How Solidarity Works for Welfare:         Discussing Prerna Singh's latest book

Prerna Singh, Mahatma Gandhi Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies and faculty fellow at the Watson Institute, Brown University talks to India Ink about her latest book, “How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India”. In a fascinating conversation with the author, Shashank Rai of India Ink understands why sub-nationalism matters, how some states have benefitted from state solidarity, and what it means for governance in the years to come. 

Shashank Rai: You make an argument that sub-national solidarity pushes the elites towards creating better social welfare opportunities for a state. I was wondering how does that work in States in India and is it just social welfare or are there things that also get prioritized with Social welfare? 

Prerna Singh: So you know, the argument in the book really tries to make sense of these stark variations that you see across the Indian States. Even as someone who comes from India and grew up in India, I was quite surprised when I actually began to look at the data. So just to give you a sense of it even today if you’re  woman born in rural Uttar Pradesh, on an average you live about 15 years less than if you are a rural woman in Kerala. Now that's a huge difference in life expectancy, and so it was this kind of puzzle that was really the impetus for me to begin to study this, especially because I realized that if you just kind of rewind to about 120 years before, there really is very little difference between Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. So those gaps have really emerged in the last 150 years. So what I wanted to understand was what exactly was driving the beginning and then kind of the widening of those differences to the point that now it makes a huge difference to the quality of life just depending on where you grow up.  So the argument that came to me, mostly through archival work, in the five provinces that I study, Kerala, UP, Bihar, Rajasthan & Tamil Nadu, is this Idea, which was a very under-emphasized argument in the literature, that a sense of shared solidarity gives rise to the sense of mutual obligations which can be the primary impetus for political elites to put in place policies for welfare. 

You asked if this theory also applies beyond social welfare. Potentially. Also, within social welfare there are many things you can look at. I focus my attention on education and health but, you know, a very good further research would be to study whether this also applies to drinking water, to questions of livelihood, to roads, to a variety of other goods and services that we think of when we talk about these kinds of public services. But, you know, most of the literature had really emphasized things like the wealthier the state is the more money it has and therefore the better the public works. Or the closer the nature of the political competition, which is the argument that Irfan (Nooruddin) has made along with Pradeep Chibbar, or something that has to do with the presence of a communist party which is often the case in the argument made for Kerala. So for me, it was really about making an argument that departed quite radically from what we think of as conventional wisdom.

Shashank Rai: I was also intrigued by how you measure something like subnational solidarity and how you differentiate between states.

Prerna Singh: When I began to look at this question, and when I really began to realize that an important driving factor was sub-nationalism or solidarity, one of the questions that struck me was how is this similar or different to nationalism. So one of the things I do in order to create the measure, which is used in the statistical part of the book, is to return to notions of nationalism. There is a very rich scholarship on nationalism, but relatively less work on sub-nationalism. And so, I look at the literature on nationalism and the most salient aspect of it is this idea of a common language. So if you think of it in terms of a common language, the more measurable parts of it, then we are talking about not only that everyone speaks the same language but that the language that I speak is different from the language that you speak, which allows me to have a certain sense of distinctiveness. 

If you look at north-central India, you can say that maybe a state like Bihar has a common language which is Hindi, though many would disagree with that because the dialect differences are massive, but also because every other state that neighbors it, also speaks Hindi. Similarly, UP is surrounded entirely by Hindi speaking states and that reduces the sense of solidarity that can emerge from a language that is maybe not even shared but is certainly not distinctive. So I look at the existence of a common and distinctive language. 

But then I also look at behavioural manifestations - how might sub-nationalism manifest itself, how would you know it when you see it. For that, I look at the boundaries of the state. Does the state look the way it does because that was how it inherited these boundaries from the colonial times, the British raj, or whether there was a very powerful movement for the creation of the state? For this, I look at the States re-organization commission from the 1950s and I use that to code the degree of the popular movement for the creation of the state. So UP, for instance, has always had a big movement to divide the state while Kerala has had this big movement of unifying these princely states of Travancore, Kochi, and Malabar, which is part of the Madras presidency. Then I look at the presence of a sub-nationalist political party, which I code based on election manifestos. So, something like the DMK or the ADMK would be considered, in the book, one of the Tamil sub-nationalist parties. The names of parties are often vert important like Assam Gana Parishad Party or Telugu Desam Party. So I look at that, I also look at manifestos, and the third one is the absence of a secessionist movement. So something like the creation of Uttarakhand, to me, signal the undermining of a UP identity. So the creation of Telangana clearly means that the Andhra identity is somewhat divided internally. 

