Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India

Rob Jenkins

Cambridge University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
Political theorists have argued that in democracies "special interest groups" hinder reform — so why and how has liberal economic reform in India persisted through the 1990s, especially in the context of Rajiv Gandhi's failed attempts at reform in the late 80s? In Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India Rob Jenkins rethinks the relationship between economic liberalisation and democracy, and the role of civil society and political institutions. It is a fairly solid study, but I found it interesting for its insights into Indian politics as well as for its theoretical argument.

Jenkins first sketches a history of Indian economic reform since 1991 and surveys theoretical perspectives on democracy and economic reform. Against claims that coalitions of vested interests and lobby groups prevent change in democracies and that transparent processes and good sales pitches by governments are important, he argues quite the converse, that the fragmentation of power groups and multiple sources of influence allow skillful politicians to carry out "reform by stealth". He also makes some comparisons with China and Mexico.

This is given substance in three chapters. The first looks at the motivations of Indian political and economic elites and their perception of threats and opportunities. Not only does liberalisation leave many traditional sources of patronage untouched, but it creates new ones; and individuals and interest groups are likely to believe (often correctly) that they can adapt and build new coalitions in response to a changing environment. The second looks at the role of political institutions, in particular the federal structure and state-centre relations and inter-state rivalries. Also important are informal institutions such as party-affiliated political networks. The third ventures into the debate about "political skills", arguing that much change is carried out by stealth, with politicians making changes while claiming continuity, or maintaining reforms while pretending to be unwinding them.

I have one concern with the theoretical argument of Democratic Politics and Economic Reform. Jenkins writes at one point that "the argument of this book is that democracies can uproot interest-group coalitions to promote change, not that market relations will characterise all aspects of economic life", but the assumption throughout is that "change" means "economic liberalisation". Many of the forces pushing liberalisation — such as transnational corporations, foreign governments, and multilateral organisations — are backstage in Jenkins' analysis, but it seems likely their absence (or even opposition) would make other kinds of change a radically different proposition.

April 2001

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%T Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India
%A Jenkins, Rob
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521659876
%P ix,250pp