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Neo-liberal Transformations and the Challenges of Governing India

Mithilesh Kumar Jha ( teaches political science at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

Neo-liberal Strategies of Governing India by Ranabir Samaddar, Delhi: Routledge India, 2016; pp xviii + 334, ₹ 1,095.


The book Neo-liberal Strategies of Governing India is a timely intervention by Ranabir Samaddar to understand governing practices in India in its most recent neo-liberal phase. This book is a companion volume to an earlier work, Ideas and Frameworks of Governing India, by the same author (Jha 2017). Together, these two volumes critically explore the politics and practices of governance in a postcolonial society. Samaddar’s analysis of these practices combines “political and ideological aspects” of governance with “technological characteristics” and examines it “in a historical framework.” While critically analysing ideas, frameworks and strategies of governing India, its inner tensions and challenges, Samaddar is equally interested in examining the evolutions of newer categories and subjecthoods as a result of such governing practices. This makes his analysis of the “contemporary history of Indian democracy” unique and also very interesting. This volume deals with some of the most dramatic decades of Indian democracy that have witnessed the weakening of democratic institutions as well as domination of the market and capital over state and society. There are a series of ideological and political churnings underway in contemporary India. Social and political movements of various kinds often challenge the “official” narrative of politics and governing practices that make the business of democracy and governance a messy affair. However, contrary to many pessimistic arguments about the possibi­lities of social transformations in terms of empowerment of the marginalised or excluded, Samaddar continues to believe in and highlights the “hope for a politics of radical democracy.”

He has two major premises for his analysis of neo-liberal governance in India: first, “mutually constitutive relationship between the rulers and the ruled, based on norms, rules, rights and popular claims;” and second, “governance as a strategy of creating conditions of” and providing the “institutional matrix” (p viii) for accumulation. This book is divided into three parts. In Part I, there are four chapters which are not necessarily interconnected, discussing diverse issues. Examining these issues, he discusses the questions of rights and development, and assesses how they have become the sites of neo-liberal governance. Part II consists of four fascinating chapters on how various modes of governing practices strengthen the hand of the market through the state that ensures the accumulation of wealth and natural resources. He also examines how this has an impact on the society and the state at large, and the status of labour in particular. In Part III, he revisits some of the theoretical questions and conceptual frameworks on governance in India, like the notions of crisis, its interrelationships with neo-liberal governance, passive revolution and so on.

Development and Rights

In this neo-liberal era, development as a faster rate of economic growth lies at the very core of nationalist imagination. Achieving this faster rate of economic growth within the parliamentary framework of democracy is a serious task before the policymakers. Developmental discourse and governance continue to set the agenda of politics and governments both at the central and state levels. It allows the governments to classify the population into different target groups and to subject them to various policies and techniques of neo-liberal governance. These new tools and techniques of governance monitor and control all spheres of individual and community lives. It has created a new dynamics of power relationships.

Samaddar, using the Foucauldian perspectives on governmentality and subjectivities, invites us to examine how “these life controlling aids emerging out of the combination of development and democracy have produced in terms of new forms of power and new forms of subjugation?” (p 79) He begins by analysing how “a recalcitrant minority population” poses governing challenges to the colonial and postcolonial governments in India. He offers an interesting analysis of the politics and prospects of various commissions with regard to minority issues. He observes, perhaps rightly that “the minority issue in India since its birth hangs between two markers: identity and development.” He traces the challenges of governing the minority in the colonial era and in his estimation, the governing of minority in India oscillates between “coercion and hegemony.” However, many readers may have strong objection to a few of his observations and terminologies like “a recalcitrant minority,” “rebellious minority” (p 5), and finally, his assertion that “exactly as the minority groups face the problem of the power of the sovereign, the sovereign also faces the power of the minority groups, given the attraction of the latter towards the ideas of auto­nomy and self-government” (p 4). It is hard to agree on what basis one can equate such an enormous asymmetry of power between these two groups.

Chapters 2 and 3 are a fascinating read about how basic rightlessness and vulnerabilities of a large section of the society go hand in hand with laws and administration in the country. He cites the example of how selling a child is illegal but how at the same time, starvation deaths cannot be deemed to be illegal. This study helps to understand how access to food campaign is intertwined with the language of rights on the one hand and notions like “entitlements,” “claims” and “social security” on the other. He also examines the ways in which indigenous, subaltern and other deprived groups have reacted or responded to such developmental narratives. Samaddar rightly asserts that illegalities and semi-legalities in the conditions of absolute rightlessness of the masses and the dominating nature of the administration characterise the neo-liberal strategies of governing India. Famines or near famine-like situations in various parts of the country, farmer suicides and starvation deaths, food riots, and forcible land acquisitions, such as in Singur and Nandigram, pose serious challenges for governance. Interestingly, Samaddar is of the opinion that political parties in this neo-liberal era have failed to include these concerns and grievances in their policies and programmes, and have become merely an apparatus through which one acquires and yields power. In his terminology, this shift in the approach of political parties is “governmentalization of parties” (Chapter 4).

Extraction and Accumulation

Perhaps, one of the worst consequences of neo-liberal strategies of governance has been the coming together of the market and state which intervenes and aims to govern all spheres of the social life of individuals and communities. Labour has been the worst victim of this schema of governance, which has clearly shifted its focus from empowering the masses/citizens to produce the conditions for acc­umulation of wealth and natural resou­rces. In this new era, Samaddar argues, cities have “become new sites of extraction, accumulation and gover­nan­ce.” Neo-liberal strategies of governance lead to are large-scale dispossessions and displacements of rural and marginalised communities and their migration to the cities. Any urban space in India is testimony to these ironies in the Indian society and the unrepresentativeness of neo-liberal governing structures.

