Federalism and its Discontents

The doctrine of states’ rights in India

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01 February, 2019

THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION IS A CURIOUS DOCUMENT. It begins with some perfunctory, if resonant, phrases about justice, liberty and equality before embarking upon a detailed outline of the institutions of the new state. Much of it is devoted to setting out mechanisms of power and methods of exercising it—the British state provides the template for parliamentary government; the American example is reflected in a federal arrangement, with power shared between the centre and states. There are significant differences: the 13 colonies that made up the United States enjoyed an independent existence long before the nation was born. In India, the nation-state comes first, and retains the power to reshape its units. The Rajya Sabha was created to represent their interests, with seats allocated roughly in proportion to population.

Federalism was to play a fundamental role in shaping the social and economic landscape of independent India. Designed to defuse potential conflicts arising out of the country’s heterogeneity, it rapidly acquired a second function—that of managing the pace and direction of social change in the interests of regional elites. This was a process marked by conflict and compromise: conflicts between upper and middle castes (ending, as such struggles tend to do, in an uneasy alliance), and concessions to plebeian castes and interest groups at different times and places. The purpose was not so much to inhibit change as to deflect it, to make sure the deeper roots of power and privilege remained undisturbed. It is this submerged aspect of federalism that forms the subject of my essay.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, debates about India focussed largely upon economic policy and the prospects of democracy. In the 1980s, as armed revolts erupted in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam, anxiety about the country’s long-term survival grew. In the 1990s, economic policy once again took centre stage as supporters and opponents of “liberalisation” wrangled, with the benefit of hindsight, over the appropriateness of Nehruvian economic strategies. As growth rates took off, the mood became more positive and self-congratulatory. With the election of Narendra Modi’s government in 2014, the pendulum swung back again—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s capture of state institutions and growing mob aggression mean that the prospects for secularism and democracy look significantly bleaker than they did 10 years ago.

These interlocking debates have been enriched by a distinguished corpus of academic and journalistic writing. We know a good deal about economic policy, secularism, civil conflict, caste and political competition, notions of nationalism and patterns of cultural change. Federalism, by contrast, has received more summary treatment.

Political scientists tend to subsume it within a gradual shift in the political system away from the Congress, in conjunction with the irruption of supposedly “backward” castes into the political landscape. The hegemony of the Congress from 1951 to 1989 is unthinkingly treated as shorthand for centralisation, even though the lack of significant political competition did not affect the powers of state governments or circumscribe their authority.

INDIAN POLITICS, and the specific characteristics of its federal system, can be usefully related to the development of Indian nationalism. Sudipta Kaviraj’s The Imaginary Institution of India, published in 2010, examines the roots and discourses of nationalist ideology in Bengal. It shows that the idea of an Indian nation goes back no further than the middle of the nineteenth century, and is co-terminus with regionalism: the emergence of Bengal as a cohesive linguistic region did not predate nationalism, but emerged with it. Although all of Kaviraj’s evidence is drawn from a single language, he generalises seamlessly from Bengal to India as a whole, a procedure fraught with problems, as we shall see.

Nationalism developed out of a process of collaboration and opposition. The nineteenth-century Bengali intelligentsia—an urban gentry exposed to Western ideas, writing a standardised Bengali (which had originally been just one dialect among many)—was, in every way, a product of colonialism. It emerged from a combination of administrative centralisation (in Calcutta), new technologies (such as the printing press) and professional opportunities in the colonial administration. Its representatives sought to make sense of their political subjection by asking new questions of history, constructing new narratives and adjusting, reconciling or rejecting Western ideas about politics and society in the light of traditional Hindu thought.

In this way, they arrived step by step at an anti-colonial position. Now, they were faced with the problem of formulating a collective identity to act as its vehicle. In the fiction of the most prominent Bengali writer of the nineteenth century, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, this identity shifts from Bengali to Hindu (with Muslims cast as an occupying power) to Indian. Kaviraj lays stress on the ecumenical nature of the last concept, but an exclusive identification with Hinduism was to remain strong in nationalist thought, both in Bengal and elsewhere.

The Bengali middle class exemplified modernity and its discourses. In Kaviraj’s view, it was Gandhi who unified this discursive world with the inchoate “traditional” discourse of the peasantry. However, the supposed dichotomy between modern bourgeoisie and traditional peasantry flies in the face of historical fact—here, the conflation between Bengal and India breaks down entirely. A substantial section of the peasantry in western and southern India was integrally linked to colonial structures of production and power. Along with Brahmins, they provided the bulk of the middle class and played a considerable part in politics: Vallabhbhai Patel, who controlled the organisational machine of the Congress, hailed from a farming caste. The Bardoli satyagraha of 1928, led by the party, showed the care and calculation with which they could mobilise. One part of the rural structure was sufficiently modern for most purposes—the inchoate element occupied a much lower level in the caste hierarchy.

