State Autonomy and the Developmental State in India

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Before we start to analyse the concept of state autonomy, it is imperative that we, first understand what the concept of a ‘ state’ means and its relevance. We also need to know the boundaries between the state and the major power groupings in the civil society. So, what is this thing called ‘a state’?

The task of defining a state is an untidy matter, mainly, because it can be looked at as having two dimensions, one is the institutional which is to say what it looks like as a structural entity and the other is the functional or what it does, the functions it executes. The institutional dimension of the state, as put, privileges the two-dimensional definition, forward by Max Weber. This then contains four elements, which are the following:

  1. A differentiated group of institutions and personnel, embodying,
  2. Centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate outwards from a center to cover,
  3. A territorially demarcated area, over which it exercises
  4. A monopoly of authoritative binding rule making, backed up by a monopoly of the means of physical violence.[1]

Now that we have the definition of a state the analysis of its autonomy can be put in proper perspective. The first thing to understand about the state after having defined it is the, question of, what is the power of the state? The power of the state is of two types, first being despotic power and the second infrastructural power.

While exercising the first dimension of the state power, the state has the ability to bypass established norms and the preceding negotiations with the civil society, while the second one is more subtle and also more pervasive, this refer to the capacity of the state to penetrate the civil society, to implement its political decisions throughout its territory, through the infrastructural institutions of the state. The first type was strong in the ancient and all monarchic states but weak in the modern states and the second type is just the opposite, it being stronger in the modern states.

The power of the state flows mainly but not only from three aspects of its situation, first, being the territorial centralisation of the state, secondly, the multiplicities of functions it performs for the civil society as the prerogative of the state and thirdly, the necessity of organizing the natural society into a formal state in the first place. While among these the first was very strong in the ancient and medieval societies and the second in the modern states. The autonomy of the state with regard to its functioning was clear and unchallenged with the use of despotic power over the sovereigns’ territory of the older sates and the feature can also be seen in the modern authoritarian sates like china and Saudi Arabia. However, the autonomy of the state has become a lot ambiguous when we see it in relation to the infrastructural power in the modern states and the multiplicities of function it performs within the civil society. It is here that the boundary of the state and the civil society become hazy and the clear-cut demarcation between two is difficult to perceive.

Therefore, the greater the capacity of the state to impose its political decision upon the civil society greater will be its autonomy and lesser the capacity lesser autonomy it will have. Further, the autonomy of the state will depend upon the degree of centralization of power it exercises upon its territory, the relation of the ruling government and the parliament and the influence of the various mediating interest groups from the civil society. The more the centralization of power the more autonomy it can exercise while implementing its developmental and other political agendas within its domain, like in the case of India after Independence. Since, the congress had the majority in most of the states, the consent required for the implementation of the center’s policy decision, was relatively easy to come by. But, today the case has been reversed and the implementation consent is very difficult to come to, because of many parties ruling the different states.

Moreover, the autonomy of the state is also dependent upon the legislature and the executive in a liberal democratic state. The more the balance between the two, more will be the autonomy of the state to implement the decisions, and less the balance less will be the autonomy of the state. In the modern liberal democratic state, it is often very difficult to form a majority government, whether we see that in India or the UK, the coalition government that is formed restricts the autonomy of the sate by limiting the decision making and implementation power of the state. With so many power centers being formed within and outside the state and with the help of non-state actors, the autonomy of the state has been severely compromised.

The modern state has not been able to form clear policies without being influence by the pressure from the civil society, and the state has also been finding it difficult to implement the policies due to opposition from other parties in the political sphere. The state today has low autonomy but a high capacity to implement the decision. Which in turn leads to the state being unable to develop new policies or respond to new challenges owing to the power of organized opposition[2], and from the civil society groups.

Though the state is able to fulfill basic tasks but public plays a direct role in determining policy and is able to limit state power and scope of activity[3]. This can clearly be seen in the case of the Jan Lokhpal movement where the civil society actors demanded a position in making the bill, while rejecting the sate’s version of it, which, thereby, compromised the autonomy of the state. It went further, and tried to usurp the legislative function of the state itself. In a liberal democracy this is the exclusive domain of the state, which was under direct attack on its autonomy to make and implement its legislation.

To conclude, it will be quite difficult to argue that the liberal democratic state has autonomy, when the practice and the working of it has shown that, the autonomy of the state is infringed on by the opposition as the sate actors and the civil society as the non sate actors, quite often. While in theory we may still maintain that the state has autonomy in practice it does not. The modern sate which has institutionalized the practice of interest mediation through the corporate and various civil society actors, who now have a stake in the policy making and its implementation. This kind of interference which is allowed by the state in the form of public private partnerships in economic development, and the non governmental organization to partner it in implementing some social sector schemes, has severely affect the capacity of the state to govern as an autonomous entity. Therefore, the liberal democratic state is today, not an autonomous state.


[1] Michael Mann (1984). The autonomous power of the state: its origins, mechanisms and results. European Journal of Sociology, 25, pp. 185-213, doi: 10.1017/S0003975600004239. Pg. 188

[3] ibid

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