Federal systems across the globe are full of contradictions. They are both individually unique and yet respond to similar objectives and expectations in a constantly changing environment. This dynamic is illustrated by developments in two large federal systems – India and the US – that have tried to deal with dramatic differences within their population as they search for ways to make democratic principles come alive. While differences between the two systems are clear, examining both sets of players and pressures can prove to be useful to students of both settings.
Increasingly I began to see parallels between India and the US. My earlier research had focused on American federalism and the constant search for ways that a national government could deal with a system of states with very different expectations, cultures, and populations. About the same time that I applied for the Fulbright I was able to meet with a group of individual Indians who were leaders of democratically operated grassroots social change movements in India, supporting the empowerment of dalits, tribal people, women and religious minorities.
This group of Indian activists was brought to Washington, DC by the Ford Foundation and these individuals worked with an American group called the Advocacy Institute to expose them to the advocacy efforts within the US. This organization had devised strategies and approaches that made sense in the US and provided a setting that was useful to people from another large country with dramatic differences within its population and the need for economic development. As our conversations developed I began to understand both the similarities and differences between the two systems, both of which were dealing with political, economic and social changes over time and seemed to be constantly in flux. While the Indian experience with independence and colonial institutions was much more recent than that in the US, both countries searched for ways to make it possible for democratic principles come alive.
By the time I had to sit down and write my application for the Fulbright I had become aware of two elements in the Indian Constitution that provided me with new ways of thinking about federalism in both countries. First, I was struck by the way that the Indian constitution had divided the power of the states and the central government into three lists: the union list, the state list, and the concurrent list. That categorization provided a framework that acknowledged differences between very different policy roles within different jurisdictional structures and seemed to be the only model for issues that required the involvement of both sets of institutions.
By contrast, the US system, following a Civil War, danced around the division of powers through an argument that referred to issues that involved interstate commerce and did not attempt to classify specific lists of activities that were appropriate for the central government, the states, or both. It was not until Deil Wright developed what he called the “overlapping model of intergovernmental relations” in the late 1970s that something in the US approached the concept of the concurrent list.
The second element that became clear to me as I prepared for a visit to India involved attention to the role of the bureaucracy in the Indian constitution. The Indian Administrative Service was one of the very few administrative systems that I had encountered that was established in a constitution as an instrument of federalism, with IAS officers serving as an intermediary between the states and the national government. By contrast, the US Constitution did not really deal with the role of the bureaucracy at any level. In that sense the US system was similar to that of most political systems where each level of government was equipped with its own set of administrative instrumentalities and mechanisms. Countries such as Australia and the US have separate and distinct levels of public administration that tend to emphasize the differences between the levels of government rather than to accentuate areas of interdependencies. My research efforts involving implementation of national policies in different states in the US had shown me that these differences were extremely important.
But back to India. The process of negotiating a Fulbright position in India is never simple. But in this instance the months involved in my negotiation provided me with an opportunity to build on my growing interest in both issues -- concurrent powers and the IAS. When I arrived in Delhi at the end of May, I was not only greeted by pre monsoon heat but also an agreement with the Indian Institute of Public Administration in Delhi. I would spend my three months as a senior Fulbright scholar based there, meeting senior IAS officers both in the classroom and informally, visiting other training institutes throughout the country, and taking advantage of the expertise of colleagues on the faculty and others in Delhi and across the country. I hadn’t realized it at the time but it turned out that I was the first American to be posted at the IIPA under a Fulbright. My colleagues at the Institute said that the faculty was always skeptical about accepting previous applicants, believing that they were likely to be somehow attached to the CIA. For whatever reason, I was viewed as different. Probably my concerns about issues in the US (especially civil rights issues) played a part in this.
I spent the three months combining IIPA based activities with visits to training institutes across the country arranged by IIPA staff, the Fulbright Office, and the U. S. Information Service. I was able to speak to IAS officers in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, and several other places. I spent a week at the training academy in Mussoorie – perhaps the institution anywhere in the world that has invested more in training bureaucrats than anyone else has done. I was able to see both the strengths and the weaknesses of those training efforts. When it was possible I also met with individuals from advocacy organizations in those places. In subsequent trips to India, I visited other parts of the country and returned to earlier places. By the turn of the 21st century, I was immersed in questions about India. I was more likely to know what I didn’t understand than to pronounce any expertise.
The years that elapsed between my Fulbright in 1990 and my last trip in 2007 gave me a picture of a constantly changing India. Two main changes were extremely important to my understanding of issues related to federalism. The first was the emergence of the private sector. Its presence was noted in areas which had been characterized by strong (almost monopolistic) government action. Global attention had turned to the contribution of the Indian technology private sector. New actors from the private sector were likely to both demand and assist in a role in decisionmaking. These players further complexified the demands on all of the three lists defined in the Constitution but clearly made the concurrent list particularly difficult to manage.
