Planned Democracy: Development, Citizenship, and the Practices of Planning in Independent India


Nikhil Menon

PhD defended at: 

Princeton University


From 1950, the Planning Commission of India negotiated an unlikely marriage between parliamentary democracy and centralized economic planning—precisely when the Cold War pitted them as fundamentally incompatible. My research argues that India’s Five Year Plans were more than a means of regulating an economy; planning was also an expansive project to shape the nature of Indian democracy and society in the aftermath of colonialism. Planning was simultaneously a technocratic exercise in directing the economy, a means of modern state building, and an attempt at state-directed social transformation. This dissertation examines India’s experience with economic planning through the frames of technology and social science on the one hand, and the political projects of citizenship and nation building on the other. Establishing a planned economy required certain technologies and social-scientific capacities. India’s ‘democratic planning’ approach, however, also necessitated governmental efforts to draw citizens into the planning project—educating them about it to build ‘plan-consciousness’, and eliciting their support in implementation. Anchored in the subcontinent, my study situates India within global post-war debates about development and maps transnational flows of ideas, individuals, and institutions between India, the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union. It situates South Asia within the Cold War, and links this experience with patterns of development in the Global South.

The independent Indian nation was widely believed to be doomed to failure. It was an experiment that was expected to be short lived because of the extraordinary contradictions that India’s diversity and poverty posed. The orgy of ethnic violence and sectarian nationalism that erupted during the Partition of Britain’s sub-continental colony into India and Pakistan only served to confirm these suspicions. The predictions ranged from India splintering into smaller nations, to believing it was on the brink of going ‘Red’ (under the malevolent influence of Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union), to speculation that it was ripe for authoritarian takeover. Seen from Washington and Western Europe, the peril was not just to democracy in India, but to the success of democracy globally. India, in their view, was pivotal. If the breathless columns in the New York Times, for instance, are to be read as a gauge, the fate of democracy in Asia hung in balance. Writing for The Observer in Britain, Thomas Balogh—economist, member of the House of Lords, and Baron—described “India’s Experiment” in stark terms. He predicted that this economic and social experiment “may become crucial for the future of the free world.” The Indian government was trying to modernize a vast, materially backward country through consent—to achieve democratically that which had “hitherto been undertaken, on a comparable scale, only by Communist dictatorships.” All of Asia, he continued, was watching to see the outcome. It is in this context that economic planning in India has to be considered. A key feature of the Nehruvian state, planning in India was posed as a solution to this central puzzle. By planning through democratic means, the inaugural Indian government was addressing and trying to bridge the stark and historic misalignment between political and economic realms.

In Part I of my dissertation, I study the establishment of a modern technical and social scientific framework to undergird the Plans and India’s developmental agenda. The economy of the Indian sub-continent had remained practically stagnant through the first half of the twentieth century, registering an average growth rate of under one percent. “Planned Democracy” demonstrates how setting up a modern national statistical infrastructure, pursuing and utilizing newly invented computer technology to model and track the economy, and deepening the very shallow pool of national economic expertise and research by building social scientific capacities, were all provoked by the need to plan.
Chapter 1 uncovers the process through which India’s national statistical infrastructure emerged in the 1950s. I argue that India’s national statistics and the organizations responsible for it—the Central Statistical Organization, the National Income Committee, and the National Sample Survey—emerged as a response to the needs of centralized economic planning. The argument is developed by tracking the career of India’s foremost statistician, P.C. Mahalanobis, and the rapid rise in influence of the institute that he founded—the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Calcutta—from a small scholarly body in the 1930s on the fringes of mainstream academia, to a nodal agency in Indian economic planning by the mid 1950s.

The next chapter takes forward the narrative and argument to delineate how Mahalanobis and the ISI negotiated such a prominent role in economic policy. Chapter 2 focuses in particular on the role played by Mahalanobis’ international travel and the reputation the Indian Statistical Institute developed as an academic destination and host, to explain its growing public profile. In it, I argue that the importance acquired by national statistics, Mahalanobis, and the ISI in India’s policy discourse explains how Mahalanobis came to author the enormously influential Second Five Year Plan (1956-61). The information generated by these new statistical projects made the question of calculation an important one. The mass of data that the National Sample Survey yielded and the increasingly complex planning models made evident the state’s data processing needs. Chapter 3 reveals the campaign headed by Mahalanobis and the Indian Statistical Institute to bring India its first computers. I make the case that unlike in other parts of the world where computers were contemporarily being used, in India, computers were not sought for military purposes. Instead, India pursued them because they were viewed as a potential solution to one of centralized planning’s most knotty puzzles—big data. I follow the decade-long quest by the Indian Statistical Institute to import computers from the United States and the U.S.S.R, unearthing the Cold War politics that it inevitably became embroiled in.

As Part II of the dissertation establishes, economic planning was not simply a technocratic endeavor. It exceeded the bounds of boardrooms to spill into the popular realm. The Nehruvian state was committed to the oft-repeated slogan of “democratic planning”; but for the phrase to have any meaning, it wasn’t enough that India held elections and planned the economy. There was broad political consensus that Indian citizens had to be educated about, and participate in the planning project as well. In other words, for democratic planning to work, citizens had to be ‘plan-conscious.’ While the Soviet Union’s Gosplan and their Five Year Plans were no doubt an important influence, the Indian project self-consciously marked its distance and forged its own path. Indeed, during the Cold War, the distinctive combination of parliament and planning served as a domestic reflection of Nehru’s foreign policy of resolute Non-Alignment with either superpower bloc. Chapter 4 charts the Indian government’s ambition to make planning democratic through convincing its citizenry of the need for planning, and securing their participation in the planning project. It examines why public participation in planning mattered to the Indian government, and uncovers the many channels through which the state launched publicity campaigns that sought to spread the gospel of planning. The media employed by government to foment ‘plan-consciousness’ included travelling plan publicity teams, magazines, exhibitions, films, and musical and drama troupes.

If democratic planning were to become a mass movement, as the government hoped, it would require the voluntary participation of Indian citizens. Chapter 5 looks at the state supported voluntary organizations that tried to play a part in both spreading the message of the Five Year Plans and offering their services in service of their accomplishment. The chapter studies the involvement of the youth, through college and university Planning Forums. It also analyzes the role played by the Bharat Sevak Samaj (Service to India Society) and its affiliates in Five Year Plan projects. Investigating the work of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj (Indian Society of Ascetics) reveals the manner in which the Nehruvian state propagated Five Year Plans—the very symbol of secular technocracy and scientific modernity—using both Hindu ascetics and motifs. The secular logic of developmental plans and economic growth was dressed in Hindu spiritual robes and disseminated through a religious vehicle, by men and women who embodied material renunciation.