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The Rudolphs and Indian Politics: Looking Back and Looking Forward

May 17, 2010

“What has happened shapes what can happen,” asserted Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph at the recent conference on “Six Decades of Indian Democracy,” hosted by the Watson Institute as part of the Year of India. In a joint keynote address entitled “Looking Back and Looking Forward: Researching Indian Politics for Almost Six Decades,” the husband-and-wife duo used their own sustained scholarship in India as a lens through which to view the profound changes that have reshaped the country’s political landscape. They also critically reflected on how area studies – the study of the politics of foreign countries – had changed in the United States over the last two decades or so.

Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph first traveled to India in a land rover jeep from Europe during the height of the Cold War. Area studies were just becoming popular, and modernization theory was emerging as a perceived antidote to communism. At the time, most area studies scholarship essentialized cultural differences and cast non-Western people as inherently “other,” Lloyd Rudolph said.

The critical assumption of modernization theory was that development meant the undermining of tradition and that the modernized postcolonial world would look like the West. The Rudolphs challenged those ideas, suggesting even in their earliest studies that the road to development is not predetermined. The events of September 11 profoundly changed the study of foreign countries. The terrorist attacks challenged America’s parochialism, said Rudolph, and brought an important question to the fore: “How can we live with difference?” By 2001, the methods and assumptions underlying area studies research had undergone significant transformations. Increasingly, the emphasis in the 1990s was to seek universal generalizations. Disagreeing , the Rudolphs sought “situated knowledge” – knowledge that is context-dependent and contingent on multiple historical events – rather than universal, inevitable truths.

For her portion of the address, Susanne Rudolph examined whether a claim about India’s “centrist politics” could withstand the ages. In an early essay, the Rudolphs claimed that unlike Europe, the Indian state subordinated class politics and made centrism an enduring trait in Indian political affairs. In the first four decades of Indian independence, the Indian state overshadowed the power of labor, said Rudolph, and workers in the corporate sector were too few in number to organize themselves along class lines. Then 1991 brought sweeping economic reforms to India, ushering a shift from a state-centered to a market-centered economy. This transition made it possible for the Rudolphs to slightly revise their thesis. They identified a transition from an interventionist state to a regulatory state that was intent on shaping and molding the market economy. Class, however, remained marginal, Rudolph said.

The Rudolphs’ comments about class sparked a lively debate among conference participants. Ronald Herring of Cornell University suggested that the Rudolphs were imposing a European definition of class onto Indian political history. The Rudolphs responded that their aim was not to talk about class as an abstract category, but in terms of concrete actors, such as individuals and organizations.

“We don’t throw out class,” Susanne Rudolph added. “But we give it a marginal position.”

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ’11