Chronicling India’s Fractious Development and Uncertain Future


HE INDIAN subcontinent was home to one of the very first planned societies. Archaeological excavations of Mohenjodaro reveal a sophisticated and socially organized society along the Indus River Valley. In its organized city layout, uniformity of weights and seals, and advanced plumbing system, we find evidence of urban planning and a strong central government. This civilization, among the most advanced in ancient society, has receded into history. The Harrapan’s links to modern-day Indians are obfuscated by the archaeological record and fog of history, although emerging genetic research is promising.[1] Modern Indians (even that category is contentious) may very well be partially descended from those who supplanted the Harappans.[2] Nevertheless, they’ve been trying to find their way back ever since.

Today, India ranks 129th in the Human Development Index and 102nd out of 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Approximately half of the country still works in agriculture. It has only recently made progress in improving basic sanitation coverage. While these problems aren’t unique to India, the nation has disappointingly lagged the other “late late developers” — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan — in the growth necessary to address these issues. In the area where the Indian project demonstrated the most promise, civil liberties and political freedom, it is precipitously backsliding under illiberal-fascist leadership. There is a consensus that while India is far ahead from where it was at Independence, it remains far behind where it could’ve been.

Nevertheless, PM Narendra Modi has promised to make India a “Developed Country” by 2022, and in February 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump awarded him that very designation — an indication of Trump’s orientation toward trade policy rather than any real indicators. Bluster aside, all metrics point that India is a long ways away from “getting to Denmark” as Francis Fukuyama puts it; in this, he means a state that is comprehensively modern — to western eyes — in its economics and politics.

India’s path to its current level of development has been treacherous; since 1947, the country has faced a suspension of democracy, high profile political assassinations, stagflation, separatist movements, border wars, nuclear tensions, and severe economic mismanagement among other things.[3] Nevertheless, outlooks remained optimistic for much of the late 20th century. Geopolitical commentator Fareed Zakaria put it nicely when he said that westerners want to like India.[4] India represented a vision of late development along liberal-democratic lines that has attracted perhaps misplaced hope. For the latter half of the 20th century, it was not a question of if but how fast India would become a “Developed Country”: an industrial economy with high living standards, rule of law, and respect of human rights.

Recently however, the BJP Government has begun abandoning this project altogether. Instead, they have begun pursuing an aggressive program of nation-building through coercion and historical revisionism. The Modi government is fundamentally transforming Indian politics and India’s vision statement since 1947. Whereas the India of Nehru was trying to “get to Denmark,” the Indian project today is better described as trying to get back to Harappa (a fictional one at that). Modi’s India is being rapidly subverted from a secular liberal democracy to a thoroughly illiberal regime. And with all of the PM’s promises to liberalize Indian markets and achieve record growth, reality is stubbornly disappointing. India retains the highest tariff barriers in the world, and it has experienced a marked growth slowdown in recent years.

In the 21st century, we don’t ask when India will become a developed country, but why it has so spectacularly failed at building a developmental state, and whether the Nehru vision will be realized in this century.


“Indian social development outran both political and economic development early on. The subcontinent acquired a common culture under a set of religious beliefs and social practices that marked it as a distinctive civilization long before anyone ever tried to unify it politically. And when that unification was attempted, the strength of the society was such that it was able to resist political authority and prevent the latter from reshaping society . . . India had a strong society that prevented a strong state from emerging in the first place.”

- Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order p. 175

Analyses of India’s failure in creating a successful developmental state have importantly focused on the failure of the Indian bureaucracy and wanting state capacity. Researchers have been particularly interested in India’s decision to emphasize Import Substitution Industrialization, and its failure to penetrate civil society and discipline the capitalist class. While these analyses focus on the period after Independence and address important dimensions of India’s bureaucratic failure, it is essential to put them in a historical context to truly appreciate India’s perennial inability in establishing a modern, high capacity state.

