Trending Globally: How Solidarity Works for Welfare

Trending Globally: How Solidarity Works for Welfare


India’s a huge country. But if you look at it through
a social development lens, many of its states
appear worlds apart. Some have social outcomes on a
par with sub-Saharan nations, while others have outcomes
comparable to those of Northern Europe. How to explain such differences
within a single country and among states that started
at a similar point in history? And what does that mean
for societies beyond India? From Brown University’s
Watson Institute for International
and Public Affairs, this is Trending Globally. I’m Sarah Baldwin. We’re joined today by
Prerna Singh, Mahatma Gandhi assistant professor of
political science at the Watson Institute, and an expert on
the politics of social welfare. In her award winning book, “How
Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social
Development in India,” she analyzes the very
different evolutions of social policy and welfare
systems across states in India. Welcome to the podcast, Prerna. Thank you so much Sarah. Thanks for being here. First of all, I learned that
your book recently became– came out in paperback. That’s right. It’s quite exciting. It means it’s affordable. Yeah. That’s fantastic news. So let’s start with
the most basic concept. Talk to us about solidarity. What is it? And how does it connect to
social welfare provision? Great. Thank you. So as you said, the book is
called “How Solidarity Works for Welfare.” And it’s in many ways a
new and quite provocative argument for how social welfare
regimes get institutionalized and then continue. And when I talk
about solidarity, I mean something not
quite– not dissimilar to what you have in mind when
you think of a kind of sense of solidarity. Except I show how it’s
a strength of solidarity with the political community. So, you can have a sense– I think of it sometimes
as a sense of oneness, a sense of we-ness, a
sense of identification, a sense of emotional
attachment, allegiance, loyalty to a particular
political community. And so this solidarity that
exists between individuals in a family. It can exist at a
neighborhood level. It can definitely exist
at levels of cities. So I think of, you know, things
like the I Heart New York City t-shirts as a kind of
indication of a certain degree of a solidarity at a city level. And of course, we
have solidarity with the nation, which we
might think of as nationalism or patriotism. But in the book,
what I delineate is solidarity at the regional
or at the provincial level in India. And so I call that
sub nationalism. And so it’s a type
of nationalism, it’s a type of solidarity
at the subnational level. And I argue that this sense of
attachment and identification with the subnational level
is a critical determinant of social welfare policies
across Indian states. So explain how that connects. So, you know, in a sense, most
of the existing scholarship tries to explain differences
in social welfare by thinking, for instance,
to most prominently in terms of economic development. So you might think
that differences in levels of social
development are determined by how well the particular
region or a state or even a country is. And therefore, how much money
they have to allocate to things like education or health
or drinking water. There are others that
have said that this has to do with the strength
of social democratic parties, the general idea being that
communist parties do a better job or parties that have kind of
a strong left leaning component to them. There are also arguments
about the degree of political competition. And so, solidarity is a very
different type of argument. The way that I think
about it fundamentally is that, if you feel a
sense of identification with your region,
with your state, then that makes it more
likely that you are going to support an
idea of collective welfare. So, you know,
education and health are fundamentally
redistributive. The rich across the
world will often have the luxury of sending their
children to private schools. The people who send their
children to government schools, government health centers, are
often those who cannot afford any other type of
service delivery. And so under what circumstances
are political elites willing to put precious state
resources into things that are more likely to benefit
the poorer, the less well off, the less fortunate
members of a community? And it’s in those areas that
these elites feel connected to or feel some sense
of solidarity? You know, so what
I show in the book is, when there is this sense–
and in India, it’s linguistic. So because states in India
are defined, since the 1950s, in terms of a common language. So for instance, one of
the states that I study is the state of Kerala, which
is in southern peninsula India. And I show that when you feel
a sense of Malyaly identity, you feel a set of
mutual obligations, ethical obligations, and
