Book Review | India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and Cultural Revolution

Author: Sanjaya Baru | Publisher: Penguin | Year of Publication: 2021
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The concept of elite and elite power has been well understood in the western scholarship. Beginning with the early writings of Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, the two leading social scientists who propounded the elite theory and continuing with the works and philosophy of Robert Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’ and contemporary elite theorists like C Wright Mills and Robert Putnam who gave the idea of ‘new men’, the concept has drawn much academic attention and scrutiny amongst western social scientists. 

Unlike in the west, except for some detested works like Elite politics in Rural India, (Cambridge, 1974) & Elite and Everyman (Routledge, 2011) which looked at the concept from a social-cultural framework, the scholarship in India seems more evasive on the subject. It is where the gap lies in the literature and this new book by astute political commentator, Dr. Sanjaya Baru fits into the subject with his analytical and engaging account.  Offering an insider’s account by someone who himself belongs to that class, the book well captures the different attributes of elite power in India. 

As you read the book, it takes you through the three dominant themes on the subject of elite power in India.  This primarily includes elite formation, elite functioning and changing character of elites in India, beginning from postcolonial years to the contemporary times. The book not only traces the roots of elite power and its formation in contemporary India to the British Raj and its legacies of privilege, but it also attaches to their importance in a rather different way by giving references to the role of ‘competent associates’ (pp.232) as suggested in Kautilya’s works on governance. However, the problem is that in Post-independence India, these associates at times were selected not just based on merit and competence alone but also by virtue of their elite badge In some cases, while bringing expertise and professionalism to governance, these elites  brought some discredit to the ruling power.

Quite interestingly, as the reading suggests, the elite in India is a ‘dynamic force’, which undergoes constant changes with both upward and downward mobility. In the book, many of these changes are attributed to the successes of green revolution (pp.9), consolidation of backward politics and empowerment of intermediate castes (pp117) and the end of the Licence-Permit-Control Raj (PP.149). However, as the reading progresses, it becomes clearer that most of the time the ‘power elite’ centred in Lutyens Delhi is more able to consolidate its role and influence in the Indian polity. Pointing out some valid reasons for this, the author cites valid examples like decline of provincial university system (pp.69) and centrality of big media to New Delhi (pp.68) post 1990s onwards. Despite the presence of cultural capital centres like Kolkata and Madras and Bombay, the  financial capital of the country, the power elite in Delhi stands unique given its access, influence and cosmopolitan character. 

Expanding on the subject of elite formation to elite functioning, the author documents the mutual interplay of factors like caste and class, feudalism and land ownership, business and politics, playing key roles in India. In recent years, it’s the new media and people coming from the military who are rising in the political hierarchy. Much like America of the 1950s, when military brass formed the power elite, in the case of India the new trends do assert the growing presence of military brass within the nation’s power circles. (Pp.254) Moreover, with new concerns and challenges on both the external and internal security fronts, one can witness greater convergence between politics, policing and the military establishment. 

To me, the chapter on ‘Policy and Public Intellectuals’ (Pp.263) is worth reading for those in academia, highlighting questions on the centrality of the academic elite in Delhi and the likes of Oxbridge from both sides of the political spectrum. It offers deep insights into the influential power, institutional control and functioning of the academic elite in India, in a more convincing manner. 

While acknowledging the transformation of the elite in India given the shift in political power, which began with the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, the author underscores the greater unease and discomfort with this transition in Lutyens Delhi. This also relates to the difference in the cultural background between what he calls India vs. Bharat. For the new elite in politics, it is the privilege in terms of class, education, kinship, patronage and networking that has played the key role in the success and rise of the old elite in independent India.  

The anti-elitism of the contemporary state applies more to the old elite, which thrived on patronage and colonial vestiges retained by the Nehruvian model, than to the new elite, which identifies with Modi’s ‘Aspirational India’ as the author notes. Somewhere what distinguishes the new elite from the old is that it does not always belong to the same set of social backgrounds. To my understanding, the new elite representing ‘vernacular middle-class India’ (Pp.52) is by its nature and character more of a ‘subaltern elite’, which does not owe its rise to any kind of solidarity in terms of class or kinship or language. It may remain ideologically committed and unified but is also much more diverse and decentralised. Unlike the old elite it is more adaptive and open to the outsiders, with the admission of many turncoats to its growing fold in recent years.

The versatility of the Indian power elite is something one can find of much interest while reading the book. An observation is that it does avoid discussing  what some might call the gender perspective on power elites in India. While dealing with the subject almost exhaustively, Dr. Baru does examine in detail the concept of power elite in India. The book is a relevant contribution to the scholarship on the subject and a must-read for those interested in the social structure of postcolonial India. 

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Abhishek Pratap Singh

Abhishek Pratap Singh

डॉ अभिषेक प्रताप सिंह जेएनयू से पीएचडी और देशबंधु कॉलेज, डीयु में अध्यापक हैं.

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