State Building Workshop

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Binding the State: State Capacity and Civil society in India
Patrick Heller
Paper Prepared for the “State Building Workshop”

New Delhi, January 20-21, 2011

** Not to be cited without permission of author **

If the commanding heights of the Indian state display significant capacity, quite the opposite seems to be true of the everyday state. Many state institutions at the centre enjoy usable autonomy from particularistic interests and are capable of highly institutionalized action, but that capacity deteriorates the more the state directly engages with society. The deterioration is so pronounced that the local state (the municipality and the village panchayat) have almost no developmental capacity. This has earned the Indian state the evocative label of a “flailing” state, that is one in which the head (national and some State institutions) is highly competent and knows what it is doing, but “that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs” (Prichett 2009:4).
Developing a more disaggregated understanding of the valence of state capacity in India calls for a more scalar and more relational approach than the conventional focus on the central state. First, we need a more explicit conceptualization of why there appears to be an inverse relationship between scale and capacity, with state powers eroding as the state moves downwards. Much of this variance can be explained in terms of fundamental problems of securing downward accountability through the extremely long of chain of command that characterizes the Indian state. Most observers attribute this problem to organizational deficits, drawing on the Weberian thrust of the developmental state literature that highlights the historically derived quality and penetration of central administration (and invariably draws the contrast with China). I however want to argue that this chain of command problem is less an organizational problem than a political problem. It has less to do with how hierarchy has been organized than with how political authority has been constructed. The problem lies more in the chain of sovereignty than in the chain of command. I argue that the comparatively top-down and politically instrumentalized manner in which state authority has been constructed has favored transactional logics of authority over more normatively grounded forms of state legitimacy. Moving beyond the state-in-society perspective however, I argue that this failure of legitimacy has less to do with a “strong” society prevailing over a “weak” state, and more to do with variation across India in the way in which state power has been politically constructed. I focus in particular on preliminary findings from a research project on urban governance in India.

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