Home > General Politics, News from Abroad > The incomplete state: Charles Tilly and the defence of aid to India

The incomplete state: Charles Tilly and the defence of aid to India

Aid to India is back in the news.  Following so-called “revelations” in the Telegraph  about the Indian government’s attempts to bring UK aid to an end –  in fact the Financial Times covered the story 18 months ago – the Daily Mail’s headline runs:

A £2bn space programme and Swiss bank accounts: I’ve seen how aid to India is wasted.

The Sue Reid piece below opens, almost inevitably, with a lie:

A picture on the Department for International Development’s website shows a 20-year-old named Meenakshi polishing the new solar panel on the roof of her village shack in Orissa, on the east coast of India.

This gleaming piece of kit to provide electricity has been paid for by you, the British taxpayer.

By the end of this year our Government will have shelled out £1.5billion since 2009 to pay for solar energy and other grand schemes to combat climate change in foreign countries, including India.

Let’s leave aside the fact that most of Orissa, and all of the bit DfID has any engagement with, is many miles from the coastal strip.  The main lie here is that Meenaksi is not actually “polishing the new solar panel on her village shack”. 

Had Reid been inclined to read any of the words around the picture and the associated article, she would know that Meenakshi is not in fact pictured next her own household’s solar panel, but next to one which she installed for the whole of a village, to bring electricity to it for the first time.  She would know that Meenakshi is employed under the State of Orissa’s Tribal Empowerment and Liverlihoods Programme as a solar power engineer delivering and maintaining to install and maintain solar technologies across a range of villages and train other women in the same field, that DfID contributes to her salary (not to the actual panels), and that the whole programme is much more about female empowerment and basic services than it is about climate change, which Reid appears to think shouldn’t happen in “foreign countries” (because carbon dioxide obeys border controls, obviously).

Of course, Reid is happy to portray Meenakshi as the passive recipient of solar panels, whatever the facts, because it fits with her broader narrative about how all aid to India is wasted (she knows this for sure because she’s been to a school classroom in Bhopal).  Reid’s main energies in the piece are then devoted to pointing out that we shouldn’t give aid to India because it has a lot of rich people who drive Rolls Royces and have Swiss bank accounts, and because India has a space programme.

Whether we like it or not, though, Reid is tapping into a powerful narrative.  In particular, the mantra that the poor in India don’t need aid because the Indian government has a space programme has become lodged in many people’s minds, trotted out regularly by Newsnight’s rightwingers.   In June it was Hitchens, and last week it was the turn of the TPA representative to lap up the applause for her extraordinary insights.

The big question for those on the Left who are interested in the 350 million or so Indian people who live far below the poverty line (that’s around 5% of the world’s population) is how we counter this narrative most effectively.  That question seems particularly pertinent today, as officials negotiate in Delhi over the final “political settlement” details of the EU-India Free Trade Agreement, which will consign many of this 350 million to an even more uncertain future.

Increasingly though, I think Reid, Hitchens et al’s  narrative cannot be countered effectively simply by pointing out – as Development Minister Andrew Mitchell has done – that there are still poor people in India.  Most people living in Britain today have no real conception of poverty and hunger in the third world.  Given this, the consistent messaging from the right, that the Indian (or any other government) could look after their populations properly if only they pulled their finger out, dovetailed with the old “charity begins at home” message ideally suited to time of self-imposed austerity, means that simple appeals to humanity are unlikely to have any great effect any time soon.

What is needed instead is the development of a new, distinctively leftwing narrative about why the Indian government in Delhi is not in any kind of position to assist properly in the development of its massive rural hinterland (even if it wanted to be), and how the only way 5% of the world’s population can be properly assisted in the long-term is through a total re-evaluation of why aid is still needed and how it can be re-engineered.

This means going back to some starting principles about why India is where it is now.

The crucial thing to recognise is that India is not a complete state, at least in the European liberal democratic sense of the term, and that for the right (or anyone) to base their argument on assumptions about state capacity is entirely invalid.

At one level, this means simply that the central government of India is, in terms of domestic policy implementation, only a relatively small player.  Most of the responsibility, and some of the funding, lies with the 33 fairly autonomous states – to a much greater extent than in, say, the Lander in Germany.  Thus, while the right-wing papers talk of British aid as though it is delivered in a big brown envelope to a corrupt high official in a plus New Delhi office, the reality is that, national level permissions aside, it is agreed at state level through partnership agreements.

