Academic journal article Independent Review

Premature Imitation and India's Flailing State

Academic journal article Independent Review

Premature Imitation and India's Flailing State

Article excerpt

There is the same contrast even between people; between the few highly westernized, trousered, natives educated in western universities, speaking western languages, and glorifying in Beethoven, Mill, Marx or Einstein, and the great mass of their countrymen who live in quite other worlds.

--W. Arthur Lewis, "Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour"

Lant Pritchett (2009) has called India a flailing state. A flailing state is what happens when the principal cannot control its agents. The flailing state cannot implement its own plans and may have its plans actively subverted when its agents work at cross-purposes. The Indian state flails because it is simultaneously too large and too small: too large because the Indian government attempts to legislate and regulate every aspect of citizens' lives and too small because it lacks the resources and personnel to rule according to its ambitions. To explain the mismatch between the Indian state's ambitions and its abilities, we point to the premature demands by Indian elite for policies more appropriate to a developed country. We illustrate with four case studies on maternity leave, housing policy, open defecation, and education policy. We then conclude by discussing how the problem of limited state capacity points to presumptive laissez-faire as a preferred governing and learning environment for developing countries.

Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock (2017) point to one explanation for India's flailing state. In order to satisfy external actors, the Indian state and other recipients of foreign funding often take on tasks that overwhelm state capacity, leading to premature load bearing. As these authors put it, "By starting off with unrealistic expectations of the range, complexity, scale, and speed with which organizational capability can be built, external actors set both themselves and (more importantly) the governments they are attempting to assist to fail" (62).

The expectations of external actors are only one source of imitation, however. Who people read, listen to, admire, learn from, and wish to emulate is also key. We argue that another factor driving inappropriate imitation is that the Indian intelligentsia--the top people involved in politics, the bureaucracy, universities, think tanks, foundations, and so forth--are closely connected with Anglo-American elites, sometimes even more closely than they are to the Indian populace. As a result, the Indian elite initiates and supports policies that appear to it to be normal even though such policies may have little relevance to the Indian population as a whole and may be wildly at odds with Indian state capacity.

This kind of mimicry of what appear to be the best Western policies and practices is not necessarily ill intentioned. It might not be pursued to pacify external or internal actors, and it is not a deliberate attempt to exclude the majority of citizens from the democratic policy-making process. It is simply one by-product of the background within which the Indian intellectual class operates. The Indian elites are more likely, because of their background, to engage with global experts in policy dialogues that have little relevance to the commoner in India.

In the next sections, we discuss the flailing state and the demographics of the Indian elite. We then illustrate with case studies on maternity leave, housing policy, open defecation, and right-to-education policy how India passes laws and policies that make sense to the elite but are neither relevant nor beneficial to the vast majority of Indians. We conclude with a discussion of the optimal governing and learning environment when state capacity is limited.

The Flailing State

In India, corruption often takes the form of circumventing the law. Some 30 percent of driver's licenses are estimated to be fake (PTI 2016). Of the licenses that aren't fake, a large number of drivers manage to avoid taking the driver's test, which leads to unqualified drivers and more accidents on the roads (Bertrand et al. …

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