Of the State and the Governments - The Abstract, the Concrete and the Responsive

Posted by Zainab Bawa at Sep 17, 2010 10:55 AM |
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This post examines the concepts of state and government to lay the ground for understanding responsiveness enforced through transparency discourses and the deployment of ICTs, the Internet and e-governance programmes. It also lays the context for understanding why and how ICTs. Internet and e-governance have been deployed in India for improving government-citizen interfaces, eliminating middlemen, delivering services electronically and for introducing a range of similar reforms to institute transparency and a responsive state.

In the introductory post, I had suggested that we needed to examine the notion of the ‘responsive state’, particularly in the context of discourses around transparency and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet to institute transparency and thereby create a responsive state. I argued that interrogating the notion of the ‘responsive state’ is necessary to understand how responsiveness and even statehood actually translate on the ground for different citizen groups when ICTs and the Internet are deployed to provide information to citizens, to deliver services electronically, to eliminate middlemen, to re-engineer processes in government departments and state institutions, and to make the state more visible and (therefore, supposedly) more accessible and responsive to its people.

In this post, I want to open up the concepts of the state and the government in a more fundamental way to begin our explorations regarding ‘responsiveness’ and the ‘responsive state’. Attending to the idea and the practice of the state and the government in everyday life will open up the meanings that ‘responsiveness’ and transparency, ICTs and the Internet are attributed within different contexts and in the range of relationships that exist between the state and its citizens, governments and citizens, and across state and government institutions. It is necessary to understand how relationships between citizens and governments and across the range of government and state institutions get shaped by the contexts within which governance is carried out, and the “fields”[i] within which we locate and study governments, governance, transparency and technology. This will enable us to nuance the notion and the translation of responsiveness in its online, offline, transparent, secretive, overt and/or surreptitious avatars.

I will begin this post by explaining the similarities and differences between the concepts (and ground realities) of state and the government as well as the relationships that exist between these entities. This conceptual clarification will set the context for understanding the genesis and application of responsiveness and transparency and the deployment of ICTs and the Internet to usher responsiveness and transparency in India in subsequent blog posts.

The State – Abstract-Concrete, Composite-Fragmented, Homogeneous-Heterogeneous: The state is an abstract idea which has its concrete basis in a physical territory. The state is also reified through an organizational structure that is referred to as the bureaucracy. We, as citizens, give legitimacy and authority to the idea of the state and statehood by conferring powers on certain representatives, institutions and systems to make decisions on our behalf and to exercise power for maintenance of law and order. The notion of the state (more concretely the institutions representing and exercising powers on behalf of the state) also derives legitimacy and authority from the Constitution and the laws of the land. The image of the state, as has been passed down to us by particular narratives of history and certain strands of political philosophy as well as through the print and electronic media is that the state is a composite, compact structure which has absolute - and in certain contexts unlimited powers. The “state idea” (Abrams, 1988) remains a powerful organizing concept in the lives of citizens as well as the employees and representatives of the state. This is because the concept of the state provides a sense of structure and coherence in our lives which in turn creates a sense of belongingness to a territory (physical space) and/or an institution (such as public services, public sector institutions, municipality, government departments, etc). This sense of structure, coherence and order is further reinforced by the following beliefs:

 1.     That the state, organized and reified through its bureaucratic machinery, functions in a rational, orderly manner. This is the classic idea of the state promoted by Max Weber;

2.     That the state is the source as well as the guardian of laws. These laws will protect and preserve the integrity of the territory and in turn, the integrity (and compositeness) of the state (where the notion of the state and its notional boundaries are based on an actual, physical territory);