Sensibly, DfiD now provides its aid only to the poorest 8 of the 28 Indian states, mostly to the East and North, and in which 65% of India’s poor live.

As the Southern and Western states do grow their way out of poverty (though inequalities remain), these poorest 8 states are being steadily left behind, not least because the central state has dramatically withdrawn its financial support since 2005/06, when the Twelfth Finance Commission recommended a process of “disintermediation”, a euphemism for cutting states adrift from the Centre and leaving them at the mercy of the markets.   This means that all States are now borrowing at rates over 9% (seen as unsustainable in the Eurozone) and this, combined with reductions in States’ income from the National Small Savings Fund, means that the poorer States, with their lower tax base growth projections, face a very uncertain fiscal future, especially from 2017/18 as many of the recent loans come to maturity*.

In this macroeconomic context it surely makes sense, for those who support the idea of 350 million people having more secure livelihoods, to promote their position by making as clear as possible that aid is not in fact going to the Indian State at all, but to areas which are effectively, and increasingly as a result of central policy, “countries within a country”.

Yet this is only the first part of the “incomplete state” narrative that the left needs to develop in defence of the 350 million.

The more important element comes when we consider not just the way in which the Centre is steadily withdrawing  from its responsibilities towards it States, but also the fundamental incompleteness of government at the level below the State.  It is this incompleteness which requires such a thorough evaluation of what development aid can and should be for.

In many rural areas of India, government administration still exists on paper only, and in the minds of the officials at State headquarters.  It doesn’t administer anything in the real sense. A tax economy, and the administrative capacity that goes with that, does not exist in areas where most people live subsistence farming lives.  Law and order as we recognise it in western liberal states, and as it is experienced in more urban areas of India, has not reached these parts.

That is, the process of state formation that took place between the 16th and 18th century in Europe, and earlier in Imperial China, has simply not taken place in India. 

In Europe, as historian and sociologist Charles Tilly has demonstrated, the process of state formation was a long and complex one, in which governments moved from a position of reliance on local “magnates” for their indirect rule – under which huge discretion was granted at local level for fear that these same magnates might turn swiftly from supporters to rebels – towards:

two expensive but effective strategies: (a) extending their officialdom to the local community and (b) encouraging the creation of police forces that were subordinate to the government rather than individual patrons, distinct from war-making forces, and therefore less useful as the tools of dissident magnates (p.175).

Ultimately, with the means of violence firmly under their control, states could become open to the rise of the kind of civil institutions we enjoy in western liberal democracies today.

In India, this necessarily long process of state formation did not take place, because colonial rule happened instead (again, cf. China).   As Tilly notes:

Whether forced or voluntary, bloody or peaceful, decolonization simply completed that process by which existing states leagued to create new ones.

The extension of the Europe-based state-making process to the rest of the world, however, did not result in the creation of states in the strict European image. Broadly speaking, internal struggles such as the checking of great regional lords and the imposition of taxation on peasant villages produced important organizational features of European states: the relative subordination of military power to civilian control, the extensive bureaucracy of fiscal surveillance, the representation of wronged interests via petition and parliament. 

On the whole, states elsewhere developed differently. The most telling feature of that difference appears in military organization. European states built up their military apparatuses through sustained struggles with their subject populations and by means of selective extension of protection to different classes within those populations. The agreements on protection constrained the rulers themselves, making them vulnerable to courts, to assemblies, to withdrawals of credit, services, and expertise. To a larger degree, states that have come into being recently through decolonization or through reallocations of territory by dominant states have acquired their military organization from outside, without the same internal forging of mutual constraints between rulers and ruled (p. 185-6). 

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that state legitimacy should continue to be actively contested.   The ongoing Maoist insurgency may rarely reach the Western media, but it continues to be very real, and is being conducted in precisely those places – the remote, mountainous and forested areas – where State government is weakest.    In these areas, the state does not necessarily exist as prima facie legitimate power, and the Maoists are often in a position to impose their own legitimacy – effectively their own alternative state form.

