Can India Move From Gilded Age to Progressive Era?

Jayant Sinha and Ashutosh Varshney have in an interesting article, contented that "both in its rot and heady dynamism, India is beginning to resemble America's Gilded Age (1865-1900)." The article in Financial Times, titled "It is time for India to reign in its robber barrons" Sinha and Varshney question the possibility of India's transition from Gilded Age to Progressive Era. The transition, to my mind, is improbable if not impossible.

For those uninitiated in American history here is a brief overview of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The term Gilded Age was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Following the plot of Twain and Warner's novel, the term Gilded was used to characterize the age of economic growth, entrepreneurship and widespread corruption in America. During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy grew at the fastest rate in its history, with real wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all increasing rapidly. A national transportation and communication network was created, the corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. The super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, Henry H. Rogers, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt family, and the prominent Astor family were attacked as 'robber barons' by critics, who believed they cheated to get their money and lorded it over the common people. Political corruption, corporate arrogance and social malaise of the Gilded Age led to desire for reforms and culminated in the Progressive movement in 1900. The main goal of the Progressive movement was purification of government, as Progressives tried to expose and undercut political machines and bosses. Disturbed by the inefficiencies and injustices of the Gilded Age, the Progressives were committed to changing and reforming the country.

Sinha and Varshney highlight four similarities between America's Gilded Age and present-day India. These include 1) growing urbanization, 2) noisy and participatory democracy with high voter turnout, 3) increasing wealth and number of the super-rich class including industrialists and business leaders and 4) use of vast resources by emerging barons to influence official policy to suit their ends. According to Sinha and Varshney, "America's Gilded Age was followed at the dawn of the 20th century by the Progressive Era, marked by cleaner politics, a bipartisan fight against corruption, more honest business practices and a channelling of private wealth into philanthropy." Is it possible for India to move into the Progressive Era?

The most surprising aspect of the article is exclusion of any reference to the role of muckrakers during the Progressive Era. Muckrakers were journalists who exposed waste, corruption, and scandal in the highly influential new medium of national magazines. These writers focused on a wide range of issues including the monopoly of Standard Oil, cattle processing and meat packing, patent medicines, child labor and wages, labor and working conditions in industry and agriculture. In a number of instances, the revelations of muckraking journalists led to public outcry, governmental and legal investigations, and, in some cases, legislation was enacted to address the issues the writers' identified. Investigation of Bloomingdale asylum in 1872 by Julius Chambers, Ida Tarbell's account of the rise of the Standard Oil Company in 1902 and the Ray Stannard Baker's work on the condition of coal mine workers are a few examples of how muckrakers sought to expose malpractices in government and society. Sinha and Varshney do not compare the recent media activism in India to the muckraking of the Progressive era in America. Why? Perhaps because, the authors distinguish the investigative journalism of the 1900s from the contemporary 24x7 news cycle. And also because, muckraking went beyond informing civil society to actually influencing legislative reforms in America.

Coming back to why I see transition to the Progressive Era as problematic in India.

Movement from Gilded to Progressive Era in America was hastened due the Panic of 1893. The Panic of 1983 was caused by serious economic depression in the United States owing to bank failures, bankruptcy of several companies and collapse of the railroad project. It seems unlikely that without the jolt of an economic depression, Indian public and intellectuals would press for large scale changes. There is little to suggest that India's growing economy would be strained by a depression in the near future. Inflation may be high but the overall economic growth has provided the populace with opportunities improve their standard of living. According to Arvind Panagariya, while the precise extent of poverty reduction can be disputed, there is general agreement that the reform era in India has seen substantial poverty reduction relative to the first three decades of development.

The bipartisan fight against corruption in America's Progressive Age has little possibility of replication in India. The era of coalition politics and growing influence of regional parties compounds the challenge of pursuing any serious anti-corruption reform. The Congress and Bhartiya Janta Party cannot afford to rein the corporate giants or propose reform legislation without facing the political costs of loosing favour of regional allies. Unlike the American Progressive Era, no political party in India can afford to introduce something like the Oregon system of initiative, referendum and recall.

Social change in America was made possible during the Progressive Era through well researched and scientific policies rather than populist ones. Progressives had set up training programs to ensure that welfare and charity work would be undertaken by professionals rather than warm hearted amateurs. Progressives turned to educational researchers to evaluate the reform agenda by measuring numerous aspects of education. The idea was to ensure social change rather than capitalize on social challenges for short-term political benefits. Social welfare policies in India are usually introduced with an eye on the next election.

Finally, the American Progressive Era had visionary political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hover on the Republican side and William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson on the Democratic side. Present-day India has many politicians but barely a political leader. America's middle class was able to support the Progressives based on the leadership's vision of future and concrete policy proposals. The rhetoric of policy change in India is focussed on ousting the incumbent and capturing power. Where are the Progressives who will lead India into the Progressive Era? The media, judiciary and civil society, even if they have the will (which I doubt) presently lack the resources to ensure India's transition to the Progressive Era.

India has in the past overcome apocalyptic prognosis regarding its survival as a single democratic nation. Hopefully, the Asian elephant can work its way out of the 'Gilded Age' either by adopting the policies of the early Progressives or devising an indigenous approach favored by its unique historical experience.