Other distinctions are overdrawn too. The contention that pre-modern communities were “fuzzy,” in that they lacked any clear notion of boundaries, distances and numbers, ignores peripatetic, countrywide networks created by Brahmins and mercantile castes. Kaviraj’s assertion that it was conceptually impossible for pre-colonial elites to unite against the East India Company—to conceive of what might be achieved if they acted together—fails to explain why this impasse did not affect their Chinese and Japanese contemporaries, who were striving energetically to interdict Europeans from their territories.

The assumption that India has always existed, as an idea if not in fact, was to become a keystone of nationalist thought. Kaviraj is useful on the conceptual slipperiness and elisions of this discourse, carried to their ultimate pitch of absurdity by the Hindu Right:

Whatever its source in Western scholarship or Indian publicistic material, this pretence of Indian antiquity was entirely necessary and at the same time largely false. … [T]he mythology of nationalism [is] that this India was suppressed … and gradually won the strength, the cohesion, a god-gifted political organization and leadership, to rise to consciousness and freedom.

Viewed in historical context, nationalism tells us a very different story. Most modern nations are no older than the nineteenth century, as Benedict Anderson showed in a classic study. India is no anomaly in this respect. The fact should encourage us to strengthen the bonds of common identity rather than taking them for granted. In Kaviraj’s view, the Indian state conspicuously failed to do this: the result was a monolingual English-speaking elite and an “equally monolingual vernacular aspirant group contesting its power.” But this binary opposition cannot be sustained either. The English-speaking elite has never been more than a small part of the power structure; “vernacular” politicians played a key role in shaping the political landscape of India from the 1950s on, as we shall see. The real problem—the lack of effective public schooling—is consigned to a footnote. More than anything else, it was to determine how the state came to be envisioned at different levels of Indian society after 1947.

A late nineteenth century photograph shows the arrival of a postal steam ship from England to the port of Bombay. The conquest of India was achieved from three centres: the trading outposts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Samuel Bourne / Alinari / Getty Images

NATIONALISM IS, BY DEFINITION, a pan-Indian ideology—yet it emerged at slightly different times in different parts of the country, to be articulated in a variety of languages. At its root was the common experience of political subjection and psychic humiliation, but its sites were regional to begin with. This strong regional stamp was reinforced by the very structure of the colonial state.

It is true that the Constituent Assembly favoured a strong centre, but “strong” is a relative term. Its members could hardly avoid thinking about federalism, for they had cut their political teeth in what was essentially a federal system. The conquest of India was achieved not from one centre, but three: the major British “factories,” or fortified trading outposts, of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, maintained separate armies and fought separate campaigns with help from each other. Out of this piecemeal conquest emerged an administrative structure with the presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, various smaller provinces and a patchwork of native states held in tight political subjection.

The presidencies were autonomous units with distinctive patterns of land settlement: zamindari, marked by large estates and tenant farmers, in Bengal; ryotwari, marked by individual tenures and peasant proprietors, in Madras and Bombay. Once Gandhi had made the Congress into a mass party after the First World War, it organised itself in terms of this provincial structure. Indeed, it went further, by forming units in linguistic sub-regions so as to broaden its appeal. The Government of India Act of 1935, designed to placate the restive Indian middle class with a share of power, allowed political competition on a restricted electoral franchise—under it, the Congress fought provincial elections and formed provincial governments. It was in the provinces that it competed with the Muslim League for Muslim support.

In the 1950s, the Tamil Nadu Congress abandoned its Brahmin leadership in favour of Kamaraj, a Nadar, who is pictured here with Jawaharlal Nehru. Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

Most politicians—with some exceptions, such as Gandhi and Nehru—addressed regional audiences and cultivated regional power bases. It took the ascendancy of the Muslim League to convert federalism into an instrument of politics: Jinnah’s condition for abandoning Pakistan was a centre so weak as to be virtually powerless. The Congress rejected the prospect angrily, leaving it with an abiding mistrust of excessive decentralisation as a potential threat to the union.

The Constituent Assembly’s conception of a strong centre must be seen in the light of these pulls and pressures. Thus, the constitution vested the federal government with the power to reshape state boundaries and temporarily take over state governments. At the same time, it devolved considerable power to these governments by carefully dividing jurisdiction into three lists: central, state and concurrent. Law and order, agriculture, education and health became state subjects. Binding fiscal obligations underpinned this division of authority.