3.     That laws are supreme and everyone is equal before the law;

4.     That laws will enforce order and provide relief, redressal, entitlements and access to welfare to one and all.

 The state is thus imagined as a benign authority, a benefactor, which must protect its people, provide them with welfare and at the same time, safeguard order and integrity of the territory (and therefore, order and integrity of the state structure/organization). The state also remains the last resort that people have for articulating their claims and getting them fulfilled. There is therefore, a tenuous relationship with the state where as much as certain ideological groups/belief systems/world views and various citizen groups desire the state’s role and intervention in the individual’s life to be minimized, they still continue to view the state i.e., the law courts and the common judicial system[ii], to be the ultimate source of law and the final arbiter of disputes. To cite an example, even though the private property rights framework gives precedence to the individual over the state, advocates of private property invariably assume or necessitate the existence of an overarching/central legal system to which individuals can take their disputes and grievances. This kind of advocacy automatically creates a paradox for individual freedom because a centralized legal system functions on the basis of uniform laws that may not consider the particularities and the uniqueness of each dispute over private property. Moreover, such a centralized legal system has the capacity to impinge on the individuals’ and groups’ freedoms especially when individuals’ and groups’ practices of ownership and usufruct (which can be social, historical, cultural and negotiated over time) do not comply with corresponding legalistic notions and practices.

The concept of the state is also associated with the notion of power where the state holds and wields power. The relationship between the state and its citizens is defined by this power equation. The notion of democracy is hinged on the idea that since people confer powers upon the state and they elect representative governments by voting at elections, citizens should also be able to contain the powers of the state and prevent the state from becoming an absolute, authoritarian entity. Deliberations, debate and discussion over the state’s policies and decisions (and a free press) are viewed as tools through which the state’s actions can be questioned, criticized and when necessary, contained. It is for the purposes of deliberations, debate and discussion that publishing of information about state policies as well as the processes through which decisions are made is deemed as quintessential in certain frameworks (and corresponding policies) of the ‘responsive state’.

The notion of the state remains a powerful idea in people’s imaginations and actions. The belief in the existence of a state system/organization enables people to make claims on what they see as state institutions or employees of the state. At the same time, as researchers and theorists excavating the “everyday state” argue, what also matters is how people ‘encounter’ the state when they make claims and/or seek resources, who they ‘mark’ as the state in these encounters, and what their ‘experience’ of the state is – a monolith, a bureaucratic mess, a sloth, a responsive entity and/or apathetic (Corbridge, Srivastava, et al, 2005; Fuller and Benei, 2000; Elyachar, 2005; Tarlo, 2003). The nature of the encounters with ‘the state’ and consequently the perceptions of power and authority vary depending on the institutions/personnel that different people approach. This implies that the institutions within the state system are different from each other and they function in diverse ways and contexts. These institutions are also not equally and cordially aligned with the idea of the state and the state system. Moreover, the resources that they variously control have different kinds of significance and meanings for both, the officials in charge of the respective institutions as well as the people vying for those resources. In short, not all institutions within the state system are equally statist in terms of the way in which they control resources, wield power, maintain territorial integrity and statist quo and interact with different citizen groups. To explain this in more concrete terms, let us take the instance of the forest authorities in India. Forest departments tend to be much more authoritarian and controlling of forest lands and forest resources and consequently the people within their jurisdictions and territory. This authority of the forest department stems from historical factors and it has been further reinforced through the laws passed in the post-independence period regarding protection of wildlife and various resources and produces of forests. Moreover, as mandated in the Constitution of India, forests symbolize an essential aspect of the territorial integrity of the state. Hence, the powers that have been conferred, both constitutionally and by central governments and cabinet ministries on forest departments and officials over time, is more than the powers that have been granted to other state institutions and departments in the context of control over the state’s natural resources. Therefore, the manner in which forest departments function in relation with citizens as well as in relation with other state institutions and government departments produces and reinforces certain perceptions of the state i.e., authoritarian, autocratic, corrupt, wielding excessive power, curbing group liberties, punitive, among others. In yet some other aspects of governance and everyday life, we find that police forces have unlimited powers and depending on socio-economic status and networks, different citizen groups have different perceptions of and relationships with the police and therefore, of the state which the police forces represent. Groups living in slums and squatter settlements tend to fear and dread police forces most because these groups tend to be marked as criminal owing to their (supposedly) ‘illegal’ occupancy of state/public/private land which in turn makes them the first targets of law and order and markers of criminality. Hence, community based organizations (CBOs) train slum dwellers and squatters, foremost, on how to interact with the police, how to conduct themselves in police stations, and provide them with information regarding the laws and procedures which immediately affect poor people’s lives and their relationship with the police and law and order[iii]. On the other hand, vehicle owning populations tend to the loathe the police (mainly traffic police and beat station cops) for demanding unnecessary bribes and engaging in what are seen to be as extortionist practices.

At this point, it will be instructive and insightful to ask the questions who/what is the state and where is it located (both physically and symbolically). There are myriad answers to this question, as one strand of sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists variously studying the “everyday state” in India and across the world have demonstrated and argued. In the past, scholars such as Philipp Abrams (1988) have questioned whether the state really exists in reality or is it simply an idea, a powerful construct that has been passed down to us by history and theory? Abrams has simultaneously asked questions about the methodologies for studying the state – do we go back to histories and theories to locate and understand the state or do we examine the practices of state more carefully. Each of these approaches carries with it its own problems of studying and explaining the state. Abrams fundamentally suggests that the state is associated with coherence, homogeneity and compositeness, all of which are imaginary attributes that do not exist on the ground. Then, is the concept of the state useful at all and if so, why?

For the purposes of this series on the ‘responsive state’ as well as the larger monograph which tries to trace the history of transparency, ICTs, Internet and politics in India, it is necessary for us to deal with the idea and the different practices of state in as much entirety and variety as may be possible. This is because discourses of transparency, e-governance policies and programmes and the use of ICTs to create/reform citizen-government interfaces are based on a particular idea of the state i.e., a notion of order as stemming from conformity/adherence to law, ‘the state’ as the final arbiter of disputes between peoples, ‘the state’ as the provider of welfare and therefore, ‘the state’ as a benefactor and a benevolent leviathan, and ‘the state’ as rational and orderly and internally coherent, cogent and composite. As I will explain in subsequent posts, ICTs, e-governance systems and the Internet are deployed precisely to reinforce these ideas of the Indian state to the people as well as to reorder, realign and re-engineer processes and personnel who are seen as stepping outside the lines of law and due process. Whether such technological interventions and the technology itself succeeds in enforcing this vision of order and absolute alignment is an issue that necessitates asking several nuanced questions:

  • How does the state – primarily decision-makers and policy-makers – imagine and understand technology and its application? 
  • How are e-governance policies interpreted and implemented by government officials (and even private parties) on the ground? 
  • How do officials internalize the visions ingrained in e-governance policies and deployments of ICTs and how does this impact the manner in which they implement directives from the state in this regard and subsequently interact with citizens?
  • Who gains and who loses when ICTs, e-governance and the Internet are deployed to deliver services to people electronically, to provide information and to create better government-citizen interfaces? 
  • How are gains and losses assessed and why are they assessed as such? Who assesses the gains and losses and why?
  • Are gains and losses absolute and irreversible? 
  • Do some deployments of ICTs, e-governance strategies and the Internet produce impacts that can only be seen and evaluated in the long run? 
  • How does the state – in terms of power, authority, implementation of law and order and preservation of territorial integrity – manifest through the various deployments of ICTs and e-governance policies in different contexts?

These questions regarding the impact of ICTs, Internet and e-governance programmes on different citizen groups as well as the notions and practices of the state require us to turn our attention towards understanding the concepts of government, governance and administration and grounding our understandings of these concepts in the manner in which various government departments and institutions interact with citizens, on an everyday basis, in the process of governing and administering. Revisiting and opening up these concepts is further essential because governments and administrators are responsible for interpreting (and therefore, translating) and implementing the state’s policies and visions on the ground. This does not imply that the state is separate from government and administration. In fact, as we saw in the example of the forest departments and police forces, certain arms of the government and administration can be highly statist in the manner in which they exercise powers, control resources, make decisions and interact with citizens. We also saw above that not all government departments and state institutions are equally comfortable with and aligned with the state idea i.e., in terms of notions of law, order, authority and power. It therefore, becomes necessary to understand how different government departments and administrators understand, embody and even negotiate notions of law, order and power, what are the historical, political and social sources which shape the functioning and ideologies of different government departments, and how are notions of law, order, responsiveness and transparency configured when these different government departments implement various e-governance policies and transparency initiatives in an effort to become responsive.

Let us briefly examine the concept of government and in the process, tackle the important issue of state-society relationship.

Government – the State in Society and the Society in State: Governments are the concrete face of the state and the state idea. They are bodies/institutions/organizations which perform duties of the state and discharge the state’s obligations towards its people. Some of the primary obligations include:

  •  delivering the state’s welfare resources to different citizen groups,
  •  attending to and fulfilling and/or negotiating people’s varied claims and demands for entitlements,
  • resolving people’s complaints, disputes and grievances,
  • maintaining law and order and ensuring compliance with law,
  • providing infrastructure and services that are considered necessary for people’s well-being as well as for the physical territory’s (i.e., the state’s) development and progress.

Governments are expected to function in ways that aid in maintaining the integrity of the territory and therefore, the authority of the state. Governments must therefore, follow the policies formulated by the state and implement them in letter and spirit. However, implementation rarely happens in the exact letter and spirit because of a variety of factors including:

1.     Inadequate release of funds which in turn is triggered by factors such as competition over power, territory and loyalty, competition between political parties, poor allocation to essential budgetary heads in the programme implementation, desire within government agencies to curb the autonomy of individual departments/personnel by providing fewer funds, etc.

2.     Existing competition between administrative agencies, government employees and decision-makers which can be altered because of implementation. This, in turn, can prevent implementation altogether or, the implementing authorities may implement policies in a way that aids in preserving certain kinds of autonomy, powers and interests of the implementing agencies.

3.     Multiple claims that arise in the course of implementation which in turn puts implementation on a sticky course and alters the letter(s) and spirit of the original policies as government agencies, administrators and the various implementing authorities negotiate (and even suppress) the claims made by different interest groups (which includes citizen groups, government agencies themselves, middlemen, competing political parties, among others).

Essentially then, government institutions and departments – the concrete faces of the state – are mired in multiple claims and interests not only with respect to implementation but also in the way in which they function in everyday life. These claims are advanced not only by citizen groups but also by the very employees of governments and by agencies and authorities related with various aspects of the governments’ functioning. Here, we need to address the issue of state-in-society and society-in-state which tends to be overlooked and even ignored in accounts and theories about the state. The state – wherever is experienced and however, it is sighted – is part of the gamut known as society. This means that the people working as government employees/state employees are simultaneously members of other networks and social groups. Consequently, they hold and embody various views and ideas that may be in consonance with as well as contradictory to notions of power, authority, law and order. These government employees also compete for the resources of the state – water, sanitation, housing sites, roads, electricity – as much as they are responsible for delivering the same resources to different citizen groups. In the process of delivery of welfare and service provision then, interests are shaped from time to time depending on the socio-economic and political positions of the administrators, bureaucrats and people’s representatives in charge as well as their association with various kinds of networks that enable them to maintain/enhance their personal/institutional positions and powers. Some of these interests and networks also shape the roles of government employees and administrators i.e., elected representatives, municipal field staff, engineers, etc., can also become middlemen in the process of delivering services and resources. How they function as middlemen depends on the resources in question as well as the political, social and administrative contexts in which the services are provided.