Shashank Rai: To what extent do you believe the size of a state plays a role in creating such a sub-national identity? For example, can one say that it’s far more difficult to develop such regional nationalism in UP as opposed to smaller states such as Punjab and Assam? 

Prerna Singh: That’s a very good question. And it’s something I have thought about, and I guess one can imagine that it would help, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. We know a lot of smaller states, Haryana being a case in point, that are quite small and administratively more convenient, and that have not developed that kind of solidarity that one might anticipate. On the other hand, you have a big state like Tamil Nadu, which is huge and yet that idea of Tamil nationalism kind of burns quite bright. However, one of the key policy takeaways from the book, it’s not really about the size of the state, but more about whether or not that state reflects popular attachment. So, if a small state reflects popular attachment, then the small state is a really good idea. But if it doesn't, like we created the state of Chattisgarh - but there was no popular movement for it. So even though if you think of states like Chattisgarh and Jharkhand as new states that were created for administrative convenience, to me there's a massive difference between a state like Jharkhand which had presented a demand to the Simon commission, versus a state like Chattisgarh that was taken aback by its own creation.

Shashank Rai: What implications do you believe your research has internationally, especially upon countries in Europe where the supra-national identity of the EU is presently very much in question?

Prerna Singh: In the conclusion of the book, I talk a lot about how this argument extends to Western Europe in particular. And in some sense, it is also a forgotten argument about Europe. If you look at some of the arguments about how the beginning of the welfare state happened in Europe, it takes place in the wake of the 2nd World War. And it happens to some extent because of this new identity of Britishness, that was being actively forged in the wake of the war, something like the National Health Service (NHS). which is very much an institution that was a reflection of the growing sense of national solidarity, that the state should be there for it's poorest citizens, in the way all the citizens were present through the war. 

So I think in a sense you can understand the creation of the welfare state in 1940s Europe, along very similar lines on national solidarity. It’s also interesting to reference, the way you did, about the debates about the retrenchment of the welfare state. If you look at the kinds of arguments that are made there, those arguments bring out the main argument of the book that the main fear people on the right of the spectrum seem to have is that migrants will undermine national solidarity. So the argument that they cling to that national solidarity is required for the welfare state. But the key mistake that they make is that diversity undermines solidarity. And the one key point that I make in the book is that demographic diversity is not destiny. You can have a very diverse state where people come from different religions and people speak different languages, but they all have a sense of shared solidarity. So difference shouldn't mean division and homogeneity shouldn't mean solidarity. You can have everyone looking the same and still have highly-fractured politics. Therefore, the mistake that gets made in the retrenchment and the welfare state argument is that migrants of a different color or religious identity will necessarily undermine national solidarity, which I think historically and objectively has not been the case. 

Shashank Rai: My final question, and this has much to do with competitive federalism that the BJP government at the center is seemingly propagating. How do you think the central and the state government can plan considering your research? Is it possible to build such solidarity in a state like UP or is it possible to use such solidarity in states where it already exists towards better gains? 

Prerna Singh: Yeah, and that’s the sort of a question we should be asking about competitive federalism. One of the policy implications of the book is that Indian states, and here they differ from Chinese states, have had a lot of autonomy. But it’s been an autonomy that has been much more residual. Indian states have been given the autonomy that the Indian state does not want. The fact that Education and Health were only on State list, and that states had entire control over them up until the 1990s when education gets moved onto the concurrent list, means that there is a lot of space for the states to do stuff. Tamil Nadu and Kerala have taken a lead in that while UP, Bihar and to some extent, Rajasthan has been left behind. If you think of Indian states as a laboratory for experimentation, then you’d notice that Indian government has not always learned enough from the states. And when it has those schemes have been massively successful. So, it’s an argument for bottom-up learning. Kerala and Tamil Nadu compete with who has had the longest running mid-day meal program. And Mid Day meal has been greatly successful because you kill two birds with a stone – nutrition, and retention in schools. This went on in Kerala and Tamil Nadu for decades before it got picked up by the national government. Again, in the state of Rajasthan, in the 1990s, we had some amazing new programs but they never really had the kind of the uptake from the national government as one would hope. On the other hand, in China, you have the national government continuously learning through the local experiments. So one of the ways you could think about competitive federalism is that you can test policy models in some states which are, in some cases, larger than the size of some countries.