from Asia Unbound

Development and the Indian Elections

Laborers work at the construction site of a metro rail station in Kolkata, India, July 2, 2018. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

April 18, 2019

Laborers work at the construction site of a metro rail station in Kolkata, India, July 2, 2018. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
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General elections for India’s lower house of  parliament began on April 11 and will last through May 19, with all ballots counted on May 23. This is the world’s largest democratic exercise. I had the chance to ask Dr. Aseema Sinha, Wagener Family professor of South Asian politics and George R. Roberts fellow at Claremont McKenna College, about India’s political economy, and development as an issue for voters. She is the author of Globalizing India: How Global Rules and Markets are Shaping India’s Rise to Power (2016) and the award-winning The Regional Roots of Developmental Politics in India: A Divided Leviathan (2005). Our exchange, the second of a series of Q & As on the Indian elections, appears below. The first of the series is here, the third here, and the fourth here.

Your early work examined how some states in India managed to clock economic development gains better than others, even during the era of a centrally-planned economy. What is the picture across Indian states today?

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Today, as during the license-quota-raj period (the pre-reform era of bureaucratic dominance over the economy during the 1950s to 1980s), economic output, policy, and wellbeing varies by state. Indian states are as large as European nations and in some cases, such as with Uttar Pradesh [UP] and Bihar, larger. For example, Bihar’s population is 99 million, UP’s is 204 million, West Bengal’s is 90 million, and Karnataka’s is 64 million. Without understanding regional and local variations we will not understand India. I argued in 2005 that most approaches and our analytical vision understands the Indian state as a “unified actor, which either succeeds or fails but does so coherently.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Subnational developmental states and regional party systems are the dominant reality of India. Economic conditions vary: the per capita annual income in Goa is $4,903, the highest in the country, while the per capita annual income in UP is $793. Bihar, UP, Manipur, Assam, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha are the poorest states in terms of per capita income. In essence, development aspirations, wellbeing, and capacities vary across states, as does the politics.

While some of this variation can be explained by diverse structural factors, political elites from states vie with each other to address their specific economic challenges by designing investment, technology, energy, and welfare policies. Thus, much of economic policy and developmental action takes place at the state-level. State-level economic conditions and economic strategies to take advantage of national, or central government initiatives and outline state-specific policies are very important. As an illustration, each state has launched literacy programs to address regional aspirations for education and to take advantage of national programs such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a program for girls’ literacy. Himachal Pradesh has witnessed many innovative primary literacy programs and great success in increasing literacy, as has Kerala, while Bihar’s literacy is much lower. Himachal Pradesh’s literacy rate in 2011 was 83.8% and Kerala’s literacy rate was 93.9%, while Bihar’s was 63.8% [2011 data]. However, since Bihar’s government in 2006 introduced an innovative program providing a mere $50 per girl for buying bicycles, school enrollment by girls has dramatically increased.

These average variations affect women and minority populations disproportionately. For example, in Kerala 92% of women and 96% of men are literate, while in Bihar only 53.3% of women and 73.5% of men are literate. The gender literacy gap is, thus, much greater in Bihar than in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. If you are a poor woman in UP or Bihar, your life chances and opportunities are likely much worse than if you were poor woman in Kerala. In essence, well being and life chances vary dramatically by state. This is also true for a wide array of policy areas: industrial and investment policies, energy and renewal energy policies, and welfare and social policies such as those related to education and health. Observers have spoken of the Gujarat model, but there are multiple models across India’s regions: the Kerala model, the Tamil Nadu model, and the Bihar model of inclusion with social justice, for example. Even bureaucratic intentions and state capacity vary across states. The ability of different states to attract investment needs to be measured while keeping these differences in mind, as the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has also realized.

However, it is important to note that state leaders act and re-order their economic fortunes shaped by larger contexts of the country and global forces. Regional decisions shape national intentions and initiatives and vice versa. A frame of reference encompassing interaction between the center and states is, thus, needed. For example, the central energy act of 2003 and the central solar policies have played an important role for state-level energy policies. So, there are some national forces—economic integration, central policies, diffusion, and competition across states—which affect all states, but different states respond in varied ways. Focusing only on the national or the subnational level will miss much of the policy and political economy dynamics that are subnational and interactional. It is, thus, important to adopt an interactive or polycentric framework to understand how states and their specific strategies shape and are shaped by larger processes of globalization and central policies. As I argued in a recent article, we need to move our line of focus to the subnational level while also using a framework that scales up and pays attention to diffusion and interactive dynamics. This scaling-down and scaling-up idea is very different from a Delhi-centric focus, which is the dominant focus when most observers view India.