The linguistic reorganisation of states in the 1950s represented a logical extension of the principle of federalism. Internal boundaries play a key role in delimiting competition within a heterogeneous elite. The administrative units inherited from colonialism were too large to do this. Language offered a natural, if porous, barrier, enabling the Telugu-speaking middle class to control the region it dominated, rather than competing with its Tamil-, Kannada- and Malayalam-speaking cognates in a unified Madras state. As a marker of identity, it brought rich and poor together. Politically, it reduced conflicts over spending and representation. In retrospect, what seems striking about linguistic reorganisation is its speed and the lack of internal acrimony with which it was accomplished: the popular agitations that erupted were in favour of separation, not staying together.

Article 356, allowing the centre to dissolve state governments, was widely used in the 1970s and 1980s against non-Congress administrations. Despite this, federalism continued to work successfully on the whole. Political power was vested in regional elites embedded in distinctive caste structures. In the beginning all, or almost all, supported the Congress, which displayed in consequence a chameleon-like adaptability. Across the north, its state units were to be dominated for decades by upper-caste landowners, but, as early as the 1950s, the Tamil Nadu Congress had abandoned its Brahmin leadership in favour of Kamaraj, a Nadar. Representatives of powerful farming castes, classified as Shudras in classical Hindu texts—Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Reddys and Kammas in Andhra Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra—dominated politics in the peninsula from the very beginning.

The use of “Shudra” as a synonym for social subjection by ideologues as diverse as Phule, Periyar and Lohia elides the actual complexity of India’s caste structure. Owning much of the land in well-defined regions—Punjab and Haryana, southern Gujarat, western Maharashtra, the Godavari delta—and the prime beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, which provided them with improved seeds, cheap fertilisers and subsidies for irrigation and machinery, farming castes form a powerful, if politically divided, interest group. Their holdings span the spectrum from large, sometimes very large, to middling farms to small, sometimes marginal, plots. Caste cohesion is high: small farmers tend to identify their interests with wealthy members of their own caste, rather than socially subordinate groups in the same economic plight. Poverty is not associated with social inferiority; this pervasive sense of status and entitlement often finds expression in calibrated violence against Dalits. Just below this level are an eclectic variety of intermediate castes, whose status varies according to numbers, occupation, the presence or absence of an elite capable of speaking for them—these were usually classified as backward, though many farming castes, especially in the south, benefited from the reservations system as well.

The persistent tendency to regard Nehru as the primary architect of the new nation obscures more than it reveals. The divergent trajectories of Bihar, Kerala and Punjab since 1947 can scarcely be explained by invoking his name. It is perfectly true that Nehru’s respect for institutional procedures created an influential model. He was also the leading political advocate of a programme of state-sponsored industrialisation, but in most other respects he went with the current, rather than directing it. Regional developments were driven by underlying social patterns, leading to divergent economic outcomes.

In Tamil Nadu, the middle class that underpinned the Dravidian movement was among the strongest in the country—industrial employment and women’s participation in the workforce were regarded as desirable from the beginning. Industrialisation proved less effective in neighbouring Kerala, where wages rose much higher, and remittances from emigrants and commercial agriculture assumed greater importance. In eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, grossly unequal landholdings, naked forms of caste oppression and low wages combined to produce decades of economic stagnation. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, a small, labour-intensive factory sector, based largely on state investment, developed in a sea of agrarian poverty.

In Punjab, the very success of the Green Revolution was to produce intractable long-term problems: soil salinity (through the overuse of water), high rates of cancer (through the overuse of pesticides), recreational drug abuse among rural communities and a gradual decline in industrial growth (for the interests of industry soon became subordinated to those of commercial agriculture). As the premier farming caste of the north, Jats and Jat Sikhs dominated political life in this belt. Both here and elsewhere, Congress chief ministers proved adept at shielding influential interest groups in their states from the centre’s troublesome demands: in 1966, the economist Daniel Thorner was told that members of the Planning Commission, no less, had little confidence in the reliability of agricultural statistics provided by the states in the Fourth Five-Year Plan.

Politically, federalism contained competition by providing regional elites with independent spheres of action. It deepened political participation and prevented concentration of power by imposing a permanent system of negotiation between central and state governments. The dominance of the Congress allowed politicians to move seamlessly from state to centre and back again. This pattern was to survive the emergence of regional parties in the 1990s, by reason of their integral role in coalition governments at the centre.

VIEWED IN THESE TERMS, federalism was, and remains, a success story. But it also had a darker side. The dual structure of the Indian state enabled state governments to reject, covertly if not openly, central policies they deemed undesirable. The most famous example is land reforms. In India’s Political Economy, 1947-1977, originally published in 1978, Francine R Frankel showed how every attempt to redistribute land more equitably from the early 1950s to the early 1960s was systematically scuttled by Congress state governments acting against the Planning Commission and the central government’s express recommendations.

Large parts of the country were covered by landed estates, especially in regions of zamindari settlement: the first, indispensable step towards a just order was to break them up. Economically, there were sound arguments in favour of redistributing land. The success of industrialisation depended upon the availability of cheap food for the urban workforce. Empirical evidence showed that peasant farms were much more efficient in growing food than semi-feudal estates: agrarian reform helped kick-start the economies of South Korea and Japan after the Second World War.

Provincial governments led by the Congress began passing legislation to break up landed estates soon after Independence. These laws encountered much covert opposition, for zamindars both small and large had flocked to the party in the 1940s with a keen sense of the way the wind was blowing. The Supreme Court struck them down: the constitution had to be amended twice, in 1951 and 1954, to overcome these judgments. In the end, a combination of shoddy drafting, judicial delays and administrative inaction gave many zamindars time to parcel out their most profitable holdings amongst relatives and dependents.

The second stage involved capping the amount of land that could legally be owned. Against this the resistance was much fiercer, for state units of the Congress were controlled by upper- and middle-caste farmers, who had no intention of relinquishing any land to their Dalit fieldworkers. State after state procrastinated, passed legislation studded with loopholes, failed to respond effectively to court challenges, or to act upon the law. The result was a protracted charade, in which very little land was confiscated for redistribution. Its only gainers were tenants who got legal title in some regions.

The Planning Commission pressed energetically for land reforms, only to run up against the immovable wall of the states’ obstruction. The Green Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s was a technocratic solution to this debacle: since land could not be redistributed, the sole method of increasing agricultural production was to pour resources into selected regions in the hope they would grow enough to feed the whole country. The persistent stagnation of the agrarian sector kept growth rates low. Its repercussions extended well beyond the economic realm, for few things did more to undercut the promise of equality than the failure of land reforms.

Environmental regulation remained a dead letter during these decades, for forests and wildlife were state subjects. Following colonial practice, hunting for sport and mass extermination of agricultural “pests” remained legal, as did the export of animals and animal skins. By the early 1970s, the consequences of this policy had begun to raise alarm in influential quarters, but the centre was legally unable to intervene. At Indira Gandhi’s behest, state assemblies controlled by the Congress introduced resolutions asking the central government to pass legislation on forests and wildlife—only then could the first countrywide conservation laws be enacted.

Federalism also magnified the near-universal neglect of public healthcare and education. From the very beginning, caste coalitions running state governments showed little interest in extending meaningful opportunities to caste groups at the bottom of the social pyramid. The colonial state had created an extremely restricted system of public hospitals and schools. State governments diluted their effectiveness to the point where they became ghettos for the poor—unable to go anywhere else—while licensing private schools, hospitals and universities for the use of the middle class. This encouraged profiteering at every level. The public sphere became a source of political patronage, providing jobs without accountability for performance. The private sphere took advantage of its growing size and indispensability to escape the last vestiges of regulation.

Reservations should have supplemented a functioning system of schools and hospitals—instead they became a substitute for it. In effect, the Indian state provided a tiny fraction of its poorest citizens with education and state employment in return for waiving elementary services for the rest. The reservations system expanded slowly to embrace backward castes, first in the south and much later the north. The vast majority of the poor had no realistic hope of obtaining these jobs—but for those who did, they offered security of livelihood and opportunities for advancement, enrichment and patronage.

Not unsurprisingly, it was the backward castes, usually recruited at higher levels, who proved more adept at exploiting these opportunities than Adivasis or Dalits. In time, reservations were supplemented by other expedients: midday meals for children, house-building grants, cheap rice, bicycles, computers, and the like. These so-called welfare programmes came to dominate public discourse at the expense of the essential building blocks of upward mobility. The abysmal condition of state schools, dispensaries and hospitals never became a source of electoral anger in any part of the country.

The federal government remained a mute spectator to these developments. Its education policy was disproportionately weighed towards higher education in technical and technocratic disciplines: the effectiveness of public schooling remained a matter of indifference, since private schools, with state aid, were always on hand to churn out the candidates required. The private sphere was never regulated properly—witness the Medical Council of India’s chronic corruption.

To sum up: colonialism bequeathed a hybrid system—in education, private schools for the elite and state schools for the middle-class; in healthcare, public hospitals for the most part, but also an array of private practitioners and dispensaries. In the 1940s and 1950s, both developed Western Europe and developing East Asia saw a sustained effort to extend and universalise basic education and healthcare through public provision. Politicians and policymakers in India had no shortage of models to draw upon, but they chose to embark for reasons of narrow self-interest on a notably ineffective, and ultimately disastrous, path. This involved giving the private sector free rein, while steadily reducing the state’s commitments in relative terms.

This had significant economic implications. There is a debate to be had about economic growth, conventionally defined: how equitable or environmentally sustainable, its premises and attendant destruction, whether or not it is desirable in the face of global warming. But even within the terms of the usual definition, many uncomfortable questions are raised by India’s policy choices. The precarity of industrial employment increases significantly when a large proportion of household wages must be spent on schooling and healthcare. In recent years, economists have attempted to quantify human capital—roughly speaking, the knowledge, skill and health of a country’s workforce—and relate it to economic performance. The World Bank estimates that if a country doubles its human capital score it should, in the long term, double its per capita income as well. Not unsurprisingly, India lies near the bottom in two recent indices of human capital, one compiled by the Bank and another by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. China, by contrast, is close to the top.

The results are stark. According to a September 2018 study in The Lancet, an Indian worker attains maximum productivity—a metric obtained by calculating life expectancy adjusted for health and years of schooling adjusted for quality—for only seven years of his or her working life, compared to twenty for a Chinese worker. Finally, rates of population growth were kept artificially high by this policy, for it was clear by the 1970s if not earlier that the only effective way of reducing them was universal education. The privatisation of basic education and healthcare dragged down the economy and stunted its prospects.

THE PERIOD FROM 1967 TO 1989 is generally viewed as one in which the Indian state became increasingly centralised under Indira Gandhi: its centrepiece is the Emergency, symbol of her authoritarian instincts. Naturally, the reality is considerably more complex. The north and south continued to pursue divergent trajectories. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s social policies—welfare programmes, greater reservation and representation for backward castes—were adopted and expanded by its rival, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (with whom the Congress was now allied). In Karnataka, Devaraj Urs managed to carry through a limited but reasonably effective programme of land reforms. Kerala maintained relatively high levels of investment in education and healthcare. In Maharashtra, Congress chief ministers covertly supported the Shiv Sena to break the power of leftist unions, but this did nothing to prevent Bombay’s mill industry from becoming uncompetitive. The northern states remained mired in economic stagnation. West Bengal deindustrialised.

It can be argued that regional satraps became more, not less, important as the organisational structure of the Congress lapsed into terminal decay. The reasons for its entropy are complex and manifold. Indira Gandhi sought to overcome it by appealing to the electorate in her personal capacity, but it is striking that the party did best where its social base remained strong—the south stood by the Congress in the post-Emergency election of 1977, which brought the Janata Party to power. Soon afterwards, powerful landowning castes began shifting their support away from it in some regions: this phenomenon propelled NT Rama Rao to power in Andhra Pradesh in 1983, and fuelled the rise of Deve Gowda in neighbouring Karnataka. In the north, landowning castes less prosperous than the Jats and placed lower down the social scale flocked to competing parties: the Yadavs of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were to be the most successful. The surface centralisation favoured by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi masked a growing loss of control.

One of the best monographs on federalism published in recent years is Louise Tillin’s Remapping India, from 2013. This is a nuanced study of political developments that culminated in the creation of three new states—Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand—in 2000. It was the first time that states in the Hindi-speaking heartland had been divided, for one of the byproducts of linguistic reorganisation was a determination to retain large states in northern and central India as a bulwark against regionalism.

How did this determination break down? One of the merits of Tillin’s study is its refusal to simplify: she puts the Indian case in context by discussing the theoretical literature on federalism and boundary-marking within nation-states, and examines the arguments made for and against linguistic reorganisation.

She shows how the act of redrawing state boundaries in 2000 was preceded by a complex, decades-long process involving popular mobilisation, party politics, different levels of government (regional, state and federal), social groups with contradictory interests and goals—and a large measure of naked political expediency.

A late-twentieth century image of a school in Calcutta. The colonial state had created an extremely restricted system of public hospitals and schools, and state governments further diluted their effectiveness. Larry Burrows / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images

Each of the new states had a different prehistory. A mass movement in support of Jharkhand dates back to the colonial period—its proposed map included neighbouring districts in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. By contrast, Chhattisgarh witnessed no popular mobilisation at all in favour of statehood—here, the main driver was factional competition within the Congress. In the case of Uttarakhand, a popular agitation for separation erupted in the 1990s, when Mulayam Singh’s government accepted the Mandal Commission’s report: opposition to reservations proved decisive in broadening support for statehood in the hills.

In southern Bihar, the steady drift of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha towards electoral politics reassured local elites that Adivasi disaffection could be contained and put to use. This emboldened them to come out in support of separation, which they favoured for quite different reasons. In Uttarakhand, grassroots movements that had previously held aloof from statehood gradually joined in. In Chhattisgarh, increasing inter-party competition encouraged politicians of different persuasions to call for a new state. The support of the Hindu Right proved central to the process. It had set its face against linguistic reorganisation but came to realise that supporting smaller states in the Hindi-speaking belt might help broaden its electoral appeal and enable it to convert the original argument in favour of new states, based on language and identity, into a neutral question of administrative efficiency and economic “development.”