It is strangely symbolic that the central state’s latest attempt to deal with it involves the purchase of a drone to track Maoist (Naxalite) movements – it is almost an admission that the state can not reach these places by conventional state means, and must resort to copying the air war tactics of the US, as though the areas concerned really are foreign countries.

This may all seem a strange digression, but if the 350 million people now at risk of total abandonment by whatever exists of the “official” Indian state are to be aided properly, it is important to recognise exactly why simply banging on – as the right do – about the Indian elite’s responsibilities will not get us anywhere; the Indian state cannot reach out to the poorest, even if it wanted to.

Moreover, it increasingly looks as though the Indian elite is no longer interested in a total state, in which everyone – rich or poor – has a place.  As noted, the centre has already withdrawn its borrowing powers from State governments, but there are clearer signs than that.  Take the EU-India Free Trade Agreement, where the Indian negotiating team’s biggest “aggressive interest” is to secure Mode 4 concessions from the EU, allowing India’s middle class to work within the EU for Indian multinationals.   To secure this, they are quite happy to grant tariff removal on agricultural products which will almost certainly lead to the loss of livelihoods for millions of their semi-citizens on the margins.

Taken together, the effective abandonment of whole-state formation by the Indian elite which controls the central state, and the evolution of  impoverished “countries within a country”, demands, as noted, not simply a narrative in defence of current aid provision, but a total re-evaluation by the left of what aid should be about. 

This is not easy. On the one hand, it might be argued DfID’s current half-focus on working with State governments to allow them to “state-form”, in a way which might have happened had colonial rule not intervened, might be the best practical way forward. 

On the other hand, Tilly’s work suggests that simply to support the formation of states which have not gone through an evolutionary pattern of settlement between those with the means of violence at their disposal, such that civil institutions develop safely, may end up being counterproductive.  It may simply lend false, short-term legitimacy to governments unfit and unable to govern without resorting to violence and exploitation.

Perhaps the most we can say is that this is a debate the left needs to have urgently, and in a spirit of solidarity with the 350 million Indians who are effectively “stateless”, and of course with all those others around the world whose interests have been similarly damaged -first by colonialism, then neoliberalism, and now by the new post-neoliberal phase, in which they have become, in the eyes of a flourishing elite, simply expendable.  Once, the poor were seen as possible resources if only development could happen effectively.  Now, they’re just not worth the effort.

And this new expendability of the poor , it seems to me, is the key rationale for a new international solidarity, or in this case solidarity between the British left and the Indian poor (and the organisations that represent them). 

For this is a truly global phenomenon. In Britain, as I’ve set out, we are now ruled by an elite whose high politics-low politics operational code actively requires that those on the margins should simply be disregarded as far as possible, with inconvenient matters such as the NHS and education delegated to efficient (in their own terms) free-marketeers.  In all Western states, the ideological clock is being turned back to a time when liberalism carried within it its own exclusionary logic (see Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History for the details**). 

In India and other post-colonial creations (for the very idea of India as a state is a British imperial one), that process is easier because there is, by and large, no complete state to “uncomplete”, but the interests of a new global elite  – the 1% – create the same driving force.

The conditions are ripe for new stage of international solidarity.  One route to its development is for a rational defence of aid – to India and elsewhere – in the face of the right-wing thugs who currently dominate the media debate with their simplistic warblings about India’s space programme.  In Britain, the Conservatives have conspicuously failed to counter the Daily Mail’s aid bullshit, despite the faintly laudable efforts of Andrew Mitchell and others to defend the status quo, so Labour and the left must take up the challenge.

* The 11 “special category states” of India, primarily in the far North and East and defined as such largely because of their remoteness and geopolitical importance (bordering Pakistan and China) are currently benefiting from lower rates because a much larger amount of their State income comes from the Centre and the markets appear to be pricing in this “stability”.  This suggests that the poorer states in the heart of India may in time face even higher rates as they become increasingly decoupled from the rest of the more prosperous Indian economy.

** I cover the development of this New Liberalism in more detail in my forthcoming book, The Sixth Tradition.

  1. WotNot
    February 8, 2012 at 11:30 am

    In sharp contrast to the majority of articles appearing in the tabloid and even the broadsheet press, this is a thoughtful and thorough account of the arguments around aid to India, and aid more generally. A refreshing debunking of myths. Thank you.

