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Monday, October 29, 2018

Why is India's business history important?

by Tirthankar Roy.

Remembering Dwijendra Tripathi

In September this year, Professor Dwijendra Tripathi passed away. Until recently, he was the only business historian of India whose works were internationally recognized and respected. In the last twenty years, he produced as author or co-author a set of books, the Oxford History of Indian Business. The deep knowledge of the facts, love of the field, and a direct writing style, for which Tripathi was known, are in full display in these books.

I had interacted with Professor Tripathi closely in the 1990s, reviewed his books, visited his home, and admired him for his warm personality, scholarship, and his distance from ideological camps. On the last occasion we were in touch (7th July 2017), I emailed him the draft of a paper where there was a reference to Tripathi and Jumani in a mildly critical fashion, asking him if he would think that my criticism was unfair. He wrote: “Please go ahead with your paper; criticism is the life blood of scholarship.” Few Indian scholars I know of are so sporting.

With Tripathi’s benchmark books in existence, why write another book called "business history of india"? For that is what I did earlier this year (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

What is the idea of this new book?

This book is different, because it asks two questions that I have not seen others ask before. The first question is, how does a study of history help us understand the resurgence of private enterprise in India in recent times? We can ask this question for all emerging economies, which have seen dramatic transformations led by private capital. What are the historical roots of this emergence? I will call this the emergence question and come back to it ahead.

The second question is this. In a Bengali essay from the 1980s, Ashin Dasgupta wrote, “the more I browse the history of the last 300 years, the more I believe that Indian business has certain Indian features.” Dasgupta was writing about the descendants of Akrur Datta, a Bengali merchant of the 18th century. If this is true, if capitalism – like human beings – have different personalities, we should ask, what is Indian about Indian capitalism?

When I was a student, we learnt a way to connect the present with the past, according to which India was a great place for business until the 18th century -- a dark age unfolded when the British made money exploiting Indian resources, and Indians struggled to get a share of it -- and after 1947, a new dawn broke out. Most professional historians do not believe in this epochal transition model, because its facts are mostly wrong. But what is the alternative model linking the present with the past?

Observe any emerging economy today, and what we should see are hubs of private enterprise that are wealthy, innovative, and institutionally advanced, against the backdrop of a poor countryside that is changing slowly, even regressing by some benchmarks. The past looked exactly like this. Hubs of dynamic, wealthy, innovative capitalists did business in the backdrop of a poor countryside. We find such hubs in the Mughal cities, in the 18th century textile trade, in 19th century port cities, and in the IT or garment clusters today. We can then connect the past with the present by asking, are these hubs similar or are they different? That is what the book does.

We see surprising parallels across time. The most dynamic business towns of the past and those in the present are cosmopolitan, outward-looking, globally connected places. They traded with the world. Whether they exported textiles, or raw cotton, or software is a matter of detail. The people whom trade made rich had access to state-of-the-art knowledge and technology of their times, and knew the value of such knowledge. As an example, without the rich Indian merchants of nineteenth century selling cotton or indigo, you would not get the Presidency College of Calcutta (Kolkata) or the Elphinstone College of Bombay (Mumbai).

But this isn’t a happy story. Making money was a struggle against enormous odds. Interest rates were high, institutions were undeveloped, politics often unfriendly. Have these obstacles disappeared today? Hardly. Capital is still costly in India, all global metrics measuring institutional quality still place India towards the bottom of the list, and politics is still unpredictable. Why does capitalism work at all in an environment of expensive capital and dangers of expropriation by State agencies? The book answers, cosmopolitanism helped. And so did some very Indian resources, such as the idiom of caste or community, if only in some situations. These obstacles and the resources used to overcome them make Indian business history Indian. This is my story.

Who am I writing it for?

Three types of audience: business historians, economic historians, and India-watchers.

Business history emerged in the US and until recently was North American in its choice of examples and theoretical frameworks. This is changing and there is a drive to include more emerging market examples. While the book was not written with that aim, it helps that project.

My own field, economic history, has been preoccupied with a different question. For us, the big question is, “why do some countries grow rich while others stay poor”? While the modern West forged ahead (from early-1800s), why did countries like India and China stagnate and fall behind? Writers like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson call this one of the most important questions for the social scientists. I am not sure of that, but certainly divergence has been the only game in town for some time.

I think this is a bad question to ask, for many reasons. Let me show only one reason here: The question prejudges India to be a basket case. Those who think this is the greatest question are forced to ignore and overlook the hubs of enterprise that I talked about above.

Business history does not judge. It does not carry the burden on its shoulder as economists do, that we must answer the greatest question in social science. It treats individual business decisions as context-bound, which is a more flexible approach to doing history.

My third intended reader is anyone interested in the historical roots of economic emergence. Many people try to answer the emergence question, and the answers can be odd. Around 2007, a team of 11 people published an article in the IIMA house journal about India’s emergence. The authors were top professionals, and like many thinking people, they felt compelled to say something about history. This is what they said. We should not be surprised that Indians are so good at buying and selling things, they have been doing that for centuries. Still, until now they failed in their historic mission to create a world-class capitalism thanks to “foreign invasions”. The authors wisely left the identity of the invaders open, you can write your favourite invader (Turks, Europeans) in the blank space.

But this cannot be right. India has not had a foreign invasion in the last 70 years, and still scores poorly on Ease of Doing Business index. Indeed, India has not been a cradle of capitalism, not now, not in the past. Doing business has always been a struggle to overcome obstacles. Economic history tends to exaggerate the obstacles. Business history shows the struggle as it was, and helps us understand the struggle today. My book is about that endeavour.


Tirthankar Roy is an Economic Historian at the London School of Economics.

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