In village after village, from little children to grandmothers, there were stained, chipped, brittle teeth all around. There were barely any roads; Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojna had not made its way here yet. You could see electricity poles but there was no power. There was one thing, though, that all villages had: small-towered iron tanks. Most of the tanks looked like they were about to fall apart—paint was flaking, the iron rods were bent.

The tanks announced their purpose in the sterile officialese painted on them. They were part of a larger project to rid drinking water of excess fluoride. It was also mentioned that lakhs were spent on the project. These declarations of the state’s caring intent didn’t amount to much. A house with a tap was hard to find and the tanks themselves were corroded by the water-borne fluoride.

Those decaying water tanks in Alirajpur tehsil of Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district—as it was five years ago since Alirajpur is now a separate district—are an example of how our governments work, how plans become schemes, schemes become projects, and projects become rusting, crumbling tanks in one of India’s poorest regions.

The government is like a patchwork umbrella, tattered and badly repaired, its edges loosely draped on the frame of constitutional guarantees, weak-willed to provide relief to millions of Indians trying hard to come under its benevolent, if unreliable, shelter. The Indian public has always been demanding but patient, sometimes more patient than necessary as the 35 years of communist party rule in West Bengal, or 15 years of Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, or close to 10 years of Manmohan Singh show.

The relationship between the citizen and the government has evolved greatly in the post-Independence years. It can broadly be examined through three stages—the Nehru era, the Indira Gandhi era, and the post-liberalisation era.

The early years after Independence, particularly the Nehruvian era, were a period of genteel overlordship of leaders who demanded, deserved and were given trust. The first general election in 1951-52 (incidentally, communalism was the major poll issue), installed Jawaharlal Nehru and his other comrades from the freedom movement—mainly from the educated, privileged sections—as  architects of the country’s destiny. At that time, only 16 per cent of Indians were literate, and more tellingly, only four per cent of the women.

It was period of great hope and faith in the power of the state. The Planning Commission, set up in 1950, had started functioning. The idea of a planning behemoth, charting the path the country should take, driven by heavy industry (the other big focus was education) was not a new one, and was even demanded by Indian businesses that wanted active state support and protection to pursue capitalist ideals.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in 1934 demanded a national planning commission to coordinate planning on a country-wide scale, and in 1938 the Congress formed a committee headed by Subhas Chandra Bose for the purpose.

In 1944-45, under the famous Bombay Plan industrialists—gentlemen with last names like Birla and Tata among six others were its framers—demanded that the government intervene and protect indigenous business from global competition, and regulate certain sectors.

Some of the same industrialists and their successors then went on to crib about the closed and regulated nature of the Indian economy for decades. In this big boys’ club, new players were seldom admitted. The regulatory system was such a maze that only the truly connected could navigate it. It took a Dhirubhai Ambani who further gamed a gamed system to his advantage to shake them up.

In other words, the big names of Indian business wanted the economy to be closed and opened at a time of their choosing. In that vague, all-encompassing construct called “national interest”, they found an immortal horse that could be flogged, whenever and however much was required. The voice of industry was always heard, especially by the Planning Commission in its early years, a tradition to which current deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia has been particularly sensitive.

As far as the ordinary Indian was concerned, his voice wasn’t heard much at a time when All India Radio stuck to the news, and newspapers had not become middle class mouthpieces. Yet the Nehru era also saw many peasant and land reform movements taking shape, and trade unions, especially towards the end of the Sixties becoming restless.

These cases—the demands for compensation or jobs—are the legacy of tribals or farmers in no better standing than their forefathers as they demand their due from the state.

The government was acquiring land on a prodigious scale for Planning Commission-mandated goals, displacing thousands of farmers and tribals. Some land acquisition cases are still being fought, from those displaced by the Bhakra Nangal project to those who lost land to the Heavy Engineering Corporation in Ranchi, a moribund enterprise way past its prime and saddled in debt. These cases—the demands for compensation or jobs—are the legacy of tribals or farmers in no better standing than their forefathers as they demand their due from the state. The overwhelming sense of purpose of this period was rapid industrialisation with state patronage, under which many indiscretions of the government were brushed aside.

The final years of the Sixties changed that. Nehru was gone, and so too Shastri after a brief but significant interlude. Indira Gandhi was battling the old guard of the party, the infamous Syndicate, and the country was recovering from two wars and a famine.

The Indira years saw power concentrated in a small coterie—many of them unelected sycophants, a tribe especially powerful today—that surrounded an insecure prime minister who often took drastic measures in public as a show of confidence. During her time, the implicit good faith that characterised Nehru era actions gave way to whimsical decisions whose motives were neither always clear nor much debated. By 1969, banks and coal mines had been nationalised, and the privy purses and privileges of erstwhile royalty abolished. The 1971 war with Pakistan, a victory for India, helped carve her image as a decisive and resolute leader.

