Dr Aditya Balasubramanian

AB (Harvard College), MPhil, PhD (Trinity College, Cambridge)
Senior Lecturer in History
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences
T: 6125 5114

Research interests

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


Aditya Balasubramanian is a Senior Lecturer in History. His research focuses on various aspects of the history of modern South Asia. His first book, Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023), is a history of economic ideas and politics (UK/US link; South Asia link). It was shortlisted for the 2023 Elder Prize in the Social Sciences of the American Institute of Indian Studies. 

Aditya completed his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge as a British Marshall Scholar and a Cambridge Trust Scholar. His dissertation won the Ellen McArthur Prize in Economic History and was shortlisted for the Prince Consort and Thirlwall Prize for best dissertation in the Faculty of History.

At ANU, Aditya teaches "From Moral Philosophy to (Political Economy) to Economics: A History," and "Approaches to History." He has been a Board Member of the South Asia Research Institute, an affiliate of the Center for Economic History, and a member of the Geoeconomics Working Group.He has received grants and fellowships from the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard and Paris (2022), the Australian Studies Institute at ANU (2023), and the College of Arts and Social Sciences at ANU (2023).

 His contributions to the print media have appeared in Hindustan TimesIndia ForumThe Tribune, and Scroll.in.

Recent Publication:

"Anticorruption, Development, and the Indian State: A History of Decolonization," Journal of Asian Studies 83:1 (2024), 88-115. 

Researcher's projects

1. Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India

Neoliberalism is routinely explained as an anti-democratic, expert-driven project aimed at insulating markets from politics—devised in the North Atlantic and projected on the rest of the world. Turning this dominant understanding on its head, Toward a Free Economy shows how economic conservatism became the platform of a political party in the world’s largest democracy that sought to provide an alternative to the dominant Indian National Congress. This Swatantra (“Freedom”) Party opposed the Congress’ heavy-industrial developmental state and the accompanying rhetoric of socialism. It promised “free economy” through a project of opposition politics.

The keyword “free economy” drew a range of advocates and took on meanings that varied by region and language, caste and class, as it circulated in various genres. Its constituent visions emanated chiefly from caste communities in Southern and Western India embracing new forms of enterpreneurial activity. More often than not, "free economy" connoted anticommunism, unfettered private economic activity, decentralized development, and defense of private property. And although in certain cases its development involved conversation and engagement with self-identifying neoliberals in the Atlantic world, "free economy's" history is distinctive. 

Swatantra's leadership pursued the project of opposition politics in three ways. First, they imagined a conservative alternative to a progressive dominant party in a two-party system. Next, they communicated ideas of and mobilized people around issues like inflation, excess taxation, and the right to property. Finally, they used the institutions and procedures of India’s political institutions to bring checks and balances to the political system.

Democracy’s persistence in India since the end of colonial rule is uncommon among postcolonial societies. Toward a Free Economy contributes a perspective on how Indians made and understood their own democracy and economy, and in the process casts light more broadly on neoliberalism, democracy, and the postcolonial world.

More on the Book:

2. Roads to Progress?  Infrastructure and Transport in Modern India

India has the world's second largest road network, measuring over 6 million km. Most of these roads are village or district roads. Over 90% have been constructed in the postcolonial period (1947-). Today, the Government of India is pursuing $110bn program of highway construction (Bharatmala) and scheme to provide all villages with roads by 2027 (Gram Sadak Yojana).

Combining mutli-sited archival research, elementary statistical analysis, and fieldwork along India's roads, this project considers the environmental and economic history of roadbuilding and transport in modern India, focused on the 1940s-1970s. It interrogates how the political economy of interest groups, federalism, and resource usage have evolved over time. The study focuses on four sites: The Grand Trunk Road, the East West Road, the Mahewa Village in Etawah District, and the Anna Flyover in Chennai. 

The key issues considered are around the theme of mobility in three ways: 

  • The Failure of Social Mobility: The project explores the nexuses formed between interest groups like bureaucrats, politicians, and rich farmers, as well as the changing role of the public and private sectors in roadbuilding. As recent research has shown, rural roadbuilding has moved workers out of agriculture but done little to improve incomes or widen economic opportunities.
  • The Management of Mobility: Roads can fall within local, district, state, or national government responsibility, and sometimes within multiple jurisdictions. The project explores how federalism shape the scale of roadbuilding, and how the decentralization of resource flows over time has impacted this process.
  • Mobility as Degradation: Roadbuilding and motor vehicle transport have led to the intensification of energy consumption and permanently transformed local ecologies. This involves everything from changing animal migratory patterns, to clearing forests creating landslides in the Himalayas, to degrading air quality in what have become some of the world’s most polluted cities.

For an initial glimpse, see this blog post.

3. Family Business: Commerce between South and Southeast Asia

Labor migration and the histories of specific merchant communities in the Indian Ocean region have attracted major attention in recent times. But the economic lives of professionals and small businesses suffer from comparative neglect. And although overseas Chinese commerce in Southeast Asia has attracted major historiographical interest, their Indian counterparts of the Chettiar, Parsi, Marakkayar, and Sindhi communities remain mainly unexplored.

This project is an inter-racial, inter-imperial history of family businesses across South and Southeast Asia, from the mid-19th century to the 1950s. Each chapter is about a different family. Building upon the burgeoning history of the Indian Ocean world, this project asks how minor colonial officials, company clerks, and small businesspeople, experienced and navigated economic change during this period. It tries to understand the experience of globalization and capitalism from a connected but comparative viewpoint in the Southern Hemisphere. Apart from conventional archives of the colonial state, this project will also make use of bank records, court cases, permit applications, and family collections.

The first output from this project is the paper "A Microhistory of the Great Depression Across South and Southeast Asia" presented at the 2022 “New Perspectives on the Great Depression” Workshop at Harvard University, which Aditya co-organized. A revised version will be presented at the 2024 AAS-in-Asia Conference in Yogyakarta.  

As part of this project, Aditya also coordinates the Harvard-Cambridge Joint Center for History and Economics' Archives of Economic Life in South and Southeast Asia website. 


Available student projects

Aditya welcomes inquiries from students. 

Current student projects

Philip Argenio (Adelaide/ANU): "The Great Corruption Debate: Bernard Mandeville, Joseph Butler and Adam Smith"

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

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

Aman Kumar (ANU): A Critical Legal International History of the Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar" (Advisory Panel)

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Updated:  05 March 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers