CLAIMING the State: Active Citizenship and SOCIAL WELFARE in RURAL India

A review of Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner’s Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India

The most basic services and infrastructure, from roads to schools, are often poorly provided to many Indian citizens. But even at the local level, one observes huge variation in the quality of public goods provision by the Indian state.  There are a number of reasons for this uneven performance in service delivery — lack of money, weak state capacity, and corruption. Whatever may be the reasons, since there is no guarantee that the Indian state will do its job, citizens are often obliged to directly demand what they have been promised by the state. This observation frames the core questions asked by Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner’s exciting new book, Claiming the State.

When do Indian citizens approach the state to make demands? What do they demand? How successful are these demands?

To answer these questions, Kruks-Wisner develops a theory of “active citizenship” — the act of making claims on the state when it is perceived to have done its job poorly. In order to engage in “claim-making” on the state, citizens must successfully navigate the complexities of the state and they must believe that the state is able to address the claim. In Kruks-Wisner’s conceptualization, claims on the state are borne out of a citizen’s “aspiration” and “capacity.” A citizen is said to have an aspiration for a claim if she has a problem that needs to be addressed (interest), believes that the state is obligated to fix the problem (entitlement), and believes the state is able and willing to fix the problem (efficacy). A citizen is said to have the capability to make a claim if she possesses knowledge about the government’s performance (information), an understanding of the procedures that undergird service delivery (know-how), and connections to brokers, bureaucrats or representatives who can address the claims (access). When both aspiration and capacity are present, a citizen is willing to make a claim.

For Kruks-Wisner, the key predictor of whether a citizen possesses the aspiration and capacity to make a claim on the state rests on her “socio-spatial exposure.” India is a highly cleaved society that traditionally places strong restrictions on interaction and engagement across gender, caste, religion, place and a host of other factors. The opportunity for a citizen to interact and engage in spaces outside of these restrictions increases the probability that she acquires the necessary understanding about the efficacy of the state, the procedures therein — and, most importantly, connections to the sorts of individuals who can both receive and address a claim. It is thus this socio-spatial exposure which structures which citizens make claims upon the state.

To test these claims, Kruks-Wisner conducts a wide-ranging survey of rural citizens across four districts in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Like much of India, Rajasthan saw significant changes in its institutions through the 1990s — with increases in expenditure on social welfare and public goods as well as the decentralization of political centers of powers (through the creation of the village council or panchayat system). This generated the conditions for greater claims to be made on the state due to greater perceived political efficacy of the state and the proliferation of key representatives at the local level that could be accessed by a significantly larger portion of the population. 

Indeed, survey results indicate that citizens disproportionately make claims to their local political representatives in the panchayat. These claims are not about extracting from the state for personal benefit, as the survey results show that citizens are most likely to make claims for public goods like hospitals and schools. While it is difficult to make causal claims, the data suggest that claim-making is strongly associated with better public services and the perception of responsiveness from the state.

But there are also serious inequalities in the ways in which claims are made on the state. Those of higher socioeconomic status — higher caste, more land, etc. — display greater “repertoires” of claim-making. This means that those of higher status have more outlets for making claims, and thus use a greater diversity of methods and actors to make claims on the state. Using regression analysis and an impressive array of interview data, Kruks-Wisner demonstrates that socio-spatial exposure — defined by a number of measures of mobility and interaction outside the village — is the key determinant in the willingness to make a claim on the state, consistent with the theory that she lays out. But her analysis also shows that because socio-spatial exposure is likely to be related to social status, the crucial role of this factor in making claims on the state may induce social inequalities.

Of course, acquiring socio-spatial exposure can also break inequalities. The data suggest that men also display greater claim-making behavior than women, but there are interesting variations in these results. Counterintuitively, women from lower caste communities engage in greater claim-making behavior than upper caste women. Kruks-Wisner provides an interesting anecdote of how upper caste (Brahmin) women in a particular village have become strong political activists in contrast to the general trend. These women engage in the local anganwadi (day care center) that engages women from across villages. This exposure to people and problems outside of the village have allowed the upper caste women of the village to acquire the necessary tools to make claims on the state. Thus, institutions that engender greater mobility may induce a more active citizenry. 

This study is part of a trend of high-quality “bottom-up” studies in Indian politics that citizens, local intermediaries and brokers, and local political representatives seriously as an an academic object of inquiry. Like this one, most of these studies are positive on the role of an active citizenry that holds the state accountable for its actions. But, at the same time, the introduction of negotiation and claims at the most local levels engenders certain social inequalities — as is shown quite clearly in Kruks-Wisner’s work. With a haphazard Indian state, it is comforting to know that there are social and political processes that generate the delivery of public goods. On the other hand, a world where claims-making and grievance redressal by brokers and political representatives is predicated upon preferential access can never be equal. The question is whether the quasi-institutionalization of processes like active citizenship actually hinders the the development of a more fair state with uniform public provision. All told, there may be incentives for representatives, brokers, and citizens to maintain preferential networks and work against the idea of a more inclusive state.

This study also raises interesting questions about political attribution. When a public good is not delivered, and one must attribute this to some political representative, to whom is blame is given? If citizens believe that claims are most effectively handled at the most local levels, then what does it say about the accountability of political leaders at higher levels? One can reasonably attribute local public goods provision to a village councillor, a member of legislative assembly (MLA), or member of parliament (MP) — but what about a chief minister or a prime minister? It is interesting to juxtapose the findings of this study with the recently concluded Indian national election. By most accounts, the Indian economy has fared poorly on a number of dimensions, from slow economic growth to high joblessness. But the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) actually increased its seat tally, receiving one of the largest electoral mandates in Indian history. How do we make sense of this result? This study provides one plausible answer. If citizens view their economic well-being in local terms, or at most guided by the state, then a national leader need not be penalized if the country if performing poorly on the economy. 

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner has written an excellent book that is sure to be necessary reading for the next generation of social scientists working on India. Her theory of “active citizenship” is a much-needed corrective for the study of local politics that has far too long focused only on corruption and patronage. This work will be foundational for the emergent work on local politics in India.

Neelanjan Sircar is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

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