Free Economy and Opposition Politics in India, c. 1940-70

Free Economy and Opposition Politics in India, c. 1940-70
Aditya Balasubramanian


Procedural democracy and the escape from the colonial growth trap define India’s postcolonial history (1947-). However, the challenges of working with fragmentary archives have generally turned historians away from studying these simultaneous, interrelated processes. Stepping into this void, this dissertation considers how changing social and economic structure shaped the emergence of a powerful current of right-wing politics in India, expressed in an idiom of ‘free economy.’ It was opposed to the developmental state directed by the dominant Indian National Congress Party (Congress) and driven by regional actors hailing from southern and western India, regions with traditions of overseas trade and landowning proprietorship. These actors, hailing from powerful landed and mercantile communities transitioning to capitalism, had by the 1960s made the most successful attempt to bring India a two-party system through their conservative Swatantra (‘Freedom’) Party. Swatantra was broadly secular, distinguishing it both from its contemporary Jana Sangh and today’s ascendant Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Drawing upon eighteen months of archival research across three continents and sources ranging from comic strips to gramophone recordings in English, Hindi, and Tamil, the research presented herein recovers this important but largely unacknowledged phenomenon in Indian history.

This dissertation makes three principal contributions. First, departing from the conventional focus of the global historiography of postwar market advocacy on professional economists and international economic institutions, it studies politicians and publicists. It captures how informal thinkers in the decolonizing world conceived of alternative political economies to India’s statist developmental model and yoked them to their immediate electoral objectives. By showing how these actors were influenced by community and region, it unearths social and political dimensions of the ideological embedding of market advocacy in India several decades before the 1991 economic liberalization reforms. Second, this thesis foregrounds how local actors carried out a Cold War battle for ideas in the ostensibly non-aligned world. It reconstructs how they generated a critique of planned economic development in an anticommunist network of periodicals and associations, conversing with but independent of foreign interlocutors. Finally it shows how rather than paving the way for the rise of postcolonial authoritarianism, the splintering of factions comprising a flagship anticolonial nationalist party can instead deepen democracy by pluralizing voter choice, reshaping public discourse, and creating pressure for administrative reform.


Aditya Balasubramanian

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Cambridge, Faculty of History






Urban / Rural
National politics