‘Despite the State’ review: A developmental cul-de-sac in a functioning democracy

Reporting from six States with varying histories, economics and civil structures, a journalist finds each struggling to deliver health, education and justice to its people

Updated - March 04, 2021 04:13 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2021 04:47 pm IST

In the weekly journal Young India , Mahatma Gandhi wrote in a December 1921 entry, “Let us not push the mandate theory to ridiculous extremes and become slaves to resolutions of majorities.” Unfortunately, our leaders and politicians appear to remember Gandhi when it is convenient and forget him when it is necessary. Or else why do elected leaders often ignore the wellbeing of the citizens once voted to power? In a functioning democracy like India, how are denizens, who have the power to elect a new government every five years, faring? M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book, Despite the State, holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.

Expanding on his series for Scroll.in, ‘Ear to the Ground’, beginning 2015, Rajshekhar studied six States, one in the Northeast (Mizoram), one rich in minerals but poor (Odisha), one with irrigated agriculture (Punjab), another with rain-fed farming (Bihar), one relatively industrialised (Gujarat) and another from the south (Tamil Nadu). The book, the size of which belies its exhaustive reportage from the shadows of the States, brings readers face to face with realities far removed from what is expected in or projected for a democracy.

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Deep rot

The assignment stretched to 33 months and he found “democracy was malfunctioning” in each of the States. If Mizoram was financially unviable, Odisha had frittered away its iron-ore boom. He found that Punjab was “entirely controlled by the Parkash Singh Badal clan”. In Tamil Nadu, Rajshekhar observed that the State had drifted from “welfarism to messianic populism”. In Bihar, the state was absent and in Gujarat “majoritarianism was writ large”.

As Rajshekhar explains in the introduction, to understand each State better, he interviewed a representative slice of its political economy — businesspeople, politicians, activists, bureaucrats, religious leaders, reporters, academics, civilians and others attuned to changes in a society over the last few years. If a significant change emerged, he drilled deeper. For instance, Rajshekhar wanted to know why Tamil Nadu saw a huge spike in household borrowings between 2005 and 2016.

“Beneath these differences lurked similarities. All of them struggled to deliver health, education and justice, including Tamil Nadu, venerated for its social justice movements and policies. In all these States, there was concentration of political power, and a politically-connected elite had gained much more than everyone else... People fell back on caste and religious identities as they tried to cope.”

His ground reports make the reader sit up and ask: Can so much harm be done to society by the state itself? We have elected governments but are they truly representative of the people? Do they cater to the aspirations of the people? He sums it up thus: “In every State, democratic institutions, ripped free of the founding values of a young idealistic democracy and hijacked by power structures, are declining into disorder and unaccountability.” Rajshekhar’s portrait is at variance with the image we are presented of India being a vibrant emerging power.

Problems aplenty

In every State, among others he asked one question: ‘What are the largest changes you have seen in the last five or seven years?’ Everywhere, this question yielded “sharp answers”, but not in Bihar. The only substantial change he found there was the “rise in communal tensions.” Gujarat, he writes, chose “majoritarinism”. Though the process of industrialisation started off well with MSMEs and groundnut production being the two pillars of the economy with milk (Amul) being the third, the weakening of the dairy sector with the entry of regional satraps and other factors resulted in not-so-rosy pictures on the ground.

As for Tamil Nadu, he finds that the caste system still rules despite the State’s pronounced social justice movements. In health care, he compares Mizoram (a State that struggles to pay salaries to employees and with a maximum number of HIV patients), Odisha and Punjab, with Tamil Nadu and says while in the former three States health care failed due to administrative incapacity, in Tamil Nadu it was a functional government that ignored systemic improvements by manipulating figures in favour of the ruling governments, at great cost to its people.

Rajshekhar establishes that a majority of the people, and particularly the poor, in India are struggling, exploited by the very structure that is meant to protect and lead, astutely observing: “I slowly started to see political parties not as emissaries of regional, religious or caste-class interests but as self-interested institutions that sourced electoral power from their constituencies”.

The book is a model study for students of journalism; as noted in the afterword by V. Geetha, it is “a part of and extends the grammar of a genre of writing that has emerged this past decade: reportage which combines fieldwork, research and argument.”

Despite the State ; M. Rajshekhar, Context/Westland, ₹499.

The reviewer is a writer and historian.

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