India has been unwaveringly characterized as having a weak state and a strong society. The roots of this dynamic can be traced to antiquity. Fukuyama echoes Charles Tilly in asserting that by 600 B.C. the development of Indian state capacity began to trail its neighbor, China, due to its conspicuous lack of a prolonged warring period.[5] Similar to Jeffrey Herbst’s arguments on why post-colonial African states haven’t developed state capacity, Fukuyama postulates that low population densities and permissive geography may have never necessitated the consolidation of the state.[6] The “ratchet effect” by which state capacity is consolidated during wartime and lingers on didn’t take hold. At the same time, religion and caste would preclude possible efforts at social control. India’s elite Brahmin class was “regarded as the guardian of the sacred law that existed prior to and independently of political rule.”[7] The social hierarchy of Varna and Janti, headed by the Brahmin elites, strictly delineated people into different occupations and stations.[8] The role of the Brahmin class and the entrenched social hierarchy is analogous to that played by the autonomous Catholic Church in seeding European liberal thought; it was a section of civil society outside the jurisdiction of the state.

Consequently, India’s first “central” power, the Mauryan empire in the Third Century B.C., lasted only 135 years and lacked the features of a high capacity state. The imperial bureaucracy lacked any degree of “autonomy” from civil society and instead mirrored its dynamics. Fukuyama chronicles that the “Recruitment of state administration was completely patrimonial and sharply limited by the caste system.”[9] Thus, the state never made the leap from patrimonial to impersonal administration that would distinguish it as an autonomous force pushing society, and was unable and uninterested in engaging in social engineering but rather “protected the existing social order in all of its variety and complexity.” It did not implement uniform weights, measures, or language; it governed little but the “core” areas of the empire.[10] The indigenous empires that followed the Maurya were smaller and just as inept at nation-building.[11]

Because of its history, India was bestowed with the peculiar legacy of having a strong, stratified civil society and the murky shadows of a European-style liberal tradition — however, it would importantly lack the levels of state capacity that would develop in Europe and China. An indigenous Indian administration did not emerge as an autonomous agent capable of disciplining elites and penetrating civil society; elements of this legacy would frustrate India’s ambitions in forming a developmental state in the 20th century.


“The British did not conquer an India which existed before their conquest; rather, they conquered a series of independent kingdoms that became political India during, and in part as a response to their dominion”[12]

- Sudipta Kavaraj

State capacity eventually did reach the subcontinent in the form of British occupation. When India finally emerged as an independent power, it had been endowed with a more coherent bureaucratic experience, an administrative language, rule of law and democracy.[13] Of particular importance was experience with a disciplined bureaucratic tradition, which would facilitate some elements of India’s developmental state. That modern India’s chief architects, Gandhi and Nehru, were educated and trained as Englishmen is important; their experience in the anglosphere and with colonial occupation would provide them with some of the elements missing from previous indigenous government.


The story of Gandhi and Nehru’s alliance is one of a characteristically Indian synthesis from contradictions. Gandhi envisioned some sort of primitive decentralized village-centered communism, Nehru a thoroughly modern socialist state. The differences were stark, but they both recognized the fundamental need for India to be a secular state; only such a regime could accommodate all of India and resist foreign occupation. In the end, it was Gandhi’s charisma, reactionary vision, and revolutionary opposition to British rule that formed the glimmers of a united Indian nation; it was Nehru who defined the role of the Indian state. An unfortunate legacy of British rule was famine and economic mismanagement, which impressed on Nehru the urgent necessity of reforming India’s economic system:

“The famine in India brought some realization of the terrible urgency of India’s problems, of the overwhelming disaster that hung over the country. What people in England felt about it I do not know, but some of them, as is their way, cast the blame on India and her people. There was lack of food, lack of doctors, lack of sanitation and medical supplies, lack of transport, lack of everything except human beings, for the population had grown and seemed to be growing. This excessive population of an improvident race, growing without notice or warning and upsetting the plans or planlessness of a benevolent government, must be to blame . . . The Government of India, one of the few representatives of the laissez-faire tradition in the world, began to talk of planning, but of organized planning it had no notion . . .”

- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India p. 500–501

The mechanism Nehru wanted to implement to achieve these goals, socialist-style five-year plans, were particular to their era and would be partially liberalized into the 20th century. However, his vision remained firmly intact from 1947 up to the dawn of the 21st century: build a developmental state and secure a liberal democratic form of government on the subcontinent.

Whether the developmental state would be autonomous, effective, and able to discipline civil society was yet to be seen. Nehru himself anticipated some of the problems ahead.


“The idea of planning and a planned society is accepted now in varying degrees by almost everyone. But planning by itself has little meaning and need not necessarily lead to good results. Everything depends on the objectives of the plan and on the controlling authority, as well as, of course, the government behind it . . . Real planning must recognize that no such special interests can be allowed to come in the way of any scheme designed to further the wellbeing of the community as a whole. . . If planning is largely controlled by big industrialists, it will naturally be envisaged within the framework of the system they are used to, and will be essentially based on the profit motive of an acquisitive society. However well-intentioned they might be, and some of them certainly are full of good intentions, it is difficult for them to think on new lines.”

- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India p. 501–502

Fifty-Six years after Indian Independence, in 2003, social theorist Vivek Chibber asks “why it was that Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues failed in what they regarded as perhaps their central mission — to build what we now would call a developmental state.”[14] He zeroes in on why the Indian state specifically failed in industrial planning and policy, where the tigers largely succeeded.

That the failure is in relation to the tiger economies is an important qualification. Both authors recognize that without the State, India could not have achieved its rapid industrialization, let alone its comparative advantage in the export of tech-literate workers. Import Substitution Industrialization created a “greenhouse” where these industries could grow without the rigors of global competition. However, India never did achieve the high growth rates of its neighbors. Today, South Korea is a developed country. India is not. Why?

Both Chibber and his contemporary Peter B. Evans recognize (in varying descriptions) two basic dimensions critical to the success of a developmental state: Evans labels these embeddedness and autonomy. Autonomy is the condition where the state bureaucracy can set goals distinct from that of civil society or its own component members; embeddedness refers to the degree to which the bureaucracy has links to civil society such that it can actually implement its autonomous goals. For a bureaucracy to be successful, Evans argues that these elements have to work in harmony to produce an “embedded autonomy.”[15]

Where Fukuyama finds the failure of the Mauryan imperial bureaucracy in the fact that it replicated patterns of civil society, was limited by the realities of caste and therefore failed to be an autonomous force, he also noted how the Brahmanic social system impeded political consolidation by creating a “monopoly on learning” and literacy, which severely limited state capacity by restricting the number of bureaucrats there could be. [16] Interestingly, Evans chronicles how the long-standing Brahmanic social order had over time bestowed India with a “venerable bureaucratic tradition” by Independence. The bureaucracy was considered “the best possible career for a middle class Brahman boy.”[17] The “monopoly on learning” had engendered the bureaucracy with a degree of autonomy centered around caste.

Importantly, the British experience had layered new forms of distinctness and autonomy to the Indian bureaucratic culture. Evans articulates that “the British traditions that the [Indian Administrative Service] inherited were by no means unambiguous assets. . . Even after the English had departed, IAS exams still had three parts: English, English essay, and general knowledge, and even the last was slanted toward knowledge of “Western civilization” . . . Thus, the exam has traditionally been very attractive to humanistically oriented members of the “literary castes.”[18] Generations of Brahman monopolization, paired with the Anglophilic culture left behind by the British, bestowed Indian bureaucratic culture with some measure of autonomy and separation from the rest of civil society.

