Statism Versus Citizen-Based Approach in India

Published by Kunjika Pathak on


As a nation, India has histories of transformation, transitions, and trauma. After over 70 years of Independence and the Partition of the country into India and  Pakistan, the nation is still reeling to get on its feet and healing from the collective trauma of violence and separation. Postcolonial India found itself buried in many challenges, such as drafting the Constitution, formulating policies, dividing states based on parochial identities, security, etc. In addition to administrative and bureaucratic difficulties, identity and association were significant challenges. The question of identity is relational and is always examined in terms of the Self/Other, and at this point in history, India was a product of its colonizers’ identity.

World affairs such as the Cold War, where two separate blocs were formed, further skewed India’s understanding of identity and ideology. This was when leaders like Nehru,  Gandhi, and Ambedkar played an essential role as they proposed different methods of reforms for the newly formed state. Jawaharlal Nehru effectively spearheaded the conceptualizing, creation, and implementation of foreign policies in India in the post-Independence period. He was at the forefront of the Non-Alignment Movement  (NAM), which proposed a Third World bloc of countries, and refused to associate with either of the major blocs after Cold War. NAM was the beginning of breaking away from a bipolar world and demanding of multipolar world order.  

The Country’s Political History

India’s political history has seen the rise and fall of several governments and political parties. In recent years, communal politics has emerged, and with that, India has also seen a shift in its ideological standing and motivations. Despite the change in ideologies, India has been relatively consistent in using a statist approach, i.e., the states are given more power than the individuals themselves, and that sovereignty is vested in the state and not the citizens themselves. Using India’s foreign policy history as a conceptual framework, I wish to examine the state-society duality in the current time.  I argue that for India to become a ‘great’ power, it needs to let go of its statist approach and look inwards at its’ citizens and their needs. To do so would require India to stop mimicking other world powers and understand its unique role in global history and politics. India would have to develop dynamic foreign policies, which would look at its civilizational history within the region, shared colonial experiences, and other soft powers and security systems. I also critique this approach and how it can be misconstrued to suit the government’s vested interests. 

History: How did India adopt a statist approach post Independence?  

As mentioned earlier, India found itself in a frenzy post Independence, and the  Partition and the leaders then played a vital role. Bhandari (2016), in a mint article, argues that Gandhi stood for a more individualist approach which was considered more organic and rooted within India’s socio-cultural ethos. In contrast, Nehru proposed a more Western statist system. Nehru envisioned ‘modernity’ for independent India, perhaps making him a unique and significant leader.  According to Bhandari (2016), “In Nehru’s modernity, India saw an ability to negotiate confidently with both the regressive and oppressive forces externally. Whether it was reservations, large industry, planning, or the Non-Aligned Movement, both modernity and state intervention went hand-in-hand. So a socialist state is not Nehru’s gift to India but is the notion that socialism and the state are unsurpassed tools for transforming tired, exploited, and humiliated people into a modern, self-confident, progressive nation.

That notion has unfortunately not gone away whatever economic policies governments of today may profess”. Due to his socialist inclinations, Nehru imagined a world where the state would adopt a more inclusive approach where different citizens could be accommodated. He essentially expected the citizens to conform to state-mandated planning. This is believed to be done for more prominent reasons such as identity formation. India, as a nation-state, needed a stronger identity than just a postcolonial nation.

The new identity would be a  hybrid one that would embrace its postcolonial position and build a new name for itself. Sinha (2012) words this articulately in his article for Youth Ki Awaaz,  “Literature on India’s foreign relations of the 1950s tends to cast Pandit Nehru as the sole articulator, formulator and executor of Indian foreign policy, unchallenged by and unmatched in his expertise and reading of international relations. Such inferences are not surprising, as immediately after independence, when state nationalism and feelings of anti-imperialism were at their peak, Nehru’s India projected a powerful sense of national identity”. Nehru deemed it fit to organize the nation on the grounds of a common identity and thus began his statist politics.  

After Nehru died in 1964, his successors continued to be routinized and maintained. Even when the Congress party split, the statist approach continued to remain. Naseemullah (2016) cites two reasons for this, one of which is relevant to this paper’s purview. He suggests that Indira  Gandhi’s populist rhetoric determined her position in politics, not her policymaking. Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, already had the upper hand regarding political recognition. Thus, statism in her era continued to flourish. In the following section, I discuss the state and society duality and what it fundamentally stands for. 

State and the society

(Chowdhury 1999) in her paper Neo-Statism in Third World Studies: A Critique argues that the community perspective or a citizen-based approach can contribute to a  better understanding of the society-state relationship. It does not suggest that the society be used as a replacement for the state but rather an intervention be made where both can coexist and recognize the significant role that society plays. It would thus provide a richer understanding of the state-society dynamic where important factors like culture, socioeconomic behavior, etc., play a significant role. She also goes on to discuss the neo-statist theory, which developed as a result of modernization neglecting the state and emphasizing the society, but he argues that even within modernization, the state played an essential role as an agent of change; “The state, in this approach, appears to be standing above society, and the state-society relationship is characterized primarily through the conceptualization of the state attempting to induce appropriate changes in a given society towards the desired goals of economic development and political stability.”

