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Challenges Facing Indian Democracy Essays Of Elia

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

Women working at an NREGA (National Rural Employment Gurantee Act) worksite in a village in Bihar JPG

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 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.


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Annoyed, rebellious, melancholic Jaun Elia passed away 15 years ago on Nov 8, 2002. The surge of repugnance in him for traditional thought and orthodoxy, and quest for self-abnegation, swept his mind to an island where he lived as a recluse, gaping at human follies and denouncing them with fits of bitterness and disgust peculiar only to him. His poetry battered the modern mind with paradox, nihilism, pessimism and sarcasm, only to destroy illusions and deconstruct notions of truth. The non-conformist that he was, it took no less than his blood to live like one as he suffered from tuberculosis — a disease he termed “revolutionary.”

Where did this anarchist come from? Elia was born in Amroha, British India, in 1931, in a home that buzzed with discussions and debates on science, philosophy, art, astronomy, religion and history. His father, Shafiq Elia, was a scholar well-versed in Arabic, English, Persian, Hebrew and the Sanskritic languages. Shafiq Elia had a special interest in astronomy and corresponded with scholars and scientists including Bertrand Russell at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. His brothers Rais Amrohvi, a journalist and psychoanalyst, and Syed Mohammad Taqi, a philosopher of international recognition, made deep impressions on him. Elia, who heard the music of the spheres at an early age, wrote in the preface to his book Shayad that “Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Neptune were everyday topics. Uranus was recently discovered, and it was so incessantly discussed that my mother got irritated with it.”

At the age of eight, Elia fell in love and wrote his first couplet, but a narcissist to the core, he would turn his face to the other side when he saw his beloved coming. To him, expressing love was contemptible. His formative years in Amroha etched a lasting effect on his poetry, for he grew up in an environment where the commune was idealised and personal possessions abhorred. Expressions such as “my box”, “my cupboard”, “my pillow” were considered uncivilised. “Our earth”, “our solar system”, “our galaxy” were the norm. A cosmic Elia, whose cradle was the universe and the heavenly bodies his toys, was in the making.

In remembrance of the poet and scholar who lived and died a revolutionary anarchist

Elia’s melancholic temperament and sceptic nature reflected the imperfect world and society in which he lived. It gnawed at his soul and poured out into his poetry, bringing to his readers catharsis rather than depression, as some critics who fail to analyse him in the larger context, believe. “Just as [George] Berkeley so tactfully destroyed matter, [David] Hume wrecked the mind and spirit which left me in an eternal fire of scepticism,” Elia wrote as his reason for becoming a sceptic in the preface to Shayad. Dejected, he took refuge in the wilderness of doubt, looking for solace but only to confront absolute uncertainty. In his ruin, Elia’s creation reached its pinnacle: “Koi dekhey to mera hujra-i-zaat/ Yaan sabhi kuch wo tha, jo tha hi nahi” [See thou not inside me/ Battle between being and nothingness rages].

Longing for death in the prime of youth, Elia envied those who died before him. At poet Obaidullah Aleem’s funeral, Elia said Aleem was lucky to have left the world earlier than the rest. Although he himself didn’t die young, suffering from the “revolutionary” tuberculosis made him ecstatic. The melancholy that culminated in him coughing up blood translated into acerbity in his work, unsurpassed in the history of Urdu poetry. He found meaning in the meaninglessness of life; doubt in the existence led to a morbid fascination for death. His simple diction for such complex ideas stung his audience and shook their presumptions about life, death and existence.

The lower Elia fell into the abyss of scepticism, the higher his ego soared. This hyper-blown sense of self gave him an authoritative, thunderous and blunt tone: “Mein khud yeh chahta hoon ke haalaat hon kharab/ Mere khilaaf zeher ugalta phire koi” [I want the circumstances hostile against me/ I want somebody to keep slandering me].

The forceful tone distinguished Elia from mainstream poetry which cherished fatalism and endless encomiums of the beloved. He broke away from tradition by restoring the ego of the lover from a passive idol worshipper to an active agent who could withstand the beloved’s enchanting spells and survive her betrayals. He painted the blushes of the beloved with a different stroke — Elia’s beloved blushed not out of praise, but out of embarrassment: “Ajeeb hai meri fitrat ke aaj hi masalan/ Mujhe sukoon mila hai tere na aanay se” [So strange is my nature that today, for example/ Delighted I am for not seeing you].

So audacious was Elia that he did not stroke his beloved’s long, dark locks of hair, but pulled them, much to the surprise of the reader unaccustomed to such treatment of the mistress of the heart at the hands of the poet: “Iza dahi ki daad jo paata raha hoon mein/ Har naaz afreen ko sataata raha hoon mein” [Receiving, I have been, their constant applause/ For tormenting every proud queen of hearts].

Blowing up the established order of the common man’s mind with his biting paradox was another striking feature of Elia’s poetry that characterised his ability to shock and awe. He took pleasure in challenging the patterns of human mental behaviour by bringing up its habit of maintaining two contradictory ideas simultaneously, one of which was conveniently locked up in the subliminal mind. Elia only unlocked the subterranean subconscious to release the suppressed wounds of life: “Jo guzaari na ja saki hum se/ Hum ne wo zindagi guzaari hai” [The life I could not spend/ I had to spend it anyway].

Elia was cruel only to be kind. It is painful when illusions are destroyed and truth stares us in the face, but it eventually leads to a reawakening, renewal and rebirth of the mind. The individual lost in the mechanical practices of everyday life, and the crown of individuality buried deep inside him, was what Elia wanted to restore, not matter how ugly and bitter the truth: “Be qaraari si be qaraari hai/ Wasl hai aur firaaq taari hai” [Restlessness I feel within/ Union though be it; remorse prevails].

The melancholy bred radical nihilism in Elia, which made him weary not only of the purposelessness of the world, but also of the existence. He wanted to stop breathing in the suffocating self and turn life into ‘un-life’: “Tareekh-i-rozgar-i-fana likh raha hoon mein/ Deebaacha-i-wujood pe laa likh raha hoon mein” [And lo, here I am scribbling the annals of the passing days and nights/ And thus in the story of Being, I am writing Nothingness].

The prisoner of being was sentenced to an absurd life. He writhed to end the painful existence that took false delight in illusions and longed to abandon them. Having won this freedom from the clutches of an imposed life, he sought to discover the truth and a new course for life.

A poet by birth and a scholar by training, Elia was one of the few who achieved greatness in both poetry and prose. His preface to Shayad is a masterpiece of prose and he also wrote extensively on the history of Arabs before Islam, world religions, Islamic history and Muslim philosophy and translated several books from Persian and Arabic into Urdu. Farnood, his only published work of prose, is a collection of essays he wrote for Suspense Digest and Aalmi Digest. The topics in it range from Mutazila [a school of Islamic theology] and civilisation to time, space and the 21st century. A candid and colloquial style, simple language, expression so succinct to be almost terse, and, above all, his humour characterise his writing. In the essay ‘21st Century’, he wrote, “The 21st century hasn’t come to Pakistan, but been brought here kidnapped.”

Elia’s prose was a strong mouthpiece of rational thought, independent enquiry and scientific method sweeping aside the trash of bigotry, orthodoxy and social injustice. In Farnood, he vehemently advocated the need to resist emotionalism and promote rationalism, and raised a voice against the menace of crime, from that in Karachi to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the hero of Congo’s struggle for independence. By employing the first-person narrative technique in many places in Farnood, Elia appeared to be in conversation with his readers, recounting incidents from his personal life. The collection is interesting, didactic and dialogical and the reader becomes the listener of Elia’s sermons, just as the reader of his poetry becomes a listener of his soliloquies.

However prominent Elia’s frustration, anger, poignancy and tendency for self-destruction appeared in his poetry, he is most relevant today as an apostle of enlightenment in the wilderness of obscurantism, hypocrisy, inhumanity, tyranny of traditional thought and scourge of illiteracy. Up against such challenges, Elia’s extreme sensitivities rebelled and created mayhem and he set out to reconstruct the world by creating an order and harmony after his own idealistic pattern. He bled in the process. In many places, he lamented that he pursued his dreams in vain, but with his popularity and readership growing with every passing day, it is difficult to agree with him. Elia’s work is yet to be explored in detail with the dedication and earnestness it deserves since it takes a multiversal flight with philosophical overtones sweeping across metaphysics to epistemology, rationalism, existentialism and nihilism. But as long as his poetry yields what Leonardo da Vinci called “the noblest pleasure, the joy of understanding”, Elia will not go in vain.

*All translations from the original Urdu are by Salman Altaf

The writer teaches English literature and linguistics at Greenwich University

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2017

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