Post-Independence, the primary problem laid not in the autonomy of the Indian bureaucracy, but in “state-society relations” — embeddedness.[19] Evans argues that the bureaucracy’s challenges “begin with the recalcitrant challenges of India’s social structure and are exacerbated by the way the bureaucracy has defined its relation to society,” outlining that “In a ‘subcontinental, multinational state’ (Rudolph and Rudolph 1987), state-society relations are qualitatively more complex than in the East Asian cases. Ethnic, religious, and regional divisions add to the administrative nightmare of trying to govern (say nothing of develop) a country of eight hundred million people. Given the diseconomies of scale inherent in administrative organizations, it would take a bureaucratic apparatus of truly heroic proportions to produce results comparable to those of [the tiger economies].”[20]

Instead, the bureaucracy was cultured to “avoid the pitfalls of being too closely tied to a social structure full of contradictory demands.” Evans outlines that the “state’s apparent successes tended to come in areas where autonomous action could produce results, like constructing dams or building basic industrial capacity in the 1950s” but in its efforts to build ties with and discipline the private sector, India’s developmental state has been an abject failure. In short, the Indian state may have formed some tenuous autonomy but remained unable to penetrate India’s characteristically strong, unwieldy civil society.

Chibber outlines that that the critical conflict in building state capacity occurred not within the state, but between the state and society; In India’s case, the capitalist class.[21] Instead, “ Indian capitalists in the years immediately after Independence refused to countenance a state with wide-ranging regulatory and interventionist powers, and organized effectively against it. In so doing, they reduced the autonomy and power of political elites to build the institutions they had proposed.”[22]

Chibber argues that it was the state’s Import-Substitution regime that generated the incentive structure for Indian capitalists to resist the effort to build a state that could discipline private capital. Among the greatest consequences of this development model was that it gave the firms that were granted state protection and subsidy outsize market and bargaining power. [23] Providing protection from foreign competitors and public subsidy was thought to give the State great leverage in disciplining the private firms in questions; in a developmental state, the aim would be to direct investment decisions to increase long-run capacity. But the capitalist class, looking for short-run returns on investment, did not share those goals themselves.

The political dynamic that unfortunately did emerge was one where private capital would obviously lobby for protection and subsidy, but persistently resist influence in directing investment. Without the rigors or markets of global trade, there were no immediate pressures to increase efficiencies, build higher capacity, or accept State prescriptions on how to do so. In contrast, firms in countries that adopted an Export-Led Industrialization model had market incentives to accept state discipline. As it historically has, in India civil society trumped and subverted the ambitions of bureaucratic planners.

ISI, designed to direct domestic industry and push it past a “local maxima” into new levels of capacity, perversely created the incentives to resist state authority. India had once again fallen into a pattern where the state would cave to the logic of private actors, rather than autonomously shaping them. Nehru’s fear, where planning is “largely controlled by big industrialists” came to bear.

In relation to the tiger economies, India seems like a disappointment and an outlier. However, when contextualized by a long history of weak states, the failures of India’s 20th century developmentalism comports to longterm trends. India has never been good at disciplining civil society, let alone its elites — whether they be Brahmins or industrialists.

However, in the State’s failures to discipline the capitalist class, Western observers saw in India both a picture that validated their neoliberal theories, and the kind of society that echoed some of their own values. Where China and northeast Asia’s success in subordinating society and achieving state-led growth spurred some anxiety, India presented some hazy promise of a messy, pluralist form of development in Asia; of an emerging liberal Tortoise that could eventually overtake China’s authoritarian Hare.


“India’s growth is taking place not because of the government but despite it. It is not top-down but bottom-up — messy, chaotic, and largely unplanned. The country’s key advantages are a genuine private sector, established rights of property and contract, independent courts, and the rule of law . . . Democracy is India’s Destiny. A country so diverse and complex cannot really be governed any other way.”

- Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World p. 150–160

With a country as big, messy, and fractious as India, the narrative you choose to draw truly depends on where you choose to look. It is unsurprising that to many, the narrative of a plucky, modern India emerging in spite of its persistent state failures was a compelling one.

The decades following independence were dismal socially, politically, and economically. At the rate of growth that characterized the 1970s, it would take the average Indian fifty-seven years to double their income.[24] However, the late ’90s presented some hope. India’s growth picked up, following large scale economic liberalization per the guidelines of IMF and World Bank. Trade was liberalized, the license raj was abolished, and industries were de-nationalized.[25] If India couldn’t emulate the developmental state of its neighbors, it would heed the advice of neoliberal reformers.

