Federal Dimensions of India's Response to the Covid Pandemic

Challenging the Idea of the “Flailing State”





This paper examines India’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, from the perspective of its federal structures. It first summarizes different institutional components of India’s federal system. Next, it outlines the responses to the pandemic, both over time, and across different levels of government. The main contribution of the paper is a new evaluation of the federal dimensions of India’s governmental responses at different levels. It is argued that, while the national government did well in some respects, and there was considerable coordination across levels of government, there were key failures, both in the manner of the initial abrupt and drastic national lockdown in March 2020, and in the lack of preparation and national response to the deadlier second wave of the pandemic in 2021. By contrast, subnational governments, both state and local, did better than might have been expected, especially in the face of limited resources and information. It is argued that India’s pandemic experience contradicts the “flailing state” idea that was devised to explain the country’s governmental performance in recent decades. The paper also questions the applicability of the concept of “cooperative federalism” to the Indian case. It argues that India’s federal system proved quite resilient, but can be made more effective by strengthening capacity at the local level.


Federalism, COIVD-19, Coronavirus, India, Centralisation, Cooperative Federalsim, Flailing State


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Author Bio

Nirvikar Singh, University of California, Santa Cruz

Nirvikar Singh is Distinguished Professor and Co-Director, Center for Analytical Finance at University of California, Santa Cruz.


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