commitments to all Malyalys. So you want to put your money
into those kinds of services that are of benefit
to all Malyalys. And so historically, I show
mostly through archival work that social policies
get put into place as a result of these
solidaristic identifications. How do you measure that? The bulk of the book is a
comparative historical analysis of five states. Two neighboring southern states,
and three neighboring North Central Indian states. Kerala and Tamil Nadu in
the south and Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and
Bihar in the north. And in the qualitative
historical part of it– and so, one of the things, for
instance, that I look at is, are the
boundaries of a state the result of administrative
[INAUDIBLE] essentially? Or are they because
the people of the state came together to demand
the creation of a state? Kerala, again, is
a good example. So is Tamil Nadu,
because they have a huge popular movement for
the creation of these states. Under colonial
rule in the 1950s, they emerged as movements which
were language based movements, saying, you know, people who
speak Malayalam are right now divided between the
princely state of Travancore, the princely state of
Cochin, and between Malabar. But really, we are all one. And so we need one state. And you see something very
similar in Tamil Nadu, which is actually– so
the name is quite important and interesting. Kerala is a name
that really refers to a kind of mythical
homeland of Malyalys. There was no state of
Kerala until the mid 1950s. Similarly, Tamil
Nadu means the home of the people who speak Tamil. So it’s quite
interesting that even in the naming of these
states, and certainly in the history of
how they came to be, you can see that they were
as a result of movements that were premised on this
kind of subnational pride and attachment. There’s a kind of interesting
anecdote about the state of Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh just means
the northern provinces. And this was the one state that
had a very hard time coming up with a name for itself. Because the sense of
identity was less? Exactly. Exactly. So they couldn’t
come up with a name. Sort of generic. Very generic. In fact, it just, you know, it
was basically decided for them. So you know, in a sense,
it really thought of itself as India. And so when it
came up with names, it came up with
names that really referred to all of India. And they often
think of this kind of association with the level
of the nation as something to be proud of. What they haven’t
realized is the downside of that, which is no
subnational identity. Right. You– you know,
eventually, you just get called UP as a kind
of geographic appellation. And because they used to be
called the United Provinces, so they were referred
to colloquially as UP. So Nehru was like,
let’s just call them UP. That’s so interesting. And I’m going to guess
that the outcome– social welfare
outcomes are less good. Yes. I’m mean, to give you a sense,
even today, if you happen to be a woman born in
the countryside in UP, you can, on average, expect
to live about 15 years less. Oh my gosh. And literacy probably. Literacy very similar. I mean, you know, UP, huge
state, larger than Brazil, larger than Russia. And you know, so when
you kind of think of national indicators in UP– I mean, in a way, India’s
poor levels of social welfare are, to a large extent,
are a result of what’s happening in two or three
very populous but very underdeveloped provinces. Well so– Of which UP is certainly one. So to get back to your
question of how I measure it, the case studies are
very rich historically. So I talk a lot about how
does the state get named? How does a state get created? How many people speak a
common language in the state? So what’s quite interesting
about Southern India is that the only state in India
where anyone speaks Malayalam is Kerala. So they all speak
Malayalam and they are distinguished from their
neighbors who speak Tamil. But if you look at
North Central India, it’s basically– it gets called
the Hindi Hindu heartland. Because there is
no distinguishing– there’s no linguistic
distinction. There are many, many dialects. And in many ways, those dialects
are languages in themselves. But they all speak Hindi. And so, you know, in a way, they
speak different types of Hindi, which are these dialects. And in many ways,
they speak a language that does not distinguish them
from any of their neighboring states. And so, it’s both the
lack of a common language and also the lack of a
distinctive language and then UP has always had this very
serious religious divide. Not always. But I actually
show in the state, in the historical
part of the book, I show how this
divide really gets created towards the middle and
the end of the 19th century. But the Hindu-Muslim divide
becomes quite critical to UP. And then, Hindi becomes
the language of the Hindus. And Urdu, which is essentially
the same spoken tongue, becomes distinguished as