  2. A Mode 4 Indian :)
    February 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    I keep coming back to this post again and again. The argument about why the Indian state has not been able to overcome poverty very compelling. Each and every link in this post was a gateway to something different from the usual argument and yet connected to the defence of aid to the Indian poor. Grateful to have found this article after having waded through all the other rubbish that makes for a very repulsive looking UK at the moment.

  3. paulinlancs
    February 8, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Wotnot and A Mode 4 Indian: Thanks for your comments. I wrote this at high speed the other night and have now been back over to correct a few grammatical mistakes, so I hope it now makes a little more sense.

  4. Kunal
    February 10, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Great article…………..hats of to your knowledge…..it seems you understand India really well unlike other British journalists who have no idea what they are talking about.

    • paulinlancs
      February 10, 2012 at 10:20 am

      Thanks Kunal. I have a health worker background and spent quite a lot of time with health projcts in India, inlcuding with tribal communuities in Orissa, so I have some sense of it.

  5. Rory
    February 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    This really is an excellent piece of journalism. Well researched, well written, and informative even to those who like to think we do know something about aid and India!

    My question would be: how is our international solidarity with the poor of India expressed by giving aid to their theoretical state governments who are unable or unwilling (as you describe) to put it to much good use for the inhabitants?

    I’m not arguing for stopping or reducing aid BTW, just wondering how it can best be directed.

    • paulinlancs
      February 13, 2012 at 11:13 am


      Sorry, missed this.

      There are no easy answers, clearly. I\m planning a part 2 to this in which to examine precisely the ‘what we do’ question you raise, but in the end it’s not possible to recreate artificially the conditions under which peaceful, “full” states formed – we only have one human history. I suspect the best answer we have is to address the best way forward on a case by case basis, but of course any “addressing” is beset by the question of who does the addressing and how a new form of colonialism is avoided.

      More later.

  6. May 5, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Pam Nogales and I, members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, recently interviewed the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo, author of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2006, translated 2011).  We talked about Marxism, the problematic legacy of liberalism, and the State.  You might be interested in checking out the edited transcript of our conversation, which was recently published in The Platypus Review.

    You can also find full video of the interview on our Vimeo page.

  7. Miggins
    August 17, 2012 at 12:07 am

    Just linked here from the New Statesman, how’s the counter narrative coming along? Ah, 8 comments since February I see..

    ”Yet this is only the first part of the “incomplete state” narrative that the left needs to develop in defence of the 350 million.”

    This mindset of yours is hardly different from colonialism, a handful of leftists presume to defend the interests of 350m people, can you not see the absurdity in that?

    You are quite right that India is a British invention, so perhaps we should follow this logic to its rational conclusion and allow the region to revert back to a more natural and manageable state.

    By all means we should encourage reform, any educated Indian will tell you it is the corruption at all levels of governance that is the main source of the country’s woes. Whether that is a legacy of colonization I don’t know, but I doubt it.

    But at the end of the day, who are we to lecture at India? to 1.2 billion people? If India is an ‘incomplete state’ due to our interference, then what good will further meddling achieve? We should stick to problems closer to home and stop holding ourselves up as some kind of moral authority, because the rest of the world just isn’t buying it any more.

  8. Python Clojure
    February 13, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Author fails to acknowledge the extensive welfare activities taken up by Indian state. Following are few of them

    a) Right to Education :- All the private schools HAVE to provide 25% of it students from economically weaker sections with zero fees.
    b) MNREGA :- Govt of India ensures employment for around 200 days of an ear.
    c) Right to Food :- Govt of India supplies 12-15 varieties of food grains to poor at base minimum of cost
    d) Farm Loan Waiver :- Govt of India waived of loans incurred by farmers around 2009 across the nation

    And these are the ones that are implemented at the level of Federal Govt. In addition, States implement their own set of welfare schemes.

    And India is one of the highly taxed countries of the world. Almost 55% of income is paid as taxes(direct+indirect). Major burden falls on the salaried middle class.

    Hence calling India as a elitist nation is a hasty conclusion and pretty far from ground reality.

  1. March 7, 2012 at 3:19 pm
  2. July 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm
  3. December 31, 2012 at 12:58 am
  4. February 3, 2013 at 8:57 pm

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