The Politics of Dignity

India continues to puzzle scholars of political economy of development. States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu enjoy literacy and infant mortality levels that are comparable to Western Europe, while the quality of public services in some North Indian states is amongst the worst in the world. Gujarat outpaces most states with its impressive economic growth even as it lags in social development. Why should we observe such extremes in living conditions in the same country? Why do politicians in some places ignore economic development and instead focus on identity politics even when the vast majority of their citizens live in poverty? Why do some states systematically pursue growth-oriented development while others prioritize redistributive goals?

My book project, based on my dissertation “One Nations, Many worlds: Varieties of Developmental Regimes in India”, examines these questions. By drawing on the messiness of identity politics that often determine electoral outcomes, and by extension, the goals of the political elite in many multiethnic democracies, I conceptualize states as three distinct developmental regimes: growth-oriented, redistributive, and a third category that I develop and define – dignity-enhancing. Dignity regimes direct their attention towards representational policies with the aim of equalizing social hierarchy. I argue that concerns of dignity need to be acknowledged and analyzed as a trajectory of development that is distinct from the standard dyad of growth and redistribution. This is especially true in societies where long histories of ascriptive discrimination present a distinct set of challenges to equalization of social opportunity that mere investment in public goods cannot capture.

Drawing on more than twenty-four months of fieldwork across India, I find that high-status (upper-caste) political elite are more likely to support growth-led development over redistribution. The policy preference of elites from low-status (lower-caste) groups, however, is shaped by their experience of humiliation. Unlike the working-class-coalitions, they are more likely to prioritize descriptive representation over pure redistribution. This is reflected through formal caste-based quotas in public employment and appointment of lower-caste officials in the bureaucracy. Rather than just patronage, I argue that these representational policies are rooted in a wider notion of social justice that seeks equalization of social status across groups, what I call the politics of dignity. Descriptive representation not only allows low-status groups to be reflected in institutions of power and seen as legitimate members of the political community, but offers a means to reduce the control of dominant social groups in state institutions by breaking down elite patronage networks. I find evidence that greater representation of low-status groups in the bureaucracy can contribute towards making state policy more redistributive.

This project utilizes a mixed-methods research design, combining a nation-wide longitudinal analysis of state-level public spending patterns over five decades with a paired comparative historical analysis of six states going back to the early twentieth century. The cases – Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, and Punjab are matched on economic development, nature of social mobilization, ethnic diversity, and party systems. The statistical analysis allows me to control for a range of competing explanations, while the qualitative cases provide evidence on causal links between the identity of the political elite and nature of state policy by tracing the debates surrounding policy decisions. In doing so, I rely on a wide range of secondary and original sources - data on legislator identity (1952-2010), caste-based quotas in public employment (1921-2017), voting behavior (2000-2014), public budgets (1960-2012), content-analysis of political speeches (1960-2015), and primary surveys on the bureaucracy (1980-2015). I also conducted over one hundred and fifty interviews with civil servants and politicians.

My dissertation is under embargo, but a summary of the project is available here. I test the theory with additional data on caste-based reservations in public employment in a recent paper. The data section of this website includes some resources collected for this project.

Header: Ajmer, Rajasthan