Dr Aditya Balasubramanian

AB (Harvard College), MPhil, PhD (Trinity College, Cambridge)
Lecturer in Economic 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 Lecturer in Economic History whose 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.

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 ECON3056. This is a third-year interdisciplinary history of economic thought from the ancients to the mid-20th century. 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. Aditya also coordinates the Harvard-Cambridge Joint Center for History and Economics' "Archives of Economic Life in South and Southeast Asia" website. 

He has received grants and fellowships from the Joint Center for History andal Economics at Harvard and Paris (2022),the Australian Studies Institute at ANU (2023), and the College of Arts and Social Sciences at ANU (2023).

Recent Publication:

-"A More Indian Path to Prosperity? Hindu Nationalism and Development in the mid-20th century, and beyond," Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics, vol. 3, no. 2 (Summer 2022): 333-78.


Forthcoming Publications:

-Toward A Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023) 

https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691 205243/toward-a-free-economy

-"A Forgotten Famine of '43? Travancore's Muffled ‘Cry of Distress’" in Isabel Huacuja Alonso and Andrew Amstutz eds. "Rethinking WWII in South Asia," Modern Asian Studies (special issue, 2023).

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

Researcher's projects

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.

Forks in the Road: 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-).  

This project is concerned with the following major questions:

-How have roads been a physical manifestation of political sovereignty and a demand of village and district-level democracy?

-How have business contractors organized with state bureaucracies and local politicians to emerge as powerful economic interests in this process?

-How have fuel companies and transport companies used road construction to expand their markets and facilitated increased energy and resource consumption over time?

This project combines mutli-sited archival research, elementary statistical analysis, and fieldwork along India's roads. It puts the Government of India's signature $110bn program of highway construction (Bharatmala) and scheme to provide all villages with roads by 2027 (Gram Sadak Yojana) in historical context 

Family Business: Commerce between South and Southeast Asia

This is an inter-racial, inter-imperial history of commerce and the law in South and Southeast Asia, from the mid-19th century to the 1950s. Ideally, this book will be composed of chapters of microhistories of individual family businesses. Building upon the burgeoning history of the Indian Ocean world, this project has two key objectives. First, it will examine how the British, Dutch, and French Empires structured legal regimes to govern and tax small indigenous family businesses as well as facilitate capital accumulation for European-owned joint stock firms and outposts of metropolitan companies. In that sense, this is a history of how everyday bureaucratic procedure regulates the movement of people and commodities, and how this is navigated, subverted, and reformed in response. Second, it will consider how minor colonial officials, company clerks, and small businesspeople, experienced and navigated economic change during this period. Apart from conventional archives of the colonial state, this project will also make use of bank records, court cases, permit applications, and family collections.

Among the major questions this project seeks to ask are:

-How did people experience the volatility of global market integration?

-What financial products were developed for new forms of exchange over longer time horizons and to mitigate risk?

-How did races mix and resist each other?

-What were the effects of prosperity in the port cities of Southeast Asia on rural hinterlands of origin via remittances of money and expanded flows of commodities?

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 tries to understand the experience of globalization and capitalism from a connected but comparative viewpoint in the Southern Hemisphere. It is a macro-micro history, alternating between the scales of individuals, families, communities, and regions.

Available student projects

Aditya welcomes inquiries from students. 

Current student projects

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

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

Jacob Wray (ANU): "From the Colony to the Republic: Controlling Population Movement in Revolutionary Indonesia, 1945-1949" (Advisory Panel)

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Updated:  29 March 2023 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers