The Moral Failures of the Developmental State

All politicians in India promise development, but the state apparatus and ruling political factions cause inequality

All politicians in India promise development, but the state apparatus and ruling political factions cause inequality

Economic development is a primary means by which the Indian democratic project has legitimized itself. Given a predominantly poor electorate, no government was elected without making development – ​​the upliftment of the oppressed through the provision of services, the creation of individual freedom and collective opportunity inherent in economic transformation – its goal. major. Unlike the archetypal developmental states like the Republic of Korea, the post-independence Indian state had to fulfill its developmental mandate within the context of a diverse and fissionable democracy that had endured centuries of British colonial rule and the expropriation of its wealth.

This historical context and the bureaucratic and political processes surrounding the achievement of development results have generated growth, but have also created significant structural inequalities that have taken different forms throughout the post-independence history of India. The inequity associated with the actions of the developmental state, corruption and moral outrage that constitute the state’s broken promises to the people has driven waves of political strife in the Indian regime since independence. . The moral failings of the various phases of India’s developmental state trajectory have inspired collective challenges to the establishment throughout its history.

Criticisms of underdevelopment and promises of development were central to the nationalist movement against colonial rule. For early nationalist thinkers, the idea of ​​India itself was steeped in the claim that it was one economy and one nation, suppressed in fulfilling its destiny by a imperial apparatus that sought to keep it divided, while draining its wealth and sending it abroad. . The Congress party, when it took the reins of power, legitimized its power mainly through the solemn promise that it would redress the structures of political, economic and social inequality by deploying the state to implement programs of large-scale development. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his famous speech “Tryst with Destiny”, promised the service of a sovereign government to “end poverty, ignorance, disease and inequality of opportunity”.

There was a disconnect

There was, however, a deep disconnect between the promises and actions of the developmental state in the first quarter century after independence. The Planning Commission, chaired by Nehru, drew up ambitious development plans that involved large public and private investments in industry and the encouragement of cooperatives to transform agriculture. For poor peasants and aspiring workers, solemn promises of development and the dismantling of inequalities ring hollow. Structures of domination and pervasive social inequalities prevailed in practice, as bureaucracy and conservative colonial-era politicians, business elites and dominant landowners profited the most from this developmental state. Dismal failures of community development programs and sclerotic economic growth led to political unrest in the mid to late 1960s.

Indira Gandhi changed the nature of the developmental state. She has wrought a populist resurgence in Congress to bridge the gap between lofty state promises and degraded reality. His call, which ended up dividing the party and transforming the nature of party competition, gave his Congress an overwhelming electoral mandate. Indira Gandhi’s slogan “Garibi hatao (eradicate poverty)” and the 20-point program that followed designed the direct intervention of a strengthened and expanded state. The politicized state apparatus now had to address social inequality through land reform, enforcement of the minimum wage, nationalization of key industries, and extension of agricultural credit, among many other policies.

Control state resources

One of the main legacies of Indira Gandhi’s left-wing populism was that the state presented itself as the antidote to social and economic inequality. The state of development now seemed different. The state apparatus is clogged, from the national level to the state and local level. Multiple public sector enterprises have emerged at all levels of the economy, from Central to the United States. Financial institutions – banks and insurance companies – were now in the hands of state apparatchiks. This system fostered corruption, rent seeking and the capture of state institutions and resources for the benefit of influential clients.

The increased demand for public resources to satisfy an ever-increasing number of customers has proven financially unsustainable. The economy went through several rounds of liberalization that dismantled some elements of state-led development in the 1980s, but the basic pattern remained the same. The developmental state was now a state whose resources were allocated by and through political constraints. And as political fragmentation increased, the pressure to control the remaining resources of the state for political purposes increased.

The historic liberalization of 1991 renewed promises of dismantling inequalities. Liberalization has offered a new idiom of increased opportunity. Combined with political fragmentation, neoliberal reform has produced crony capitalism, inefficient service delivery and distrust of the system. Self-help and rights-based discourse have now emerged as part of a new development language. The United Progressive Alliance government has expanded welfare-based rights, such as the right to education and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But the ambition of these centrally planned programs achieved poor results on the ground, as petty bureaucrats and local rent-seekers influenced their implementation to their ends, thus failing to build political constituency. among the poor around them. The middle classes protested against this new developmental state which had created an inequality in the face of the state, where being “known” to the state and the politicians who controlled it increasingly determined the life chances and economic prospects of the Indian citizens seeking struggle.

Change in 2014

In 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi won a parliamentary majority by promising to restore opportunities and clean up politics. Its main slogan was “together, development for all”. He attacked the leadership of Congress for its corruption, presenting himself as a humble “chaiwallah” and servant of the people. While Hindu nationalist themes were never far from the surface and became dominant in BJP discourse since the 2019 election, the right-wing populist moment of the 2014 election brought together a broad and unlikely coalition of professional the upper middle class and the lower class. middle-class activists. These groups were promised an end to the inequality of opportunity that had come to characterize many citizens’ interactions with the state in India’s “known” democracy. While Mr Modi’s treatment of the ills of India’s body politic has been hugely polarizing and his own government has lacked economic growth, his policies – echoing those of regional populists in India, from NT Rama Rao to Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee – tapped into a climate of widespread dissatisfaction with the state’s development plan.

Since 1991, the Indian state no longer cares about keeping solemn promises to dismantle inequalities. The state now focuses on growing and distributing subsidies to voters – a policy honed in Tamil Nadu by the various iterations of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

A development ideology is inextricably associated with democratic politics in independent India. The founders of the nation made solemn promises to deliver the people from iniquity and subjugation – the true meaning of development for democratic India. These ideas were honored more in violation than in observance. The developmental state of Nehru could not correct the inequalities and failed to grow the economy fast enough. Indira Gandhi’s politics place the state at the center of political life. The state was the agent of growth, but despite the rhetoric, tackling social and economic inequality took a back seat. Although it speaks loudly about development, the current regime does not put the state at the center of changing social norms and tackling income inequality.

All politicians in India promise development within the framework of democratic deliverance. Yet the state apparatus and the political factions that control it reproduce inequality. From time to time, populist leaders highlight these hypocrisies. Their electoral mobilizations radically transform Indian politics without changing the capacity of the state to deliver on its political promises. This highlights the idea that development is the most powerful idiom of Indian democracy, an ideal on which ordinary people from all walks of life hold governments to account. In other words, development is as much a moral commitment as a technocratic enterprise. Development is inextricably linked to the meaning of Indian democracy.

Adnan Naseemullah and Pradeep Chhibber teach respectively at Kings College London and the University of California, Berkeley

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