Has India’s ‘flailing state’ been turned upside down?

MILAN VAISHNAV

OVER the decades, there has been no paucity of pithy characterizations of the Indian state. In the late 1960s, economist Gunnar Myrdal famously referred to India as possessing a ‘soft state’, characterized by deficiencies in the observance and enforcement of rules and regulations, widespread corruption, and a general unwillingness to adhere to the rule of law.1 Two decades later, political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph referred to the paradox of India’s ‘weak-strong state’, in which the state careened between autonomous and reflexive relations with an assertive society.2 The state was, at once, dominant and highly vulnerable to centrifugal forces.

However, the appellation that has been most widely embraced in the post-liberalization era is the ‘flailing state’, coined by the economist Lant Pritchett in 2009.3 In Pritchett’s words, India was a country in which its apex institutions (the ‘head’) appeared robust but local governance (the ‘limbs’) was mired in crisis. Pritchett’s shorthand soon became ubiquitous because it encapsulated an obvious paradox.

India is a country that routinely organizes free and fair elections for the largest electorate in the world. Every ten years, it conducts a nationwide Census despite the challenges of widespread illiteracy and a sprawling geography. It even possesses the technical expertise to successfully send a probe to orbit Mars. At the same time, the Indian state has proven embarrassingly inept at the basics. It struggles to ensure its citizens have access to essential amenities such as safe drinking water, rudimentary healthcare, and educational services. A large share of school going children is unable to perform basic cognitive, language, numeracy, and social-emotional learning tasks.4 The latest government health data suggests that the proportion of stunted, wasted, and underweight children in India has grown between 2015 and 2020.5 

In the Covid era, however, commentators have begun to raise doubts about Pritchett’s ‘flailing state’ formulation – albeit from wildly different perspectives. Swaminathan Aiyar has suggested that Pritchett’s thesis is obsolete because the lower echelons of the Indian bureaucracy successfully delivered more than one billion doses of the Coronavirus vaccine – a sign they can in fact deliver for the aam aadmi (common man).6 

Yamini Aiyar, in contrast, has argued precisely the opposite: the failure of India’s public health system to prevent an unspeakable number of Covid-linked fatalities is proof that both India’s institutional head (the central government) and its gangly extremities (lower-level health departments) have conclusively failed.7 

 

 

This lively debate begs the question: how accurately does Pritchett’s thesis capture the contours of the Indian state circa 2022? Arguably, recent evidence has neither affirmed nor negated Pritchett’s ‘flailing state’ construct; rather India may be experiencing the inversion of the concept. On the one hand, India’s elite institutions are suffering multiple crises of credibility. It is hard to think of one apex institution – from the Indian Administrative Service to the Election Commission of India (ECI) – that has seen its reputation improve since Pritchett published his essay more than a decade ago.

On the other hand, India’s local development machinery is showing new signs of life. The welfare push of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, designed in Delhi but implemented by state and local authorities, has produced results that have pleasantly surprised even cynical observers. From toilets to gas connections, electricity hook-ups to bank accounts, the frontlines of the Indian state have managed to significantly expand the extent of India’s welfare net.

In sum, it is an apt time to revisit Pritchett’s assessment, not only because India’s head has demonstrated new found weakness, but also because its limbs have shown surprising signs of effectiveness.

 

 

In Pritchett’s original formulation, the under-performance of subordinate tiers of government exists in stark contrast to widely reputed excellence at the apex level. However, recent developments raise doubts about the health of the country’s elite institutions.8 

Consider the ECI. India’s federal elections agency has long been one of the most revered institutions in the country and, indeed, one of the most powerful elections bodies on the planet. Under India’s Constitution, the ECI is given wide berth to prepare, supervise, and conduct all aspects of union and state elections. Since the early 1990s, there have been numerous cases of strong-willed election commissioners making decisions that upset incumbents and challengers in equal measure by cracking down on electoral malpractice, impropriety, or undue government influence.9 

 

 

However, some of the ECI’s shine has worn off in recent years, calling into question its judgment and basic impartiality. On several occasions, the agency adjusted the timing of election dates in ways that clearly advantaged the incumbent.10 The ECI’s conduct during elections has also been suspect. During the 2019 general election, several complaints of electoral violations were filed against the Prime Minister and then-BJP President Amit Shah. The ECI exonerated Modi and Shah of any wrongdoing. However, it soon emerged that one of the election commissioners, former bureaucrat Ashok Lavasa, had dissented in all five cases. After the Modi government returned to power, retribution against Lavasa began almost immediately. The government launched investigations into both his prior performance and his family members’ private dealings, eventually resulting in his reassignment.11 

 

 

An examination of the Supreme Court provides a similar picture. The progressive weakening of executive authority in India and the fractious nature of legislative deliberations paved the way for the apex court to occupy a more assertive role starting in the late 1980s. The court  positioned itself as the rare institution that was able to effectively respond to important matters of the day without succumbing to internecine political battles.12

However, the court’s recent behaviour has been marked not by its decisiveness, but by its unwillingness to intervene in the nation’s most consequential constitutional debates. For instance, the court refused to entertain a stay on the government’s questionable move to unilaterally nullify Article 370 of the Constitution, bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and demote its constituent pieces to union territories. When the government made the dramatic decision to detain hundreds of political leaders across Kashmir, neither the Jammu and Kashmir High Court nor the Supreme Court demonstrated urgency in taking up hundreds of habeas corpus petitions filed by the detainees.13

Similar accounts could be written about India’s once-vaunted statistical agencies, enfeebled by the politicization of data and inattention to nurturing and retaining talent.14 Even relatively new federal institutions, such as the Central Information Commission or the corruption-fighting Lokpal, have been deliberately neutered in order to limit their capacity to check government power.15

 

 

India’s foremost ‘referee’ institutions appear to have been tamed by a powerful, expansive executive backed by a hegemonic party with no obvious peer.16 What is curious is that executive interference is only a partial explanation for institutional decay. It is true that the government can influence the ECI by appointing pliant commissioners and alter the court’s composition by rejecting or delaying recommendations made by the court’s collegium. More striking, however, is the fact that leaders of apex institutions have abdicated their independent prerogatives of their own accord.17

In contrast to the din at the top, there are surprising signs of renewal from below. A central element of this claim rests on what former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian and his co-authors call the Modi government’s ‘new welfarism’. This push includes the subsidized, public provision of essential private goods and services, such as bank accounts, cooking gas, toilets, electricity, and housing.18 This drive, although directed and largely financed from the top, is principally implemented by state administrations and local bodies.

 

 

According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data analyzed by Subramanian et al., this welfare push has produced significant gains in the average Indian’s access to essential services. In 2014, 86% of households had an electricity connection; by 2019, 98% did. A mere 61% of households in 2014 possessed a toilet, but nearly 70% did so in 2019. Even more striking is the fact that 40% of households reported a cooking gas connection in 2014, while north of 60% did so five years later. Forty-two per cent of households had access to a bank account when Modi took office; today, 72% can claim this distinction. These welfare schemes are hardly novel; Modi’s genius was to rebrand them and take them to scale. The growth rate in the provision of each of these four services climbed dramatically after Modi took office.

Independent audits of these welfare initiatives do not necessarily corroborate the bold claims made by government supporters or white-washed statistics found on government dashboards. Nevertheless, they do point to signs of clear progress.

For instance, a Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) report found that rural households in India’s most energy-deprived states witnessed a dramatic improvement in electricity access between 2015 and 2018. When CEEW interviewed households in six states in 2015, 44% of them relied on grid electricity or solar power for their primary lighting needs. By 2018, that share stood at 80% – a near doubling in just three years. However, as the report makes plain, an electricity connection is not synonymous with electricity access. The quality and reliability of supply remain stubborn challenges.19

NFHS data from 2019-20 show remarkable gains in access to modern sanitation facilities but also confirm that toilets remain elusive for millions of households. In five states, more than one-third of rural dwellers still lack exclusive access to ‘improved’ sanitation – despite government claims that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) has produced universal toilet access.20

 

 

Another survey of rural households in three northern Indian states found evidence of a massive rise in liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) access between 2014 and 2018.21 Despite increased access to a cooking fuel with clear environmental and public health benefits, researchers found that a significant proportion of respondents continue to rely on solid fuels (such as coal or firewood). Many households are constrained by the costliness of gas cylinders and the easy availability of solid fuels.

Warts and all, the progress in expanding welfare delivery is striking. Furthermore, the inversion of India’s ‘flailing state’ fundamentally questions prevailing mental models of the Indian bureaucracy, suggesting important implications for India’s future developmental trajectory.

 

 

For starters, the ‘new welfare’ push has delivered handsome electoral returns for the incumbent BJP government at the Centre. Although it is state and local bureaucracies which ultimately must act as implementation agents for central schemes, the initiatives themselves are inextricably intertwined with the persona of the prime minister. It is no coincidence that the words ‘Pradhan Mantri’ (Prime Minister) have been affixed to nearly every major developmental scheme the Modi government has launched since coming to power.

In so doing, the prime minister has centralized the design and promotion of these schemes – as well as the political credit. Analyses of 2019 National Election Study data have found that voters were significantly more likely to credit the central government than state or local governments when it comes to welfare schemes – a reversal of past trends.22 This change has allowed Modi to solve one of India’s most vexing political economy dilemmas: why invest political capital in expensive, sweeping social welfare schemes if credit is not assured?23 

 

 

The flipside of the flailing state’s inversion is that those institutions most central to India’s external signaling – the guardians of the rule of law, democratic accountability, and procedural fairness – have eroded.24 This trend might explain, in part, the cognitive dissonance one feels when comparing internal and external assessments of Indian democracy. The former hail India’s impressive developmental progress and enhanced access to amenities and life-altering technologies.25 The latter, in turn, lament the decay of referee institutions, accountability and investigative bodies, and once-revered statistical agencies.26 In other words, it is not so much that internal and external assessments diverge on the facts but that they are examining two fundamentally different sets of data points.

Yet narratives built around the rehabilitation of India’s lower level ‘limbs’ should not overstate the case. There is good reason to interpret recent gains with caution.

First, the thrust of the new welfare push has not been based on improving the quality of public goods, but instead on ramping up the public distribution of private goods. As Anand, Dimble, and Subramanian argue, ‘New Welfarism’s calculation is that there is rich electoral opportunity in providing tangible goods and services, which are relatively straightforward to deliver, measure, and monitor. Traditional government services such as primary education are intangible, which are difficult even to define, much less measure.’27 Put simply, it is much easier to deliver a private benefit to a household than it is to build public infrastructure that serves the commons.

 

 

This leads to a second issue: the prioritization of visible goods that can be provided in a short time horizon over less visible goods requiring long term, structural reforms. Building a toilet for an underprivileged household that lacks proper sanitation represents a concrete benefit with a clear pay-off in a limited time horizon. The tangible nature of the good also increases voters’ recall value at the time of elections.28 Fixing the public education system, on the other hand, is far more complex. Concrete gains are unlikely within a single, five-year term. Changes to the ‘software’ of policy – the stuff of curricula, teacher training, and pedagogy – as opposed to the ‘hardware’ (school infrastructure) are not easily observable to ordinary citizens.29 

Third, technology is a crucial enabler of the new welfarism. The onset of biometric authentication via the Aadhaar platform, coupled with a doubling-down on Direct Benefits Transfers, has allowed for more efficient targeting, speedier delivery, and – importantly – centralized monitoring and credit-claiming.30 But a raft of recent evidence suggests that attempts to minimize corruption through technology-enabled solutions can lead to poor households losing benefits.31 In other words, technology is a compliment to, rather than a substitute for, improvements in state capacity.32 

 

 

Finally, the new welfare push highlights a new fusion of state and non-state power, which has received far too little scrutiny. The BJP is no ordinary political party. It is the political wing of a constellation of Hindu nationalist organizations, anchored by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the movement’s ideological wellspring. Thus, when the BJP is in government, it does not operate in isolation. The Sangh’s non-governmental entities offer benefits of a parallel administrative structure that can reinforce the BJP government’s official initiatives.33 To return to Pritchett’s analogy, the head and the limbs can now be connected both through governmental and extra-governmental sinews.

During the 2019 general election campaign, RSS volunteers went door to door reminding voters of the benefits that the BJP government – and, specifically, Modi himself – had delivered in their first term. This parallel organization exhibits value not only in advertising or marketing the party’s efforts, but also in identifying potential beneficiaries, gaps in welfare coverage, and areas for troubleshooting. In short, the welfarist push represents the combined efforts of state and non-state power, leveraging the corridors of power and the lanes of civil society.

 

 

In a recent review of state capacity in India, Devesh Kapur posits that one of the most intriguing contradictions embedded in the Indian state is the marked improvement of frontline implementation of policy despite growing questions about state capacity at the macro policymaking level.34 While the former provides a boost of optimism about the economic plight of those who have been left behind, the latter raises concerns about their political future – an equilibrium that threatens to leave them even worse off down the road.

In other words, in the long run, it might not matter that India’s ‘limbs’ have learned to swim if the ‘head’ is submerged below water.

Footnotes:

1. Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Allen Lane, New York, 1968.

2. Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987.

3. Lant Pritchett, ‘Is India a Flailing State? Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization’. Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP09-013, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

4. Pratham, Annual Status of Education Report (Rural), 2019. ASER Centre, New Delhi, 2020.

5. Rukmini S., ‘Economic Growth Helps Child Nutrition But Isn’t Enough, Latest Health Survey Shows’, Mint, 22 December 2020, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/economic-growth-helps-child-nutrition-but-isn-t-enough-latest-health-survey-sho-11608530030668.html.

6. Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, ‘India Not a Flailing State But Can We Return to 7% GDP?’ Times of India, 30 October 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/india-not-a-flailing-state-but-can-we-return-to-7-gdp/articleshow/87402472.cms.

7. Yamini Aiyar, ‘The Second Wave and the Indian State’, Hindustan Times, 9 May 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/the-second-wave-and-the-indian-state-101620579557130.html.

8. Milan Vaishnav, ‘India’s Elite Institutions Are Facing a Credibility Crisis’, Mint, 20 February 2018, https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/vvPejHxB52AVzqQBRLoIWL/Indias-elite-institutions-are-facing-a-credibility-crisis.html.

9. E. Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav, ‘Election Commission of India’, in Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Milan Vaishnav (eds.), Rethinking Public Institutions in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017, pp. 417-463.

10. Sanjay Kumar, ‘Election Commission’s Partisan and Controversial Functioning’, in An Inquiry into India’s Election System, Report of the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (Vol. 2). Citizens’ Commission on Elections, New Delhi, 2021, pp. 58-72.

11. Sukhbir Siwach, Ritika Chopra, Ritu Sarin and Sandeep Singh, ‘Not Just Lavasa’s Wife, His Sister and Son Too are Under Tax Dept Scanner’, Indian Express, 25 September 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/not-just-lavasas-wife-his-sister-and-son-too-are-under-tax-dept-scanner-6026058/.

12. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘The Rise of Judicial Sovereignty’, Journal of Democracy 18(2), 2007, pp. 70-83.

13. Vineet Khare, ‘Kashmir’s Crippled Courts Leave Detainees in Limbo’, BBC, 3 October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-49848899; ‘Delaying, Not Asking Questions, on J&K – This Doesn’t Match SC Tradition of Speaking up for Those Who Cannot’, Indian Express, 4 October 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/jammu-kashmir-lockdown-article-370-supreme-court-6052411/.

14. Pramit Bhattacharya, ‘How India’s Statistical System Was Crippled’, Mint, 7 May 2019, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/how-india-s-statistical-system-was-crippled-1557250292753.html.

15. Amrita Johri and Anjali Bhardwaj, ‘Six Years On, Lokpal is a Non-Starter’, Hindu, 12 February 2020, https://www.thehindu
.com/opinion/op-ed/six-years-on-lokpal-is-a-non-starter/article30794590.ece.

