Remaking Capital: Business, Technology and Development Ambitions in Twentieth-Century Western India

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2020

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My dissertation examines the roles assumed by actors closely associated with the textile business community within developmental endeavors shaping urban, industrial and rural worlds of late colonial and postcolonial western India. My historical account begins with the early twentieth century and spans across the first three decades following independence in 1947. The mercantile predecessors of these business actors have been studied in South Asian and imperial historiography as “portfolio capitalists” who were immensely significant in brokering key political and economic transitions of the early-modern and early-colonial eras. In locating a different generation of such “merchants” in the critical decades of waning imperialism and ascendant nationalism, I bring to focus the specific ways in which such commercial actors—who had by then diversified into industrial activities—straddled the apparently disparate worlds of big business, national community-making and state-directed developmentalism. In doing so, my work reveals how such “men of capital” re-invented their relevance in a new postcolonial regime—that was sliding towards a characteristic dirigisme—by actively participating in emergent global discourses borne of decolonisation, an ongoing Cold War and a thriving international field of developmentalism marked by particular propositions of socio-economic reform and technological intervention.

My research thus opens up for scrutiny a new field of interventions initiated by business actors in western Indian places like Gujarat, that supplemented and at times even competed with the newly consolidating postcolonial state’s conception of “development” and “public good.” More specifically, this field of interventions encompassed forms of (legal) associational life, such as public charitable trusts, high-technological interventions in the form of communication satellites and broadcasting media experiments, and ideas and techniques of governing industrial as well as rural-agricultural production based on the emerging sciences of managerialism, human resources and efficiency. I show how much of this new field of operations was made possible by the intricate networking of western Indian business actors with globally mobile experts whose opinions were becoming increasingly important to the newly formed states. My research uncovers this triangulation of business, state, and global expertise by reading together existing state and institutional archival records with relatively unexplored sources like personal accounts of business entrepreneurs, labor union leaders, enterprising farmers, popular science fiction writers, filmmakers and televisual media producers.

As my research courses through these various projects, from broadcasting technologies to small scale industrial automation ambitions, I show how the simultaneous narratives of the triumphant business visionary and the actual failures of the projects on ground were co-constitutive, if not inherent to this very mode of intervention/expertise. Moreover, I reveal how these projects, despite their seeming intentions of democratic reform, participatory development and charity, more than often exacerbated the extant social antagonisms in their regions of operation, and institutionalized new structures of power and sites of regulation in the aftermath of their failures.

On a broader stroke, the dissertation offers to revise our received understanding of the postcolonial experience as partitioned between an earlier state-directed developmentalism and a more recent putatively “neo-liberal” private sector-dominated setup. It argues instead that the groundwork for claiming particular kinds of sovereignty by corporate actors within regimes of political and economic governance was laid quite early on in the late colonial and early postcolonial period through socio-economic imaginaries and practices of development which remained fundamentally marked by seepages between arenas of state and business.

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Wani, Kena (2020). Remaking Capital: Business, Technology and Development Ambitions in Twentieth-Century Western India. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20945.

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