State Power and Technological Citizenship in India: From the Postcolonial to the Digital Age


In this article we seek to nuance our understanding of the technologically mediated relationship of state and citizen, first, by framing these relations in terms of Michel Foucault’s ideas about state power and governmentality, and, second, by using case studies drawn from the Indian experience to highlight particular risks associated with digital governance and biopolitics. An overview of state and social technological interventions in India shows multiple intersections of sovereign and disciplinary powers. Together, these intersections give new meanings to biopower while also sketching a familiar story of the attenuated character of technological citizenship, notwithstanding numerous examples of popular resistance. To address biopolitics, however, a novel set of challenges emerges: The first is to outline a genealogy of Indian biopolitics, going back to the colonial period. The second is to acknowledge the tension between biopolitics and geopolitics: the state’s need to distinguish between citizens and residents for the provision of welfare. The third is the neoliberal turn in governance, with the state increasingly withdrawing from direct involvement in the public sphere and turning to the private sector to take its place. We find that the digitization of identification and benefit provision produces new costs and barriers for the poor to access the entitlements of citizenship, leaving them in some cases worse off than before. Moreover, the visibility produced by entry into digital governmentality is accompanied by a new set of risks, including the expropriation of benefits and the loss of existing assets.