Chapter 5 dwells upon the government’s approach (combined with the logic of market and capital), to social governance and peace-building measures in India’s North East. Here conflict becomes the framework of both social and political governance. Draconian and repressive measures continue to characterise the governance of the region even when the focus is on pacification and expansion of government and electoral democracy. Chapters 5 and 6 engage with the questions of political economy within the overall framework of neo-liberal governmentality. Here two things appear to move simultaneously: increasing dispossession and as a result, large-scale internal migration mostly ­rural to urban, and accumulation of wealth and ever widening economic disparities. Samaddar characterises this large-scale accumulation of wealth and resources as “the process of primitive accumulation” (p 228), which signifies the inner tensions of democratic politics, where the focus is now on facilitating this process rather than empowering or strengthening citizenship and representation. Here, extraction becomes the hallmark of the liberal economy. Informal work conditions of labour, guarded by “labour reforms” result in the multiplication of labour forms, that is, from one site to another and one form to another. The cases of mining, in Bellary in Karnataka or “rat-hole mines of Meghalaya” are examples of utter disregard for labour laws or environmental consequences. These activities operate through a nexus between illegal miners, traders, politicians and the administrative departments. In some states, they have acquired enough power to shape the electoral fates of various political parties. The existence of special economic zones (SEZs), public–private partnership (PPP) models and economic corridors further aggravate this situation. The condition of labour in such a situation is correctly expressed through the notion of “transit labour,” which is by and large migrant labour kept in the invisible informal sectors, in subhuman working conditions. In other words, transit labour operates by and large beyond the purview of law.

Samaddar has examined the various dimensions of transit labour and how it leads to the creation of ungoverned and ungovernable subjects and spaces that coexist with perfectly managed and supervised spaces and zones. Urban neighbourhoods in contemporary India are a stark reflection of such governing systems, which Samaddar calls “logistical governance” (Chapter 8). It governs not just the big infrastructural projects and plans but also the urban space. Working within the language of freedom and risk in the name of security, this form of governance ensures parallel strategies wherein fenced and walled modes of supervision coexist with the space that reminds one of the spectre of chaos, narchy and illegality.

Neo-liberal Governance

Urban politics, protests and agitations have become the sites of neo-liberal governance that also poses serious challenges to it. In order to ensure “reckless financialization and extraction of all conceivable resources,” it is the urban masses, who according to Samaddar, are “deployed as foot soldiers in the governmental programmes of mobilisation, assembly and attacks on the unyielding sections of population to throttle” their protests or agitations (p 306). Here, the whole apparatus of governance attempt “to posit the ideology of the market before the society as natural” and legitimises monopolies, corporates, corruption and cronyism. Further, organisation, planning and management of the city embody the principal contradictions of our time and this creates new class divisions. In such a formulation, space becomes the marker of identity and in governing such spaces, the question of the subaltern or what Samaddar also calls “multitudes,” becomes absolutely critical to our understanding. In this connection, he rightly draws our attention to not only the populist response, but also populist resistance as well as demands for reforms in the neo-liberal era of governance. Populism which symbolises the “politics of the multitude” can also present itself as the “contradictory other of the neo-liberal capitalism.” It can, acc­o­r­d­ing to Samaddar, very well upset the exi­s­ting structure of dominations and subordinations and may also lead to mobilisations of ungovernable subjects that may open up the possibilities of radical democracy in the country, even in this neo-liberal phase of governmentality.

Summing Up

Samaddar examines the transformative impacts of neo-liberal strategies of gover­nance on various sections of the Indian society. This volume is a fascinating study of the contemporary history of Indian democracy and its various challenges. However, the book is also surprisingly silent about many burning issues in contemporary Indian politics. For example, he talks about minority politics and the challenges it poses to governance, but is conspicuously silent about the rise of Hindutva politics. In fact, the spectacular rise of Hindutva politics is one of the major characteristics of Indian politics in this neo-liberal era, but the author has maintained an absolute silence on this issue. Similarly, while he focuses on the urban politics and challenges of transit labour, he hardly engages with the challenges of rural distress and large-scale farmer suicides. Many readers, especially those with a keen knowledge of the specific usage and contexts of some of the terms like governing, governance, government and governmentality may find his liberal use of these concepts not only problematic, but at times confusing too. He claims that despite knowing “the specific intonation of each word and the need to keep them distinct,” he has liberally used these terms and at times interchangeably too (p xiv). However, in the very next page, he asserts that “this book is on governing India and not on governance” (p xv) and, thus, makes a clear distinction between the two. Thirdly, like the previous volume, this one too is replete with long quotations running into several pages (pp 22–26; 33–37; 39–42; 117–20; 214–17). These quotations overshadow his arguments and many of these citations could have been briefly summarised. And, if these were considered as necessary for the arguments, it could have been placed in appendices. Similarly, summarising the previous chapters in each subsequent chapter works as a constant reminder, presumably to an inattentive reader, which could have been avoided. However, through this work, Samaddar raises some very pressing questions of democratic politics in contemporary India, the explanation of which requires revisiting some of the conventional vocabularies and notions of explaining Indian politics.


Jha, Mithilesh Kumar (2017): “Challenges of Governing India: Asymmetries of Ideas and Frameworks,” Economic & Political Weekly, 9 December, pp 40–42.

Updated On : 5th Dec, 2018


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