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Social Movements, Neoliberal Policy and Indian Democracy



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Dominant social narratives pressing for the relentless expansion of the neoliberal state through extension of state assistance through grants and other welfare measures have been widely criticized for both the way the programs are set up and for failing to reach those for whom they are intended. Many view such welfare measures as a necessary political offset to the continued rapid growth of corporate capital. India stands out as a unique case of state intervention and redistribution at a time when many governments around the world are vigorously curtailing social welfare expenditures.

During the past decade, the Indian national government has passed several laws, such as the Right to Education Act, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Food Security Act and the Right to Information Act, that ensure that individuals receiving state welfare services have rights concerning those benefits. I contend that this situation could only occur because the form that democracy takes in India allows marginalized people(s) to assert their rights. The people’s movement that has resulted in these statutes has played a multifaceted role in efforts to initiate bottom-up development as well as in national policy-making. That movement’s efforts in turn resulted in these polices becoming more sustainable as groups demanded their rights and services and rendered politics more accountable in the process.

At the same time, these new government programs have served as a life line for the poorest of the poor during a period of continuing decline in agricultural production and urban area population expansion, with cities experiencing difficulties in absorbing that population influx. I argue that the specific ways social movements practice democracy in India may be laying the foundation for more radical governance possibilities in the future.

Scholarly consideration of neoliberalization has often been confined to its origins and manifestations in the North, namely Great Britain and the United States (U.S.).  However, in 1991, India, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Finance Minister, and later Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, began a slow process toward adopting such goals. The Indian economy has grown at a consistently high rate since, although there has been some slowing in recent years (IMF, 2015). India’s economy expanded 7.3 percent year-on-year in the last three months of 2015, slowing from 7.7 percent growth in the previous quarter, but in line with market expectations (IMF, 2015).  By comparison, global growth, currently estimated to have been 3.1 percent in 2015, is projected at 3.4 percent in 2016 and 3.6 percent in 2017. Trade as a percentage of GDP stood at 25 percent in 2011 in India and the country remains one of the most sought after foreign direct investment (FDI) destinations (Roy, 2014).  But even as India has opened its borders to free movement of goods and capital, it has simultaneously maintained social welfare programs at the top of its policy agenda, thus attempting to pursue an Adam Smith notion of the power of free trade to have a noticeable, but not sole impact, to ensure human wellbeing. India stands out in the neoliberal era as a uniquely large-scale case of continued state intervention at a time when governments around the world have been curtailing state expenditures in virtually all areas except defense (World Bank, 2015).

Neoliberalism can be defined as both an ideology and a policy model; in both cases its adherents emphasize the value of free market competition (Harvey, 2005). Although interested scholars continue to debate the defining features of neoliberal thought and practice, the public philosophy is most commonly associated with the extension of laissez-faire economics into non-economic areas of society. In particular, neoliberalism is often characterized by its advocates’ belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient mechanism by which to allocate a variety of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs and its commitment to free trade and capital mobility (Harvey, 2005; Roy, 2014).

Neoliberal “rule of the market” involves cutting public expenditures for social services, massive deregulation of many sectors and privatization of previously publicly owned goods or services. In general, neoliberalism devalues the concepts of “the public good” and “community” in favor of replacing them with “individual responsibility.”  This ideology has been widely embraced despite the fact that neoliberal states have often been called upon to intervene on behalf of their richest and most powerful actors in order to maintain the power and influence of those groups.

Criticism of Development as Rights-based Approach

With India’s neoliberal turn during the past 25 years, a new dynamic logic has tied the operation of “political society” (comprising the peasantry, artisans and petty producers in the informal sector) with the hegemonic role of a “neoliberalized” bourgeoisie in “civil society.” In other words, India is a unique case in the neoliberal era because numerous social movements have pushed the state to temper the excesses of neoliberal claims by maintaining and extending welfare programs.  The logic is sustained by the state’s efforts to stem the ill-effects of primitive accumulation of capital with anti-poverty programs. The question here is how this state of affairs came to be and how this politics works in the larger society.

Chatterjee has argued that the state’s balancing act is a necessary political condition for the continued rapid growth of corporate capital in India (2008). The state, with its mechanisms of formal democracy in regular, largely accepted elections, is the space in which the political negotiation of demands for the distribution of resources, through fiscal and other means, are articulated and made manifest through programs aimed at providing the livelihood needs of the nation’s population, including its large cadre of poor.

According to some analysts, electoral democracy makes it unacceptable for the government to leave marginalized groups without the means of labor and to fend for themselves, since this carries the risk of turning them into “dangerous classes” (Dreze, 2004).  However, for Chatterjee, the emphasis on development as freedom gained through political and economic rights does nothing to challenge the underlying source of the unequal system, i.e. the State and its support of a neoliberal society (Chatterjee, 2008).

