Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

State Politics in India

Mahendra Prasad Singh

I. Introduction

The study of provincial politics and of native states in British India was an underdeveloped area. Native states in any case formed a backyard of the British Raj, but politics, especially constitutional and institutional politics in British Indian provinces were also largely eclipsed by the nationalist movement politics. But in retrospect, constitutional reforms introduced in the first half of the 20th century in the British Indian provinces by the imperial government in London were significant early experiments in representative, responsible, and federal governance. Bolder moves in all these respects under the 1950 constitution after India’s independence must be studied in this historical backdrop. Yet there are serious gaps in studies of devolution of powers to the provincial governments under the government of India Act, 1909; this is also true of the studies of diarchy at the provincial level under the Government of India Act, 1919, and of provincial autonomy under the first federal constitution in British India, the Government of India Act, 1935.

Study of State politics in independent India also continues to be a rather under-cultivated field of inquiry. This state of affairs may be explained in terms of a number of reasons. First, in the Nehru era there was a carryover of the nationalist ambience and fervour of the freedom struggle, and for this reasons all that really mattered was the politics at the national level. Congress dominance at the union as well as state levels submerged politics in the states under the overarching national patterns. Popular mass movements for the creation of unilingual states in various parts of the country during the 1950s and 1960s briefly brought state politics to forefront, but once such demands were conceded, the leaders of these movements in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat tended to join or rejoin the Congress Party. And, the overarching one-party dominance was easily restored.

Secondly, the breaches in Congress dominance in the late 1960s and the late 1970s were rather of relatively short spans of time after which Congress dominance was restored. The emergence of states as important arenas of politics turned out to be rather brief episodes. Thus, the Nehru and Indira Gandhi eras and Rajiv Gandhi years, especially the reigns of the first and the third prime ministers (Rajiv Gandhi was the sixth PM), were characterized by a great deal of centralization or "nationalization" of the Indian political system. State politics were then either a subsidiary arena or were appendage to national politics.

Thirdly, the distribution of powers and revenue resources in the Indian constitution is heavily skewed in favour of the centre. This feature greatly reduces the importance and effectiveness of the state governments, and makes them heavily dependent on federal mandatory and discretionary fiscal transfers under the constitution and shared-cost-centrally-sponsored schemes of development under the federal spending power. Notably the union and state jurisdictions are demarcated with at least some exclusive areas reserved for each order of governments, but the constitution does not expressly prohibit the union government to spend its money even in exclusive state concerns.

Fourthly, even though law and order is supposed to be an exclusive state concern, there has been an enormous expansion of the central paramilitary police forces. The 42nd constitutional amendment (1976) has made the deployment of armed forces and central paramilitary forces in aid of civil power in a state an exclusive union competence. Incidence of internal disturbances and terrorist activities by external and indigenous groups has resulted in a great deal of increase in the coercive power of governments and centralization in the political system. These developments tend to overshadow the state governments and subordinate state politics to the imperatives of national politics.

Nevertheless, there has been paradigm shifts in the politics and political economy of India since the 1990s which have enhanced the role and autonomy of state governments, civil society, and the market forces. The arena of state politics has in this process acquired an unprecedented importance. It might very well be said that state politics have really come into their own for the first time in the contemporary history and politics of India. Our study of state politics at this moment is very timely and topical.

II. Analytical Framework

The analytical framework that we propose is developed in four components: (1) four overall processes of democratization, multicultural secularization, federalization, and economic liberalization/privatization/globalization characterizing politics in India in general; (2) the variations in the ways these processes manifest themselves in different states of India; (3) variables or factors at the state level that may be accountable for the differential ways in which the three crucial processes identified above unfold in different states; and (4) the varying state capabilities to ensure democracy, good governance and economic development. The four crucial dimensions of the political processes delineated here and the factors that affect their variability from state to state are mutually interdependent and partly reinforcing or in some cases contradictory. The state-level variations highlighted in parts 2 and 4 of this analytical framework are the dependent variables or features that are in search of explanation. Factors identified in parts 1 and 3 are causal or independent variables that help us explain state-level differentials in political and economic performance.

1. The Four Overall Processes of Democratization, Multicultural Secularization, Federalization, and Globalization

Democratization refers to the process of increasing politicization of the masses in general and of subaltern classes or groups in particular through electoral mobilization and political participation. This process of democratization began to greatly affect the lower social orders by the late 1960s and has continued unabated since. Under the impact of this process, India’s traditional and semi-feudal society is moving towards greater liberty and equity. Democratic politics tends to undermine caste and class differences and furthers the cause of political participation in elections based on universal adult franchise. Democracy is also imbued with the ideal of popular participation in the process of governance to the extent it is practicable in a representative and republican democracy. Fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy provided in the Indian constitution contain the ideals of a free and egalitarian civil society and state in India. The structures of governments outlined in the constitution at national, state, and local levels are parliamentary federal. The 6th schedule of the constitution also makes special arrangements for autonomous district and regional councils in tribal areas of states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. The 5th Schedule makes provisions for tribes advisory councils for administration and control of scheduled areas and scheduled tribes in other states of India. These advisory councils consist of members of whom nearly 3/4th (but not more than 20) must be the representatives of the scheduled tribes in the Legislative Assembly of the state. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments (1992-93), in pursuit of gender justice, ensure 33 percent reservation for women in executive positions in panchayats and municipal councils.

