Exploring India’s Elite: Power, Privileges and Prosperity
India is being widely seen as an emerging economic and political power on the global scene. In the Foreword to 'Mapping the Elite', the editors shed light on this idea of India.
Inequality is endemic, a seemingly inescapable feature of human life present almost everywhere and at almost all times. Its forms and patterns may vary, but it is hard to find a society where inequality does not exist. Inequality matters because its presence is felt far and wide. It shapes and is constitutive of social relations, cultural values, spatial patterns, economic systems and political regimes. It conditions and regulates human potentials, aspirations and life-chances. Given its pervasive nature and multidimensionality, it has been a subject of interest for a range of experts: economists, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, geographers and even fiction writers, who have deployed a variety of theories and concepts to capture its diversities and complexities. Given its sway, inequality has also been among the core moral and ethical concerns across human cultures and civilizations. It has been a source of many political contests, upheavals and revolutions. It even finds mentions in religious ideas and ideologies the world over, positive and/or negative.
Over the past quarter of a century, since the early 1990s, new revolutions in telecommunication technologies, political shifts and the ensuing processes of globalization have generated a huge amount of new wealth, at least in some regions and countries of the world. Neo-liberal economic philosophy and the accompanying policy regimes that came to be accepted as the norm across nation states in the post-Cold War world celebrated individual entrepreneurship and de-legitimized “older” welfarist ideas of parity and fair distribution. One of the major consequences of these shifts has been the increase and spread of inequality.
Given its phenomenal growth over the past decades, its study and analysis has also seen resurgence. While it is widely recognized that inequality is a multi-dimensional reality, most academic writings and discussions in the popular media tend to revolve almost exclusively around its economic dimensions, the growing disparities of income and wealth among individuals, social categories or nation states. Economic disparities are indeed very critical as they determine aspects of access and exclusion. The economists have also worked out robust methods and modes of calculating inequalities at the macro and micro levels for comparisons across societies and countries. Thomas Piketty’s extremely influential work on Capital in the Twenty-First Century published in 2013 and several other research writings and reports by individual economists and civil society groups have been quite successful in highlighting growing economic disparities in the world today. Given its nature, the economic aspect is also relatively easy to capture and measure.
The obvious academic and political response to such emergent trends has been to be concerned about the poor, those likely to experience greater degrees of vulnerability with growing disparities. This is indeed required and perhaps needs far greater attention than it has received so far in the mainstream economics and contemporary policy regimes in most parts of the world. However, the mainstream’s concern for the poor or poverty is not always seen as linked to growing inequalities. Many contemporary economists would actually argue that the two have nothing to do with each other. On the contrary, poverty tends to decline when an economy grows at a faster pace, yet it almost inevitably is also likely to enhance income disparities
This book series on Elite in Contemporary India begins with a move away from such a narrative. We treat inequality as a far bigger reality than disparities of income and wealth. It is above all a value and a process that shapes almost everything else in social life. It needs to be taken seriously because it is the core of all power. It is for this reason that we advocate that along with looking at poverty, exclusions and marginalities, we also need to explore their opposite, the spaces of power and privilege. However, this has not been done as much as it ought to be done and its reasons are many.
It is a widely recognized fact among those who do primary level fieldwork that studying down is always easier for the middle class professional social scientist than studying up, the elite. Accessing the upper end of power is far more challenging and difficult. The elite and the upper-end of power also tend to be invisible. The state policies and social science funding regimes tend to find merit more easily in the study of the poor, the marginal and the underclass. The elite do not merit such attention from the state or the civil society NGOs.
This is not to suggest that the study of the ghetto or the slum is of lesser value. We only wish to underline the importance of simultaneously exploring the club, the gated communities and other spaces of privilege. The two sets of realities exist in a relationship. It is the nature of their relationship that perpetuates inequalities and disparities.
India has always been an important case in the discourses on inequality in social science literature. Social scientists the world over have referred to the Indian caste system as an example, par-excellence, of persistent status hierarchies. In the contemporary world, India is being widely seen as a significant emerging economic and political power. However, India is also a land of contradictions. Even though the country continues to have the largest number of chronically poor, larger than Sub-Saharan Africa, it also has a very large number of billionaires in the world today and their absolute number has been growing at a pace much faster than the decline in poverty levels. The absolute size of relatively prosperous Indians, the upper-middle classes, is quite large and may compare well with populations with similar economic profiles in many big countries of Western Europe.
Equally important are the political dynamics of India. India is one of the few countries outside the Western world where the institutions of liberal democracy have gained roots over the past century or so. Not only has the country been able to continue with the systems of electoral democracy at different levels of its social and political organization, the social profile of India’s political elite has also been changing over the years, making way for those coming from the middle and lower strata of the traditional social order, thus broadening the social base of political power, even though the role of money in elections tends to filter out candidates from lower class strata.
The sociology of the contemporary Indian elite has a long way to go although scholarly work on the subject is slowly growing. The proposed book series is designed to provide a platform to scholars working on the subject to present their work to a larger audience.