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Wanted! Civic India

Like the gripping short story of the Hindi movie Trapped, the book taken up for review here (pictured below) is a gripping long story about India in a dynamically constant low-level equilibrium trap. The explanation offered in terms of leadership crisis and dysfunctionality is refreshing as also debatable. It is quite unlike that of Nelson (1956) about the malady of underdeveloped economies trapped in a stable equilibrium level of per capita income at or close to subsistence requirements. The author of the book turns out to be a good storyteller. Ashoka Mody hails from Rajasthan, and is a passionate Indian-at-heart at Princeton University. And a brave man too, not afraid of writing seriously amusing opinion pieces, for example in Project Syndicate, on the Gujarat Model and Modi regime even as has berated him as a dope inebriated with wilful blindness and follies of full-blown anti-Bharat cassandrahood! His type of investigation is less and less likely to come from Indian universities or be published in the Indian mainstream media given the university autonomy decline and academic unfreedom condition of the country.

I take Mody’s contribution as an honest addressing of the sinking feelings of the weak and the vulnerable in India. The unchanging Indian malaise is described as follows. The lived reality of a vast numbers of Indians is a never-ending struggle under constant threat of humiliation and violence for two main reasons. First, good jobs are scarce. They are the essence of economic development and indispensable for economic well-being as well as human dignity. “The grim reality is that, to employ all working-age Indians, the economy needs to create 200 million jobs over the next decade, an impossible order after the past decade of declining employment numbers.” And second, there is lack of public goods for shared progress—education, health delivery, functioning cities, clean air and water, and a responsive and fair judiciary. In conjunction with these two scarcities is the fact that lives and livelihoods face grave risks due to dying rivers and worsening climate catastrophe. Killer heatwaves, arid agricultural seasons, episodes of extreme rainfall, rising seal levels, cyclones and melting glaciers are all expected to increase in frequency and intensity.

They surely portend definitive social and political collapse. All this malaise is due to moral decay. There is cascading deterioration in social norms and accountability. Unaccountable politicians, with power and personal enrichment as their main goals, have sought easy short-run policy fixes for economic and social problems that require complex, long-term solutions. Citizens and businesses indulge in scamming and marauding behaviour. In such a milieu, democracy is easily trampled by autocracy. The way out of this mess is suggested by the political scientist Robert Putnam.

“We must move to an equilibrium in which everyone expects others to be honest, in which case most people will act honestly. That “honest equilibrium” will promote trust and cooperation to work together in the long-haul tasks of creating public goods and advancing sustainable development.” In other words, we need to go through a definitive transition from a “me-me-me” to a “we-we-we” society by building civic consciousness, tying public-spirited nongovernmental work with the authority and institutional resources of governments, and decentralization of governance. How this will optimally come about from its non-existence, from ground zero, is a strange mystery, though. All the same, Robert Putnam’s concern for the decline and fall of Civic America is matched by Ashoka Mody’s concern for the decline and fall of Civic India. Social capital and civic engagement refers to features of social life-networks, norms, and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. Negative consequences of polity, economy and society are attributed to the degradation of social capital and civic engagement--unprecedented collapse in civic, social, associational, and political life.

As such, restoration of social capital will play a vital role in the functioning of societies with significant implications for various outcomes, including economic development, political participation, and overall social well-being. This strand of thinking leads the reader to explore Social Norms Theory and Development Economics that have become the basis for the World Development Report 2015.

However, Putnam’s theory of social capital has come under heavy fire from various critics on various grounds, mentioning of which is not the concern here. Noteworthy, though, is what radical economists such as Ben Fine say. Social capital theory purports to steer a delicate course between neoliberalism and statism, whilst in fact neglecting political economy, power and conflict. It is “vulgar scholarship”. It overlooks power dynamics and structural inequalities within society. Social capital can be unequally distributed with marginalised groups facing barriers to access and participation. The emphasis on community-level social capital neglects the disparities and power imbalances that exist within and between communities. Further, the role of conflict and dissent in social capital formation is downplayed. This critique applies to Ashoka Mody’s analysis as well. In which case the only way forward could be total development of society to be achieved by the principles propounded by the Union for Radical Political Economics. But this is also easier said than done.

Prof. AJC Bose
Department of Economics,


Ashoka Mody. 2023. India is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today. Stanford University Press.

Ben Fine. 2001. Social Capital versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium. Routledge.

Lina Eriksson. 2015. Social Norms Theory and Development Economics. Policy Research Working Paper 7450. World Bank Group. October.

Richard R. Nelson. 1956. A Theory of the Low-Level Equilibrium Trap in Underdeveloped Economies. The American Economic Review. 46 (5). December.

Robert Putnam. 1996. Who Killed Civic America?, Prospect. March 20.

Tristan Claridge. 2015. Putnam on Social Capital—Democratic or Civic Perspective. Institute for Social Capital. April 24.

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