The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 23, 2001

Of identity crisis and Gandhian economics
Review by Randeep Wadehra

Community & Identities
edited by Surinder S. Jodhka. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 269.
Rs 300.

THE extent of social stratification in India is mind boggling. Religions and cults. Sects and subsects. Castes and subcastes. A myriad tribal, linguistic and ethnic denominations and groupings. Hierarchies within hierarchies. A truly multihued mosaic that defies imagination. Yet one can well imagine the competing aspirations that keep the polity churning.

After independence India has witnessed several movements – political and apolitical. Perhaps the most striking have been in the socio-economic field. The oppressed classes like dalits, women, tribals, etc. have experienced a reawakening on an unprecedented scale. With the Nehruvian model of development being increasingly challenged in the 1980s it became imperative to have an alternate agenda triggering off debates on such issues as secularism, development and modernity. Simultaneously, environmental concerns and the angst relating to ethnicity, human rights, displacement, caste, globalisation, etc. came to be openly articulated. This led to an assertion of new subcultural identities – some of these stridently seeking a full-fledged separate status.


Jodhka does not deny the influence of West-inspired post-modernist and post-structuralist theoretical trends on our "social-scientific" mindset. He however contends, "Another equally significant factor which brought the questions of culture, community and identity to the forefront of social scientific enterprise in India was the change in the political arena. The rise of ‘new’ social movements during the eighties and the issues that they threw up could not be easily dealt with through the conventional ‘economy-centred’ frameworks of modernisation/development theories."

Carol Upadhya observes that while conceptualisations of community within mainstream Indian sociology have been largely of the traditional "primordialist" or what she prefers to call "substantivist" type, recent works by a number of historians and anthropologists on Indian society has produced a different "constructivist" understanding of community. She goes on to say, "This literature suggests that most of the communities and identities we see today (religious groups, castes, tribes) are not anachronistic survivals from pre-colonial times but have emerged in the recent past, in particular during the period of colonial rule." This constructivist argument appears to contradict the substantivist theories of caste and community.

Ravinder Kaur takes a brief look at some dimensions of the historical career of the concept of community. She says, "Concepts such as community, civil society and identity have become major analytical tools in the discourse of much of modern social science. These concepts, especially the first two, are accompanied by enviable intellectual histories in philosophy and in social science…they surface at regular intervals as serious contenders in efforts to explain broad and narrow currents in history as well as in explaining the ‘enigma of culture’. Identity, though of more recent provenance…has gained the status of a mediating concept in attempts to link community, civil society and nation. The survival of multi-ethnic nations and the beginnings of transnational societies and cultures have resulted in the strengthening of identity as an even more relevant conceptual category. This may be due to the fact that identitarian politics appears to provide readily available and understandable explanations for many conflicts in the modern world."

Other contributors to this stimulating volume are Sasheej Hegde, Javeed Aslam, D. Parthasarathy, A.R. Vasavi, Sujata Patel, Aparna Rayaprol, Satish Deshpande, Rowena Robinson and Anupama Roy.

This book is divided into four parts. The first part deals with conceptual questions relating to community and identities; the second part takes a look at caste, class and the politics of community identities; the third part examines globalisation and the spatial rearticulation of communities; and the last part brings minorities, women and communities under sharp academic focus.

This tome is certainly indispensable for students of social sciences. However, I should commend it for general reading too. The debate is scholarly and yet easy to follow as well as thought provoking. An invaluable addition to your bookshelf.

* * *

Inclusive Economics: Gandhian Method and Contemporary Policy
by Narendar Pani.Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 205.
Rs 380.

Even after more than half a century since his death Gandhi occupies colossal amount of mind space – be it of intellectuals or common folks. And rightly too. He was no ordinary politician who managed to secure freedom for the nation, but an almost divine entity that touches all aspects of our national as well as personal lives. Consciously or unconsciously we do use some of his moral/ethical benchmarks to evaluate our actions.

Dr Pani, a senior journalist and a former Research Fellow at the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore, begins by setting out certain premises of the Gandhian method in general followed by its specific form in economics. He explores the primacy that Gandhi gave to action and his "consequentialist and inclusive approach to evaluating an action". The development of this method involves addressing issues such as the nature of truth and the role of subjectivity.

The author points out in the Preface that this tome’s roots lie in the environment of economics academia in India in the 1970s. Then the main focus of our economists was on village studies for they firmly believed that such studies were the only meaningful way to understand the rural Indian economy. Their disdain for secondary data based studies was palpable. With such "roots" the book addresses today’s economic riddles. Examining the Asian crisis of the late 1990s after Thailand was forced to let the baht float, Pani exposes the inadequacies of both the general equilibrium approach and the pragmatism method in fashioning economic policy.

The inadequacies of the two methods centred around their inability to address two issues. First, they fail to ensure comprehensiveness in the analysis of factors in a particular situation. Different general equilibrium approaches concentrate on different factors. Pragmatism has the flexibility to switch from one set of factors to another. But there is nothing in the factors themselves that specify that all factors – major and minor, must be taken into account. The method then can be reduced to choosing one set of factors or another as the only ones that are important enough to be considered. And this choice can easily be distorted by expediency. Second, both methods fail to provide an adequate response to the situational dimension of economics. For a method to be valid for all situations it needs to cover all factors that could be important in all conceivable situations.

An effective alternate method must address the twin issues of comprehensiveness and being sensitive to the situational dimension. In meeting the conditions of inclusiveness the method should not compromise on the strengths of earlier approaches. Dr Pani analyses how inclusive economics responds to the methodological issues that arise during the formulation and implementation of a policy. Some of these relate to demarcation, the role of economic models, and the use of rhetoric.

The author, to illustrate the departure from economic conventions that the adoption of this method necessitates, goes on to present a Gandhian alternative to the main policy statement that triggered off the economic reforms in India in 1991. The book argues that the Gandhian method is a viable alternative to the mainstream approaches as it is inclusive enough to deal with both the known and the unknown economic phenomena.

A well argued treatise. A must for our policy-makers, research scholars and students of social sciences.