The Upside of Nationalism: Politics for the Common Good in India

In her new book, political scientist Prerna Singh considers why some states develop more inclusive welfare policies and deliver better social outcomes.

Map of India

“The quality of life that a person leads,” writes Prerna Singh, “depends critically on where she leads it.” How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India is at its core an unpacking of that sentence and its implications for international development. Why do some states in India deliver better schools and health care systems than others?

Economic factors explain some of this variation, but there are other forces, too. Singh’s novel argument marks a departure from existing theories about social welfare, which emphasize the importance of economic development or the nature and extent of democracy and political parties. Instead, Singh attributes this variation to the strength of collective identity—the sense of “we-ness”—among the state’s citizens.

Her award-winning book received the Woodrow Wilson Prize for the best book in politics and the Barrington Moore Prize for the best book in comparative historical sociology, both in 2016. What was it that so impressed them? Using an innovative mix of statistical and comparative historical analyses, Singh packed her book with a wealth of evidence on the perplexing differences in social welfare between places that are otherwise similar demographically, socially, economically, and politically.

What is Subnationalism?

“Subnationalism” is Singh’s term for “People with a belief in a shared past and a common culture, based often but not necessarily on language, who identify with, or desire the creation of and control over, a political-administrative unit within a sovereign country that corresponds to a territory they believe belonged to their forebears.” Unlike nationalism, which is usually associated with a demand for an independent country, subnationalists are willing to settle for political power within a country. How is subnationalism different from other types of collective identities such as ethnicity? “I was looking for a concept that would allow me to get at culture—such as a shared history and language—which are important for ethnic identities, but also politics, specifically the desire for administrative control over a territory,” Singh said in a recent interview.

It is people’s emotional response, she argues, that is the raw stuff of politics.

Image of quotation from Prerna Singh

How Solidarity Works for Welfare

Drawing on social psychology and political theory, Singh argues the “we-ness” expressed in subnationalism is a very important motivator for political elites in particular. India’s constitution vests primary power over social policies with states rather than the central government in New Delhi. When policy makers feel a sense of solidarity with their subnational homeland, they feel obligated to support the interests of the community as a whole. They are more likely to push for progressive social policies that disproportionately benefit the poor, like delivering public health services or implementing public education programs.

According to Singh’s argument, states that are characterized by a stronger sense of subnational solidarity are more likely to be characterized by generous welfare expenditures and better social indicators. “A subnational identity is most likely to be maintained when it is institutionalized, for example, in a single language policy, state-sponsored festivals and art forms, as well as the establishment of arts, literary, and cultural academies,” writes Singh.

Singh also disputes the tendency to view collective identity and ethnic diversity as impediments to development. Does a more diverse population necessarily dampen the provision of social services? No, says Singh. Her research shows that having a regional identity or attachment roots people to the state and makes them more likely to support the collective welfare of their community members.

Nowhere is this clearer than in India’s most ethnically diverse state, Kerala, whose strong subnational political community Singh credits for the state’s greatly improved health and education outcomes. But where subnational solidarity is weak, as in Uttar Pradesh, such common purpose is absent and social policies are less effective.

Figure on Literacy Rates in India

This is not what we expect. Nationalism is infamous for its negative social consequences, such as xenophobia, racism, and violence. One takeaway from Singh's book is that cultural policies and social policies should go hand in hand. “Things like state-sponsored festivals and national days to celebrate the subnation’s art, culture, and literature are quite important,” says Singh.

The central issue of this book is one that political scientists and sociologists have pondered for decades. For Singh, the key is the notion of community—not class, religion, or market imperfections. She offers an entry pass to an alternative theory, and a new route to improving the quality of life in developing nations.

Amanda Pearson (@Pearson_ink), Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Prerna Singh was a Harvard Academy Scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the Mahatma Gandhi Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University.

How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India won the American Political Science Association Woodrow Wilson Prize for the best book published in politics and international relations and the American Sociological Association Barrington Moore Prize for the best book published in comparative historical sociology. Her article based on the book, “Subnationalism and Social Development: A Comparative Analysis of Indian States” published in World Politics in July 2015 was awarded the Luebbert Prize for the best article published in comparative politics in the last two years; the Mary Parker Follett Prize for the best article published in politics and history in the last year, both by the American Political Science Association, and the best article prize in the Sociology of Development by the American Sociological Association.


Map: Highlighted on this map are five Indian states—Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar—which are the focus of Singh’s comparative historical analysis. Unlike most previous studies of the welfare state that use a national unit of analysis, in Singh’s book the unit of analysis is the Indian province. Under the Indian Constitution, it is primarily the states that establish social policies rather than the national government. “States play the key role in the formulation and execution of policies regarding both education and health, and account for nearly 90 percent of total government expenditure on these issues,” writes Singh.

Figure: Through a statistical examination of all Indian states from the 1960s to 2000, Singh shows how the strength of subnationalism influences state social policy and social development. Shown here is Figure 1.2. “Mortality Rates in India (1961–2001)” from Singh, Prerna. 2016. How Solidarity Works for Welfare Subnationalism and Social Development in India (Cambridge University Press).