the language of the Muslims. So then you get the
politics of Hindi and Urdu. So that factors into how
I think of subnationalism. And then the statistical
part of the book, which is towards the end, I
have an index of subnationalism that I create, which is
a product of components. Language, whether or not
to your state boundaries are a creation of
a popular movement, whether or not you have a
subnationalist political party, and finally, whether or not you
have a secessionist movement. So in 2001, the state
of UP was divided. And a new state was created,
which was essentially the divide that
had always existed between the hills
and the plains. Uh huh. Well so, if you
do have a history of some secessionist
movement, then the level of subnationalism is lower– Exactly. And social welfare is– Absolutely. So I mean my– It’s divisive. Exactly. So my brother-in-law, who
technically comes from what used to be the undivided UP,
but his family released from– is Uttarakhand, which
is the hill parts of it. And Uttarakhand, which is the
secessionist state from UP, after its secession from
UP has done really well. Aha. Because they have this
kind of sense of a kind of, you know, egalitarian,
hill people, very different from the kind
of, you know, crude plains. You know, I mean, that’s
the kind of– but you know, stereotypes are a very
important parts of this. Absolutely. And the construction
of the other. I’ve heard you talk about this
sense of we-ness, this we. But as you just pointed
out, when there’s an us, there’s a them. Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, and as a North
Indian doing fieldwork in these southern states,
that was very obvious. I was a them. You know, I was a Hindi speaker. I was, in their eyes,
a relatively lighter skinned Aryan, which is,
again, a construction. And I was certainly, you
know, I was from Delhi. And Delhi the center has
always been the them. Is there something comparable
in the United States? Some sense of us and them-ness? I mean, I used to find it quite
interesting when I initially came to the US this
idea of license plates. And every state has
a license plate. Because again, when I think
of how subnationalism– what are visible signs
of subnationalism? I often think, from
my research in India, things like, you know,
whose statues do you put up? What do you name your streets? What festivals do you celebrate? What stamps do you issue? So India, we don’t have this
concept of license plates, that, you know,
you just get one, and so this idea that you
can choose your license plate or that there’s something
written on your license plate doesn’t exist. There are other things. In the US, I find it
quite interesting. Because in a way, it’s a kind
of pithy statement, right, of what your state stands for. So like, you know, New Hampshire
in the middle of New England, live free or die. Right? And you do sort of
rally around that. You do. Or even like, you know,
think of someplace like Quebec in Canada, where
the license plate says we– you know? We will not forget. We are different. And this is this kind
of constructed memory. You see it every day. We are the constructors of
our own identity, right? So American nationalism
can mean what, in a sense, Donald Trump imbues it with. But it can also mean,
which it has historically meant at different
points in time, you know, the Statue of Liberty,
the fact that America is a country of immigrants,
that all are welcome, that there’s a certain
kind of work ethic, that there’s an American dream. I mean, all of those are
contested and constructed. So the fact that, you know,
Confederate soldier statues are removed in the
city of New Orleans is very much this idea of a
construction of an identity. This is a solidaristic move. Because it’s
basically showing that these statues do not represent
who we are as a community. It’s, I think, a
very brave decision. So I think in the US,
you can see it today, there’s this controversy over
whether, for the first time in the history of
the United States, a national monument
could lose its status. So for most people
think that– don’t think of it as headline news. But for me, you know,
in the same week, the city of New
Orleans says, you know, we will remove these statues
because this is not who we are. Yeah. These constructs
are not immutable. They are not immutable. And you know, I always
think when statues move, that’s major seismic
changes, you know? Well it seems like there’s
an upside and a downside. But taking for a
moment the upside of this sense of
subnationalism and solidarity, is that something
that can be created? I think it’s always created. I definitely– I mean, but mindfully. Like, you know, with the
intention of improving social outcomes, let’s say. So I think that that would be
an implication for the book. You know, what I show
historically is, in the states that I study in India, that
it is very much constructed. They don’t have social