It is no surprise that the international capitalist class and western intelligentsia saw a new narrative: the emergence of a liberal power on the Asian subcontinent. Fareed Zakaria describes the optimism at Davos in 2006:

“As you got off the plane in Zurich, you saw large billboards extolling Incredible India! The town of Davos itself was plastered with signs. “World’s Fastest Growing Free Market Democracy,” proclaimed the local buses.”[26]

Despite apparently accelerate growth, India remained, in the words of T.N. Ninan, the “one percent society.”[27] In this he means, by most metrics, India is improving by roughly 1% a year. India’s poverty rate averages out to a decline of about 1% every year; its literacy rate increases at approximately the same rate. Through the noise of national politics, a stubborn forward trajectory persists.[28]

However, India’s demographic trends also promised investors that India’s primetime was over the horizon, not fleeting away. Whereas China’s population growth rate is succumbing to plateau of logarithmic functions, India’s youth bulges remain ahead of it. “If demographics is destiny, India’s future is secure.”[29]

And of course, there was the dimension of politics. China and its fellow tigers may have dwarfed India in economic development, but Indians enjoyed far broader freedom. Edward Luce puts it succinctly when he asserts that “India challenges us to provide a clear definition of what we mean by development.”[30] If development entails personal freedom, then India was far ahead of China. Indians had constitutionally entrenched civil liberties, multiparty elections, and vibrant freedom of expression.

Although India has flourishing democracy and liberal politics, the politics itself was still a mess. 20+ party parliamentary coalitions, low quality public officials, naked populism, and rampant corruption are just some of the ills that plagued the World’s Largest Democracy. 40% of India’s MPs are charged with a crime, half of them major — murder, assault, and theft among others.[31] The Indian National Congress Party, founded by Nehru, had become a stratified, elitist cult of the Gandhi dynasty, and is not immune to the institutional rot.[32] But many commentators agreed that the most unsettling element of Indian politics was the looming specter of Hindu nationalism, headed by India’s second major party: The BJP. The BJP was founded on an ideology of Hindutva — a fascist ideology that characterizes India as an essentially Hindu ethnostate. The 1990s saw brief rule under the BJP, characterized by an uneasy coalition between relative moderates and the Hindu extremists; the era saw an increase in religious tension and ugly anti-muslim rhetoric by high ranking officials.[33] Where the other parties outside the INC were caste or regionally based, the BJP had a diffuse national presence — it presented the most coherent threat to the very character of the secular Indian republic.[34]

But the bullish optimism on India was firm. India was too diverse; narrow politics aligned along religion couldn’t survive there. Previous BJP governments were short-lived and formed through unwieldy coalitions, not commanding majorities. The politics were too fractured; it was notoriously difficult for any of the major parties to consolidate and retain power since Indira Gandhi — Indians had a notorious anti-incumbent bias. Such an India was no home to strongman politics; Zakaria bluntly forecasted “The prime minister cannot command national power the way that Nehru did, and in all probability no prime minister ever will do so again.”[35]



“The Most coherent threat to India’s liberal democracy is Hindu nationalism . . . The movement is attempting to repackage itself to fit in with a rapidly modernizing India. Its image may change. But its basic aim, which is to downgrade the status of India’s religious minorities, through peaceful or violent means, remains the same.”

-Edward Luce, In Spite of The Gods: The Rise of Modern India p. 348


Shortly after India’s independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a grassroots Hindu nationalist organization somewhat analogous to the Muslim brotherhood. India’s current PM Narendra Modi hails from the same organization.

