Is India’s power elite really who you think it is?

Sanjaya Baru’s ‘India’s Power Elite’ looks beyond caste and class to unwrap the elite.

ByAnand Vardhan
Is India’s power elite really who you think it is?
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Sometime in the late 1990s, a Delhi University teacher was asked to reflect on the nature of the Indian elite. He couldn’t go beyond the clichéd example of a DTC bus commuter and a car owner in defining the latter as the city elite. It wasn’t only an inadequate frame, but also a misleading one. More significantly, it showed how inadequate study of the elite as a distinct group of influence and power was. As the class and caste analysis became central to the ideas engaging universities, seminar circuits and media panels, the study of the elite was subsumed within the fold.

In university social science courses, only a fleeting glance was given to the elite while discussing power and democracy. But, like in the rest of the world, there has always been a need to see Indian elite as an entity beyond class, caste and other usual markers.

Seen against such neglect, Sanjaya Baru’s India’s Power Elite offers a point of departure. The book tries to identify the elements of change and continuity in the making and working of India’s power elite, moving from the colonial period to the seven decades after independence.

Introducing the book, Baru makes clear that it has no academic ambition and only seeks to share a few insights and observations. That is despite the fact that the theoretical inspiration of the book is drawn from sociologist Charles Wright Mills’s influential 1956 study of the post-war American elite, The Power Elite.

The book rightly broadens Mills’s template to account for the specifics of the Indian context. In doing so, it extends its gaze beyond the political, military, business, and cultural spheres to include landed power groups and the civil services in the Indian elite. Baru also evaluates the validity and limitations of the old formulations like Ram Manohar Lohia’s triumvirate of wealth, caste and English in understanding the elite of contemporary India.

In the process, he explores the dynamics of social and economic mobility. In this context, he examines other perspectives such as Polish economist Michal Kalecki’s idea of an intermediate regime whose key aspect is the emergence of mid-caste groups, rich peasantry and the professional class of mostly educated manpower as a power reservoir of its own. The growing clout of the first two groups can be seen in how they have found their way into the country’s rural elite – an emergent group that Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph had seen as “bullock capitalists”. However, it’s the professional class which most clearly represents an alley of mobility and key decision-making open to the groups that haven’t yet been part of any elite formation.

The anti-elite rhetoric has often been seen as good politics by different political parties and leaders in India. In recent years, the line of attack on elitism led by Narendra Modi has been expressed in such phrases as “Lutyens’ Delhi gang” or “Khan Market gang”. Different regimes cultivate or try to win the approval of different kinds of elites in overt or covert ways. Baru explores this duality, and considers the approach of the current regime as particularly paradoxical as it has tried to distance itself from the entrenched national elite in India but sought to woo the global Indian elite. However, different regimes have found common ground in their support of the rural elite, seen as crucial for votes and resources.

The rise of regional political forces and business stalwarts, as distinct from metropolitan tycoons who formed the business elite in the first three decades after independence, also had significant influence on national politics, economy as well as financing of different parties. The regionalisation of a significant section of the power elite has found its way in Baru’s analysis.

In theoretical terms, however, his use of the Gramscian template for analysing Modi’s political dominance might be a bit stretched. Interestingly, the left-leaning historian Bipan Chandra and his co-writers had used Gramsci’s concept to explain that the Congress-led national movement was an example of having an overall ideological-political hegemony over various currents of thought which formed it. It isn’t clear how the power configurations of such objectives play out in history and in political and cultural terms. In the chapter on the concepts underpinning the working of elites in modern political societies, it’s surprising that he missed reflecting on Robert Michels’s iron law of oligarchy.

Baru laces his analysis of the regional, national and globalised Indian elite with anecdotes. That he had a front-row seat to observe the country’s elite is obvious: he comes from a family of top bureaucrats, held top editorial positions in some of the country’s leading English dailies and served as the media adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. This background comes handy, particularly in how Baru intermittently uses the evolution of the regional elite in Andhra Pradesh as a case study. His chapter on the business elite has interesting references to the shift in the geography and demography of wealth creators – the gradual loss in the hegemonic sway of pre-independence capitalists. Similarly, he sees a change in the politics-business nexus as politicians increasingly aren’t content to be cronies but aim to be active players in business.

Baru only skims through the changes in the elite character of the civil services. In examining, for instance, the changes in the composition of civil service recruits in the last four decades, he doesn’t engage with the shift in their regional, social and educational profiles. While more inputs could be found in the annual recruitment reports of the Union Public Service Commission, a social dissection of the nature of intake could have been useful. The change hasn’t been sudden either. Even the Indian literary scene and journalistic accounts registered it over the last few decades.

One may recall that Upamanyu Chatterjee’s debut novel English, August had a young recruit from a metropolitan college and elite family sent as a probationer to a district administered by a collector from a small town and non-English background. Almost two decades later, a report in a weekly magazine was detailing the changes in the social profile of the new entrants to civil services with as many stories of upward mobility.

In the same chapter, one of the questions that Baru misses probing is how the Indian Administrative Service gained ascendancy over the Indian Foreign Service in the choice of career exercised by top rank-holders in civil services exams. This could be an interesting insight into change in ideas about proximity to power in the South Block as the IFS held sway among toppers on this count in the first two decades after independence. Moreover, while talking of the meritocratic ladder to elite status, like the bureaucracy or the high defence echelons, an inquiry into the insular nature of meritocratic elitism would have been helpful.

While Michael Young, who coined the word “meritocracy”, had feared it could become an elite system of exclusion, its positive embrace has been a fact of modern societies, developed and developing alike. Its defence, as in Adrian Woolridge’s recent work Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, has come in response to criticism regarding its tendency to erect its own system of elitist exclusion.

The book casts only a fleeting glance on the gatekeeping norms in elite clubs as ruling codes of inclusion and exclusion in the premier cultural institutions and seats of intellectual inquiry. While the former might be still guided by ideas of colonial finesse and exclusive sense of belonging, the latter have mostly been tied to patronage politics and ideologies of different dispensations. Baru cites some known and some less known examples to drive home the point.

The section on the media doesn’t say much. That’s disappointing given the author’s long association with the news industry. While the rapid expansion of media has led to multiple players vying for the power of reach, narrative or access, the very same process undermines the influence of individuals or entities. The same could be true to a large extent of public intellectuals or policy intellectuals, the thought professionals.

The change in perceptions about how much the Indian diaspora matters back home has been noted with well-timed reminders about what the economist Robert Reich called “secession of the successful”.

Almost a decade ago, sociologist Dipankar Gupta, in India’s Future and Citizen Elite, had argued that democratic societies have been driven by elites as agents of change and not only preservation. If that’s the case, the elite find a way of influence beyond the aspirational bar that they set tantalisingly high for the subordinate classes. Perhaps that’s another reason to keep a more piercing watch on how the elite are shaping up and changing.

Even if democracies find it hard to admit, elite accommodation has often been a feature of modern political societies. Baru’s book traces the movements within such accommodation, the nature of its new claimants and the persistence of its old beneficiaries. In the process, it seeks to understand the top-tier power configuration in India. In the modest scale it has set for itself, the book manages to serve some of its purposes. For the rest, it could have applied what Mills, to whom the book owes a part of its title, would have called “sociological imagination”.

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