welfare at all in mind when they’re constructing it. Subnationalism
emerges because it’s a tool to basically
win a political contest with an established elite. So in the state of Kerala,
the established elite of this small section
of Tamil Province in the mid 19th century. And the word Malyaly really
becomes repurposed in a way to define the native
population, the indigenous people of the state, in
a way to both unify them, but then also to distinguish
them from this them, the Tamil Province. So it is constructed. But it’s constructed because
of a set of very instrumental, selfish, you might say,
reasons on the part of a certain set of elites. I think what you’re asking me
is that, in a sense, you know, what does a kind of lesson
from the research, right? For policy. Exactly. And I think, yes,
I mean, when we think of improving
social welfare, we do not think of things like,
what statues do we put up? What do we name our streets? What national holidays
do we celebrate? What songs do children
sing in schools? We usually think
of other factors like levels of
economic development, political competition, you know? And so, yes, I would say
that there’s certainly a way in which
identity would have to be at the unit of analysis
which controlled social policy. So if social policy is
controlled at the city level, or, you know, then
I would imagine that the unit that you want
to build solidarity with is the city. It’s almost an argument
against social welfare policies at federal level. It can be. But I say in the conclusion
of the book is that you know, the debates about
decentralization are all about the pros and
cons of decentralization. They don’t really
pay attention to what unit is being decentralized to. So one lesson is, you
know, decentralize power to a unit that
is actually a locus of strong popular
identification. Like, I can imagine
that something like what the city of
New Orleans is doing, this construction
of an identity, can have implications
for many things that happen at a city level. So whether that’s
trash pickup or sewage cleaning, or, you know,
in the state, obviously, of New Orleans, like, you know,
natural disaster preparedness. You know, because in a
sense, it’s about kind of, you know, how do you kind
of bring people together? And overcome a kind of
collective action problem? Because we all have
different identities, right? So, I’m a woman. I could be– you know,
I’m a particular religion. I can identify with various
different types of identities. And I’m not making an
argument that in order to be a subnationalist
or to be a nationalist or to be a kind of
New Yorker and have that identity be
central, you stop being all these other things. You remain all these
other identities. But the idea is
that you also have a kind of larger, overarching
identity that, in a way, sits above all these
other identities. And I think that
identity has always been and can be constructed. One of the things I talk
about in the conclusion is that we think about policy in
the arts and policy in culture as very different and
distinct from social policy. But in a sense, you know,
the kinds of, you know– so Kerala spent a lot
of money initially– invested a lot of
money, I should say– in the celebration
of a festival. And the celebration
of a festival, which is quite unusual, because
when you think about it, most of the festivals
we celebrate– and I think that’s why
Thanksgiving is unusual in the US– are usually religious festivals. But Kerala has this national
festival called Onam. And Kerala is a very
religiously diverse state, with a lot of Hindus, lots of
Muslims, lots of Christians. And yet they’re
all bound together in this Malyaly identity
that is celebrated on Onam. And so the state kind of funds
these lavish celebrations of the festival of Onam. That brings them together. You know, how is this different
from identity politics? I mean, in a sense, it is
all identity politics, right? To me, it’s this idea that both
in kind of popular balance, but also in academia, in
scholarship, in social science scholarship, identity gets
to be seen as this bad word. And so I tried to
make the argument, demographics is
not destiny, right? So even if you’re
a plural society, it doesn’t mean that you can’t
have a sense of solidarity that is overarching and
that includes members of the political
community that also subscribe to different
allegiances, you know? What I tried to show in
the book is that, you know, you can have this
overarching identity above other identities. And that can be a force–
a constructive potential. And it’s not the case that
identity politics is always destructive. It’s really a question of
how it gets constructed and how it can be– And for what? And for what. Exactly. So what I show historically
is that the construction of it historically has
come independent of the social welfare. The social welfare
follows from it. But it was not constructed
at all instrumentally in mind by saying, oh, let’s do