The chapter on fundamental rights is one of the strongest in the universe of liberal democratic states in the world. The constitutional, legislative, and judicial discourses on fundamental rights in India are very extensive and intensively elaborated. In the case of law on these two and other rights, new dimensions have been created and added on to them. The examples include extension of the right to life to the right to live in human and healthy environment, the creation of the right to primary education to the children, etc. The right to primary education was first created under case law and subsequently added on to part III of the constitution on fundamental rights by an amendment. An implementing parliamentary enactment also subsequently followed in 2010. Moreover, several new legal rights have been created under legislation, e.g. the right to information (2005), right to manual work in the rural employment sector in public works (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005). A legislation guaranteeing the right to food is also presently (August 2010) proposed in the Parliament. Since 1993, we also have an activist National Human Rights Commission under a parliamentary statute. The mass media in India offers one of the most developed and independent democratic public spheres in the Third World. Civil society vigour in India is more often seen in political and social movements than in the institutional domains. Yet there are some indications of the revival or organizations of voluntary associations and nongovernmental organizations as well in the more recent times.

Scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes (OBCs) have been granted reservations in education and employment or legislative representation for specified time frames under the constitution and/or law. There are also schemes for their economic and financial empowerment by the governments at union and state levels. India’s tryst with democratic destiny would not be complete unless political democracy is supplemented by social and economic democracy. This point was fervently underlined by Dr. B.R. Ambadkar, the chairman of the drafting committee in his last address to the Constituent Assembly when he chose to reply to the marathon debate on the draft constitution.

Even political democracy is not yet fully attained. For example, take a look at the party system and social and political movements in the country. Most political parties lack internal organizational elections. Personalism and amoral familism are the order of the day. Corruption and criminalization afflict practically all political formations. The legitimacy of popular movements in the face of governments and administration lacking in integrity, transparency, and accountability is unquestionable. However, not a few social and political movements are mounted in pursuit of sectarian and selfish interests in disregard of public interest.

To take the tack of multicultural secularization, we mean by this term the process through which ethnic pluralities of a society are brought into the public sphere for interaction and civic action in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect. Multiculturalism goes beyond the abstracted liberal individualism and assumes that "human beings are culturally embedded in the sense that they grow up and live within a culturally structured world and organize their lives and social relations in terms of a culturally derived system of meaning and significance ." Secondly, multiculturalism believes "that no culture is perfect and has a right to impose itself on others, and that cultures are best changed from within." Thirdly, in a multicultural perspective "every culture is internally plural and reflects a continuing conversation between its different traditions and strands of thought" (Bhikhu Parekh, "What is Multiculturalism?www.india-seminar.com/1999/484/484%20parekh.htm, accessed on 1 March2011). It is important to clarify the relationship between secularism and multiculturalism in the Indian context. In Indian political thought, to take only two leading representative thinkers of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi espoused approaches to the relationship between religion and politics that may be dubbed (a) secularist premised on the complete separation between state and religion in the Western revolutionary sense as in France and the USA (Nehru), and (b) multiculturalist in the traditional Indian sense of equal respect for all religions (sarvadharmasamabhava; Gandhi). The Indian constitutional theory of multicultural secularism is built on a judicious combination of both these perspectives. The major premise of the constitutional theory in this regard is liberal secularism in the sense that most of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution make individuals as the bearers of universal rights enjoyed by all irrespective of ethnicity, gender, place of birth, etc. Yet some cultural rights of religious and linguistic minority communities are also guarnteed to enable them to preserve their culture, language, and script and to establish educational institutions with certain legal autonomies. Moreover, the state is prohibited to collect any taxes for the promotion of any particular religion. However, there is no will of separation between the state and religion as legislation for religious and social reforms is not proscribed, although after the initial spurt of religious reforms such as the Hindu reformist code, the state has for all practical purposes left the constitutional ideal of a common civil code in splendid isolation.

