Despite the State: Introduction, recommendations, and readers’ feedback

From the back cover: ‘The story of democratic failure is usually read at the level of the nation, while the primary bulwarks of democratic functioning–the states–get overlooked. This is a tale of India’s states, of why they build schools but do not staff them with teachers; favour a handful of companies so much that others slip into losses; wage water wars with their neighbours while allowing rampant sand mining and groundwater extraction; harness citizens’ right to vote but brutally crack down on their right to dissent. Reporting from six states over thirty-three months, award-winning investigative journalist M. Rajshekhar delivers a necessary account of a deep crisis that has gone largely unexamined.’


Barbara Harriss-White, Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, Oxford.
‘With cases meticulously explored in six states spanning the length and breadth of the country, Rajshekhar conveys the resilience of people faced with the State’s failure to deliver what it champions. Lacing its way throughout this book is evidence for political centralisation, domination, patronage and predation. This is the nearest to a holistic account of India’s everyday economy and its development and democratic failings that we are likely to have for a long while.’

Madhu Ramnath, Botanist, author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.
‘By turns provocative, serious and humorous, Despite the State unravels the facade that passes off as democracy in India. Written in a terse staccato, Rajshekhar’s travelogue style is deceptively simple but backed by well-researched conclusions. Guided by the author through six states, the reader confronts the ways in which a democracy can be made dysfunctional, unnoticed by the people who believe in its existence. An important book for our times.’

Usha Ramanathan, scholar on the jurisprudence of law and poverty.
Despite the State is a remarkable, involved, engaging narrative that captures the voices and lived experiences of people, their aspirations, their despair and the ways in which they find the next possibility when what they have begins to crumble. We see the State as the people encounter it, woefully, often, as the entity that dismantles what the people have crafted for themselves and for their survival. It parses political economy into more than just the formal and the informal, and introduces us to a precariat which is made by State action and inaction. It is not a pretty tale; but it does help us identify the fault lines in our politics, and in our economy, and urges us to do something about it, now.’

Tridip Suhrud, writer and translator.
‘If the rich have ceased to belong to India, the Indian states have seceded from the poor; their object being to extract greater resources and accumulate power bereft of accountability. Despite the State is a frightening account of India’s neglect of basic functions of governance and minimal democracy.’

T.K. Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times.
‘When a sensitive journalist puts his ear to the ground, as Rajshekhar did for three years, travelling and living in six states, he can be expected to hear the heartbeat of the land. But Despite the State is far more than sensibility and reportage of development challenges. It is, to use the author’s words, a hitchhiker’s guide to democratic palsy, lucid and informed by a unique perspective shaped by inquiries into everything from the human brain to political philosophy.’

M.S. Sriram, IIM Bangalore.
‘This journey through six different states – not as a travelogue but as an effort to have a deep understanding on how peoples’ lives have been changing, the emerging concerns and its connections with the State and its politics makes a fascinating reading. Each state is different, each page tells us a distinct story, each one of these is a Tolstoyesque story of unhappy families where the relationship between the citizens and the mai-baap Sarkar –the government–is being redefined as a patron-client relationship, a customer-provider relationship, a dole seeker-provider relationship or an episodic relationship of gratification and not necessarily the relationship between an empowered citizen and the sevaks including the Pradhan sevak.
This is a book full of stories: stories of real people making the best of their potential, uncomplaining and leading their lives towards contentment, and so self-contained that they do not even notice that the State is absent…. It is a book that makes for an easy reading, just flows through, but at the same time makes you pause. Makes the reader introspect and wonder if the larger picture is indeed true. Or how much more worse it can get. This is deeply insightful, and therefore deeply disturbing.’

Abhijit Sen, economist and former member of Planning Commission.
‘This is a book that I saw develop ever since Rajshekhar began his project and asked me what to look for in the ability of state governments to deliver. In fact, I ended up learning much more from it than I could advise on. While state government priorities, their administrative capacity and centre-state fiscal dynamics were what I thought he should concentrate on, his findings on non-State actors were far more interesting. I suppose that is why the title: Despite the State. But can people cope with failures of the State? While not necessarily conclusive, what emerges is a fascinating and very well-written quilted story of hope, anxiety and guile. Do read on.’

Readers’ feedback

@alexpaulmenon: Just finished this wonderful book by @mrajshekhar .Simple on the narrative , but deeply insightful and thereby deeply disturbing too.

@tongamrina: Despite the State has to be one of the best books published this year. Its a must read for policy makers and others to understand that part of crisis ridden India we know yet pretend not to understand.

@kiychettira: As someone who’s halfway through @mrajshekhar‘s book, I couldn’t agree more with @rohitreads. Whatever domain you’re looking at — climate change, energy, finance, economy — Despite the State will give you a fuller understanding of India’s reality!

Keshav Desiraju, former health secretary, GoI: “Rajshekhar, I am greatly moved and impressed by your book. It is not often that one comes across writing with both passion and analytical rigour, but you have done it. You should be very proud. Warmest regards , Keshav

JD Taylor, author of Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain: “Democracy in India faces a crisis. Corruption and populism are undermining its support and legitimacy, reviving old sectarian and caste divides. While many of these problems are global in nature, it also comes with distinctly Indian features. To understand what is happening, and why, Despite the State is an excellent guide. Written indefatigably over 33 months across 6 states, it’s a politically astute and compelling travelogue through this new landscape, identifying the deeper currents shaping events. Shekhar writes with deep humanity for his subjects. Beneath the razor-sharp social observation and breadth of characters is a common story of democratic failure and state capture. This brilliant book is a powerful (though not naive) call to return to the kind of democratic idealism that established the Indian republic – and which might renew it in its moment of need.”