You’ve written about the emergence of a “contingent social coalition on behalf of development and economic growth across India.” How broad do you believe this coalition to be? Is it a coalition favoring economic reform, or more of a coalition favoring quality of life and human development improvements?

The aspiration for higher incomes and development outcomes has extensive and wide support. Clear beneficiaries of the economic reform such as the middle classes, business classes, entrepreneurs, and small scale businesses support this focus. Support for a focus on economic and social welfare has also pervaded the aspirational neo-middle classes, lower middle class, migrants, and urban middle classes. The middle and aspirational middle classes hope for better roads, education, urban infrastructure, access to consumer choices, and health. Some sections that are struggling such as the urban and rural poor, agricultural landless, and informal sector workers seek their livelihoods at the periphery of semi-urban and urban economies, which further widens the support for economic change.

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A developmental coalition is, thus, quite broad, but the challenge in laying out its contours is that it does not map onto socio-economic categories like caste or class. Also, it is not pro-reform if reforms are understood as privatization or greater market reforms, unless they benefit the common people. In my view, economic and socioeconomic differentiation within many group and class categories has emerged and different sections of each grouping are beginning to demand economic services and benefits. For example, Professor Sudha Pai’s work has shown that some sections of the poorer Dalits in UP did not vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP (a party devoted to Dalit empowerment), in 2014 as they preferred economic mobility more than caste expression. She and Sajjan Kumar also show that despite violence targeting Dalits, some poorer Dalits may not vote for the Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance in 2019 due to an economic logic. In contrast to the received wisdom about caste and political parties, urban poor and poorer middle classes—the aspirational groups—have a high demand for basic services such as water, electricity, subsidized health facilities and better public transport, and they may not vote only according to the caste group to which they belong. India’s development pattern has paradoxically become more capital intensive and service sector focused, which narrows the job opportunities that may open up. So, developmental demand is acquiring a renewed urgency due to joblessness and agrarian distress.

I wrote about this in 2015 when I argued that a new dimension of development has opened up and most voters want to share in the economic changes they see happening around them. At the individual or community level (caste or region), there is a serious demand that the benefits of reforms reach the last Indian. Voters do not demand economic reform per se, but want higher incomes and more stable and secure livelihoods. Voters also want economic and social services such as health and education, and better infrastructure such as roads and trains. A recent survey confirms this trend.

This may be the result of the revolution of rising expectations that the reforms of 1991, and the broadening of welfare and development schemes by the successive governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998 to 2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004 to 2014), unleashed. The Indian National Congress (or “Congress”) party does not talk much about what Manmohan Singh’s government did, but he, especially during his first term, unleashed a remarkable social and economic revolution—a version of a New Deal—across India.

This widespread development hunger has taken a specific Indian form. Even now, 29 years after the reform program of 1991, government jobs are in high demand, although this is also shaped by regional factors. Such demand is very strong in the north, east, and to some extent in Rajasthan and central India, but less so in the west and south.

As a follow up, what are the political processes that are supporting this growing demand for development? I know you have done deep research into business associations as developmental associations, for example. Is this a major factor? Are the “rising expectations” among voters an important factor?

India started its reform program in 1991, and by some accounts 1985. That would mean that reforms have continued for 34 years. The central government especially between 2004-2014 used some of the rising revenues to start new welfare programs. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was one such measure. Many state governments also have been active in providing welfare facilities such as education, health centers and e-governance initiatives. The cumulative effect created a revolution of rising expectations across diverse sections of India’s population. A desire for upward mobility has, for example, created new demands among the Dalits and Muslims. Those who have not benefited also want some of the benefits to reach them, such as with new health welfare programs targeting different sections of the middle classes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi understood this desire and tapped into it during the 2014 elections. An informal business mentality has pervaded large swathes of both urban and rural India, even though the big, national business associations only cater to a small urban and upwardly mobile elite, so their reach is by definition limited.

There is another supply-side dynamic also at work. Since voters demand more economic benefits and India has a strong anti-incumbency preference (meaning that incumbency does not provide an advantage at election time), politicians and parties have realized the need to construct cross-caste coalitions and make election promises focused on local and national public goods like education and health. Paradoxically, the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] under Modi is also promising a national public good—national security—to appeal to a wider, broader coalition across India. So, there is both a demand-driven and supply-side logic at work.

Let me ask you about global trade and Indian politics. Are there differences among Indian parties in their support for, or opposition to, trade liberalization? Are there some core beliefs that cross parties?

The Congress party has supported trade liberalization along with compensation for its core support base. The BJP’s policies were transformed from an anti-globalization mindset to a more pro-globalization stance during the Vajpayee government (1998-2004). The Communist parties have been consistently against trade liberalization. Regional parties have become more pro-reform and even pro-globalization, although one needs to do a specific analysis keeping in mind regional factors.

Interestingly, there are some reports that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, a Hindu nationalist volunteer organization) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an organization affiliated with the RSS and BJP and focused on “self-reliance,” have become more active since 2014 when the Modi government came to power. Both organizations are against globalization. Modi is a long-term member of the RSS. This easy access for these organizations is a significant change from the Vajpayee era. Based on press accounts, their leaders seem to get more of a hearing with Modi. S. Gurumurthy, the co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, has been made a part-time director of the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank. These groups criticized the highly regarded mainstream economists Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Panagariya during their tenures serving in the Indian government. One plausible reason for this shift is that Modi is one of the most election conscious BJP leaders and he is focused on how to get votes. The RSS and committed groups like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch provide grassroots volunteers to mobilize votes at election time, and they appear to have greater influence on the Modi government. This means that anti-globalization ideas may get more tacit government hearing.

However, Modi has also seen the advantage of seeking a global audience and using that for domestic purposes. Modi uses foreign policy for his domestic ambitions. So, he is unlikely to be against globalization consistently, but India’s globalization has always been very different from what most people expect, as I have argued earlier. In essence, Indian leaders have learned to modify global forces to shape national interests in a distinct way. Modi will continue using globalization, imbuing it this time with his Hindu-centric nationalist imprint. Manmohan Singh, India’s PM from 2004-2014, also crafted his own version of globalization, which he called “globalization with a human face.”

What will you be watching most closely during India’s 2019 general election?

I am watching the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, and Karnataka where the BJP is expected to make inroads. I will be watching different regions of UP and how the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] fares in western as well as eastern UP. The southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are also fascinating; there is a subterranean anti-BJP feeling there and it will be interesting to see if that sentiment affects voting results. It is as if one country is having 29 different elections. Even the salience of the Pulwama attack in February and national security concerns vary across states and class/caste groups. How the focus on national security plays out will be important, as will be the issue of farmers’ votes. My expectation is that rural India will vote on economic and development related issues and not on national security. But, in the last 10 years, urban worlds have penetrated into the rural areas and I may be wrong, especially if rural voters are as aware of security concerns as their urban counterparts. 

I am also interested in the women’s vote and voter-turnout, especially across states such as Bihar and Rajasthan where women’s literacy rates are lower. Initial indications suggest that we may be witnessing a third ‘gender revolution’ in voting across many states, and that is quite significant if it is confirmed by the 2019 participation data. While the first democratic revolution refers to the establishment of democracy procedures and elections in the 1950s, the second democratic revolution refers to a phenomenon that started in the 1990s when Dalits, groups termed “other backward classes/castes,” and the poor began to vote in equal or higher measure than the educated and well-off. India’s democratic journey seems to be becoming deeper and wider.

I will be also watching how various Dalit subgroups vote. A fascinating social and economic revolution underway within larger groups such as “Dalits” and “Muslims” will affect this election. Modi’s effort to appeal to a broader cross-class and cross-state national citizenry—what observers call the Modi factor—is so relevant precisely because India’s lived reality is local, and regional. Most Indians also think in multiple ways—are bilingual for example— as residents of their state, but also embody caste, economic sensibilities, and citizenship of India. In sum, Indian elections will not be boring or predictable.

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World, was published by Oxford University Press in January 2018. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).

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