How welfare wins: Discursive institutionalism, the politics of the poor, and the expansion of social welfare in India during the early 21st century

The worldwide explosion of social welfare has been described as the “quiet revolution” of our time. This paper analyses the expansion of social welfare in India during the early part of the 2000s. What explains this expansion of encompassing social welfare in India, following a history of disparate and fragmented social policies? The answer, I argue, lies in recognizing the importance of the “politics of the poor,” the ensemble of negotiations that encompass both electoral participation and contentious politics vis-à-vis the political institutions in India. The paper develops this argument by drawing together insights from discursive institutionalism, Indian politics, and the politics of welfare literature. Doing so enables me to examine the ways in which poor people’s political practices were interpreted by India’s parliamentarians to justify the legislation of India’s flagship social welfare program the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. I analyze the discourses communicated through 78 parliamentary debates in English and Hindi to enact the law. I blend this analysis with process tracing of electoral behavior of India’s poor and the Maoist insurrection that exploded in the country’s poorest districts at the turn of the century.