The second change emerged from the development of state specific political parties across the states. The appearance of these political parties in the 1980s challenged the ability of the Congress Party to win elections in a number of states. As a result, it became increasingly common for elections to be won by coalitions of political parties. These coalitions often included a range of national parties and state-specific parties and gave state political leaders the ability to make demands on issues and areas which had not been possible in the past. It was possible – at least theoretically -- for the Chief Ministers to indirectly use the skills of their IAS cadres to push for specific policy directions even when they were posted in Delhi. These individuals seem to serve an interconnecting role as they share a common background but find themselves representing different governments. Federalism, thus, had to be defined to include these new players as a part of the context of decisionmaking either directly as players or as individuals who changed the way that they defined their power position and roles.
Similar changes were taking place within the US during this same period. Increased use of contracting out functions at all levels of government made it difficult to think of a clear differentiation between public and private roles. Reliance on legal and structural definitions of federalism was modified and often replaced by the concept of intergovernmental relationships. That term was used to support a view that not only included private sector groups but focused on processes that stemmed from a set of overlaps among national, state and local units simultaneously. In many cases, increased globalization meant that the relationships spanned national boundaries. Both governments and private sector actors began to recognize the involvement of organized actors outside the government; these non government organizations became gradually recognized as agents and partners of governments. These overlaps constrained the levels of autonomy and discretion in any single public or private player. In addition, they stimulated complex multiunit interactions which are non hierarchical in nature. It became more difficult to fit the traditional role of “bureaucrats” into these behaviors since their traditional role as deliverer of services was dramatically modified. Yet while some called this development “the hollow state”, governments still continued to exert essential functions in the process (such as raising money, negotiating contracts, establishing program standards). Bureaucracies might have changed but they still have a residue of power.
In 2015 Bob Agranoff and I published an article in Publius: The Journal of Federalism that reminded scholars of Deil Wright’s overlapping model of contemporary relationships (Robert Agranoff and Beryl A. Radin, 2015, “Deil Wright’s Overlapping Model of Intergovernmental Relations: The Basis for Contemporary Intergovernmental Relationships,” , PUBLIUS: THE JOURNAL OF FEDERALISM.). The six elements that he described within this model seemed to fit the changing situation in both India and the US. They were:
- Limited and dispersed power
- Modest and uncertain areas of autonomy
- High degree of potential or actual interdependence
- Simultaneous competition and cooperation
- Bargain-exchange relationships
- Negotiation as a strategy for reaching agreement
At the same time that these complex changes were occurring in the US, economic conditions and skepticism about the effectiveness of the public sector were also increasing. Thus two developments are currently present that do not easily lend themselves to clear strategies: the first is the concept of networks and the second is the use of performance assessment processes to devise accountability mechanisms. The concept of networks is now a widely used term in many different contexts, ranging from informal networks of associates to formal structures. The proliferation of these governing networks reflects not only the expansion of intergovernmental programs to reach across jurisdictions but also captures important activities of the actors who are present in contemporary settings. The network activity in the US has varied in many different directions. Networks have been identified in two diametrically opposite ways. They have been praised for their ability to serve as a venue for collaborative or cooperative decisionmaking processes. But it is not always clear what people mean by “cooperative federalism” in the US. The term has been used by advocates of both national, state, and local governments as well as NGOs to justify their involvement in efforts to solve common problems. But it also has been used as a critique of the status quo by those who believe that policies are dominated by the national government.
But at the same time some have emphasized the potential of collaborative processes, networks have also been characterized as the source for many different forms of conflict that emerge from overlapping authority. One could actually see the roots of the collaboration/conflict dichotomy in the original Indian concurrent list approach. It was never clear to me what kind of relationships the authors of the Constitution thought would emerge from that third list – collaborative or conflictual?
If this source of uncertainty is not confusing enough, the US emphasis on performance assessment to devise accountability mechanisms further complicates the contemporary situation. A range of efforts have been put in place to hold third parties accountable for the use of federal dollars and, at the same time, seek to provide those third parties discretion in the way they use those federal monies.
The complexities of the current era have clearly compounded the difficulties of implementing the overlapping model. Both India and the US have moved beyond the original cast of actors, broadened some of the venues of decisionmaking, brought on more networks and potential for collaboration, increased opportunities for political and substantive policy conflict, and also increased performance concern with third party involvement.
While differences between the two systems are clear, examining both sets of players and pressures can prove to be useful to students in both settings. Both countries are constantly changing and provide a hospitable setting for a range of researchable questions. I’m particularly interested in various forms of comparative analysis that might emerge. Comparative analysis approaches can be used to examine the differences between the two countries. But comparative approaches can also be used to devise studies that focus on differences between the strategies employed by states within a single country. For example, I think there is potential in an analysis of collaborative vs. conflictual strategies used in different states in India. I hope that these remarks might stimulate people in this audience to search for these and other researchable questions.