An alternative history characterizes RSS dogma. RSS “intellectual” Ramachandra Tuparky holds that “India was a developed society long, long, long before it was colonized by Muslims and Europeans. We had a developed economy thousands of years ago. We had demassified oil production; we had sophisticated medicine and science. We had a very high standard of living. Civilization was born in India at least ten thousand years ago and from India it spread to the rest of the world.”[36] The RSS and BJP have gone through great paints to revise textbooks to establish a more solid continuity between the advanced Harrapans and Indians today, irrespective of the scientific evidence. To prescribers of this narrative, there was no need to “get to Denmark,” but to the idyllic past of Mohenjodaro. Gandhi and Nehru’s vision of a secular republic was directly antithetical to their own.

The mission of Hindutva goes past historical revision. Under BJP governance the state of Gujarat, then headed by Narendra Modi, saw what can only be described as a state-sanctioned massacre in February 2002. The riots were in response to a train car fire that killed 58 people the day before, which eyewitnesses blamed on a Muslim mob. In Luce’s words, “The reaction was substantially more than equal . . . Mobs gathered around and raped the [Muslim] women. Then they poured kerosene down the throats fo their children and threw lighted matches onto them . . . The male family members were forced to watch their wives and children burn to death before they too were killed. The killings appear to have been planned. The rioters possessed electoral registers and were able to single out the homes of Muslims living in mixed communities . . . They were also able to pinpoint Muslim-owned businesses” the pattern of efficiency suggested premeditation.[37]

The most disturbing feature is the role the government played; the Gujarati police were alleged to have been directed not to interfere; eyewitnesses report that the police joined the mob.[38] Official figures estimate over a thousand died in the riots; more than 200,000 ended up in refugee camps.[39] Public officials that were due to testify on the state’s roles ended up dead; not one Hindu was arrested after the massacre.[40]


If rule of law is a central feature of a developed state, and if rule of law and political rights were the primary the areas of development that distinguished India from its neighbors, events like these cannot be interpreted as anything but catastrophic setbacks to India’s development project.

While the events were cause for real alarm, the BJP was still a fringe party. It had formed a stable government once in 1999, with just 182 seats of its own. The Congress party, while not enjoying the one-party dominance it had in the early republic, still shaped the fundamental discourse of Indian politics. It is a center-left party whose core mission is developmental, what Gandhi dubbed Sarvodaya — the universal uplift. However, it has experienced a steady decline, followed by a precipitous fall. According to Ruchir Sharma, the INC’s secularism and progressive programs alienated upper-caste Hindus, while lackluster growth disappointed poor rural voters in India’s mofussil.[41] He reports watching “the Congress party slide from dominance to irrelevance in one major state after another, sidelined by the BJP and regional parties.” The INC was in bad shape for the 2014 general election. The decay of the INC was an immense failure because it opened the opportunities for a much uglier, and more organized Hindu nationalism.

The BJP’s victory and Narendra Modi’s elevation to PM in 2014 was a stunning upset; the BJP won the ability to form the largest majority government since 1984 with the lowest vote share of a ruling party in the Republic’s history (31%). Like the United States, India’s First-Past-the-Post system can create perverse democratic outcomes. Notably, The BJP had arguably won by abandoning explicit Hindu nationalism; Modi campaigned on development and anti-corruption.

Far from the CEO/chief technocrat persona of his predecessors, Modi’s first term premiership was Napoleonic. He took on the persona of a crusading reformer — with a thoroughly neoliberal orientation. Modi’s economic reforms focused on deregulation, tax cuts, a drastic reduction in social spending, and attracting foreign direct investment — at least that’s what was advertised. Taking a page out of the book from right-wing politics in the west, Modi declared “I believe that government has no business to be in business.”[42] But even observers who support the liberalizing orientation have found that Modi’s agenda to be more showmanship than substance. Of his initiatives, he’s only wholly completed corporate tax cuts and a made-for-TV “demonetization” scheme nominally aimed at corruption but that did more harm than good — particularly to the rural poor.