this, because it’s going to– Let’s do this altruistically. Yes. No, not at all. It’s a product of it. Yeah. It was a product of it. But it was not intended in
the construction of identity. And I think the lesson,
though, what you’re saying, is absolutely there,
is that, you know, we can now try to
construct these inclusive, cohesive identities with
social welfare in mind, right? So we can kind of, you
know, we learn from that and do this more kind
of strategically. And I think that
that is something. It’s almost like taking what
you have learned and found from history and using
it, even though it wasn’t performed altruistically,
using it to improve social welfare outcomes. In the US, I think
sometimes when you think of it
at the city level, I think it’s sometimes
more obvious. But I sometimes
think of, you know, pride in different cities, what
different cities stand for, and city level projects. I mean, I do think there’s
a way in which, you know, you can call on that New
Yorker identity for certain– Or Boston or– Or Boston, right. Yes. And you see it, I
think, in particular when the community
comes under stress. You know, when that identity
is there and it’s inclusive, there is a way in which
that power of that identity can be harnessed. So I think, you know, there
are almost two questions. One is, how do you
construct that identity? And in an inclusive fashion. But then, when you
have that identity, I think sometimes we kind of
underestimate its potential. We don’t realize what
we can ask from it. And so the city that
I come from, Delhi, which I think most Delhi-ites
will agree we don’t really have a sense of, kind of– it’s the kind of city
that people love to hate. But I often think, you know,
now of the biggest problem that kind of confronts Delhi,
which is air pollution. And in a way, it’s a
classic collective action because everybody
breathes the air. The rich and the poor. So, you know, how
do you kind of, you know, how do you
kind of solve this? How do you– How do you create a
sense of Delhi-ite-ness– Yeah. –that is shared? And I found it
quite interesting, because when I was
doing archival work, actually, in Delhi last year,
when I was on leave from Brown. I found it quite
interesting, because they had begun this odd
even rule, which is also in many cities across
the world, including Beijing. So you can only get– you
can only drive your car, you know, the odd license
plates and even ones. But it’s quite interesting
how it was framed. There were all these radio
broadcasts about, you know, Delhi, we have to
do this together. This is your city, you know? And if we don’t pull together,
this will not happen. And even though many people
had suspected that, you know, people’s response would
simply be, you know, buy yourself another
license plate, right? But I have a feeling that
actually the consensus was that it was– it was actually a
moderate success. I mean, they didn’t
continue with it very long. But– We are in this
together, kind of. Yes, it was very much
we are in this together. I mean, we had our
neighbor, you know, knock on my mother-in-law’s door,
saying that, you know, can I take your car
on the odd day and you can carpool with someone? And you know, and
maybe you can take my– I mean, it was– the people were
figuring out ways to do this. And the metro was crowded
and the line was really long. And I was getting impatient. And then I was like,
look at all these people. They’re standing in line. No one is pushing. No one is shoving. And it’s like, we’re
all in this together. Oh yeah. That’s such a great example– Yeah, and so the– –of you seeing it play out. Absolutely. And so, you know, and
you know, some amount of shaming, I think,
when you’re constructing that identity is that, we
are in this together, Delhi. Let’s do this together. So this is– we’re
doing this for Delhi, but this is what being
a Delhi-ite means. So those outliers who are
not acting in the us mode become them. In a way. Well yeah. You know, all groups
work on sanctions. Not that I’m a huge fan of them. But I do think that
there is– and you can have moral sanctions, you know? But it’s join us or not. Right? Well, yeah. And you know, I mean,
you kind of– you do have to kind of
construct that sense of ethical obligation
and mutual commitment. And so, I mean, these are
not easy things to do. I mean, it’s not easy to
construct these identities or these solidarities. But I think that they
can be very rewarding. And in a world I think
in which we really need to think of creative
solutions out of the box, and really kind of, in a
way, tap human potential, this is one– Yeah, at all levels. At all levels. This is one dimension
that I kind of sometimes feel frustrated that policy
practitioners don’t realize that this is quite central to
a lot of what they want to do. I wonder if you talk about
that in your teaching. Do you bring this up in class,
this sort of larger notion of– Of identities and– Of identity and potential, and
