What determines the size of the Indian state?

This is my latest livemint column

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I want to clarify right at the beginning that I am not making the value judgement that this question might imply to some readers. I do not think small is beautiful, and certainly not so in the context of a state. There are circumstances in which the state should expand—both in breadth (scope) and depth (reach). Equally, there are circumstances where the state should contract, ceding space to private action.

Private action itself should stand for a wide range of possibilities – an individual’s efforts, joint citizens’ action, or organized enterprises. It is also misleading to think of the state’s role as being essential in contexts where the problem is daunting in its scale and implication. Constructing roads may be an area where the state should expand its footprint; managing schools and colleges are probably not.

This column does not offer a conclusive answer to the question of what the ideal size of the Indian state is. Rather, it focuses on the determinants of size. The discussion over the size of the state subsumes an assessment of state capacity (or its fitness), in terms of both the classical definition of the ability of a government to administer its physical territory, as well as its ability to maximize welfare for its citizens. On both these aspects, therefore, we should be examining the Indian state, looking at decisions and events that influence its size.

In order to do so, I introduce three broad categories.

1. Coercive: These comprise areas where the state has the power to mandate and enforce compliance. Security and law and order are obvious examples, as are taxation, and some kinds of regulatory power, such as determining food safety standards, would fall under this category. For the state to excel in this category, it needs effective organizational powers.

2. Prescriptive: There are areas where the state has the power to prescribe remedies. It sets standards and is at times able to employ some of its regulatory powers to enforce compliance. Mostly though, the role of the state here is to encourage the adoption of idealized rules and norms. Managing education, by prescribing school standards and determining the curriculum, would be a suitable example.

3. Advisory: In this category are areas where the state’s power to influence real outcomes is limited and the role of the state is mostly advisory in nature, with little real power of enforcement. An easy example would be the efforts to inspire hygiene and cleanliness through a nation-wide mission to achieve sanitation. Innovation and flexibility are vital for a successful intervention.

Thus, these categories map quite closely to the definitions of power – the power to coerce, control the agenda and determine underlying norms – and therefore, could be understood as the categories of state power.

What does this categorization imply for how we understand the size of the state? For starters, in terms of the size the state needs to be to discharge its duties, the coercive state is quite inelastic, while, the prescriptive and advisory areas are highly elastic.

Given the broad characterization of the state’s powers in these categories, the levels of accountability expected of the state also vary. While the state is expected to maintain law and order at all costs, it is seldom realistically expected to be always successful in ensuring that no one urinates in the open in our cities. Also, the categories above do not necessarily reflect the order of priorities a country faces. For example, security of its territorial borders is a fundamental priority of a nation-state. However, the fact is that not only are there specialized institutions that handle this, but also that the good governance agenda suggests improving service delivery and creating more just inclusive societies are key to maximizing general welfare. This, however, does not necessarily involve an expansion of the state itself.

The way I see it, the second category comprises the largest and the most complex of challenges that the state faces, not in the least due to the conceptual mixture of a part-coercive and part-advisory nature of powers that the state enjoys over the areas in this category. Take public health and education, for instance. The state enjoys coercive regulatory power in some aspects of these public services, but is usually unable to enforce them to the satisfaction of its citizens. A combination of institutional handicaps and societal behaviour present a challenge that the state is usually unable to surmount.

Finally, this approach reveals the risk that the state might choose to focus on one category at the expense of another. This could be because it is difficult to simultaneously strengthen all institutions to intervene effectively in all three categories. The complexity of focusing on all three categories of issues may be better explained with an example of elections.

The Indian state is by and large able to enforce that every citizen has the right to cast a single vote; it is less successful in encouraging more people to vote; and even less so, in making people vote for the right considerations. The state may well decide that it is fulfilling its duty as long as it ensures that there is no fraudulent voting, thereby fulfilling its contract with its citizens. But having established mechanisms to maintain status quo in its coercive functions, the state should target the idealized goal of deepening democracy. This and enhanced levels of citizen-led deliberation are ideals that would lead to a truly fair election. Not achieving this would mean failing to meet the rising expectations of an enlightened citizenry.

In conclusion, I briefly introduce the role of local governments. Pursuing its goals in the advisory category requires an expansion of the state. Instead of increasing its physical presence and reach through bureaucratic expansion, it could opt for an enhanced role for citizens in these areas through genuinely participatory mechanisms. Local governments – that offer a democratic framework for organizing grassroots citizen action – represent an expansion of the state, but also a break from its conventional forms. This raises several interesting questions regarding the expansion of state, both in size and its fitness. A detailed exposition will have to be left for another column.

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