@rogaly: For a searing analysis of Modi’s India see @mrajshekhar’s excellent new book Despite the State. For UK-based readers Shekhar’s conclusions about ‘executive aggrandisement.. extractiveness, centralisation and clientelism’ will be chillingly familiar. Yet the book is all the more important for it’s deep, grounded critique of contrasting regimes in six of India’s states and its reminder of the political possibilities inherent in vigilance and solidarity in opposition to authoritarianism and crony capitalism.

@soutikBBC: @mrajshekhar‘s Despite The State is a rare book of clear-eyed reportage which ably connects the dots to demonstrate how state failure, elite capture of institutions, clientelism and intolerant governments of all hues have hobbled Indian democracy. A sobering and essential read.

@UntergrundmannG: Just finished reading @mrajshekhar‘s ‘Despite the State’. Journalism as it should be ~ a well-documented exercise in tracing patterns of state behavior/response across seemingly unconnected domains, intersecting along time into cascading failures for the citizens. #MustRead … This was more in the sense of writing that is critically necessary now, but has somehow just disappeared from the environment. And it lays out HOW the complexity of primary, secondary and tertiary consequences of short-sighted state actions lead to current hopelessness.

@FOX_IN_THE_BOX7: Despite the state by @mrajshekhar Just finished this excellently investigated and neatly written #book. It questioned my presumptions about political & economic culture in various states. Highly recommended. I wrote a brief review in Tamil:

@AparnaKarthi: Pls read @mrajshekhar‘s brilliant book Despite the State. The chapter on Tamil Nadu is sharp and so well reported. Learning so much from this book.

@Djha1989: @mrajshekhar an absolute gem of a book. Strongly recommended for my three lettered colleagues, in case we are getting too comfortable.

@naukarshah: Halfway through @mrajshekhar ‘s “Despite the State”. A brilliant brilliant book on what happens in the towns and districts of India….He covers day to day political & bureaucratic economy from the districts of Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Gujarat, TN and Bihar. Engaging in a constant pursuit of why things are the way they are. If it could be different? How people respond to it as an individual and as a community.

@vmingoa: no book on contemporary India rivals @mrajshekhar‘s brilliant #mustread vivisection: ‘Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and How They Cope’.

@kalyanasc: Just finished reading ‘Despite the State’ by @mrajshekhar. A timely and remarkable work. It renders intelligible the present state of our democracy in unprecedented ways. It identifyies the defining characteristics of the state as it exists today thru a field study of six states… It also maps the processes by which political parties manage the context of an electoral democracy while they establish and sustain a predatory state. Of course, the impact of this transformation on the people and their well-being is also described at length. A must-read book.

@rafat: Probably the best on-the-ground reporting on India ever done in modern times, this new book by @mrajshekhar is out now, “Despite The State” title says it all, hugely enjoying (in horror) the reading, get it now @raju @sree @mitrakalita

More (longer) reader feedback

@Sw0oti: Oooo boy! Just finished a reread of #DespiteTheState by @mrajshekhar last night, and what a book… This #thread is not a review (other better qualified people have reviewed it elsewhere), but rather the impression it has left on me.
Firstly, as someone working in the energy and climate space, I was delighted to see #climatechange feature as one of the key themes in the book. Although not-so-delighted about the havoc it creating on lives and livelihood. #DespiteTheState takes us to the farming crisis in Punjab and the impact of the climate change on the interaction between the mid-latitude westerlies and the Indian monsoons and its impact on agriculture…. (@Saurabhsays, I have questions). We read about the impact of warming seas on livelihoods of fishing communities in Tamil Nadu (leading to higher debt), the impact of sand mining on groundwater tables and water scarcity, the imperfections of the climate change plans of Gujarat and air pollution in North India. Through this narrative, @mrajshekhar links ideas of adaptation, mitigation, & resilience to larger issues of food, water, air, forest, tribal, and livelihood rights. The narrative is terrific using jargon-less simplicity in detailing a complex and deteriorating climate picture.
Other key themes include justice, governance, economic reforms, religion, education, health, political patronage, caste and class. Our republic as viewed from lens of the States seems like multiple fiefdoms run by diff political parties. who have more similarity than differences. What do all of them have in common? They are extractivist, dominant, centralised & practice clientalism. Using one strand or as @mrajshekhar puts it ‘an event’, the book digs into the processes that led to the current situation, sometimes going back and forth into history. The writing is remarkably succinct for this kind of writing style.
So have Indian political parties aided the destruction of India’s democratic ideals? For most part yes, but there is also the bit about us as citizens and our inability to hold the govt accountable. As an instance, when Patidars in Gujarat are impacted due to short-sighted and clientist state policies, they ask for reservations rather than accountability. Similarly in TN when villagers realise that their livelihoods are in danger due to sand mining, they seek for more sops from an already welfare state rather than ask them to stop sand mining. I thought the stories of each of the six states could be individual books by themselves (cc @mrajshekhar).
Given the geographical extent the book covers, it is fascinating that no matter the cause of the malaise in each state, education, health and justice bear the brunt, especially for the marginalized sections of society. Theoretically, as public policy professionals, we know this. The book offers sobering details on its actual impact. You may not know any of the characters personally but their stories and struggle resonate with you. My personal favourite was an aging patriarch from Ludhiana who was struggling to keep his SME afloat, whose fortunes mirror India’s GDP trajectory and who is wondering if he can start all over again. Like him, the book is dotted with characters who showcase mad resilience and perseverance in face of insurmountable odds.
The book left me with mixed feelings of despondency and hope. Despondency because our republic is in a terrible state, and hope because #DespiteTheState, people continue to persevere and try to get ahead. If you don’t know anything about Indian states but want to see democracy in action, please don’t look at tv channels during their election coverage. Read this book. It will tell you everything you want to know about India’s democracy or democratic palsy.

And here, the book’s goodreads page.