Book Project

Development in Multiple Dimensions: Social Power and Regional Policy in India

One of the most serious obstacles to economic growth and human development in poor countries is that their governments often refuse to provide basic public services such as education, health care, roads and electricity. Many observers have suggested that such failures are a consequence of the social inequalities prevalent in many poor countries, which create powerful elites who manipulate state institutions for their own benefit. However, such a conclusion ignores a crucial aspect of the societies of most poor countries: that social inequalities are not single, but multiple, and that a single region may have several competing elites, with sharply different policy preferences and sources of political power.

This book will explore the complicated, chaotic, distributional politics that result from multiple patterns of reinforcing, and non-reinforcing, social inequality. It will show why some elite groups are excluded from political power, while others wield disproportionate influence. On the outcome side, it rejects simplistic notions of “high” or “low” performing states, and the related idea that development policy has no programatic component. On the contrary, there are important compositional differences in the types of public services governments supply, with some favoring infrastructure over social services and others taking the opposite approach.

This theory, and the empirics that test it, are drawn from India and the Indian political experience. It examines one of the great problems of South Asian studies: Why the states of India, despite virtually identical formal institutions, differ so dramatically both in the levels and in the types of services provided by their governments? They show that different states have pursued four very different paths to the ideal of development, and that these paths are closely associated with the local distribution of social power.
The book makes two contributions to the study of the political economy of development in India in general, and South Asia in particular. The first of these is a reconceptualization of variation in government performance. This book argues that public goods distribution in India varies in two dimensions, corresponding to social and infrastructure goods, and, ultimately, economic and human development. Some states, like Gujarat, produced excellent roads and power plants but poor schools and hospitals, while other states, like West Bengal, have social services that are much better than their infrastructure. Such a distinction allows a richer conversation about what politics in poor countries looks like, adding a greater awareness of policy disagreements to a literature focused on unidimensional “performance.”

The second contribution is a theory of the cause of these differences, based on the importance of multiple sources of social inequality. Indian states are dominated by powerful social groups, which are overrepresented in the political system and able to exercise disproportionate influence on policy. The power of these social groups comes a variety of sources, most importantly land (and the clientelistic ties that come with it), urban education, and simple group numbers (in democratic settings). The distribution of these sources of power relative to one another determines the political influence of each group, and in turn the types of resource transfers that politicians will find attractive. Areas dominated by large landed groups, such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Punjab, will favor the provision of infrastructure goods, while areas dominated by large educated groups, such as West Bengal and Kerala, will favor the provision of infrastructure goods. Areas dominated by small, educated landed groups, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, will provide few of either kinds of public goods, while areas dominated by groups combining all three sources of power, such as Himachal Pradesh, will provide both types of goods.

While the book is primarily focused on distributional politics, reinforcing inequalities provide a powerful tool to examine a wide variety of other types of regional difference in South Asia, the causes of which are little understood. These include the incidence of land reform (a tool of educated elites to weaken landed ones) and the size and influence of the bureaucracy (employment within which is especially attractive to educated elites. The book also examines the origins of the sharply different patterns of cleavage within Indian state party systems, with religion, language, class and caste, all being in some regions the most important focus of political rhetoric. These patterns of cleavage, and the corresponding patterns of votes for particular parties, are the results of dominant elites attempting to coopt members of other groups, and reflect the different political needs of these elites.


Sample Chapter