The Indira years, helped by her insular and take-no-prisoners approach, fostered many forms of civil activism in the country. The Seventies saw trade unions flexing their muscles, the feminist movement adopting a more rights-based activism than the reform-based one of its earlier years, the birth of environmental legislation and activism, and more militant Dalit movements and the flowering of Dalit literature, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Two landmarks of this decade are the Emergency, and the Railway strike of 1974, which was brutally suppressed by Indira Gandhi. The Emergency gave rise to the JP Movement, itself inspired by Gujarat’s Navnirman Movement of 1974 against rising prices. The JP movement is possibly India’s most significant mass movement that effected regime change, and the one which saw massive participation from ordinary citizens, from the student to the clerk.

Many of the discontents of the Seventies spilled over to the Eighties. The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 remain till date one of India’s darkest hours, and were in many ways the culmination of the worst tendencies that had taken root during Indira Gandhi’s reign. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone with the active involvement of Congress workers and leaders, some of whom still hold their place in the party as loyal palace servants.

Civil society redeemed itself during the riots, with many citizen groups opening shelters and conducting peace marches and pleading for sanity. The Eighties also saw the flourishing of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by a guilt-ridden Supreme Court that had failed to uphold the citizens’ fundamental rights in the Habeas Corpus case during the Emergency.

The PILs were a response to executive inaction, a court-monitored system of ensuring that things get done; for the first time it made government accountable in a very specific and measurable way to citizens under the court’s watchful glare.

By diluting the concept of locus standi, and transforming postcards into petitions, the Supreme Court birthed a new era of activism. PILs throughout the Eighties resulted in far reaching changes in the rights of undertrials, convicts, bonded labour, environmental protection, and judgments enhanced the scope of fundamental rights.

The PILs were a response to executive inaction, a court-monitored system of ensuring that things get done; for the first time it made government accountable in a very specific and measurable way to citizens under the court’s watchful glare. It empowered the citizen, and helped in the growth of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). By the government’s own count more than three lakh operate today.

The terms of engagement between the public and the government had already shifted. From an innate belief in the goodness of the state during Nehru’s reign, to a growing discomfort with Indira Gandhi’s autocratic style, voices of dissent started making themselves heard. There was a shift in the demand as well.

While earlier it was about social reforms, uplift of certain sections, and policy-centered interventions, by the end of the Eighties the demands were more specific—drinking water, clean rivers, rights of footpath dwellers, rights of Project-Affected People, etc.—aimed at better delivery of government services.

The opening of the Indian economy in 1992 has ushered in the most far reaching changes as far as citizens’ empowerment is concerned. With rising economic growth, Internet, and a newly-affluent middle class served by hundreds of newspapers and news channels, there is, it can be argued, greater scrutiny today than ever before of government action.

There’s an increasingly business-consumer relationship between government and the citizen. The state has to provide a certain set of services to the citizen, and the citizen of today is no more the helpless person filling forms in triplicate at some run-down government office.

It is the result of this impatience with the system that we now have laws mandating timeframes to carry out certain services most required by the people in states like Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. And the sign of true affluence these days is to bypass the state—live in gated enclaves, have private arrangements for utilities and have a fixer on the payroll to liaise with the government.

Laws like the Right to Information, itself a product of civil rights activism, have armed the citizen with unprecedented power to examine the workings of government, and are used on a war footing to expose and bring errant officials to the book. The post-liberalisation period belongs to the activist, so much so that the last ten years have seen them mould most of the United Progressive Alliance government’s Bharat Nirman policy, be it the National Rural Emploment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) or the Right to Food law that has emanated from the National Advisory Council. The government now thinks that all it needs for a re-election is hundreds of crores to spend on advertisement showing the goodness of the Bharat Nirman project.

While the post-liberalisation era has seen an increasingly transactional relationship between the state and the people (the latest cash transfer schemes are its best example), this period has also seen the specific-interest group based activism shorn of caste and class rhetoric. This has resulted in laws that protect the domestic worker, movement for better social security for unorganised sector workers, and the law against sexual harassment at workplace.

The way in which the government and the people have engaged with each other since Independence has changed dramatically, so have the demands and desires, all of which are reflected in the design of welfare schemes through the years. The economy may be open, but state-sponsored welfarism still rules in India.

The manifesto of every political party, even a new one of like the Aam Aadmi Party, is full of promises of the sort of dole they will give if voted to power. The one time a party didn’t fight an election after 1992 on a manifesto of welfarism, was the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004. The India Shining campaign was a disaster, enthusiastic endorsement of the media notwithstanding.

It is a truth that should be well known by now that with all its inequities of class, caste and wealth, the India that is not shining will always be bigger and electorally more influential than the India that shines, at least for the foreseeable future. So boasting about the successes of the privileged few to get the vote of the not-so-privileged many is not a nice way to ask for their vote—a lesson the BJP forgot and for which it paid the price.

Welfare as far as it means public spending in core sectors like education and health, is a political and developmental necessity. Neither Narendra Modi, the much-admired CEO-chief minister, nor anyone else can think of jettisoning it if they hope to be prime minister. When Modi or anyone else speaks about development, they are in fact asking for votes on the basis of their success in delivering what they promised, and most of those promises are about executing welfare and infrastructure schemes.

The factors that weigh in, for example, in Modi’s support once all the CEO-talk and his voluble attempts at becoming the personification of Gujarati pride and masculinity are pushed to one side, are government’s schemes like the Jyotigram which provides single-phase 24-hour electricity to villages, and his limited success with the canal project to take Narmada waters to the dry regions.

It is in the very nature of government, especially a democratic one elected on the wave of a million competing promises, to plan, to make schemes, to give back to the people whose vote they have managed to take on the pretext of a million things said and unsaid.

When Modi or anyone else speaks about development, they are in fact asking for votes on the basis of their success in delivering what they promised, and most of those promises are about executing welfare and infrastructure schemes.

The question, though, is what should be the nature of welfare? Are free schools and hospitals enough? What should be the nature of subsidies? Does the middle class, the largest beneficiary of the LPG subsidy, really need it? At what point does welfare becomes dole? Is NREGS nothing more than a cash transfer scheme for which people are made to unscientifically toil for works that have little long-term relevance?

Tamil Nadu which has the best and the worst of both welfarism and outright freebies presents itself as a case study. First the positives: The state has universal PDS, and a well-managed one. The public health system too works fine, and this was the state that pioneered the midday meal scheme and pension schemes for various deprived groups and homes for the landless.

Over the years though, in the game of one-upmanship between the AIADMK and the DMK, welfarism has morphed into outright giveaways in lieu of votes. While freebies alone can’t decide an election, they have become the staple of political promises, and the voter decides knowing well that whichever party wins, his basket will be full.

State governments in Tamil Nadu have provided TV sets and formed a company to provide cable connections, laptops, mixer/grinders, fans, saris, masala packets, and even gold for marriages (the government also conducts mass weddings). The challenge for both parties now is to find new ways of giving more, and now that the essentials are covered, perhaps they could eye the luxury sector.

While the long-term economic and social effects of such a regimented system of doles are yet to be studied, government after government is on a mission to expand it. Questions like the impact of freebies on entrepreneurship, on the labour market, the costs—fiscal and societal—need serious consideration.

The rise of strong regional parties in India has coincided with a period when the Central government has been coalitions (coalition dharma was Manmohan Singh’s pet defence for 2G), dependent substantially on regional players for survival. As the states have become more and more powerful they have started demanding their pound of flesh from the Centre.

No longer are special packages announced by the government in Delhi enough, the state governments want greater control of their destinies. Strong chief ministers like Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa, and Mamata Banerjee have been demanding greater legislative powers and autonomy over taxes and revenue generated in their states.

The Constitution provides far greater revenue collection powers to the central government, and this top-flow system is one reason the country is more unitary than Federal in nature. Now with states becoming more powerful in the national scene—the days of a pan-India political force are behind us—this very character of the state may change.

The idea of the Planning Commission looks well past its utility and, in an era of strong sub-nationalism of the states, even a patronising one. Different states are at different stages of socio-economic development, the Commission’s one size-fits-all approach doesn’t work anymore.

The government has tremendous power to change lives. All the schemes, all the plans, when they do come together, have over an individual a transformative power that is almost miraculous.

Here’s what Meena, UNICEF’s girl-child mascot, could get from the state if she were born today in a village in India. Before birth, Meena’s mother’s health would have been monitored at a primary health centre and proper records would be kept. An auxiliary nurse or midwife would provide counselling, explain the different stages of pregnancy and give her a schedule of check-ups to follow.

The social worker or the anganwadi worker in her village would visit her several times during the course of the pregnancy, advise on family planning, tell about the various government schemes to help in case the child was a girl, and tell her that there was an incentive of Rs.500 for institutional deliveries.

After Meena’s birth, the nurse would devise a detailed food and vaccine plan for both mother and child; and the social worker in the village would ensure that information about vaccine drives reaches the parents. At the local panchayat office, a birth certificate would be issued.

At the block office her parents could register for a scheme that would make the government deposit Rs.25,000 in a bank account in Meena’s name, an amount that will be due to her with interest on reaching adulthood. Soon Meena would start primary school which will be free, from books to uniforms to midday meals.

For secondary school she may have to join a school in another village, or she could go to a fully residential school run by the government. Here she may get a sports scholarship and be sent to a government-run academy with better facilities. Or if science is her thing, she may be sent to a special centre for promising students. Various kinds of scholarships would be available. By the time Meena turned 18, she would be free to catch her own rainbows, be her own woman.

And the state would have done its job.