While Modi himself campaigned on development and “bread and butter” issues, he was rapidly building a Hindu nationalist infrastructure in the background. He appointed a right-wing Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, along with an “RSS-friendly nomenklatura nationwide…pliant heads of state universities, friendly judges, army officers, boards of state-owned firms and bosses of private news networks.”[43] Modi was continuing the perennial tradition of subverting the Indian state to replicate India’s most entrenched social hierarchies: this time, the supremacy of Hindus over India’s other religious minorities.

Regardless, the optimism persisted. Academic Henri J. Barkey insisted that “even if voters buck the historical trend and return Modi to the prime minister’s office this spring, he will likely be left with a reduced majority. The BJP’s vision will remain largely aspirational, as India’s complex ecosystem of identities will continue to act as a powerful break on a descent into outright ethnonationalism. At a time when democracy is said to be in retreat around the world, it is still thriving in India.”[44]


“With a demoralized and anemic opposition in Parliament, a once-feisty press largely cowed, and judicial independence under threat, little now stands in the way of Modi and his ideological fellow travelers making India an illiberal democracy.”

- Sumit Ganguly, “An Illiberal India?” in Journal of Democracy vol. 31 no. 1, January 2020

Barkey’s predictions did not hold. In May 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second five-year term with an increased parliamentary majority — 303 out of 545 seats — a stunning upset to a long-term trend of anti-incumbency bias.[45]

Emboldened by re-election, the BJP government has “for all practical purposes abandoned any pretense of upholding India’s constitutional commitment to the values of secularism, political pluralism, and intellectual freedom.”[46] The assault on liberal governance marches inexorably forward.

One month after the elections, in June of 2019, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath issued an ordinance forbidding private universities from allowing “antinational activities.”[47]

In August of 2019, the producers of NDTV, major critics of the Modi government, were stopped at Mumbai airport under charges that they were a “flight risk” due to an ongoing corruption investigation. [48]

Still just two months after the election, the BJP used its powerful majority to rescind the special status of India’s only Muslim majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, which had previously operated in a fashion similar to Quebec. The effective annexation was swiftly followed by military lockdown and media blackout.

By the end of the summer, the National Register of Citizens published the final list for the state of Assam; the registry excluded 1.9 million names, mostly Bengali Muslims. If they lack the proper documentation to prove citizenship, which many of them do, they have no recourse to earn legal status. Many poor Indians lack formal birth certificates and proof of residency. Muslims left off the NRC are conspicuously ineligible to reapply for citizenship under The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed the following December. Nearly 2 million Indians now find themselves stripped of citizenship; the NRC is scheduled to be implemented to the entire country by 2021. Millions more could be rendered stateless.

In September of 2019, journalist Shehla Rashid was charged with sedition after she tweeted about the Indian army committing human rights violations in Kashmir.[49] Construction began on new concentration camps in Assam to detain those stripped of legal status. [50]

If investors could at least find comfort in the trajectory of the Indian economy, new research scrutinizing Indian industries suggested that the Indian government may have fudged its GDP data in previous years — by 2.5 percentage points. 2019 saw the highest rate of unemployment in four decades, at 6.1 percent. Modi’s target of a $5 trillion economy by 2022 seems virtually impossible, in reality anyway.[51]

In February 2020, Trump finally awarded India the coveted designation of “Developed Country” — a “victory” that Modi and his allies were quick to seize upon. In 2020 Zakaria offered a different word to describe modern India: “disappointment.”[52]



Where the Indian government never could develop the capacity to discipline its elites or private capital to build a developmental state, it is now ostensibly succeeding in consolidating political control, dissolving civil liberties, and preying on its most vulnerable minorities.

The promise that India’s strong and diverse civil society was a check against authoritarianism, and in itself could secure a liberal society, was but a mirage to hopeful neoliberal observers. As Evans asserted, “the fate of civil society is inextricably bound to the robustness of the state apparatus. Deterioration of state institutions is likely to go hand in hand with the disorganization of civil society.”[53] In a country plagued by illegal female feticides, tax evasion, public gang rapes, and religious mob violence, it is clear that what India sorely needs is more autonomous governance that can improve society.