This aspect of state-in-society which is visible when we closely examine how governments and administrative departments and institutions function is an important factor that not only shapes interests and policy implementation but also influences that manner in which the state – power, authority, law and order – manifests in the interactions between citizens and governments. Therefore, when attempts are made to reconfigure or reform the interfaces between governments and citizens by introducing e-governance tools and ICTs, essentially the entire gamut of networks, social norms, conventions and negotiations that underlies government-citizen interfacing is tried to be put in line with a rational conception of law, due process and order. This implies that certain arms of the state attempt to reinforce and reorder particular government departments and functionaries in line with the idea of the rational, orderly and law enforcing state. (These arms of the state could be the central government in New Delhi, central government departments in New Delhi and state governments trying to align departments and functionaries working at different levels in the federal system hierarchy.) In turn, this means that the complexities in government-citizen interfacing – middlemen, opaque procedures, inadequate information, use of personal discretion, mobilization of political, economic and personal networks - are tried to be straightened through the application of technology which is viewed as neutral and capable of enforcing order and uniformity in procedures and service delivery. Therefore, it becomes essential to understand how different government departments function and how various services are delivered in order to assess where technology is/gets situated and how technology reorders/realigns government functionaries in line with the statist notions of law, order and fairness.

By way of a conclusion …: I will end this post here, leaving it for readers to ruminate and think over the ideas presented here. I will return back in the next post with a more concrete history of how and why ICTs, e-governance and Internet have been deployed in India to usher transparency and responsiveness in the functioning of the state via government agencies and departments. The concrete description will help put into perspective some of the conceptual issues and insights discussed in this post.

Till then, adios!


Abrams, Philip. March 1988. “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State”. Journal of Historical Sociology. Vol. 1 (1): 58-89.

C. J. Fuller and V. Benei (eds). 2000. The Everyday State and Society in Modern India. New Delhi: D. K. Publishers.

Corbridge, Stuart, Glynn Williams, Manoj Srivastava and Rene Veron. (2005) Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of Dispossession: NGOS, Economic Development and the State in Cairo. Duke University Press: Durham and London.

Moore, Sally Falk. 1973. “Law and Social Change: The Semi-Autonomous Social Field as an Appropriate Subject of Study.” Law and Society Review. Vol. 7 (4): 719-746.

Tarlo, Emma. 2003. Unsettling Memories: Narratives of India’s ‘Emergency’. Delhi: Permanent Black.

Also see …

Gupta, Akhil and James Fergusson. 2002. “Spatializing States: Towards An Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality”. American Ethnologist. Vol. 29 (4): 981-1002. See mainly part one on conceptual issues – spatializing states.

[i] The concept of “field” is borrowed from Sally Falk Moore’s (1973) model of the “semi-autonomous social field”. Moore suggests that a ‘field’ is a concrete, observable arena that generates rules and is simultaneously influenced by agencies and forces from outside (720). The notion of the ‘field’ aids in more a concrete and nuanced study of institutions especially the immediate and larger contexts in which institutions function and how this influences their functioning, why actors make particular decisions in certain circumstances, and how rules are formulated, adhered and resisted. Analyses will vary depending on how we map the field and which actors and factors we include/exclude and give primacy to in the given field.

[ii] Here, it is important to note that despite advocacy and practice of independence of judiciary, the judicial system of a nation functions on the principle of the ‘law of the land’ and maintaining the integrity and compositeness of the physical territory. In this respect, belief in the state’s judicial system continues to perpetuate the belief that there is a singular and ultimate source and arbiter of law, in this case the judicial system, even when the judiciary can strike down the decisions made by the executive organs of the state. Therefore, even if the judiciary is independent, the way in which it functions is to maintain and preserve the state system (i.e. the territory) and the statist quo (i.e. the state system and authority).

[iii] Interviews with social workers from community based organizations in Mumbai, conducted between May and November 2009.

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Zainab Bawa

Zainab Bawa works as an independent researcher on issues of urbanism, governance and impact of technology on political practices and institutions. She is doing a project, Transparency and Politics with CIS.