It is for the foregoing features of the Indian constitutional approach to religion and politics that I think that it can best be characterized as multicultural secularism. It draws attention to the question how democracy deals with the phenomenon of cultural diversity. Whereas in political theory it was earlier thought that the universalist conception of citizenship was sufficient to deal with diverse categories of citizens in a society (T. H. Marshall 1950), it came to be later realized that difference-blind laws with universal scope were incapable of erasing deeply engrained socio-economic disparities and discriminations. For these conditions differentialist conceptions of citizenship came to be argued for recognition of difference and differential affirmative action for creating a level playing field (Young 1989; Williams 1998). Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman (1994) have talked about three kinds of provisions and policies to deal with multiple diversities and cumulative inequalities.

Now, we come to the process of federalization that has gathered momentum since the 1980s, especially since the 1990s. The constitution of India combines parliamentary as well as federal features of government. However, for about four decades after the commencement of the constitution the parliamentary features practically overshadowed the federal features due to one-party Congress dominance and charismatic and imposing leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the first and the third prime ministers. Federal features gradually gained ground over the 1980s, when non-Congress state governments were elected to power in one state after another, and when prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed regional and ethnic peace accords with Akali Dal in Punjab, Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, Mizo National Front in Mizoram, and Tripura National Volunteers in Tripura. The 1989 Lok Sabha election, in particular, greatly accelerated the federalization process throughout the country, when a multiparty system with federal coalition / minority governments was ushered in at the national level. In the new party system regional parties have gained considerable power at the cost of national parties that have been diminished, fragmented, or have been unable to grow beyond a certain threshold of power. Led by one of the national parties like the Janata Dal, Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian National Congress, federal coalition governments have been particularly vulnerable to the making and breaking power of the regional parties. Whereas regional parties accounted for 8.10 percent of votes and 6.95 percent of parliamentary seats in the popularly elected house before the 1952 general election, their corresponding shares have gone up respectively to 14.39 percent and 27.97 percent in 2009 general election.

The federal phase has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the autonomy and role of state governments. Toppling of state governments by the wielders of central power for partisan political considerations has been considerably contained. A new grammar of presidential, prime ministerial, and cabinet working has developed in the era of coalition and majority governments. The president has acquired greater maneuverability in the exercise of discretionary powers, the prime minister must contend with powerful ministerial colleagues representing various constituent parties in the coalition, and the cohesion and collective responsibility of the cabinet to the Lok Sabha have become fragmented and stretched to extra-parliamentary centres of regional power. However, there has been an enormous expansion of the power and activism of the judiciary.

To take the tack of economic liberalization and globalization, the chipping at the Nehruvian mode of "Indian socialism" began in the 1980s. But a comprehensive package of reforms in this model of state-directed economic development was introduced in 1991 to deal with a severe balance of payment crisis and recurrent losses in most public sector undertakings. By the end of the decade state economies also faced a serious fiscal deficit that also necessitated neo-liberal capitalist reforms. Both Union and state governments gradually embraced policies of bureaucratic deregulation of the economy, disinvestment or privatization of public sector undertakings, and globalization.

These economic reforms have augmented the scope of the private sector and autonomy of state governments. Like the Union government, state governments are now also vying with each other to attract private capital — national, multinational, and global-multilateral — by offering better infrastructural facilities ("race to the top") or tax concessions and holidays ("race to the bottom"). India’s annual rate of growth has considerably improved. The growth rate during the British colonial rule was a paltry 1.5 percent. It was around 3 percent in independent India before the 1980s. It moved up during the 1980s and jumped to above 5 or 8 percent since the neoliberal capitalist reforms of 1991. However, the problem with this development has been that it has been a jobless growth with negligible employment opportunities. It also lacks in distributive justice and inclusiveness. It has engendered a dual economy comprising relatively small enclaves of affluence, on the one hand, and vast areas of abject poverty and destitution, on the other.

2. Variations in these Processes at State Level

The three political processes outlined above have unfolded in an uneven way and their effects have not been uniform across the states of India. Democratic transformation in some states has gone ahead in comparison to others. Some states still continue to be largely steeped in tradition propped up by hangovers of caste and tribal structures and semi-feudal economy. Some states are much more mired in social and electoral violence and recurrent conflicts than others. Citizens of some states enjoy better democratic rights and economic empowerment than those in others.

The same can be said about the process of federalization. Quantum of federal autonomy existent in various states are markedly different. This not only because of asymmetrical federal autonomy granted to the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, and Mizoram granted by the constitution itself under articles 370, 371A, and 371G. The rest of the states of the Indian union are federated in a symmetrical way with uniform constitutional status. Yet federalization process is marked by considerable variations across the states.

Very few systematic and substantive scholarly studies of macro scope of democratization and federalization are available in the existing literature on state politics. The situation is a bit better with regard to economic liberalization and globalization. Since the early 1990s, when these processes were accelerated, there has been a tremendous increase in regional economic disparities among states. Even newspaper reports project a parallel development of two contrasting corridors of economic growth and radical class violence. The Blue Corridor spanning Delhi Gurgaon/Mumbai-Pune/Bangalore-Chennai, on the one hand and the Red Corridor stretching across the hinterland tribal belt from the Indo-Nepalese border to Andhra Pradesh, on the other.