While I agree with these critiques in theory, the desperate realities of Indian poverty mean that rights-based development approaches play an important role in making India’s grassroots democracy practices unique. India currently has a higher malnourishment death rate than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, (Dreze and Sen, 2013) for example, and more then 40 percent of India is confronting active insurgency (Report, 2008). This reality underscores the vital importance of the 30 kilograms of food distributed monthly by the national government to families below the poverty line of Rs 350 (USD 5), as required by the Right to Food Act. The Right to Food (RTF) campaign, which secured this state action, is not merely a temporary pressure group that gained increased allocations to public food aid programs. Instead, it is an ongoing social movement with a much broader agenda, playing an important role in challenging the barriers that people face in gaining access to the public programs and resources to which they are entitled, creating new ways to press the state to expand them, and ultimately ensuring the government is accountable for ensuring entitlements.

In this way, hunger and malnutrition have become a political priority that did not end with enactment of the RTF Act, since the Act requires the State to monitor continuously whether resources are reaching their intended beneficiaries.  From the perspective of the State, constantly mobilizing social movements such as the RTF campaign constitute continuing pressure in contrast to more temporary initiatives. What critics such as Chatterjee ignore is that these food programs not only provide basic sustenance, but also strengthen marginalized individuals and communities, especially different tribal and Dalit groups, which in turn has encouraged the maintenance of their respective political struggles. Eighty percent of the beneficiaries of the RTF Act are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dreze and Sen, 2013).

Bob Marley once said that a hungry man is an angry man. Hungry men (and women) can bring revolutions, but how are such actions possible? Movements and revolutions are a result of planned strategic activities that develop during long periods. How can the angry man fight with an empty stomach?  Thus, critiques of rights-based approaches should focus not on the results of formal political processes, such as the Right to Food Act, for doing nothing to challenge the underlying system of neoliberalization, but instead on these as stepping stones to more fundamental changes to political and economic systems.[1]

Why Ongoing Public Pressure is Key

The permanence of campaigns such as the RTF highlight the unique quality of Indian informal democratic strategies, such as public hearings, awareness campaigns, street protests and civil disobedience, which serve as an ongoing check on bureaucrats, contractors, dealers and money-lenders who have mercilessly exploiting marginalized individuals for so long.  This brings us back to the complementarity between local action and other higher scale processes, such as judicial activism and lobbying at the state level. In all these respects, there is an urgent need to bring the campaign to a higher plane, drawing on the whole spectrum of formal and informal democratic institutions. Thus, the response to the violation of one fundamental right, access to food, is mobilized to work for ancillary issues that in general challenge larger systemic forces of neoliberalization and state oppression.

What made the Right to Food campaign possible?

Democracy as space of resistance for robust civil society

As far as formal democratic institutions are concerned, India is doing reasonably well from a historical and international perspective. As Dreze has illustrated, in comparison with the U.S., India fares much better in many respects: India has a much higher voter turnout rate (the United States is near the bottom of the international scale in that respect), has institutionalized more extensive provisions for political representation of socially disadvantaged groups and is less vulnerable to the influence of “big money” in electoral politics (Dreze, 2004). There is also far greater pluralism in Indian than in U.S. politics in terms of ideological representation. Dozens of political parties, from the extreme left to the far right, are represented in India’s lower house, in contrast to the U.S. two-party system (with virtually identical political programs). In short, by contemporary world standards, Indian formal democracy appears in a reasonably good light as far as its institutional foundations are concerned.  Having said this, the ongoing challenge for Indian self-governance is how to continue to mobilize populations in the face of ongoing challenges such as economic insecurity, lack of education, social discrimination and other forms of disempowerment. The informal democratic processes that thrive in India are key to alleviating these negatives, especially in terms of providing spaces for marginalized communities to exert pressure on governmental institutions.


[i] On one hand, India has very strong rights-based national movements like the Right to Food campaign, while on the other hand, India has witnessed strong Dalit and Tribal Communities involved in the rights-based approach. Together, these have led to the development of skills and resources at the local community level to negotiate with the authorities. Further research needs to occur concerning the interplay between the two and how they share skills, resources and awareness/consciousness of rights and how these have played a pivotal role in not just making political structures more accountable and sustainable, but also in supporting other movements.


ICDS- Integrated Child Development Center (Anganwadi )at a Village in Bihar
ICDS- Integrated Child Development Center (Anganwadi )at a Village in Bihar
Women working at an NREGA (National Rural Employment Gurantee Act) worksite in a village in Bihar
Women working at an NREGA (National Rural Employment Gurantee Act) worksite in a village in Bihar
Women raising slogans in a Village Meeting
Women raising slogans in a Village Meeting


Chatterjee, P. (April 19, 2008). Democracy and Economic Transformation in India. Mumbai: Economic & Political Weekly.

Harvey, D. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

International Monetary Fund . (2015). International Monetary Fund Report- India . New York: IMF.

Report, E. C. (2008). Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas. New Delhi : Planning Commission of India .

Sen, J. D. (2013). An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Princenton University Press.

Pallavi Raonka

Pallavi Raonka is a third -year doctoral student in the Sociology department at Virginia Tech. Her areas of interest include social movements, global political economy, subaltern theories, development and South Asia. She is investigating the longstanding contentious relationship between Adivasi(indigenous) and State actors in the context of the ongoing Maoist Insurgency in Jharkhand, India. Pallavi received her  BA- Psychology from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara, India, and her M.A. in Rural Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.

Publication Date

December 12, 2016