But just as the bureaucracy under the Mauryan Empire was content to replicate patterns of society and unable to penetrate and shape it, the developmental state architected by Jawaharlal Nehru was stultified by industrialists, his party succumbed to stagnation and corruption, and India’s political institutions were easily overthrown by religious zealots; the developmental apparatus has now resigned itself to half-hearted neoliberal orthodoxy, political institutions to illiberalism, and civil society to violent dysfunction.

Where the Indian state is succeeding is where its preceding ineptitude was most admirable: bullying large swaths of civil society. While it has the demographic potential in youth and time to aggressively expand its economy in the coming decades, it has abdicated its role in building an advanced, sophisticated bureaucracy that could lift millions out of poverty who otherwise will not live to see the wealthier India of tomorrow. Many neoliberal reforms were admirable, but given India’s share of human population, the failure to implement a developmental state is among the greatest of the 20th century.

Regardless, the Indian economy will continue to grow into the future. But the India that attempted to form a secular liberal democracy, that envisioned a state that could usher in an advanced economy in a few generations, that promised a tolerant, multinational society — this India may have already receded into history.


“Overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered, and to-day when she appears to be the plaything of a proud conqueror, she remains unsubdued and unconquered. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive. There are terrifying glimpses of dark corridors which seem to lead back to primeval night, but also there is the fullness and warmth of the day about her. Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past.”

- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India

[1] J Tony Joseph, Early Indians: the Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2018).

[2] Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: the Rise of Modern India (New York: Anchor Books, 2012). p. 146

[3] Luce, 329

[4] In an Interview with Rahul Kanwal at Davos 2020

[5] Fukuyama, Francis. The Origins of Political Order: from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. p. 151 London: Profile Books, 2012.

[6] Fukuyama, 160

[7]Fukuyama, 152

[8] Fukuyama, 153

[9] Fukuyama, 179

[10] Fukuyama, 180

[11] Fukuyaa, 183

[12] Fukuyama, 185

[13] ibid

[14] Chibber, Vivek. Locked in Place: State-Building and Capitalist Industrialization in India loc. 81 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. (Kindle Edition)

[15] Evans, Peter. Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

[16]Fukuyama, 179–181

[17] Evans, 66

[18] Fukuyama, 179–181

[19] Evans

[20] Evans, 67

[21] Chibber, 9

[22] ibid

[23] Chibber, 32

[24] Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World: Release 2.0 ; Updated and Expanded. p. 145 New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

[25] Chibber, 3

[26] Zakaria, 146–147

[27] Luce, 330

[28] ibid

[29] Zakaria, 148

[30] Luce, 333

[31] Hermesauto. “40% Of India’s MPs Face Criminal Charges, Including Rape and Murder: Study.” The Straits Times, May 25, 2019.

[32] Luce

[33] Zakaria, 158

[34] Luce

[35] Zakaria, 181

[36] Luce,146

[37] Luce, 159

[38] Luce, 160

[39] Luce, 161

[40] Luce, 160

[41] Sharma, 98–99

[42] “Narendra Modi Is a Fine Administrator, but Not Much of a Reformer,” accessed July 9, 2020,

[43] “What Does Narendra Modi Want?” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. Accessed July 9, 2020.

[44] Ruchir Sharma, “No Country for Strongmen,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 2 (2019): p. 106.

[45] Sumit Ganguly, “An Illiberal India?,” Journal of Democracy 31, no. 1 (January 2020): p. 193.

[46] ibid

[47] Ganguly, 196

[48] Ganguly, 195

[49] Ganguly, 195

[50] Samuel, Sigal. “India’s Massive, Scary New Detention Camps, Explained.” Vox. Vox, September 17, 2019.

[51] K.S. Venkatachalam for The Diplomat, “What Is Wrong With India’s GDP Numbers?,” — The Diplomat (for The Diplomat, July 2, 2019),

[52] Interview at Davos 2020

[53] Evans, 249

PPE student, aspiring galaxy brain

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