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Monday, October 25, 2021

The NREGA trap

The expanding state has imprisoned rural voters in identity politics

Written by Kanchan Chandra |
May 1, 2009 11:58:47 pm

Since the economic reform process of the ’90s,two parallel processes are transforming the Indian state: shrinking opportunities for patronage in the urban economy and

expanding opportunities for patronage in the rural economy. This may well produce two parallel forms of politics in urban and rural areas: an issue-based form of politics in our cities and towns and an identity-based form of politics in our villages.  

The urban economy is dominated by the industrial sector,where patronage opportunities have declined post-1991. The government no longer sets quotas,and licences are fewer and more transparently allocated. The state remains involved in land transactions and in regulatory activity and in a large public sector; but it is smaller now in the urban,industrial economy than ever since Independence and it will probably continue to shrink.

The rural economy is a different story. Here,the reforms have been accompanied by an expansion of patronage opportunities associated with the state,especially during the term of the outgoing government. The UPA introduced a major expansion of the state in rural areas,both through new schemes such as the National Rural Employment

Guarantee (NREGA) and the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana and through continued implementation of schemes introduced by previous governments,such as the NDA’s Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna. 

Despite the best efforts of their designers,schemes like NREGA are still riddled with loopholes in implementation. This has expanded opportunities for patronage in the rural economy; and,since both major formations promise an expansion of rural state-led schemes through expanded subsidies on food,credit schemes,state-provided rural infrastructure,and a revamped PDS,among others,rural patronage opportunities should further expand too. 

So far,the debate over the extent of state involvement has focused on economic consequences,for growth and development. But we need also to pay attention to its consequences for the nature of our politics. In areas where patronage opportunities are shrinking,as they are doing in urban areas,we should see a tendency towards issue-based rather than identity politics. In areas where patronage opportunities are expanding — that is,in rural areas — we should see a greater push towards identity-based,rather than issue-based politics.

Why? Patronage is a game in which individual political candidates have a lot of power to target voters in policy implementation. Wherever the scope for patronage is large,voters need to pay attention to the attributes of individual politicians — caste and religion and tribe become especially important as signals as to who politicians will favour in implementation. But when space for patronage shrinks,so does the importance of individual politicians. Voters are then freed to attend to the content of laws and policies in addition to their implementation. Individual attributes based on caste and religion and tribe are not entirely sidelined,but what matters more is candidates’ position on issues,and their ability to work with others to create and implement policies based on these issues. 

Small wonder,then,that many urban candidates are focusing on issue-based politics in their local level campaigns: Ajay Maken in Delhi speaks of a master plan for Delhi,Meera Sanyal in Mumbai raises questions of national security policy and municipal reform,and Ananth Kumar campaigns in Bangalore on infrastructure development. Nor is this restricted to the metropolises: in Vishakapatnam,candidates discuss industrial pollution and the displacement of fishermen while in Chevella,near Hyderabad,the campaign is about industry and irrigation. Caste,region and religion do come up — but when they do,it’s more about what candidates think about issues related to caste and religion,less about what their own caste and religious identities are. This is in marked contrast to urban election campaigns just 10 years ago.  

In local campaigns in rural constituencies,by contrast,the identity of individual candidates matter far more. During the 1996 elections,I asked a Congress campaign manager in western UP which issues the party was emphasising in his constituency. “Our candidate,” he said,“is a Ghosi Yadav,while the other candidate is a Kamaria Yadav.” “And what issues will your candidate emphasise?” I asked. His reply: “Caste is our only issue.” More than a decade later,election rhetoric is changing in cities and towns but

appears to be the same in rural areas. I saw the same in my travels in western UP these elections: questions about the “profile” of a constituency typically produced a breakdown by caste and religion,and questions about the campaign typically produced an account of the caste and religious identities of individual candidates. Dausa in Rajasthan is another example. In 1996,Rajesh Pilot,India’s former home minister,who could have emphasised issues raised by his experience in government,campaigned instead based on his identity as a Gurjjar. Thirteen years later,the campaign strategies of individual candidates in Dausa remain focused on their Gurjjar or Meena identities.  

Indeed,it can be hard for voters in rural areas to exit ethnic categorisation even if they want to. They have some choice in deciding which ethnic categories define them — a Lodh in UP,for example,may choose to call himself a Lodh or an OBC or an MBC. But there is virtually no choice in whether ethnic categories define them. As one Jatav voter put it: “We’re going to vote for the BSP — not necessarily because of what they have done for us but because we are Jatavs and no one else will trust us if we say we will vote for them.” The continuing power of identity politics in rural constituencies is often mistakenly read as the enduring influence of tradition. It is not. It is a modern phenomenon produced by the vast reach of a patronage-based state in rural India,and will persist as long as the reach of patronage persists.   

Ultimately,then,we are presented with a paradox: the rural expansion of the state is driven by concern for economic empowerment. This is a good thing: for the first time since

Independence we have the beginnings of a broad-based social security programme for the rural poor as a matter of entitlement. But as the state attempts to liberate the rural poor in economic terms,it also imprisons them in ethnic categories. And as India continues to urbanise rapidly,those who live in urban areas may enjoy not only greater economic freedoms,on average,but greater freedom of self-definition as well.

The writer,an associate professor at New York University,has been studying identity politics in north India for more than a decade.

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