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Social Movements and the State in India: Deepening Democracy?

by Alf Nilsen on January 5, 2017

Are social movements in contemporary India a driving force for democratic deepening? This is the question at the heart of a new edited volume that Kenneth Bo Nielsen and I have recently published in Palgrave’s excellent book series Rethinking International Development.

Our book departs from what in our opinion constitutes the central paradox of the Indian polity. On the one hand, as Thomas Blom Hansen has pointed out, India presents us with “the longest, most sustained, and most successful trajectory of democracy anywhere in the postcolonial world”. The coming of national independence in 1947 witnessed the introduction of universal franchise and a system of electoral democracy that – with the exception of the Emergency period from 1975 to 1977 – have remained stable for close to seven decades. Moreover, Indian democracy is unique in the sense that the poor exercise their right to vote more eagerly and in greater proportion than India’s middle classes and elites.

On the other hand, there also remain critical questions to be asked about Indian democracy. In a scathing critique of the country’s developmental trajectory, Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze have noted that, in terms of basic social development indicators, India is falling behind its poorer South Asian neighbours. This fact reflects a wider failure to translate the impressive growth rates of the past two decades into substantial advances in the standard of living for the majority of the country’s population – 53.8 per cent of whom still lived in poverty in 2015. And persistent poverty combines with increasing inequalities to create a scenario of unequal and uneven development that particularly affects marginalised groups such as Dalits, women, Adivasis, marginal peasants, and the working classes in India’s countryside and in its vast informal economy.

For critical scholars, this raises important questions about the extent to which democracy has in fact ensured the ability of subaltern groups and popular classes to make effective claims for redistribution and recognition in relation to the Indian state. These questions are at the heart of the contributions that are brought together in Social Movements and the State in India.

As Patrick Heller has noted, democracy exists in degrees. In formal terms, democracy entails universal suffrage, regular and competitive elections, accountability of state apparatuses to elected representatives, and legally codified and enforced rights of association. However, such institutional constellations do not ensure a form of democratic rule that is diffused throughout society. Moreover, they do not guarantee a substantive democracy in which subaltern groups can assert their claims and demands through its various channels and ambits. Ultimately, the extent to which mutually reinforcing connections have been forged between the formal, effective, and substantive dimensions of democracy depends on the extent to which social movements have been capable of advancing oppositional projects that change the balance of power between dominant and subaltern groups in society. Our book is devoted to exploring the extent to which this can be said to have happened across different fields of protest in contemporary India.

We interrogate this question not only in the context of the persistence of uneven and unequal development in the country, but also in light of a distinct understanding of the evolution of the Indian state from the late colonial era to the present and the role that social movements have played in this process. In particular, we are concerned with the contradictory trajectory of change that has followed in the wake of the unravelling of Congress hegemony from the late 1960s. As Radhika Desai elaborates in her contribution to the volume, this unravelling was both constitutive of and constituted by social forces that animated a protracted turn away from state-led developmentalism and towards market-oriented reforms – a shift that Corbridge and Harriss have aptly designated as an “elite revolt”. Yet the very same period also witnessed a “less than orderly democratisation of Indian democracy” propelled in no small part by the political mobilisations of subaltern groups. What we set out to explore in this volume, then, is first the extent to which these political mobilisations have indeed forged a more effective and substantive democracy in India and second, the prospects for social movements to challenge the momentum of neoliberalisation in the country. Our contributors explore these complex equations through detailed studies of the mobilisations of women and Dalits, the rural poor and industrial working classes, lower caste groups and legal mobilisation, and Maoist insurgency.

To what extent, then, have social movements in India been capable of deepening democracy? The most straightforward answer that flows from our volume is “to some extent”. There have been definite advances since India’s new social movements erupted on the political landscape in the late 1960s. Yet it also remains the case that the persistent power of India’s elites endures and has been reinforced by the forward march of neoliberalisation.

Currently, the main challenge that social movements face is the political project of the Modi regime, which combines a neoliberal agenda with a thinly veiled Hindu majoritarianism. Modi’s promise to turn the Gujarat model of development – a model of development that is characterised by fundamental social injustices – into a national project does not bode well for India’s poor. Furthermore, the current government is a politically illiberal one, which means that the space for public deliberation and contestation has been narrowed. In other words, the current situation is one in which the gains made over the past decades by social movements are in danger of being partly reversed.

In this context, it is necessary that social movements focus their energies both on continually deepening democracy in a substantive direction and defending key aspects of formal democracy. There are, fortunately, clear signs that this challenge has been taken up by important actors in both civil and political society. First of all, the BJP has suffered a series of electoral setbacks in rural India and has encountered serious challenges in Modi’s home state of Gujarat – in no small part as a result of the recent Dalit upsurge in the state. Furthermore, the recent student protests that have swept the country offer indications of emergent forms of oppositional politics that use the realities of caste, class, and gender to crack the hegemonic project of Hindutva forces. It may well be here, then, in the persistent importance of rural subalterns in Indian politics and in the efforts to forge solidarities between Left and Dalit-Bahujan forces, that the rock against which the Modi wave is likely to break is crystallising.

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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