Social science studies also reveal that during August 1991-March 2000 the states, of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu got proposals of private capital investment to the tune of 66.7 percent as compared to only 27.4 percent received by the states of Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. Differences in regard to foreign direct investment (FDI) are even more glaring. In the phase of globalization, only five states - Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu - got a disproportionately large 75 percent of the FDI invested in India.

3. Explanatory Factors for Variations Across States

How do we explain the differentials among the states of India on the dimensions of democratization, federalization, and globalization? For this purpose, we may employ an explanatory framework comprising the following five factors: (1) geography and history; (ii) demography, culture, and social capital; (iii) political economy with foci on macro economic sectors and class structure; (iv) patterns of state party systems and social and political movements; and (v) the quality of political leadership with appropriate motivation and skill.

Do history and geography matter? Are there any perceptible or measurable differences between the formerly British Indian provinces and native Indian states? Between the border states and inland states? Between the coastal rimlands and the Hindi heartland?

Similarly, some states have dominant castes and communities whereas others have more pluralist and fragmented social structures. Some states are parts of the cultural mainstream of classical Hindu civilization whereas others are more composite in terms of multicultural fabric. Some states are multicultural whereas others are marked by ethno-nationalist movements and even separatism. Some states are endowed with greater degree of social capital measurable in terms of the vigour of associational, cooperative, and corporate organizations than others. How far these differences, if any, are consequential for patterns and trends in state politics across the country?

Likewise, how significant are the differences in historical patterns of the British land tenure system divided in terms of the zamindari, the ryotwari, and mahalwari subsystems? Same with tribal and non-tribal land holding systems. Similar questions arise with regard to differences among the states in terms of their class systems and sectoral composition of the state economy. The same with differences in material and human development indicators.

Moreover, there are marked differences among the states as to the patterns of their party systems and social movements. Some have developed one-party dominant systems (continued re-election of the same partly consecutively for at least three terms (Delhi, Gujarat). Others have two-party systems (e.g. Andhra Pradesh) or a multi-party bi-coalitional system (e.g. West Bengal, Kerala). Some states are more prone to the incidence of mass movements or sectarian movements than others. How consequential are these differences, correlated with other dimensions of state politics?

Quality of political leadership at the state level is more difficult to conceptualize and operationalize in terms of measurable empirical referents or indicators. Yet there are some palpable differences, including some studies by scholars, of leadership styles of Digvijay Singh, Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu, J. Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Sheila Dikshit, etc.

4. The Varying State Capabilities

We have so far sought to describe and explain the patterns and trends of politics in the states of India in a general sort of way. Here we narrow our conceptual and theoretical focus to the crucial problematique of state capability. This concept is defined as the ability of the government to achieve the objectives it sets for itself. These objective may be gleaned from the purposes of the social contract that brings a civil society and state in existence in the first place, namely, security of life, liberty, and property on a universal and equitable basis. This is proposed as the first indicator of good governance. Other dimensions of goals of governments may be identified by scanning the constitution and laws, five-year plans, national policy statements, public policies, election manifestos, Governor’s addresses to the state legislatures, budgets, legislative debates, chief ministers’ and other intergovernmental conferences, etc. Since the paradigm shift to neoliberal economic reforms in 1991, the state chief ministers and their governments have acquired an enhanced role in state-level reforms with the diminished role of the state and public investment in the era of privatization and globalization, the state governments must attract private capital - domestic and external - to ensure economic development. A bureaucratic state must yield space to a regulatory state. The interventionist state must transform itself into a regulatory facilitator of development. Yet we must remember that even in this changed scenario in political economy of India, the constitutional mandate is for a democratic developmental state rather than just a developmental state in the mould of east Asian economies.

We propose to elaborate our concept of state capability in terms of good governance. Our index of good governance is operationalized by including the following indicators: accountability of government to legislature and of administration to the people, human development, poverty alleviation, quality of regulatory regime for economy, rule of law, and governmental stability. Performance of a state on these indicators may be measured by objective quantitative data wherever available. Or, else, they may be assessed in terms of subjective intuitive judgment with some supportive qualitative evidence or argument. We must endeavour to go beyond mere description of the state of affairs and offer explanations that carry persuasiveness. As things are, some states have made great strides of late (e. g. Bihar, Gujarat, Rajastan, Madhya Pradesh, and the states of western and southern India generally, some have slided from higher water marks earlier (e. g. Punjab and Haryana), while others have lagged behind. We have yet a long way to go.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati