Dispatch #8: The new social contract
In this series, we will be talking about distributive politics, clientelism, how do the poor in India 'claim the state' and how Indian citizens are forging their relationship with the state
In her seminal work ‘Brokers, voters and clientelism’, political scientist Susan C Stokes and others have explained various ways of political distribution of resources. They argue that political distribution takes place when the government distributes cash, employment, material benefits or other resources to the citizens. The problem does not essentially lie in the act of distribution but how those resources are distributed becomes contentious. Stokes and others have further classified political distribution into programmatic and non-programmatic distribution.
A programmatic distribution is one where there is a well-defined public criteria for distribution of goods and the goods are actually distributed to the citizens according to that criteria according to clear rules of citizens’ entitlement. In a non-programmatic distribution, either the public criteria for distribution is absent or the public criteria are subverted by the partisan criteria, the rules of citizens’ entitlement are undermined and the distribution is discretionary. Within non-programmatic distribution if there is an expectation by the political actors from the citizens to support them electorally in return for material benefits then that’s clientelism and if there is no explicit expectation except goodwill then that’s partisan bias. Within partisan bias if the benefits are given to the individuals to have their tacit support, then that’s electoral diversion of public programmes and if the benefits are given to a geographical area in return for support then that is called the pork-barrel politics.
Stokes has defined clientelism as, ‘the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support, where the criterion of distribution that the patron uses is simply: did you (will you) support me?’.
In India, the political distribution is predominantly non-programmatic and clientileistic. Several scholars have studied the demand side of this distribution. In a recent book titled ‘Claiming the State’, by University of Virginia professor Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner has unpacked how the distribution of resources occur when the citizens lay their claims on the state.
How Do the Poor in India Claim the State?
In 2004, two world bank economists, Stuti Khemani and Philip Keefer wrote an article titled ‘Why do the poor receive poor services?’ Their central argument was that although the poor in India are voting with their feet, elections after elections, that has not translated into better public services. The access of some of the services may have improved over the years but the numbers mask the quality of the services. One of the reasons for this, they argue, is over reliance on targeted services by the political parties to the interest groups, rather than public provisioning on a broader scale.
Like Khemani and Keefer, several scholars have asked the same question over the years. For most of them, the areas of inquiry have ranged from the nature and evolution of the Indian state, politics of welfare, clientelism, democratic and social movements in India. Few of them have focussed on how the citizen-state relationship in India determines the public provisioning of basic services.
Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner, in her latest book ‘Claiming the state- Active citizenship & social welfare’, has looked into the quotidian practices of the rural poor through which they access the state. The act of navigating through the complex state apparatus to acquire welfare services is what Wisner has called as ‘claiming the state’.
The research started to understand citizen-state relationships in a resource starved environment in rural India. It later transformed into an exercise to probe why certain poor communities have access to basic services like piped water, health services, education etc. while the others don’t.
What is ‘Claiming the State’?
Wisner defines claim making as ‘citizen action in pursuit of welfare goods and services,which are broadly understood as resources intended to protect and improve well-being’. These actions consist of citizens’ quotidian practices of making inroads into the opaque and often distant entity called the state. Claim making also includes engaging with ‘actors, agencies and institutions that directly or indirectly shape the provision of services.’
Claim making rests upon citizens’ actions. These actions could be as mundane as attending a meeting with government officials, petitioning, visiting local government officials or a local leader.
An old man waiting on the benches of a government office with his pension application is one such claim making act. No matter how excruciatingly painful this claim making is, the poor in India has opted for this because all they have is the ‘voice’(in terms of Albert Hirschman) unlike the affluent citizens who have the option to ‘exit’ (resort to private services if the state fails to provide them).
‘Claim making can mean the difference between maintenance of a community pump and seeing that water source fall into disrepair; between securing and not securing access to pension or employment on a government job site; between disciplining an absent teacher and sending one’s children to an empty school room’, adds Wisner. These day-to-day mundane acts of claim making are as political as pushing a ballot button every 5 years.
During her research in rural Rajasthan, Wisner observed that the presence of public services in poor communities was inconsistent. It varied from one community to another. She concluded that this is because the claim making ability of these communities are quite different. There are few conditions that should be met before a community or the citizens can lay claim on the state effectively.
Effective claim making happens only if the following 4 conditions are met:
Social and spatial exposure
Institutional terrain of the state
Citizens’ action for claim making is only possible if they have aspirations to acquire welfare services and also have requisite capabilities for the action. The aspirations depend upon a set of motivating conditions. Similarly the capabilities depend upon a set of enabling conditions. Citizens should have both aspirations to make claims and capabilities to do so.
Wisner explains, ‘claim making is only possible when someone wants or needs something; believes that it’s the state’s responsibility to meet that need; feels that state targeted action is effective and worthwhile; knows how to navigate the political system; and has access to channels through which to act’. The framework below explains how the motivating and enabling conditions lead to aspirations and capabilities of citizens to take action for claim making.
First let’s see how motivating conditions lead to developing aspirations. Inorder to make claims on the state, citizens should have needs and desires for a particular social welfare service. A need for a well staffed school where they can send their children; a need for a health centre with a caregiver or a need for an all-weather road that connects their village to the main highway could be the starting point of having such aspirations. However these felt needs and desires are not sufficient for the state to provide welfare services. The citizens should be able to articulate their needs as a grievance and should feel that they are entitled to receive public assistance. In the absence of a sense of entitlement, public services are looked as ‘state largess’ rather than an entitlement. The claim makers should also have a personal sense of efficacy to lay claim on the state. Wisner explains, ‘a personal sense of efficacy reflects internalized beliefs about one’s place in a social and political hierarchy’. The burden of efficacy also lies on the state apparatus. If the state has low capacity, is resource starved or is unresponsive, then the citizens’ action for claim making will be hindered. This leads to ‘dampening effect’ and ‘chilling effect’. These effects are discussed later.
Having aspirations to make claims on the state is a necessary but insufficient condition. Citizens should also have capabilities to make claims. They should have knowledge about the public services, they should know what are the procedures and rules to acquire public services and they should be able to navigate through the complex state apparatus either directly or indirectly though informal non-state actors. The enabling conditions result in the development of claim making capabilities. These conditions include citizens’ accessing information about the functions and performance of the state; citizens having tacit knowledge about the channels and practices to access the state and finally they should be able to access the state through various platforms.
The enabling condition of accessing the state through various platforms is not a trivial one. After almost three decades of decentralization and almost two decades of active politics of welfare, the Indian state is present at all levels of administration. This has created new spaces for public participation and citizens-state interaction. Wisner, however suggests, ‘formal efforts to increase access [to the state] often fall short; they are victims of political or local elite capture, or they are stymied by chaotic administrative practices and limited local state capacity’. This has resulted in citizens approaching informal non-state actors or brokers who help them access the state only after seeking rent.
The aspirations and capabilities help citizens access the state. But they only address the ‘why’ and ‘how’ aspects of citizen action respectively. They do not answer how the aspirations and capabilities develop in the first place. Neither do they explain why claim making vary from one community to another.
The social and spatial exposure of an individual explains how the aspirations and capabilities of action to claim the state develop. The social and spatial divisions restrict the mobility of an individual. These divisions manifest themselves in the forms of class, caste, ethnicity, gender, religion etc. Because of these boundaries an individual is less likely to be exposed to the knowledge of the state, its services, welfare programmes and potential strategies adopted by other, relatively mobile, communities to claim the state.
Over the past few decades with the rural economy undergoing a drastic change, the social and spatial exposure to the people has increased. With diversification of rural economy, increasing dependency on non-farm employment, migration and ‘decoupling of caste and occupation’, the encounters across social and spatial lines have increased. Thus making the boundaries more porous.
Rigid social and spatial boundaries restrict an individual’s access to the information about the functions of the state, channels to access the state and a wide range of strategies for claim making. Porous boundaries increase the likelihood of encountering the state.
How effective is claim making if there are aspirations, capabilities and porous social and spatial boundaries but the state is either repressive or unresponsive or has a very low capacity or is being ruled by a tiny elite? Claim making also depends upon the nature of the state. It is effective only in conditions where there are sufficient resources to add to the aspirations but the allocation is uneven and the state’s performance is unpredictable, thus leading to grievance.
For an effective claim making, the fourth condition, institutional terrain of the state, is extremely important. The terrain of the state has two aspects- breadth and regularity. Breadth of the state means the scope, presence, reach and the visibility of social programmes. Regularity of the state means the uniformity of performance and citizens’ access to services. When the institutional terrain of the state is broad then that implies that the state’s presence is everywhere and is central to the citizens’ lives. A state with a broad terrain has wide ranging social programmes. When the terrain is narrow then that implies that the presence of the state is very limited and there is a scarcity of public resources. A uniform terrain implies that the state’s performance is uniform and the citizens have equitable access to the resources. An uneven terrain means that neither the state’s performance is uniform nor the citizens have equitable access to the public resources.
The states whose terrain is uniformly narrow (1st quadrant) have low state capacity, low public resources. The public sector is weak but within the limited state capacity, the access to resources is uniform for a very tiny section of the population. A vast majority of the population have to depend upon non-state actors (like militant groups) to access the resources. The citizens’ claim making activity is low and citizens action may lead to ‘dampening effect’ since claim making may lead to no results.
The states whose terrain is uneven and narrow (3rd quadrant) have scarce resources and the state is completely absent. A tiny elite controls the distribution of the resources. Such states are the predatory states. In these states claim making is worthless since the risk of state reprisal is very high and citizen action may lead to ‘chilling effect’.
The states whose terrain is broad and uniform (Scandinavian countries) have a well structured public service delivery mechanism (2nd quadrant). The resources are delivered in a rule-based way by an effective bureaucracy. In such states the citizens would have no incentive to claim the state. Claim making has a ‘null effect’ in such states.
Effective claim making happens in states whose terrain is broad and uneven (4th quadrant). India lies in this quadrant. The state is present everywhere but is ‘flailing’. There are social programmes delivering public services but the state’s performance is uneven or even dismal in some cases. There are progressive legislations that ensure that public provisioning happens broadly, but the frontline institutions of the state fail to deliver them. This provokes grievance within the citizens and a sense of entitlement. Social and spatial exposure due to increasing mobility leads to ‘catalytic effect’. The result is citizens’ action to claim the state.
It is here that the aspirations build up, citizens transgress social and spatial boundaries, get exposed to new strategies of claim making and build capabilities for citizen action.
Wisner’s study is important to understand what conditions foster or hinder citizens’ action to acquire public services. It also leaves us with many unanswered questions.
How does claim making happen in urban settings in India?
Do the communities that were marginalised after claiming the state become vulnerable to the backlash from the dominant powerful communities?
Can these frameworks help us understand the interstate disparities in social development in India?
Is there any evidence from India that suggests that an increase in information about the state has impacted citizen action?
How is rural India exactly transgressing social and spatial boundaries?
1) Brokers, voters and clientelism by Susan C. Stokes, Thad Dunning, Marcelo Nazareno, and Valeria Brusco: Many conceptual distinctions can be drawn among distributive strategies. We might distinguish programs generating public goods from ones targeting individuals. Public goods may benefit all contributors, or they may subsidize public expenditures of narrower geographic constituencies. Benefits may be irreversible (bridges) or reversible (public employment). Parties make long-term and slow-moving investments in basic programs but campaign, on the margin, offering “tactical distributions.”
2) Political Clientelism by Susan Stokes: The concept of clientelism suffers more than most from a lack of consensus about its meaning. Focusing on clientelism as a method of electoral mobilization, I define it as the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support, where the criterion of distribution that the patron uses is simply: did you (will you) support me? It is worth noting that “proffering of material goods” in reality sometimes takes the form of threats rather than inducements. We have the government of Singapore threatening to withhold improvements of housing in districts that elect opposition legislators, Christian Democratic operatives in Naples and Palermo threatening to cite opposition-supporting grocers for health violations, and the local magnate threatening to fire citizens who vote against his favored candidates in Misiones, Argentina, to cite just a few examples.