Subnationalism & Social Development in India


A review of Subnationalism and Social Development: A Comparative Analysis of Indian States, by Prerna Singh.

Prerna Singh’s Subnationalism and Social Development: A Comparative Analysis of Indian States offers a refreshingly new perspective on the causes leading to better social development through a case study analysis of four Indian states. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the concept of subnationalism and the methodology used in the dissertation. Singh uses triangulated evidence from official documents and statistics, personal interviews, and regression analysis. This mixture of quantitative and qualitative evidence adds to the richness of the narrative and mitigates some of the unintentional data biases that accrue while using any one single method.

Singh draws on social identity theory and liberal nationalist scholarship to derive the psychological and ethical motivations of community membership, which enable collective support for social welfare policies. Therefore, a strong sense of belonging to a particular community (subnationalist identity) fosters a more politically involved citizenry that demand more and better social services. Since the benefits of collective bargaining within smaller groups are at the core of public choice theory, Singh’s method not only engages political theorists and psychologists but also economists and public choice theorists. Therefore, the dissertation lies at the intersection of political science, economics, public choice and psychology, and enables a rich and productive interdisciplinary discourse between these fields.

Chapter 3 focuses on case studies of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two South Indian states with high social development indicators. Singh traces the development of subnationalism through shared language among citizens of each state and shows how language-based identity was used by political leaders to foster a sense of one-ness with others in the state, while differentiating them from others outside the state. Singh questions the commonly accepted theories of Kerala’s success, which emphasize the roles of princely states, the dominant left party, and Christian Missionaries. She demonstrates with historical and statistical evidence that none of the three explanations offer adequate support for Kerala’s high social indicators. Similarly in Tamil Nadu the two leading political parties vied with each other to promote a shared Tamil identity, and thus social welfare policies for Tamilians. This resulted in some innovative and effective policies such as the free mid-day meal program for school children (which improved both nutrition and school enrollment rates), and performance-based Best School Awards for public schools. Therefore, strong subnationalism enabled better social development in both states.

Chapter 4 takes the narrative to the Northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Even though Uttar Pradesh started with better social indicators, Rajasthan has slowly outperformed it in the last decade. The primary reason for the difference, according to Singh is fractured versus cohesive subnationalism. Uttar Pradesh, for several reasons, did not develop strong subnationalism, and even when a caste-based identity began to form in the nineties, it remained fragmented. In contrast, the leaders in Rajasthan promoted a shared identity based on language and common customs, and nurtured a shared Rajasthani identity through regular cultural events. Thus, cohesive subnationalism fostered higher social development outcomes for the state.

Chapter 5 extends the discussion to the emergence of cohesive subnationalism within the four Indian states. In each case, ideas of subnationalism are initiated by elites who also choose the symbols to promote it. The success or failure of this endeavor depends on the choice of the symbol, the timing of the promotion and the presence of a motivated group of individuals who enable mass promotion of the idea. Thus, in the case of Kerala and Tamil Nadu subnationalism emerged at different times and endured. However, in the case of Uttar Pradesh it remains fragmented, and in Rajasthan a generational switch away from fragmented loyalties to erstwhile princely states enabled a cohesive subnationalist identity to emerge in the eighties and nineties.

While Chapters 3 through 5 offer in depth case study and theoretical analyses, Chapter 6 empirically tests the hypotheses that stronger subnationalism in a state should lead to higher levels of social development and greater expenditures in the social sector. Using time series and cross-sectional data from fifteen major states in India between 1971-2006 Singh shows that there is a statistically positive and significant relationship between strong subnationalism and social development. To demonstrate that the above comparative historical and statistical analyses can be applied to a global context outside of India, Singh, in Chapter 7, engages in an analysis of subnationalist sentiments and their impact on social development in Quebec and Scotland. In particular, she discusses the early histories of subnationalist movements in both countries.  In Quebec, even though the initial impetus was based on shared language and religion (French Catholic) regardless of residency, it evolved to regional identity through residency in later decades. In contrast, Scottish subnationalism was always centered on territorial citizenship and uniqueness separate from the British identity. By offering these additional cases outside India, Singh has placed subnationalist research within a broader global context and has shown the applicability of the model to different economic premises. For example, the social development goals Indian states face are vastly different from those of more developed regions such as Quebec and Scotland. However, strong and cohesive subnationalism has improved social outcomes even in developed regions.

Singh concludes the dissertation in Chapter 8 by summarizing her findings and highlighting the policy relevance of her work. As opposed to existing theories that emphasize economic development, social party rule, and ethnic homogeneity as some of the prerequisites for social development, her argument focuses on fostering shared group identity as one of the means that can be used in developing regions. Singh’s research is a unique contribution to political science, development economics and public policy. Not only does she expand research in these fields to include group identity as an important variable, she also offers practical policy suggestions that can be implemented through simple changes to regional policies. The results are particularly relevant for India and other developing regions with some level of linguistic or local community identification.

Triyakshana Seshadri
Affiliated Scholar
Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Primary Sources

Journals such as American Political Science Review
Materials at the National Archives of India including official documents and national statistics for quantitative analysis
Personal interviews

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2010. 595 pp. Primary Advisor: Atul Kohli.


Image: Mosaic of Indian People, by foxypar4, Wikimedia Commons.

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