In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a 'Kerala model' of human development.  In the decade of the 2000s, there was a 'Gujarat model' of economic and industrial development, which seems to have lapsed now. In the last decade, Delhi has tried a new approach to social development. But these are exceptions; in a large a diverse country, we should have seen many more deliberate efforts by individual states to chart their own specific, publicly advocated models for growth, rather than a uniform one decided by the Union government or a central planning institution.

Voters are also having their say. For the last few years we have seen persistence divergence between the way they vote in state elections and the way they vote in the national polls. And as recent election results show, even in the face of strong competition from the Centre-ruling party, the regional ones are faring well. National parties should pay heed, and allow the states they run to also seek their distinct paths.

State governments also have a responsibility; they must each develop their own paths, and not just be more efficient deliverers of government services or freebies. This is not just about economic reforms, or about taxes, or about investing in schools and primary healthcare centres. It is about having a vision of what the state will look like in five or ten years.

Many so-called vision documents exist, but almost all of them are made by consultants, which perhaps explains their similarity. And none answers the critical questions - what resources are needed to achieve their vision; what institutional reforms are needed; what is the plan to change these institutions; and what will the state prioritise given its limited resources. Often, every state’s plan becomes a checklist of all possible economic sectors, and all possible demographics. When everything is a priority, nothing is.

Most states find it difficult to create their own path because they are dependent on the Union government for revenues and tax sharing.  GST is the same in every state.  All states have the same set of officials working in the same way (the All India Services at the top, and the rest of the local administration).  All states have similar challenges of infrastructure, employment, environment, even though the environment rules are set by the Union; big infrastructure projects are also awarded under standard rules or implemented by Central PSUs; and it is the private sector that creates jobs.   

Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

However, despite these constraints some states are doing things differently from others. Bihar's development is different from Jharkhand (more roads, better policing, school reforms).  Delhi is focused on schools and health and mobility.  Odisha has created a relatively efficient welfare state that ensures few are hungry.  The difference in all this seems to be the political vision of the Chief Minister and her (or his) ability to think and then execute for a longer term than five years. 

The CMs need to empower officials; build public, political, and business consensus for difficult changes; and then work diligently on the difficult bits of governance reform, institutional reforms, and structural reform. Only then can each state working with the same set of officials and the same levels of revenues do something different.  

Almost all states have Planning Boards, but these have become parking lots for politicians and officials. They do not have the authority or the resources to create plans that are more than presentations and do not have the authority to set priorities. The first step to this would be to revive and strengthen all the Planning Boards - and for this, the Union government should provide some resources and best practices. When I served as the now-defunct Planning Commission’s consultant on how to plan better, we’d organised a meeting of all the state planning boards in 2012 to share best practices.  This was the first time that such a meeting had been held between the Union and State governments.  It would be appropriate to have such meetings being held far more regularly between the Niti Aayog and the State boards - perhaps twice a year. 

Some may ask: if states are encouraged to make their own economic and developmental path, will it not make it difficult for the entire country to progress in a coordinated way. Actually, India will benefit if each state crafted its own model. These models then spread across the country and good practices are adopted by all states. Bihar’s initiative of giving free cycles to Class 12 girls was copied by some others. Gujarat’s electricity reforms become a model for other states. So was Delhi’s focus on primary healthcare. Even during the current, devastating second covid wave, Kerala’s healthcare model which has far fewer fatalities than other states, shows the need for each state to use its initiative and experience and resources in whatever way it thinks best. 

A federal India, which has many languages, states, regions, and communities will always have different models of growth that suit local aspirations. The Union government’s role in coordination, support, and ensuring macro-economic stability will be even more needed.  

The corollary to states charting their own path while collectively contributing to the nation’s progress is that districts and cities within states must also be freed by state governments to have their own development. Few states give their cities and districts the autonomy and the resources to think of how they can progress. Almost all development is around the state capital and a few surrounding areas.  Some states have regional 'development boards', but these are even more ineffective than the Planning Boards of states, and do not have the powers or resources to make plans or set priorities and make allocations of government funds.  

Local development that wins the support of local citizens, local politicians, and local businesses, and is monitored by the local government (if not implemented by them) will also channel local energies and local aspirations. State governments will always be responsible for setting the entire state’s agenda and providing resources, apart from ensuring balanced growth across the state. Just as the Union government will always be responsible for setting the country’s agenda and ensuring balanced growth across the nation.

Ranking the performance of states, of cities, of districts will spur progress from lower ranked entities. Sharing best practices and providing financial and organisational resources for reforms will be another way that states can support districts and the Union government can support states. 

The newly elected or re-elected Chief Ministers should use the next few weeks to think about how they want to shape their state for the next five years.  This way, each will have their own 'model' to take before their voters at the next election in 2026, and hopefully this will get their parties re-elected.  They will also contribute to a better, more federal India, and inspire all other states to also think of what they can do better.