19 July 2022 13:16:56 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The murky Maharashtra saga and the craft of the state

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray | Photo Credit: PTI

The recent political developments in India’s most industrialised State, Maharashtra, which hosts the commercial capital Mumbai, were another pointer towards how the fundamental precepts of democracy get subverted in the rough and tumble of everyday politics.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi government, which was an uneasy alliance led by Shiv Sena and supported by the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress Party, ironically did not fall because of its inherent ideological contradictions. It fell due to an implosion within the Shiv Sena which was duly abetted by the Bhartiya Janata Party.

As academic and political scientist Gilles Verniers says in a recent column, the ‘coup’ mounted by the BJP in Maharashtra is a continuation of a series of such ‘coups’, which includes Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.

As Verniers says in his article, this is the seventh time since 2014 a democratically elected government has been toppled after losing majority in the Assembly through either defections or revolt. He says that in all but one instance the BJP went on to form the government.

Apart from the unedifying acts of MLAs being corralled and sent to various resorts, to keep the ‘flock’ together, and the legal hairsplitting over Anti Defection law, this saga also raises some serious questions of the nature of democracy and statecraft in India.

The state of statecraft

Curiously enough, there seems to be very little discomfort or outrage over defections by legislators and toppling of democratically elected governments in the minds of the citizens. MLAs crossing over seems to matter little with voters. It certainly doesn’t seem to affect the legislators’ electoral prospects otherwise they wouldn’t attempt it.

Academic Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, in a recent article attempts to answer this curious conundrum of Indian politics. Despite legislators crossing from one party to another for purely personal gains, voters rarely punish them, says Kumar.

There are two main reasons for this, according to Kumar. One voters, across economic class, vote for parties and not for individual candidates. How many among us even remember who our constituency’s MLA or MP is?

Kumar cites a CSDS-Lokniti study which says that in the 2014 elections 58 per cent of the voters voted for the party whereas only 33 per cent voted for the individual candidate. This trend largely remained the same during the 2019 elections with 52 per cent voting for the party and 37 per cent for the candidate.

Another important aspect that matter to voters is legislators’ “accessibility”, according to Kumar. A legislator needs to be accessible to the voter of his or her constituency and gets things done for them and legislators are acutely aware of this. This can range from getting a water or electricity connection, getting ration, Aadhaar or job card, or even a school admission for people of the respective legislator’s constituency. So the legislators’ ability to “get things done” seems to matter more to the voters than the party affiliation or ideology.

State capacity

And it is precisely this aspect of electoral politics in India that raises some disturbing questions. The legislators play the role of “mediators” between the voters and the state, which may often seem as mindlessly bureaucratic and apathetic to the needs of the people. From the time of independence, the nature of the Indian state has been one that is not only excessively rule-bound, but also inaccessible and intimidating for the common folk.

This has only been complemented by the Indian state’s pathetic record in providing public goods — be it public health, education, water, sanitation or roads.

So the people often have to rely on their elected representatives (MLAs, MPs, MLCs) to help them work through the bureaucratic maze and get things that are legally due to them.

An unfortunate fallout of this is the relationship between the state and the people — instead of being equal partners for the betterment of society, it has over the years evolved into a “patron-client” relationship. In this model, the people are made to feel beholden to the state for providing, ironically what is due to them legally and Constitutionally.

This raises some crucial questions over the level of state capacity in India. Of course given India’s vast diversity the level of state capacity (the ability of the state to deliver on its promises) varies across States. State capacity is usually much better in the southern and Western States which also corresponds to their better economic and social indices.

Despite the recent initiatives on e-governance, both at the State and Central level, where an attempt has been made to make governance more people-centric and less cumbersome, much more needs to be done in this area to make the government more responsive for people’s needs.

But looking at it from a political economy lens, ironically a more responsive state is also one where the power of the politicians gets whittled down. If the state becomes efficient and responsive, people will also need to rely less on their elected representatives for their everyday needs. The positive side is this will enable elected representatives to focus more on law-making and larger governance issues. But it will also diminish their hold over their voters, which some politicians may resent.

In one sense greater governance reforms is linked with broader social reform and development.