Towards a Comparative Subnational Perspective on India

AuthorSuraj Jacob
Published date01 December 2015
Date01 December 2015
Subject MatterArticles
Towards a Comparative Subnational
Perspective on India
Suraj Jacob1
The article surveys the comparative subnational literature on India and suggests some promising
paths forward. One, careful selection of sub-state regions can improve the legitimacy of inter-state
comparisons and increase the validity of causal claims regarding state-specific governance and politi-
cal economy. Two, there is greater scope for intra-state comparisons that control for state-specific
factors and thereby identify more local, context-specific factors that drive political and other outcomes.
Three, the roles and limitations of both causal and non-causal research designs need to be better
understood in the subnational context. Four, for serious comparison, it is imperative to explore only
a few carefully selected primary units of analysis. While this highlights the importance of the traditional
comparative case study approach, the implied qualitative/quantitative dichotomy is false: methods based
on inferential statistics can and should be usefully nested in a causal comparative case study framework.
Five, greater emphasis on process tracing can improve insights from subnational comparisons.
Subnational comparisons, states, comparative method, research design, process tracing, nested analysis
The unity of place is only disorder...Only the unity of problem makes a center.
—Bloch (1934, p. 81, translated by Skocpol & Somers, 1980, p. 194)
Among social scientists working on India, there is a renewed interest in taking subnational com-
parisons seriously; recent articles in the ‘Methods’ section of Studies in Indian Politics also attest to this
(Sinha, 2015; Tillin, 2013).2 As a substantive matter, subnational comparisons in India are important
because of the growing power of the states, especially in the last quarter century, both in setting their own
agendas as well as in influencing national-level outcomes. Decentralization efforts within states have
added to the importance of the subnational. Perhaps a deeper reason for addressing the subnational stems
from the above quotation from the comparative historian Marc Bloch: regions across space appear
chaotically different, but a comparative perspective can illuminate differences as well as the similarities
1 Associate Professor, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
2 For reviews of such studies by political scientists, see Kailash (2011a), Kumar (2011), Pai (1989) and Palshikar and Deshpande
Studies in Indian Politics
3(2) 229–246
© 2015 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023015601744
Corresponding author:
Suraj Jacob, School of Development, Azim Premji University, PES Campus, Electronics City, Hosur Road,
Bengaluru 560100.
230 Studies in Indian Politics 3(2)
they hide.3 Further, subnational comparisons can change how the larger nation-state is perceived, as Linz
and de Miguel (1966) showed for Spain about half a century ago.4
Although no clearly defined formal field of comparative subnational studies in India exists, it is
possible to extract multiple strands from the literature, across multiple disciplines, themes and method-
ologies.5 Comparative studies of India’s regions are marked by diversity along several dimensions. First,
a variety of themes have been addressed, from poverty to electoral politics.6 Second, some studies have
attempted typologies of states based on criteria such as regimes or politics,7 while others have attempted
to explain subnational differences. Third, comparisons of a variety of levels of subnational units have
been made—most obviously inter-state comparisons, but also comparisons of sub-state regions. Fourth,
there are big differences in the number of units compared, typically based on whether the analysis is
qualitative or quantitative. Fifth, a variety of methods have been used, from case studies to ethnography
to inferential statistics.8
Based on past work and its diversity along the above-mentioned dimensions, three key, interrelated
questions are worth exploring:
1. What is the legitimacy of the comparative method and what insights can it yield in the sub-
national domain?
2. Which kinds of subnational units can be compared and why?
3. How can substantive themes be explored in a comparative subnational context? That is, which
methodologies can be employed, and how?
The following section addresses the first of the given questions—the legitimacy and place of the
comparative method in the subnational domain. It describes the positivist and interpretivist traditions
of comparison, with the remainder of the article focusing on the former. The next section overviews the
two dominant methods in the India literature—statistical methods and comparative case studies—and
distinguishes method from methodology for comparative purposes. The following section discusses the
second question (on level/unit of analysis) and argues that a strong case can be made separately for both
inter-state comparisons and intra-state comparisons. Even outside of India-related studies, barring
3 This article is confined to a discussion of comparisons within India, although there is a lively literature on comparing India with
other countries (Tillin, 2013, pp. 235–236).
4 In the Indian context, this point has also been noted by Tillin (2013)—subnational comparisons can counter ‘false universalism’—
and recently again by Sinha (2015).
5 While this article uses diverse examples from multiple disciplines to discuss themes and methodologies of comparative sub-
national research in India, it is by no means an exhaustive listing of such research studies. Rather, a few select examples are
chosen to make analytical and methodological points.
6 It turns out that a variety of themes have been addressed through a comparative subnational lens for India; see Kailash (2011a)
and Palshikar and Deshpande (2009) for a discussion of some themes in the political science literature. Some of the literature
from political scientists, economists and anthropologists naturally showcases disciplinary preoccupations, such as, electoral
politics (Nigam & Yadav, 1999; Yadav & Palshikar, 2003); economic growth (Ahluwalia, 2000; Bhattacharya & Sakthivel, 2004);
and caste dominance (Breman, 2007; Carswell, 2013), respectively. However, subnational comparisons of ‘development’ have
attracted contributions from scholars from multiple disciplinary backgrounds, with emphasis on themes such as poverty (Besley
& Burgess, 2000; Breman, 2007; Kohli, 1987) and infrastructure and public services (Ahluwalia, 2011; Chhibber, Shastri &
Sisson, 2004). The formation of the Lokniti network in 1996 gave a boost to studies of subnational electoral behaviour in particular
(Kailash, 2011a), although the focus has not typically been on explicit subnational comparisons.
7 For instance, see Harriss (2000) and Jaffrelot (2009).
8 In addition, there are important differences in the treatment of time in comparative subnational studies in India, with some tracing
comparative subnational changes over time and others either ignoring time or collapsing it. However, for lack of space, this article
does not explore this dimension.

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