Dr Aditya Balasubramanian

AB (Harvard College), MPhil, PhD (Trinity College, Cambridge)
Lecturer in Economic History
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 Lecturer in Economic History whose research focuses on various aspects of the history of modern South Asia. Aditya's first book, Free Economy and Opposition Politics in India: A History (working title), is under advanced contract with Princeton University Press, is a social and political history of economic ideas and opposition-making in democratic India. He is commencing an environmental history of roads and road transportation in modern India and longer term project on the inter-imperial history of commerce between South and Southeast Asia from the mid-19th century to the era of decolonization, for which he was awarded a Humanities Research Center (HRC) Research Development Fellowship. 

Aditya completed his PhD 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. At Cambridge, 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.

At ANU, Aditya is 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 will be in residence at  the Harvard Center for History and Economics (CHE) in 2022 as an inaugural CHE/CHE-Paris Fellow. He also coordinates the CHE's "Archives of Economic Life in South and Southeast Asia" website.

Forthcoming Publications:

-"(Is) India in the History of Neoliberalism?" in Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe eds. Market Civilizations: Neoliberalisms East and South (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2022)

Under Review:

-"Of Decolonization and Development: Anticorruption in the Indian Central Government Services, c. 1940-60s"

-"A Forgotten Famine of '43? Travancore's Muffled ‘Cry of Distress’" 

-"A More Indian Path to Prosperity? Hindu Nationalism and Development in the mid-20th century, and beyond"

Researcher's projects

Free Economy and Opposition Politics in India: A History

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, Gujarati, Hindi, and Tamil, Free Economy and Opposition Politics recovers this important but largely unacknowledged phenomenon in Indian history.

This 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, it 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.


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

This project is an inter-Asian, inter-imperial history of commerce and the law in South and Southeast Asia, from the mid-19th century to the 1950s. Building upon the burgeoning history of the Indian Ocean world, it 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. 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?

Labour 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 have 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 globalisation 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.

This project will use a range of sources in multiple languages. Collections across India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Sri Lanka have been identified for consultation. Apart from conventional archives of the colonial state, these also include bank records, court cases, permit applications, and family collections. One such collection located is over 500 pages of letters between a South Indian typist working at an English shipping firm in Batavia (today’s Jakarta) and remitting money home to pay off the family’s debts during the Great Depression and his family members.




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:  01 August 2021 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers