Towards UndersTanding The naTUre of indian sTaTe and The role

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Towards UndersTanding The naTUre of indian sTaTe and The role

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Working paper NO. 47
Towards Understanding the Nature of Indian State and the Role of Middle Class
Aseem Prakash

Towards Understanding the Nature of Indian State and the Role of Middle Class
Aseem Prakash
The paper discusses the emerging nature of the Indian state and predominant role of middle class in the shaping of its present character. Middle class is defined as a class which is increasingly acquiring the ‘legitimacy’ to speak on behalf and for the society. With the help of fieldwork, the paper argues that the socio-political and economic influence of middle class is pervasive in both urban and rural areas and their class position mostly overlaps with their caste location.
Introduction While studying the state, Philip Abrams (Abrams 1988) suggests that states can be studied analytically by dividing them into the state-system and the state-idea. The former refers to a ‘palpable nexus of practice and institutional structure centred in government’ and the latter explains the idea about the state, projected, purveyed and variously believed in different societies and different time’(Abrams 1988:82). The latter can be understood as the ideological grounding of the state giving legitimacy to the practice of state power (state-system). In other words, the functional institutions of the state governing everyday practice cannot be divorced from its ideological structure. The latter not only gives birth to the former, but both of them continuously shape each other. Together they shape and define the character of the state.
It is in this context that it is enormously challenging as well as exciting to unravel the character of the Indian state. It is an enormous challenge because the Indian polity is home to a multitude of socio-economic and political patterns, which disallow easy generalization. It is also exciting to analyze because of the inherent dynamism in the polity which quickly unsettles known socio-economic and political patterns and leaves behind a feeling that the existing understanding about the state may be lacking.
But why do we study the nature or character of the state? An understanding of the character of the state on the part of the students studying state enables them to comment on the vision of the state, its institutions and processes (as reflected in the laws, policies, and programmes and other executive actions). More importantly, it allows them to understand how they are shaped and affected by the existing socio-economic and political formations.
A Synoptic View of the Indian State in the Existing Literature The coming of Independence also saw the foundation of the modern Indian state based on secular principles and a written constitution, having a discernable socio-economic and



political programme for the country and her citizens. The state as an institution was seen as both state system and state idea – in the context referred to earlier. Nandy argues that it was expected that the state would usher in the ideology of modernisation that would become the basis of a more coherent form Indianness, overriding the enormous diversity. Secondly, it was also expected that over a period of time, ‘state would give way to its working conditions to the universal principles of statecraft and able to persuade, mobilise or coerce the society to adjust to the state’s ideology’ (Nandy: 2000: 67). The ideology of the new nation state was formally enshrined in the Constitution of India promising to its citizens a sovereign, democratic, secular and socialist republic. The various aspects of the state idea were delineated in the bulky Constitution which in turn mandated an array of administrative, political and legal institutions, including specialised institutions of coercion to implement this vision in practice. The Constitution reflected the state idea but it was further and more eloquently articulated in the Directive Principles of State Policy.
It is in this context that the state as an institution was also seen as a source of remedies for all problems. In Khilnani’s words, the state ‘etched itself into the imagination of India in a way that no previous political agency had ever done’ (Khilnani: 1998: 41). However, the 62-year journey of the Indian State can be seen as a story of failures, marginal successes as well as a source of tremendous hope.
This story has been interpreted differently by various scholars. The foremost among them are the scholars who emphasise the state system rather than the state idea. There are three sets of scholars who understand the character of the state through the study of state systems. The first group can be broadly clubbed as the scholars who took a state-centric view. Kohli, Bardhan , Rudolphs, and Vanaik all see the state as having a sort of autonomous existence, albeit also constrained by dominant interests of various types. Kohli (1987) makes a distinction between the state and political regimes and shows the possibility 0f a political regime having an ideology that is left-of-centre remaining substantially autonomous from vested interests while executing pro-poor policies. Bardhan’s (1987) eloquent thesis points to the possibility of the state ‘neither acting at behest nor on the behalf of the proprietary classes’ (P.38). This unique condition is achieved because the three dominant proprietary classes - rich farmers, industrial capitalists, and professionals (both civil and military including white collared workers) - are not able to command hegemony over each other, thereby allowing the state to acquire a certain kind of autonomy. However, this autonomy is reflected in a regulatory role (and hence patronage-dispensing role) rather than a developmental role. The thesis is also broadly endorsed by Vanaik (1990). However, Vanaik also stressed the relative political strength of the agrarian bourgeoisie in the dominant coalition, a thesis also supported by Rudolphs (1987) and Varshney (1995). Rudolphs’s story of the career of the state is also told in terms of conflicts between demand polity (when societal demands expressed as electoral pressures dominate over the state) and command polity (when state hegemony dominates over society). In the course of the conflict, the state is seen as a ‘selfdetermining third actor’ and by far the most powerful organisational entity, when seen in relation with organised capital and organised labour.

the Nature of Indian State and the Role of Middle Class


The second set of scholars study the state system from the society-centric perspective. The society-centric perspective seeks to analyse and reflect on the crises in the Indian state. Kothari sees the crisis in the centralisation and monopolisation of political parties and state institutions by political elite thereby undermining essential features of liberal democracy. He further argues that the role of political parties to channelize the demands of the people in the political system has degraded to the extent that democracy as a system is neither functional nor procedural. The state increasingly does not curb violence of the powerful against the weak. Moreover, the state itself resorts to illegitimate violence against the people. In Kothari’s view, state itself has turned against democracy. In Kohli’s (1990) later work, the failure of the state to live up to its declared agenda is attributed to the logic of democracy. The deepening of democracy, in Kohli’s view, has led to enhanced political participation which in turn has multiplied demands on the state that the latter is not able to meet. Satish Saberwal (1996) argues that the crisis of the Indian state stems from the chasm between formal institutions of modernity based on the rational principle of impersonality and the logic of the traditional order which upholds segmentation along the social identity. The logic of segmentation, in his view, frustrates the modernist aspirations of impersonality required for the functioning of a modern secular state. Roy (2006) through the story of the Narmada dam explains that the development initiatives favouring the rich and entrenched groups are invariably identified as national development. Any opposition to it is seen as anti-national. The brunt of national development (read elite-centric development) is borne by the poor, especially those who belong to the historically deprived social groups.
The third set of scholars study the state system anthropologically. The anthropological approach has meant that they painstakingly document the interaction of the local level state with the mass of citizenry for whom the (non)actions of the state matter the most. The very characteristic of the local state also implies that they do not study the character of the state through the nature of its policies, but how they are implemented or not implemented and often changed beyond recognition during execution. In these writings, the character of the state is understood through the proxy analysis of political mobilisation, corruption affecting citizens, especially the poor, and role of social identity affecting the outcome of state policies.
Gupta ( 1995) analyses corruption and the local state ethnographically and argues that corruption ‘draws attention to powerful cultural practices by which the state is symbolically represented to its employees and to the citizens’ (Gupta 1995:385). He further explains: ‘The discourse of corruption is central to our understanding of the relationship between the state and social groups precisely because it plays this dual role of enabling the people to construct the state symbolically and to define themselves as citizens. For it is through such representation, and through the public practices of various government agencies, that the state comes to be marked and delineated from other organisations and institutions in social life’(Gupta:389; Gupta 1995:389). Thus, corruption appears to be the central idiom through which the citizen’s relationship with the state is structured.
Often, but not always, the (non)action of the state and how it is executed vis-a- vis the poor is explained from the lens of caste, religion, ethnicity and other social identity.



Bailey’s (1963) important contribution in the early 1960s told us about the role of factional leaders (often inspired by social identity) as brokers between local and state levels. In effect, Bailey indicated how faction leaders, often identified through particular social groups, seek and get favours through the patronage-dispensing machinery of the state, in return for their political support to the political regime. For Harriss-White (2003), the present gradual withdrawal of the state does not alter the character of the state for the poor. In her account, the state was never present for the poor since it was always captured by the elites in their vested interests. She further argues that the outcomes in the economy are shaped at the intersection of caste, gender, religion and ethnicity. She terms this the social structure of accumulation. Violence against the lower castes and class is an integral part of the social structure of accumulation regime. That the decline of traditional authority is questionable is also shown in Lerche’s work (1995) on western Uttar Pradesh. He convincingly shows the capture of the state system by the Jat landowners to their advantage.
There are other influential accounts which discuss the character of the state from the vantage point of state-idea. Chatterjee (1993) put forth a thesis that Indian nationalism created a division between the spiritual and material domains. The spiritual domain was believed and upheld as autonomous, one which cannot be affected by any foreign thought. The nation considered itself culturally superior to the colonizers. However, the west was taken as superior in the material domain (the domain of economy and of the state craft, of science and technology) and hence the experience of the western nations was to be replicated. The Constitution of India itself provides the best example of the acceptance of the western thought and practice (enlightened thought) which is most eloquently articulated in it. The key institutions of modern state - liberal democracy, universal adult franchise, an independent judiciary, citizenship, secularism, institutions of governance – were all put in place in the formative year (Austin: 2000). Given the framework for the new republic, the institution of planning was expected to carve out a modern nation state. In other words, the all-powerful, all-knowing state, taking the help of a body of experts, was to set the development agenda and its governance arm was to execute the agenda (Chatterjee: 2000). In its operational form, the character of the state was interpreted as one which is ushering in a passive revolution in the Gramscian sense of the term, that is, ‘where an emergent bourgeoisie lacks the social conditions for establishing the complete hegemony over the new nations, it resorts to a ‘passive revolution’, by attempting a molecular transformation of the old dominant classes into partners in a new historical block and only a partial appropriation of the popular masses’ (Chatterjee: 1986: 30). Kaviraj (1989) also substantiates this thesis of the passive revolution of capital through provision of an overview of the political history of independent India. He shows how power has to be shared between various dominant classes because no one class had the ability to exercise hegemony on its own. His political history elaborates on the dominance and decline of the industrial capitalists, the rural elites and the bureaucratic managerial elite in various phases of political history. The ascendance of one class was always at the expense of other. Chatterjee (2008) in his latest work argues

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that the present phase of passive revolution has substantially altered. He argues that there is a clear cut ascendance of corporate capital in the present market-friendly India. Corporate capital still acquires surplus through primitive accumulation (disassociation of labour from the means labour). However, the passive revolution of capital, under the conditions of a vibrant electoral democracy, makes it ‘unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to leave these marginalised populations without the means of labour to simply fend (for) themselves’ (p.62). Hence the state launches a battery of development schemes perceived to be pro-poor to reverse the effect of primitive accumulation, albeit their ability to absorb the peasant society in the corporate economy is minimal.
Other authors introduce a critique of the ‘original’ state-idea. Madan (1987) and Nandy (1990) see the roots of crisis in the state due to alien western institutions imposed by the westernised elite on the ordinary masses. Western democracy for the masses was alien and religion was ‘the’ principle for governing the social conduct. The people are not ready to accept that beliefs cherished by them hold no or minimal value in the public domain. According to them, this is the source of crisis in the Indian state often reflected on the question of secularism.
These informed debates about the character of the Indian state help us build on these insights for a possibly new thinking on the state. In all these accounts of the character of the state, the argument which comes out quite forcefully suggests that the boundaries between state and civil society are quite porous. These more often than not act detrimental to the interest of the poor. What makes the boundaries of the state porous? Is it only the corporate interest or rent-seeking endeavours of the state? How do we relate the macro interpretation of the character of the state with micro (anthropological literature on state) socio-political patterns? The influential writings of Chatterjee (2004 & 2008) try and answer this puzzle by invoking the concept of political society. Political society is the realm where strategic negotiations of the marginalised communities take place with the state and help in reversing the adverse effect of primitive accumulation by corporate capital. This begs another question: Is political society homogenous? Is the relationship of all social groups in the realm of political society on equal terms with the state? Is there no domination and subordination within the realm of political society? If there is, how is it effected? How is the relationship of the macro level state carved out with the micro level political society? How does the relationship acquire apparent stability?
These are the few questions we will explore in our attempt to understand the nature of Indian state. While doing so, we will also trying to understand the ascendance of the middle class and their relationship with their caste identity.

The Nature of Indian State: Role of Middle Class and Upper Caste
The Indian state, as ever, is still a bundle of contradictions. Some important contradictions present in the Indian state are discussed below.



The Contradiction of the Economics of Markets and the Politics of Democracy
The present Indian state is shaped by the contradictory movements of markets and democracy. The contradiction emanates from an ideological commitment to market-led development which has failed to include the assetless and capability-less while the institutions of democracy promise equitable inclusion. In other words, the contradiction in the Indian state is between the economics of markets and the politics of democracy. The former indicates economic policies directed towards a market-friendly regime. The economics of markets is supported by the hitherto national bourgeoisie in alliance with international capital and also finds empowering support and encouragement from the neo- neo-liberal mandarins and urban-based middle and upper middle classes. Politics of democracy is represented by the electoral compulsions of the political parties to be perceived as working for the large mass of the impoverished citizenry. Economics of markets excludes people lacking in assets and capabilities, while political formations try to include them through the politics of democracy. The politics of democracy is no longer limited to the perception of political empowerment but its very nature requires concrete policy demands for inclusion in the economic process (the latest avtar being NREGA). The general election of 2009 and the past few state level elections are testimony to this fact. One of the crucial reasons for the political regimes successfully negotiating the anti- incumbency factor was due to fact that they were seen as pro-poor. The elections results in fact were the reinforcement of the trajectory of the Indian state to weld itself more strongly in the new liberal regime presided over by the international capital. The institutions which support these contradictory trends are shown in Chart I, Appendix I.

On the nature of these Contradictory Institutions
The institutions formed to regulate the market are believed to be efficient. l The recommendations of these institutions are mostly accepted. l Perhaps it can be said that institutions do not shape the policy idea but pre-conceived ideas give birth to the market regulating and promoting institutions. l A broad consensus already exists among the political elites over the policy ideas, and the institutions are constituted to put them in practice. l This broad consensus allows a convergence of efforts between all concerned government departments. On the other hand, the institutions supported by the political democracy are mostly
conceived because of the constant pressure from below. (i) Many of the institutions demanded from below invariably go against the interests of the markets. (ii) There is neither a similar ideological commitment (as seen for institutions governing the markets) nor a political will to translate the work of these institutions (created by the demand of political democracy) into policy outcomes. (iii) The fact is best reflected in the recent years, in the toned down version of the unorganised sector bill and the limping implementation of NREGA. On the other

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hand one can marvel at the ease with which the JNURM, SEZs, public private partnership have already acquired the necessary political will and are giving excellent results from the standpoint of their given political mandate.
These institutions governing the markets reflect the priority of merely 9-15 percent of the Indian population. In this sense, the dominant coalition of Bardhan has been substantially reworked. The coalition comprises of industrial capitalists (in partnership with foreign capital), agro-mercantile capitalists (owning large farms in countryside but also having economic stakes in the nearby urban areas), and politico-administrative elite having a firm faith in the trajectory of market-based development and the burgeoning middle class benefiting from the new found purchasing power to enjoy the ‘modern’ market-based consumerism. The middle class in the present context can be described as a powerful social group, not necessarily located in big metros, and who have acquired the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the society.
The second contradiction is between the dominant capitalist class at the national level and the similar dominant class at the state level. The nature of economic growth is perhaps contingent on the convergence of priorities between the national and state level dominant social groups. The more the convergence, the better the possibility of states reflecting the national priorities. The more the divergence, the more different the trajectories in pursuit of economic growth. This is best reflected in the unevenness of the reforms between national level and state levels as well as between states; the official explanation given for this failure being the incapacity to conceive policy measures to open up markets and failure to provide adequate infrastructure. This is not a plausible reason because this logic has been given for almost 15 years. It is more likely that there was no political will to open up. There seem to be reasons for this:
(a) The first reason can be located in the recent history. The regions which were able to throw up stronger sub-national capitalists based on regional identity took the lead in developing industry-based economies (Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, etc). These regions were early to integrate themselves in the national economic reforms. Other regions which have the political presence of dominant agriculture landlords never wanted to open up their economy (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan etc).
(b) At many times, the interests of the national capitalists do not coincide with the dominant/ entrenched regional/ state capitalists. Hence any market-oriented reforms are not easily possible. For instance, market reforms in the leather goods industry and mining sector were substantially delayed in several states for this reason. On the other hand, the mining sector reforms in Orissa (having substantial stake of state level capitalists) were never rolled back inspite of serious and intense protest by the local poor affected by the projects1.
(c) The dominance at the state level is again through a coalition of regional agro/ industrial capitalists (regulating their interests and influencing the state apparatus through a combination of caste, religion, region and language), politico-social elites



and the middle class (which also includes substantial rural-based middle class). A combination of social identities (religion, caste, ethnicity etc.) is used to regulate the economy and shape up accumulation.
The third contradiction is at the local level where the any fruits of democratic struggle and market expansion are captured by the entrenched / dominant caste /class/ religion. This results in a variety of conflicts. Most of the government programmes are captured by the dominant social groups. The local dominant coalition at the local groups is constituted by dominant caste groups, local bureaucracy/politicians and the muscle power of the politicians and dominant groups. The accumulation at the local level is shaped by state pilferage and caste domination where all or most of the dominant groups are the stakeholders.

What is the outcome of these three contradictions?
There has been a proactive measure taken by the state to open up the economy to private capital, both national and international, through ‘efficient’ governance. This has resulted in exceptionally high and sustained economic growth. But it has also resulted in extreme social inequality. The manifestation of the extreme social inequality can be captured through the following facts:
l The growth, as a result of the integration with the globalisation, has bypassed the majority of Indian population. 77 percent of the population continues to live below less than $2 per day (the internationally accepted poverty line) of daily per capita consumption expenditure. In terms of total population, the poor and vulnerable were 836 million out of a total population of 1,090 million in 2004-05, compared to 732 million out of 894 million in 1993-94. If we disaggregate this data in terms of social groups- 87 percent of SC/STs survive with earnings below $2 per day, nearly 85 percent of Muslims also earn around or below $2 (Sengupta 2008)
l The middle and high income groups which have been disproportionately benefited by growth constitute nearly 24 percent of the population. Out of this, Middle Income groups that earn around $4 per day constitute 19.3 percent. The high income group with an income bracket of $10.2 or more is constituted of merely 4 percent of the population (Sengupta 2008).
l The high middle and high income groups are mostly concentrated in upper caste Hindus. There is a thin layer among the minorities, Dalits and Adivasis (See Appendix 2).
It is this fraction of population, ranging anything between 8-15 percent (taking the average) which constitutes the middle class in India. This is the socio-economic group that has acquired the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the society and are the most ardent supporters of globalisation (neo-liberal policies). This group is not only economically prosperous but also commands social dominance in the society. A high proportion of the members of this group are upper caste Hindus.
Thus the main question which arises: what gives the Indian state an apparent stability in face of such massive social inequality? We explore this question through the help of three interrelated explorations. The first comment is made on the nature of party system, followed by two case studies.