Dr Aditya Balasubramanian

AB (Harvard College), MPhil, PhD (Trinity College, Cambridge)
Lecturer in Economic History
College Arts & Social Sciences
T: 6125 5114

Research interests

history of modern South Asia; history of economic thought; material histories of consumption and culture; energy and environmental history; international history


Aditya Balasubramanian is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Economic History. His research stands at the intersection of the economic, political, and intellectual history of 20th century South Asia. His book project, Partisans of the Free Economy (working title), under contract with Princeton University Press, is a history of economic ideas about secular conservatism in India. Forthcoming projects are studies of commerce between South and Southeast Asia and energy consumption in modern India.

Aditya completed PhD and MPhil degrees at Trinity College, Cambridge as a British Marshall Scholar and a Cambridge Trust Scholar.  He spent  2017-8 in residence at Duke University as a History of Political Economy Fellow. His dissertation won the Ellen McArthur Prize in Economic History and was shortlisted for the Prince Consort and Thirlwall Prize for best dissertation in History. Previously, Aditya received his undergraduate degree in history with a minor in economics from Harvard University.

At ANU, Aditya is a Board Member of the South Asia Research Institute, an affiliate of the Center for Economic History, and a University House Early Career Academic Fellow. He is a Research Associate of the Joint Harvard-Cambridge Centre for History and Economics (CHE) and coordinates its 'Archives of Economic Life in South and Southeast Asia' website. From 2021-4, he will be an inaugural CHE/CHE-Paris Fellow. 

Forthcoming articles:

-"Contesting 'Permit-and-licence raj' : economic conservatism and the idea of democracy in 1950s India," Past and Present (in press)

 -"Alone At Home, Among Friends Abroad? B.R. Shenoy from Austrian School Monetary Economist to Cold War Public Intellectual," in Nandini Sundar and Srinath Raghavan eds. A Functioning Anarchy? Essays for Ramachandra Guha (New Delhi: Penguin)

-"(Is) India in the History of Neoliberalism?" in Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe eds. Neoliberalism's Central Peripheries: Market Prophets from the Margins (Brooklyn: Zone Books)

Under Review:

-"A Muffled 'Cry of Distress'? Hunger, Disease, and Death in Wartime Travancore" 

-"Indianizing Economic Policy? Decentralisation, Home Industry and Hindu Nationalist Economic Thought"

 In Preparation:

-"Anticorruption in the Indian Central Government Services, c. 1940-60s" 


Researcher's projects

Partisans of the Free Economy: Secular Conservatism and Indian Politics

Procedural democracy and the escape from the colonial growth trap define India’s postcolonial history (1947-). However, the challenges of working with fragmentary archives have generally turned historians away from studying these simultaneous, interrelated processes. Stepping into this void, my project considers how changing social and economic structure shaped the emergence of a powerful current of right-wing politics in India, expressed in an idiom of ‘free economy.’ It was opposed to the developmental state directed by the dominant Indian National Congress Party (Congress) and driven by regional actors hailing from southern and western India, regions with traditions of overseas trade and landowning proprietorship. These actors, hailing from powerful landed and mercantile communities transitioning to capitalism, had by the 1960s made the most successful attempt to bring India a two-party system through their conservative Swatantra (‘Freedom’) Party. Swatantra was broadly secular, distinguishing it both from its contemporary Jana Sangh and today’s ascendant Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Drawing upon eighteen months of archival research across three continents and sources ranging from comic strips to gramophone recordings in English, Hindi, and Tamil, I recover this important but largely unacknowledged phenomenon in Indian history.

My study makes three principal contributions. First, departing from the conventional focus of the global historiography of postwar market advocacy on professional economists and international economic institutions, it studies politicians and publicists.  It captures how informal thinkers in the decolonizing world conceived of alternative political economies to India’s statist developmental model and yoked them to their immediate electoral objectives. By showing how these actors were influenced by community and region, it unearths social and political dimensions of the ideological embedding of market advocacy in India several decades before the 1991 economic liberalization reforms. Second, my project foregrounds how local actors carried out a Cold War battle for ideas in the ostensibly non-aligned world. It reconstructs how they generated a critique of planned economic development in an anticommunist network of periodicals and associations, conversing with but independent of foreign interlocutors. Finally it shows how rather than paving the way for the rise of postcolonial authoritarianism, the splintering of factions comprising a flagship anticolonial nationalist party can instead deepen democracy by pluralizing voter choice, reshaping public discourse, and creating pressure for administrative reform.

The History of Energy Consumption in Modern India 

A large and growing population, reliance on coal, and import dependence mean that energy requirements loom large in India’s economic life. This is a project on industrial and household energy consumption in India from the mid-19th century introduction of railways to the 1970s nationalization of the coal sector. It aims to broaden the nascent historiography of energy in India beyond coal and hydroelectricity. Unlike other countries, India derived most of its energy during this period from firewood, cow-dung, and vegetable waste. This project will offer an Asian late industrializer’s perspective on the connection between the history of energy and economic development. The economic imperatives of direct British rule (post-1857) first led to increased deforestation and organic energy consumption but gave way to fossil fuels and hydroelectricity harvesting. After independence (1947-), this process accelerated as India pursued industrial self-sufficiency and energy delivery to rights-bearing citizens. To do so, the country evolved complex laws for extraction and a distinct pattern of subsidies. It imported machinery and oil from abroad, becoming increasingly vulnerable to global markets, and fashioned a power distribution system prone to outages and grid failures. This project will explore how the relationship between government, labor, and industry has been redrawn in various regional and local contexts over time and led to heterogeneous energy consumption regimes across states and the urban-rural divide. It will show how the energy consumption illuminated areas of darkness with electricity and facilitated rapid movement while exacerbating old inequities, destroying the environment, and creating new ways of subjugating subaltern communities.


Commerce between Modern South and Southeast Asia: A Micro-Macro History

details forthcoming.

Available student projects

Aditya is available to supervise undergraduate and graduate projects on the history of Modern South Asia and the economic history of the 20th century. He welcomes inquiries from students. 

Current student projects

Fleur Goldthorpe (ANU), "British Women of the 'Portocracy': Port Wine Dinastias, Family and Transcultural Lives, 1678-1855" (Advisory Panel)

Mark Clayton (CQU): "Problems of Plenty: Airforce Reconversion in the United States and Australia, 1944-49" (Advisory Panel)

Return to top

Updated:  20 October 2020 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers