Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, who died on December 23 in Oakland, California, was one of the most extraordinary interpreters of politics and society in modern India. An incredible scholar with a long list of distinctions to her credit, including a Padma Bhushan in 2014, Susanne Rudolph forged a lifelong intellectual collaboration with her husband and co-author Lloyd I. Rudolph to produce a ground-breaking corpus of work on Indian politics over 60 years.

As one of their last doctoral students at the University of Chicago, I got to know the Rudolphs as outstanding scholars of the Indian political condition. While I was grappling with the ominous challenges to democracy in post-liberalisation India, exemplified by the paradox of democracy in Gujarat, it was Susanne Rudolph’s advice that helped me find my way.

Tradition and modernity

During Susanne Rudolph’s academic career at the University of Chicago, where she taught comparative politics for over three decades, she along with Lloyd Rudolph pioneered the field of Area Studies. The growth of Area Studies was partly fuelled by American foreign policy interests during the Cold War in understanding and influencing the newly independent non-western countries.

The 1960s were the heyday of “modernisation theory”, which saw the western path to modernity as the model that non-western countries would achieve or not achieve due to the presence or absence of a set of criteria. According to modernisation theorists, India, with its largely illiterate population and traditional caste-ridden society, was a doomed democracy, least likely to achieve the prize of modernity.

But Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph debunked the notion that tradition and modernity are mutually exclusive entities. In their celebrated book, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (1967), they launched an insightful critique of the assumptions of modernisation theory. They showed how Indians have reinvented the traditional system of caste as a modern political institution in response to the logics of electoral democracy, enabling (in a counter-intuitive way) marginalised groups to secure political representation.

When Area Studies fell out of vogue during the era of globalisation in the1990s, Susanne Rudolph lent her bold, if increasingly lonely, voice in support of the continued relevance and importance of what she called “situated knowledge”. In her presidential address to the American Political Science Association in 2005, she reminded her colleagues of the imperative of “recognising time, place and circumstance” in local settings for building grounded social science theory.

Preconceived theories

Susanne Rudolph was an exceptional mentor. Well after retiring from the University of Chicago, she continued to be a nurturing and crucial interlocutor, helping me with my doctoral query regarding the paradox of democracy in Gujarat: How have rapid urbanisation, an active civil society and economic growth in the state coincided with the systematic erosion of democracy on at least two counts?

First, increasing communal hostility has led to growing ghettoisation in cities such as Ahmedabad, which is justified by Hindus as necessary and part of “normal” civic life. Second, those who oppose aspects of the state’s governance and Hindutva politics are attacked as enemies of the state, narrowing the scope of public debate. Should the presence of non-democratic aspects evident on the ground in Gujarat then lead us to dismiss the presence of a civil society and democracy per se in the state?

Influenced by the great social scientist Max Weber, the Rudolphs developed an open-ended and empirically-grounded way of studying Indian democracy, without imposing preconceived theories developed in the West. In this approach, every study of a political phenomenon must begin with a flexible definition of what is being studied. After evidence is gathered about how things actually work on the ground, it is used to refine the original theory.

As per this Weberian approach, it was clear that the procedures of democracy such as routine elections appeared to be in place in Gujarat. Yet there was a palpable absence of the substance of democracy, such as meaningful opposition and dissenting views in public debates within Gujarati civil society. Given these facts, one would have to consider whether the procedures of liberal democracy and civil society were themselves complicit in the erosion of substantive democracy in the state.

Faith in pluralism

Some of the puzzling features of democracy in Gujarat resonated with the Rudolphs’ larger insight that there is no singular, linear path of modernisation. Contrary to the popular belief that the middle classes ensure a stable democracy, this class in Gujarat has vocally hailed unilateral and authoritarian decision-making as a model of “good governance”. The case of Gujarat appeared to undermine our faith in liberal democracy and pluralism in India, values deeply cherished by the Rudolphs.

I will always remember how Susanne remained doggedly committed to a profound sense of intellectual honesty and openness. Not one to fit all new political realities within older pet intellectual frameworks or ideological dogmas, she suggested that the ground realities in Gujarat resemble the contours of a “Potemkin Democracy”, where the procedural façade remains in place with nothing of substance to back it. Her mentorship helped me understand the Gujarat paradox not as a case study of the absence of democracy, but as an example of the profound vulnerability of democracy. The conditions under which the soul of democracy can be sabotaged through formal democratic procedures had to be studied.

The profound scholarly insights of Susanne Rudolph enabled her to interpret complex emergent political realities, some of which seemed to threaten the very foundations of Indian democracy. Even during our last meeting in March 2014 in Delhi, she remained optimistic, not losing faith in the enduring pluralism and sagacity of the “tradition-loving” Indian masses, especially their clever ability to chart unique democratic modernities on their own terms.

Mona G Mehta received her PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and is assistant professor of politics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.