chief ministers. Overall, this volume by Manor is a valuable entry into the dynamism and resilience of Indian politics particularly in its most dramatic decades of 1980s and 90s.

Manor argues convincingly about the roots and emergence of ‘liberal’ democracy in India. For him, social order in post-independent India was/is maintained by the institutions of the state and the agrarian social order. Survival of this democracy, he argues, has not been because of some inherent broad commitment to ‘liberal principles of rights’; ‘or in a belief in a neutral state’; ‘or even in the force of law’. But, it has been the result of constant ‘accommodations, bargains, and compromise’ made by various groups and individuals. He goes on to illustrate it succinctly through numerous examples of Prime Ministers and chief ministers; national and regional parties. While exploring the nature of the Indian state, Manor puts equal emphasis on changing nature of agrarian social–political order. He provides numerous instances of such political changes and assesses the limits in the response of political parties and state to those changes. For example, growing consciousness among the masses put enormous pressure on the political parties and leaders to respond to their demands if they were to get re-elected. Since the 1990s the rate of voting-out incumbent governments has been very high. And, in such a scenario the clientelism of old style, according to Manor was not sufficient for re-election. A leader had to do something more than clientelism. He further illustrates this point through the examples of chief ministers like Devaraj Urs in Karnataka, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in Rajasthan and Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh. Manor brings out refreshing views on how leaderships through their innovations and experiments contribute in sustaining the politics of ‘accommodations, compromises and bargaining’ in India.

Similarly, his analysis of political parties particularly national parties like the INC and the BJP provides fresh insights into their claims and actual organizational strength to penetrate the vast rural masses. And he argues that both parties lack the strength to penetrate them, hence they rely on the ‘fixers’ or intermediaries – who in the eyes of Manor are resource for democratization – for reaching out to the rural masses. He argues that the INC even during the Nehru era was dependent on the landlords for the support of rural masses. INC inherited this from the colonial rule and in the early decades after independence did very little to alter this order. In fact, according to Manor, INC benefitted from such arrangements. In Chapter 6, he clearly outlines the gradual decline of the INC. Partly due to growth of ‘backward-caste politics’; ‘assertive Hindu nationalism and regional parties’ and partly due to the politics and policies of Indira Gandhi. She, in order to establish her own unchallenged status in the party and in the government, undermined the organizational structure and its traditions and culture. And thus, once a formidable force in Indian politics, INC was reduced to the ‘dictates’ of one person and a dynasty. His analysis of the BJP – which organizational strength he calls ‘in part, a myth’ – is somewhat debatable. BJP currently is the largest party in the country and has acquired the majority on its own consecutively in 2014 and 2019. It has now a near-hegemonic status in Indian politics, ruling center and more than half of the Indian states. Of course, its ‘sister organization’ Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) plays a key role in its electoral victories. However, Manor does very little to critically explore this inter-relationship.

Comparative method appears to be a major approach in his study of Indian politics. Comparisons, according to Manor, provide a broader perspective and enriches one’s analysis and understanding. He analyses the power and strength of one institution or party or leaders by pitting it against the another. Therefore, he compares the national politics with regional or state politics; one state with another; rural with urban; formal structures of power with informal; PMO with CMOs; India of early decades with India of the 1980s and 90s; India with other countries and so on. And this makes his narrative extremely comprehensive and refreshing. Although many of his conclusions and arguments are debatable, yet they provide one an entry into dynamism and resilience of Indian politics.

This book offers a comprehensive account of politics and social transformations taking place in India in the last two decades of previous century. However, it is somewhat silent on spectacular rise of the BJP. It has brought back a strong PMO and public institutions are once again under tremendous pressure. The rise of BJP defies his thesis that mainstream political parties lack the organizational strength to penetrate rural India. Second, much in contrast to his argument, Indians are re-electing the incumbent governments both at the center and state levels. This is true for the INC-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004 and 2009; BJP led National Defence Academy in 2014 and again in 2019; Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, BJP in Madhya Pradesh and so on. Third, his over-emphasis on rural India as decisive in the final outcome of an election fails to adequately explain the election machineries of different political parties. Social media, PR agencies, urban centric media discourses play key role in victories and defeat of a political party. Finally, his focus on leaderships in explaining the dynamics of Indian politics could be relevant for the decades of 1990s. However, its relevance in explaining the contemporary developments in Indian politics is debatable. Most chief ministers get very little space for innovations or experiments as INC’s culture of ‘high-command’ is now replaced by the BJP’s. However, this book is a store-house of information about Indian politics in 1980s and 90s. Manor perfectly brings out the inherent conflicts and contradictions of a democratic state in a deeply hierarchical society and also the ways in which Indian state and its leaderships ‘manage’ them while ensuring basic features of a functional democracy.