The state here helps society in reaching its acquired goals. The state plays a vital role because it becomes a symbol of  ‘order’ in society, which is politically more significant than anything else. The other function of the state is also the political institutions it comes to be associated with. The state as an institution is given many powers, and it is assumed to benefit society; “these functions of the state are frequently understood to mean the  capacity of state political institutions to effect changes in societal structures and behavior.”This is precisely what I would like to problematize for this paper, that state and society cannot be assumed to perform the same functions.  They both vary in terms of their needs, positionality, and expectations.  

Chowdhury (1999) furthers her argument by saying that societal forces play an essential role in determining the state’s strength. So the form is more effective when historical circumstances have not let the societal forces become strong or the state has developed some significant political autonomy, which does not allow societal pressure to influence their decisions. In India’s case, the historical processes have played a significant role, sometimes more than acknowledged, and they continue to be why the societal forces are not unified. India’s collective history can be traced back to the colonial era when the British decided to play their game on the ‘divide and rule policy. Since then, India’s platform, the said democratic platform, has been divisive. In terms of political autonomy, Nehru first recognized the issue of identity and wove a national identity-based narrative. After, he began a tirade of dynastic politics in India which always seemed to establish political autonomy. This was followed by BJP’s religious nationalism, which remains a solid political driving force today.  

However, the statist approach is also a very ‘developmental’ approach where developing states adopt it. Some scholars argue that the developmental process requires the state to be away from all societal pressure to flourish (Chowdhury 1999). This same argument has been used for India as well for not just development purposes but also security reasons where India as a country cannot afford to succumb to societal pressure. Often, the state-centric approach has led to the formation of a state-society duality or contestation. This leads to essentializing both identities, which still posits the state at the center, or the epoch of all political movements, whereas society is seen as the creation of instability. Society is caught in contestation with the state, not necessarily for power, but it has political undertones (Chowdhury 1999).  For society and the state to coexist meaningfully in society, several steps must be taken from both ends. But one crucial step is to stop mimicking the other superpowers.

Mimicking the superpower(s)

As seen in the film War and Peace by Anand Patwardhan, India is pushing its limits to acquire a superpower like the United States of America. It has led to nuclearization in India and the development of its armament. It wants to be known and feared worldwide like the United States, and if not worldwide, it aspires to become a reliable regional power. Abraham (2007) argues that India has been mimicking the behavior of the Great Powers for a while now. Still, after critically examining its policies, soft power must be considered more seriously. In the changing world order and systems, India has continued to adopt complex security and policy measures like its other counterparts. Still, in doing so, India often forgets its uniqueness. Hard power and strict security often homogenize national identity and interests. Thus they are misconstrued as the state continues to work for one section of the society.  

India must recognize its uniqueness regarding its civilizational heritage, shared history with its neighborhood, and significant rise as a postcolonial nation. As a postcolonial society, India has exhibited immense grit to stand on its feet and has made mistakes along the way. Still, it continues to do so instead of mimicking other powers. Additionally, it could tap into the Indian diaspora or the non-resident populations, “Three possible areas of soft power projection include (a) the ability of particular state agencies to provide skills and services in areas of considerable social importance; (b) the potential embodied by foreign students; and (c) the creation of an overseas youth corps” (Abraham 2007).

Historical/collective memory

Manjari Chatterjee Miller (2013) argues that historical memory is a powerful tool for the state because it determines what the state remembers, and based upon that, it will take its next step. India holds a collective memory of trauma from the Partition and the Independence struggle, which has been institutionalized through educational forms such as textbooks. This also contributes to a statist approach and not a citizen-based approach. Citizen struggles are often quantified and written in terms of state suffering, negating the individual experience. India needs to approach memory more carefully because it is a potent tool and can be very useful in state-society integration. It could look at the memories of the minorities and diasporic populations through indentured labor, voluntary migration, etc.


Indian Citizens

India can only be a great power when it looks at its citizens’ needs and considers its neighbors. The inward-looking approach does not only confine itself to the state boundaries but suggests that India examines its region first as opposed to an international playground. Context plays a huge role in deciding the foreign policy measures and implementation and fit same India must turn to look at its cultural diversity and what lessons can be learned from there. Again, the danger can be essentializing identity which the current ruling party often practices. To fulfill the society’s requirements in India must not always equate to populist (and polarising) ideals but rather look at the broader spectrum. The organization must be understood as a singular people, a distinct culture, and several cultures through their multiplicities of meaning.


Abraham, I. (2007). The Future of Indian Foreign Policy. Economic and Political  Weekly, 42(42), 4209-4212. Retrieved from 
Chatterjee Miller, M (2013). Exploring Historical Memory and Indian Foreign Policy.  New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy Theory and Praxis (pp67-85).  
Chowdhury, S. (1999). Neo-Statism in Third World Studies: A Critique. Third World  Quarterly, 20(6), 1089-1107. Retrieved from 
Bhandari, L (2016). Individualist Gandhi versus statist Nehru. Livemint. Retrieved  from Gandhi-versus-statist-Nehru.html 
Naseemullah, A. (2016). The Rise and Fall of Statist Governance in India.  In Development after Statism: Industrial Firms and the Political Economy of South Asia (South Asia in the Social Sciences, pp. 64-95). Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316665923.004 Sinha, R (2012). Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy. Youth Ki Awaaz. Retrieved  from