Dadabhai Naoroji's ‘drain theory’ of British imperialism described the way in which a colonial government could abscond with the wealth of a dependent country, leaving it impoverished. This theory conceptualized ‘poverty’ as the negation of liberal ‘citizenship’. As such, through an exposition of Naoroji's thought, this article offers an insight into both the origins of the Indian political subject and Indian anti-colonialism. In doing so, it opens up an avenue for investigating how Indian thinkers locally adapted modular concepts of a Western provenance and then reintroduced them into the metropole, contributing to the heterogeneity of the Victorian liberal canon. Finally, Naoroji's imperial critique is compared to that of prominent British anti-imperialists, especially John Hobson, in order to demonstrate that Dadabhai's economic account of empire not only pre-dates Hobson's thesis but that it was more expansive in its criticism and more hopeful about the ‘progress’ of indigenous peoples.