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India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and Cultural Revolution, Penguin, 2021 by Sanjaya Baru

Dr. Baru does examine in detail the concept of power elite in India. The book is a relevant contribution to the scholarship on the subjectand a must-read for those interested in elite power politics in postcolonial India. — Abhishek Pratap Singh 


The concept of elite and elite power has been well understoodin the western scholarship. Beginning from the early writings of Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, the two leading social scientists who propounded the elite theory, to the works and philosophy of Robert Michels‘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 amongstwesternsocial scientists. 

Unlike west, except some detested works like Elite politics in Rural India, (Cambridge, 1974) & Elite and Everyman (Routledge, 2011) which saw the concept from a social-cultural framework, the scholarship in India seems more evading 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 powerin India.  This primarily includes elite formation, elite functioning and changing character of elites in India, beginning from postcolonial years to the contemporary times. Not just the book traces the roots of elite power and its formation in contemporary India to the British Raj and its privileged legacies, 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-independent India, these associates at times were drawn not just on merit and competence alone but because of their elite badge that they had with them. In some cases, while bringing expertise and professionalism to the governance, these elites all brought some discredit to the ruling power.

Quite interestingly, as the reading suggests elite in India is a ‘dynamic force’, whichundergoes 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 in most of the time the ‘power elite’ centred in Lutyens Delhi is more able to consolidate its role and influence in Indian polity. Pointing some valid reason for this, 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 as financial capital of the country, the power elite in Delhi stands unique given its access, influence and cosmopolitan character. 

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

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

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

The anti-elitism of the contemporary state is more to the old elite, which thrived on patronage politics and colonial vestiges of Nehruvian model, than with the new elite, which identifies with Modi’s ‘Aspirational India’ as author himself notes. Somewhere what distinguishes the ascendance of new elite from the old is that it does not always belong to same set of social backgrounds. To my understanding, the new elite representing ‘vernacular middle-class Indian’ (Pp.52) is by its nature and character more 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 convinced and unified but is also much diverse and decentralised. Unlike old elite it is more adaptive and open to the outsiders, with the admission of many turn coats to its growing fold in recent years.

The versatility of Indian power elite is something one can find of much interest while reading the book. On the lighter side, reading does avoiddiscussions on to what some might call a gender perspective on power elites in India. While dealing with thesubject in almost totality, Dr. Baru does examine in detail the concept of power elite in India. The book is a relevant contribution to the scholarship on the subjectand a must-read for those interested in elite power politics in postcolonial India.       

The author are PhD from JNU and teaches at Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi. 

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