Whatever the view from the bottom, it was political expediency as reflected in the complex manoeuvres of regional and sub-regional elites that triumphed in the end:

[T]he manipulation of statehood demands by Chief Ministers and their political opponents represented a rhetorical rather than a substantive response … It contributed neither to the building of transformative party organizations capable of addressing the long-term needs of the poor nor to the fostering of new regional identities. Instead, these political entrepreneurs manipulated statehood demands to serve short-term political goals.

Almost in passing, Tillin’s study reveals the political strength of regional elites and the formidable efficiency with which they guard their interests. The contours of federalism are determined by them: it is only when regional politicians come around to supporting a new state that its creation becomes a fait accompli.

Ear to the Ground: Writings on Class and Caste, published in 2011, collects articles published by K Balagopal in the Economic and Political Weekly over 25 years. Together, they comprise an invaluable study of how power is actually exercised at regional level. Balagopal dissects political developments in undivided Andhra Pradesh from the rise of NTR in the early 1980s to the election of that quintessential Congress strongman, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, in 2004—shifting episodes in a never-ending struggle for power between landowning elites, punctuated by open displays of violence against Dalits. Each district has its quorum of competing strongmen (mostly from farming castes), owning large chunks of land, with myriad interests in commerce and industry. The political dominance of these mafia-like grandees is based on their ability to mobilise small farmers of the same caste as shock troops and followers.

It is impossible to summarise the vividness and acuity of Balagopal’s analysis on a range of topics: near-constant judicial meddling in the reservations system with the aim of whittling it down; the careers of Indira Gandhi, NTR, Chandrababu Naidu and YSR as individuals and representatives of social classes; caste conflicts and their attendant violence. He was a Marxist, broadly sympathetic to the CPI(ML) groups of the 1980s, but a heterodox one, in that for him it was theory that had to be squared with evidence and not the other way around. Some of his articles are theoretical; most discuss the actual practice of politics with unfailing wit and pungency, combined with considerable psychological insight. To Balagopal, the fact that Chandrababu Naidu’s father was a poor farmer from a dominant caste was not insignificant:

This caste-class category of poor upper castes, especially in a rural setting that imbues it with a tightly knit character held together by unrepentantly medieval assumptions of worth, exhibits certain unpleasant traits all over the country, namely, arrogance and insecurity born of unfulfilled assumptions of eminence, leading to either the bullying type, who is a threat to the lower castes, or the sycophant, who hangs on to the rich of his caste inside and outside the village to bask in the[ir] reflected importance, or the ruthless go-getter, who tramples on all in his search for what his caste has promised but his economic status has denied, or some combination of these uniformly uninviting traits.

Naidu became a go-getter, adopting the fashionable formula of high growth rates, technology and unfettered entrepreneurship. Balagopal points out that this ideology of individual success has as its corollary an impatience with any claims of “social disadvantage and structural disability … the belief that such people have only themselves to blame really.” He identifies the rise of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh with this viewpoint and presciently finds its reflections in emergent political trends of the 1990s.

On the virtues of traditional water-storage systems rediscovered by Gandhians, he noted that while it was true

the ‘village community’ (whatever that expression conveys) took an active interest in the tank system … the process was not exactly idyllic. The maintenance of the tanks was undertaken by using the forced labour of the dalits and other lower castes. If the upper castes also chipped in with labour, it was only because they were the principal beneficiaries of the tank system. Even all of them did not enjoy equitable access to tank water. The priority rights … lay with the dominant landholders of the dominant caste, and the others had access only on their sufferance.

During the twentieth century, Dalits began withdrawing their labour from this task; after 1947, no way could be found to compel them either. Instead of taking over the repair and maintenance of the tank system, the state chose to provide its beneficiaries with subsidies and loans to dig wells (later borewells) and cheap electricity to irrigate their fields. Over the decades this model became progressively more ruinous and inequitable as the water table diminished, borewells became more expensive and the costs of electricity, fertilisers and pesticides soared.

Along the way, Balagopal exposes the absurdity of the division, propounded by some of Lohia’s followers, between an urban India that exploits and a rural “Bharat” that is exploited, where farmers are supposedly held in permanent subjection to industrial and commercial interests. Marxists sympathetic to Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana viewed its demand for higher produce prices as a hinge for uniting middle peasants and landless labourers—but their real interests, as Balagopal pointed out, are divergent, not identical. The truth is that ever since the nineteenth century, when urbanisation acquired a new significance, incomes from agriculture have been invested in industry, trade and the professions and vice versa. The provincial landed class, whose political dominance he anatomises, interpenetrates the urban middle class and exercises power in partnership with it.

THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES offers a useful reference point for the Indian experience of federalism. There, too, the doctrine of states’ rights inhibited social change and strengthened conservative outcomes on a number of questions. The slaveholding southern colonies were wary of New England, more populous and prosperous, where anti-slavery feeling was strong. The political structure that emerged during the protracted process of constitution-making in the 1780s reflected these anxieties. Each state, whether small or large, was allotted two seats in the senate, giving the south a potent veto over legislation. In the house of representatives, where seats were distributed in proportion to population, a slave counted as three-fifths of a free man for purposes of political enumeration, even though he or she was forbidden to vote. Even after slavery was abolished, the doctrine of states’ rights enabled the south to erect a system of institutionalised discrimination against black Americans for a century, without interference by the courts.

For more modern parallels one could cite gun control, on which the federal government is powerless to legislate, or continuing struggles over the right to abortion. Precedents change—the US supreme court was forced to strike down Jim Crow once the civil-rights movement erupted, and its 1973 judgment in Roe vs Wade ended attempts to criminalise abortion. But these victories came decades later than they should have, and remain precarious, at the mercy of Republican voters who would like nothing better than to turn the clock back.

In India, the determination of upper and middle castes to preserve their dominance cut across regions, even though its effects varied. By contrast, in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, centralising elites pushed through land reforms, universalised education and healthcare, and pursued export-oriented industrial policies during the 1950s and 1960s. The economic philosopher they favoured was Friedrich List, nineteenth-century theorist of late industrialisation based on aggressive state intervention to protect domestic industries and increase their output and efficiency. The results were visible by the 1960s and irrefutable by the 1980s, when Japan had become a leading industrial economy. Yet, a decade later, Indian policymakers confronted with the accumulated problems of forty years chose to ignore a distinguished corpus of literature on East Asian economic development—Chalmers Johnson on Japan, Alice Amsden on South Korea, Robert Wade on Taiwan—in favour of the ahistorical free-market triumphalism of Milton Friedman and his disciples.

A chronic shortage of personnel crippled the state’s regulatory apparatus. In 2010, Ajai Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management, a right-wing think tank founded by KPS Gill, estimated that India has fewer public servants per thousand of population than even the United States, with its fetish for small government. The central government has 295 functionaries for every 100,000 Indians—but this figure includes public-sector enterprises and the railways, which employ as much as 42 percent of the total. The United States, by contrast, has a ratio of 889 federal employees for every 100,000 Americans. In addition, American states and local governments employ 6,314 functionaries for every 100,000 citizens. The corresponding figures for Uttar Pradesh are 352, for Bihar, 472, for Maharashtra, 1223, for Gujarat, 1,694: this includes policemen, civil servants, teachers, clerks, judges and so on. Sahni was concerned above all with policemen, but it is perfectly true that the figures reveal a collapse of administrative capacity, “the infirmity of the state and the effective absence of its agencies and services across India’s vast rural hinterland.”

The shrinking of the Indian state relative to population leaves it unable to perform its normal functions—witness the debacle of the criminal-justice system, with its chronic shortage of policemen, prosecutors, judges, prisons, indeed everything except prisoners—let alone assume new ones with any likelihood of success. Since its tax base is deliberately restricted—India does not tax agricultural incomes or inherited wealth; its property taxes are strikingly low—the usual excuses can be glibly trotted out. State governments complain of the burden of salaries in order to limit the number of employees and justify insecure, short-term contracts. At the same time, they refuse to raise revenues by taxing the rich efficiently. The result is a vicious spiral in which the state outsources more and more of its routine functions.

Federalism played a crucial role in managing India’s heterogeneity, but it also precluded the kind of centralised reform that was to prove so successful in other countries. In the United States, the doctrine of states’ rights emerged out of the prior history of the 13 colonies, their independent relationship with Britain. In India, nothing but ingrained conservatism, an unspoken determination to preserve the dominance of the propertied, prevented the Constituent Assembly from arriving at a more equitable model of federalism, one that might have allowed the centre to set binding targets for social investment, and devise effective mechanisms of oversight with the personnel to enforce them. There were good arguments for making the bureaucracy more accountable, opening it to specialists and insulating it from arbitrary pressure, but no one was anxious to do this.

One of the hallmarks of Indian democracy is the anxiety to protect the state from its citizens, rather than the other way around. The constitution adopts the legal framework of the colonial state with only a few changes. Seventy-odd years on, it is perfectly possible to be arrested for making jokes about religion, writing a book, “offending” this or that group or protesting against an infrastructure project (definable as treason at the state’s discretion). It took decades for something as basic as the right of information to be granted. Fundamental rights are still hedged around with limitations—indefinite detention is perfectly legal under various laws and the right to assemble and protest remains under perpetual threat. The successes and failures of federalism must be evaluated against this background.

In February 1947, a conference was held at the Council House library in Delhi, before the Constituent Assembly met to decide the new constitution for India. Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Getty Images

JORGE LUIS BORGES devoted one of his brief essays to the literary precursors of Kafka—his heterogeneous texts include an Aristotelean riddle, a Chinese fable and the writings of Kierkegaard. We can perceive premonitions of Kafka in all of them, but only in retrospect: “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present in each of these writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist.”

The same paradox is immanent in historical writing. It seems clear, for example, that the history of Indian nationalism will have to be substantially rewritten to take account of the BJP’s emergence into full daylight. The academic narrative of Indian politics stresses the radical aspects of backward-caste mobilisation, but the parallel process of upper- and middle-caste consolidation with the aim of limiting redistributive demands is arguably more consequential. It is not the phenomenon of backward-caste assertion that defines Indian politics, but the rise of the Hindu Right out of the rubble of the Congress.

In any case, the two have never been as opposed as commentators like Yogendra Yadav would have us believe: the hostility to Dalit assertion displayed by farming castes can easily tip over into Hindutva. Yadavs may be more plebeian than Jats, but that does not mean they will remain immune to the same temptation. The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party—and the broader resurgence of Dalit politics—represents a more fundamental change, but its limits have been laid bare by Mayawati’s opportunism, a political vision limited to symbolic gestures. A similar conceptual impasse can be seen in Tamil Nadu, where Dalit parties have appropriated the language of Tamil nationalism, invented and deployed by middle-caste parties hostile to Dalit assertion.

Since the 1980s, the BJP has entrenched itself among speakers of Gujarati, Marathi and Kannada; is expanding steadily in Assam, West Bengal and Odisha; and retains a stubborn presence in Kerala. Hindutva’s attraction to a variety of linguistic and caste groups has been well and truly proved. Its rise has been facilitated by the consistent denial of upward mobility to the poor, the failure, at every level, to provide equality of opportunity. It was this failure that destroyed the Nehruvian dream of building a leading industrial economy—the level of skills and productivity of the Indian workforce proved wholly inadequate to the ambition. Regional elites reinforced their dominance at significant cost to everyone else by shrinking the state’s role as provider of social goods, and magnifying its patronage and rent-seeking aspects.

It can be argued that India’s heterogeneity precluded the emergence of a genuinely reforming elite capable of imposing its vision upon the nation—that substantive equality had to be sacrificed to guarantee democracy’s prospects—but this bleak argument no longer applied by the 1990s. It certainly does not apply today, when the most potent threat to democracy derives from attempts to cover up the consequences of deepening inequality through religious mobilisation and mob violence.

The reflexive idea that India is over-centralised encourages us to overlook the state’s structural deficiencies and snatch at devolution as the solution to every problem. But, as we have seen, devolution is substantial and effective at the level of state governments—indeed, the success of federalism is the principal reason why the idea of India, if not its reality, has been so successful. Below this level, it will not help a great deal as long as our cities, towns and villages remain in the vice-like grip of power brokers drawn from middle and upper castes, and the political representatives of plebeian castes content themselves with symbolic gestures or, what is worse, behave in much the same way.

Meanwhile, the distribution of power and the quality of institutions will continue to have a determining effect on policymaking in a future that bids fair to be even more testing than the past. Its challenges include the twin threats of environmental disaster and climate change. Like social provision, they require a coordinated set of policies across the whole country. Insofar as centralising and decentralising mechanisms have historically been used to solve different kinds of problems, it seems fair to say they should be assessed in the light of actual experience, both in India and elsewhere.

Two things, however, seem clear. The emergence of the BJP rules out knee-jerk centralisation as a solution to federalism’s deficiencies. It is doubtful if this would have worked in the past; now it is far too risky to contemplate. By the same token, the period from 1996 to 2014, when regional parties played a key role in coalition governments at the centre (those led by the BJP no less than the Congress), reveals the economic and social consensus underlying Indian politics. Only a far reaching set of reforms across different spheres (election funding, the bureaucracy, social investment, the criminal justice system) looks likely to bring about meaningful change and avert the slow institutional collapse of the republic. For now, however, there exists no political constituency to articulate it. The task of building one represents arguably the greatest single challenge of the future.

Shashank Kela is the author of a historical monograph, A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi Resistance 1800-2000 (2012), and a novel, The Other Man (2017), in addition to literary essays and scholarly papers. Currently he's at work on his second novel.