A not so distant state

As the 2014 general elections loom, the sight of the world's largest democracy at work is indeed marvellous.

Citizen participation is growing even in rural India.

As the 2014 general elections loom, the sight of the world’s largest democracy at work is indeed marvellous. But what is the state of India’s democracy beyond the voting booth? The yawning gap between procedural democracy and its substantive outcomes has been widely noted. The pressing issues of development, poverty, distribution and corruption, that bring voters to the polls are not resolved with the simple casting of ballots. What do the citizens of the world’s largest democracy do on a day-to-day basis when seeking the attention, resources and services of the state?

These are issues that my recent research in Rajasthan has sought to explore by asking two related questions: who makes claims on the state for public services, and how? Claim-making of this kind is a critical form of political participation, casting light on one of the most local and common arenas in which citizens encounter the state. A study of claim-making offers new insights into patterns of participation (who speaks up?) as well as representation (who speaks for, and through, whom?)

Rajasthan, where voters recently ousted the Congress in favour of the BJP, is an intriguing place in which to examine these dynamics. With its feudal roots, it is perhaps not a place where we would expect to see high levels of citizen-state engagement — particularly among the poor and lower castes. And yet, with one of the longest histories of panchayati raj and a vibrant civil society, Rajasthan reminds us of the need to look to the local level to take the true pulse of democracy.

Perhaps the most striking finding of my study is the sheer rate at which citizens report making claims on the state: over 75 per cent of those surveyed report that they have personally engaged in efforts to demand services from their local officials. These high numbers stand in stark contrast to common portrayals of the Indian state as a distant, impenetrable entity that lies beyond the reach of the aam aadmi. The data reveal, first, that levels of need are high and, second, that citizens look to the state to address these needs: citizens depend on — and make claims on — the state for a wide range of essential services.

How are these claims made? Citizens employ diverse practices — formal and informal — ranging from directly contacting bureaucrats and politicians to seeking assistance through a wide array of intermediaries (caste bodies, neighbourhood and village associations, NGOs, fixers and so on).

Within this mix, the gram panchayat stands head and shoulders above all others as the primary and most frequent point of contact between citizens and the state. This is in keeping with their constitutional mandate. These village institutions are frequently dismissed as little more than “paper tigers”, captured by the local elite. And yet, more than 60 per cent of those surveyed report directly contacting members of these local elected bodies. This is not a pie in the sky endorsement of the panchayat — local corruption is rife and capacity weak. But there is reason to follow the lead of the myriad citizens who nonetheless turn to their panchayats.

Importantly, these patterns persist despite, and controlling for, differences in socioeconomic status, caste, and gender. In fact, the very richest are no more (and no less) likely than the poorest to make claims on the state. Nor do rates of claim-making vary significantly by caste. Women, as one might expect, lag far behind men in claim-making activity. And yet, among women, variation persists. Notably, lower caste women are more likely than upper caste women to make claims on the state.

Simply knowing if a person is rich or poor, high or low caste, or a man or a woman, does not adequately predict whether or how that person will engage the state. In fact, far from being determined by such features, claim-making activity appears to be shaped, in part, by exposure to people and places across such divides. Citizens learn about and form expectations of the state through the accounts and experiences of others. People who move about beyond their immediate community and locality appear to have both more and better information about public services and about how to claim them, as well as greater opportunities to do so.

These patterns are encouraging. Change is afoot in rural India and mobility — social and spatial — is rising, albeit slowly and unevenly. This is driven, among other factors, by a diversification of rural incomes, a partial decoupling of caste and occupation, growing rural-urban linkages, and by new public spaces for the participation of marginalised groups (notably in the panchayats). The result is a rural environment marked by increasingly porous boundaries of caste, neighbourhood and village. These boundaries are not disappearing, but they are shifting. As the mobility and exposure of rural citizens grows, there is reason to hope that citizen participation and activism will also rise. This would be a boon for democracy, during elections and beyond.

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