16. For more on India’s ‘referee’ institutions, see Devesh Kapur, ‘Explaining Democratic Durability and Economic Performance: The Role of India’s Institutions’, in Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds.), Public Institutions in India: Performance and Design. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007.

17. Madhav Khosla and Milan Vaishnav, ‘The Three Faces of the Indian State’, Journal of Democracy 32(1), 2021, pp. 111-25.

18. Abhishek Anand, Vikas Dimble, and Arvind Subramanian, ‘New Welfarism of Modi Govt Represents Distinctive Approach to Redistribution and Inclusion’, Indian Express, 22 December 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/national-family-health-survey-new-welfarism-of-indias-right-7114104/.

19. Abhishek Jain et al., Access to Clean Cooking Energy and Electricity: Survey of States 2018. Council on Energy, Environment and Water, New Delhi, 2018.  

20. Rukmini S., ‘Survey Data Again Casts Doubt Over Reality of Open Defecation-free India’, Mint, 13 January 2021, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/survey-data-again-casts-doubt-over-reality-of-open-defecation-free-india-11610516625786.html.

21. Aashish Gupta et al., ‘Persistence of Solid Fuel Use in Rural North India’, Economic and Political Weekly 55(3), 18 January 2020, pp. 55-62.

22. Rajeshwari Deshpande, Louise Tillin, and K.K. Kailash, ‘The BJP’s Welfare Schemes: Did They Make a Difference in the 2019 Elections?’ Studies in Indian Politics 7(2), 2019, pp. 219-33; Jyoti Mishra and Vibha Attri, ‘Did Welfare Win Voters?’ Seminar 720, August 2019.

23. Philip Keefer and Stuti Khemani, ‘Why Do the Poor Receive Poor Public Services?’ Economic and Political Weekly 39(9), February 28-March 5, 2004, pp. 935-943.

24. Khosla and Vaishnav, ‘The Three Faces of the Indian State.’

25. Swapan Dasgupta, ‘Three Years of Modi Govt: How the PM Has Transformed the Political Landscape’, Hindustan Times, 31 May 2017, https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/three-years-of-modi-at-the-helm-how-the-pm-has-altered-the-political-landscapestory-2g0q9Ozxuvo1
nC18AvzUaN.html.

26. V-Dem Institute, Autocratization Turns Viral: Democracy Report 2021. V-Dem Institute, Gothenburg, 2021.

27. Anand, Dimble, and Subramanian, ‘New Welfarism of Modi Govt.’

28. Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma, ‘The Rise of the Second Dominant Party System in India: BJP’s New Social Coalition in 2019’, Studies in Indian Politics 7(2), 2019, pp. 131-148.

29. For more on the software versus hardware distinction, see Arvind Subramanian, ‘Is the Indian Economy Back?’ Presentation at the Brown University Watson Institute, 8 October 2021.

30. Yamini Aiyar, ‘Modi Consolidates Power: Leveraging Welfare Politics’, Journal of Democracy 30(4), 2019, pp. 78-88.

31. Karthik Muralidharan, Paul Niehaus, and Sandip Sukhtankar, ‘Identity Verification Standards in Welfare Programs: Experimental Evidence from India’, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 26744, September 2021.

32. Yamini Aiyar, ‘There Are No Short Cuts to Building State Capacity’, Hindustan Times, 5 October 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/there-are-no-short-cuts-to-building-state-capacitystory-QqXdkIXEOMJZj
LapPEjj4J.html.

33. Roshan Kishore, ‘How RSS, Technology Are Helping BJP’s Welfare Push’, Hindustan Times, 14 October 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/how-rss-and-technology-are-translating-bjp-s-welfare-push-into-political-success/story-L3XsQ7Xldi4XY3Uuep03CN.html.

34. Devesh Kapur, ‘Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives 34(1), 2019, pp. 31-54.

 

* The author is grateful to Caroline Duckworth and Mohammad Khan for excellent research assistance and to Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Arvind Subramanian for helpful conversations. All errors are the author’s alone.