sort of the imperative of– the hope– I don’t want to
put words in your mouth. But this sort of how to
harness the positive potential of subnationalism
or identity or– Yeah. Like today, nationalism is
seen as– it becomes almost conflated with, you know,
the Trumps, the Marie LePens, the Narendra
Modis, the Xi Jinpings, you know, this kind of rise of
nationalism that is exclusive, that’s xenophobic,
that’s jingoistic. So I fear that, you
know, we kind of have that throwing the baby
out with the bathwater problem. Is that, you know, as liberal
elites, then, we kind of, in a way, entirely
secede from nationalism. We’re losing control of our
definition of our own identity by letting these
other people define it in this exclusive
chauvinistic fashion. But my point is, you know,
don’t give up on nationalism. Say this is not– this is not the
nationalism we stand for. There is an alternative
nationalism. Don’t give up on nationalism. Don’t say that, this, you know,
oh, these nationalists, you know? I mean, I think there’s
never been a more urgent time to be a nationalist. I, again, when I was
back in India last year, there had been these– which
is part of a larger trend, you know, the Hindu
nationalist government is in power in India. And they had begun these really
serious very worrying attacks on universities, which are
obviously sometimes the first to be attacked because there
are spaces for free thought. So one of India’s best
known universities where some of the most
leading thinkers and academics have come from, Jawaharlal
Nehru University, they came on to campus, they arrested
the student union leader. Delhi was like, you know,
Delhi was on the streets. So when I went for this
protest, I was like, you know, making my sign in
the auto ride on the way there and I had all these markers. And a few of our friends
kind of, I think, gave me a kind of second look. Because I had painted
a large flag of India. And I had written
on it, whose India? Question mark. Our India. And you know, it wasn’t, I would
say, the model type of poster, which was much more kind
of against the state, against the idea of the nation,
much more radical posters. But this poster, to me, was
kind of my way of saying, I don’t give up on
the idea of India. I don’t give up on the nation. You do not have the
monopoly to define this. I am an Indian nationalist. Because, you know,
in a way, my research shows me that its the we that
you construct these identities. It’s what you imbue them with. There are so many lessons in
your book for today’s world. Yeah. It seems just so
incredibly relevant today. Yeah, and, I mean,
in a way, the book– the book began with a concern
for real world issues. I mean, like, present issues. So, I really began by
looking at social indicators across Indian states,
and realizing, you know, the same thing
that you were struck by is that, you know, the
quality of life that you lead is determined so critically
by which state in India you’re born in. And so, that’s today, right? The way that I kind
of got into history is more kind of tracing
that back and saying, OK. There was a moment in time
when that was not the case. Right. When, you know, states in
India looked quite similar in terms of social
welfare indicators. And so what happened? Right? Like, what happened for
these southern states to become these, in a way, much
healthier, much more educated places as compared to
North Central India? Right. And by extension, it
doesn’t have to be this way. Exactly. It doesn’t at all
have to be this way. It was quite an unexpected
route that the research took. Because I didn’t really
kind of expect to, going into the project,
to say, well, you know, it really has to do with the way
these linguistic identities got constructed. So it was kind of
unexpected link to make. And I think– but the
thing is, once I got it, it just made so much sense. And when you’re
going to pose this to people in Kerala and
Tamil Nadu, in a way, to me, the kind of litmus test for the
argument was whether, you know, this would be
plausible in India. Would it have currency with it? Yes. And I think the fact that it’s–
the book is met with this kind of overwhelmingly positive
reception in India, but also in like,
Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where people are like, yes. This is it. You know? It makes sense. Like, our regional pride is
not coincidental to our levels of social welfare. This is, you know,
this is what it means to be a kind of
cohesive Tamil community. And so, I think that has
been kind of quite rewarding. That must be so gratifying. It is. It is. Yeah, you never know
where it’s going to go. Oh, Prerna, this has
been so interesting. And I think intensely
useful for people in policy making positions to think about. Yeah. I hope so. Thank you so much for
talking to us today. No. Thank you so much
for inviting me. This is great. Lots of fun. This has been Trending
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