Bhagavan on Sharma, 'Logics of Empowerment: Development, Gender, and Governance in Neoliberal India'

Aradhana Sharma
Manu Bhagavan

Aradhana Sharma. Logics of Empowerment: Development, Gender, and Governance in Neoliberal India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. xxxvii + 260 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-5452-9; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-5453-6.

Reviewed by Manu Bhagavan (Hunter College) Published on H-Asia (February, 2010) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Bhagavan on Sharma

Beginning in the 1980s, India began a decades-long process of transformation, a “liberalization" of the economy during which the government began to divest from many aspects of the formal sector. This change accelerated in the 1990s under the initial leadership of then-Finance-now-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as the Indian state began to dismantle much of the developmental architecture put in place by its first elected leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. Simultaneously, much of the urban middle class read the reforms as a long-overdue dismantling of structures that had produced what was perceived as anemic economic growth and widespread corruption. The primary narrative ever since then has been of a country on the rise, entrepreneurial energy unleashed, a development success story. But what exactly does development mean? And for whom? Some critics have used these questions as a point of departure to dislodge “development in India” from its celebratory trajectory, claiming instead that development has ultimately been a tool of repression, a discursive construct for creating cookie-cutter copies of Western modernity. Aradhana Sharma positions her book in between these opposing camps, arguing that both have missed much of the nuance of what is actually transpiring on the ground.

Logics of Empowerment is based on twenty months of ethnographic research in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, focusing on the three adjacent blocks of Seelampur, Chandpur, and Nizabad. Sharma’s focus is on the Mahila Samakhya program, an innovative part-government, part-NGO initiative to uplift, or rather, “to empower,” low-caste (Dalit) rural women. “MS,” as Sharma refers to it throughout her book, is the flagship program in the Indian education department. Over the course of six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, Sharma attempts to illustrate how MS, despite its aim of gender equality and social justice, is caught in the larger web of “neoliberalism,” and therefore produces paradoxical results, in some ways contributing to greater democratization and in some ways reinforcing elements of the very system that is oppressing groups targeted for “empowerment.”

Part of the introduction and the entire first chapter are devoted to providing a methodological lens in which to understand the rest of study. Sharma lays out a series of overlapping frames in which she claims MS functions: Gender and Development (GAD) feminist discourse; praxis based on the path-breaking Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) by Paulo Freire; Gandhian ideology and strategy; and neoliberalism, a concept exemplified by the World Bank and designed to bring “all human action into the domain of the market” (p. 16).Together, these four frames provide the “logics of empowerment” that guide contemporary development in the subcontinent.

Chapters 2 and 3 are primarily devoted to explaining the conceptual premise of the Government-Organized Nongovernmental Organization (GONGO), the special category of institution to which MS belongs, and to discursively locating the structural organization of MS within this general context. Here, Sharma teases out the relationship between welfare and empowerment approaches, arguing that while neoliberal demands call for a retrenchment of the state and of state services and guarantees, new governmental bodies with more loosely defined connections to the state have sprung up to shoulder these responsibilities.

Chapter 4, the best of the book, locates development in the discourse of performativity, à la Judith Butler. Sharma’s focus is on the question of agency, and she seeks, in discussing in mock theatrical fashion a semi-staged encounter between World Bank officials, MS staff, and village participants, to show that “developmentalist identities (and indeed development itself) are not static essences but are continuously shifting products of encounters and practices” (p. 98).

In chapter 5, Sharma spends some time fleshing out the lives of the various actors involved in the development/empowerment process--a Block Development Officer (BDO), a civil servant, and several Dalit residents of target village communities. Sharma argues that subaltern interaction with and demands on development agencies and staff articulate a new language and understanding of “rights.” In this, “subaltern actors send a powerful message that a meaningful enactment of citizenship and social justice require a different kind of state: not a privatized 'minimal' state of neoliberalism, or a 'withering' state of classic Marxism, or a 'no state' of anarchism, but a redistributive, caretaking, and, indeed, ethical state, that plays an active role in undoing the inequalities spread by capitalism and other dominant social and political forces” (p. 148). With this in mind, Sharma concludes in the final chapter by interrogating the construct of gender, to look at the ways in which development discourse reverberates with masculinist assumptions--“women” are not one monolithic entity, but rather are inflected by caste, class, and kinship. These nuances impact the performance of women’s actions and determine their overall agency. 

There are many fascinating aspects to this study, but it is not without some considerable shortcomings. For one thing, “neoliberalism” is the unquestionable villain of the story, and yet this concept receives the scantest of analytical attention. Instead, the World Bank is meant to stand in for the larger notion and the institution is ultimately used as a straw man meant to embody the nefariousness of neoliberalism. While there is little doubt that many World Bank programs have, in practice, had negative impacts on the very societies they were designed to help, the institution itself represents a significantly disparate array of views and intentions. There is a wide gap, for instance, between the ideas of Joseph Stiglitz, who served as chief economist and senior vice president of the bank in the mid 1990s (the period immediately preceding Sharma’s ethnographic research) but whom Sharma neither names nor cites, and Paul Wolfowitz, the bank’s president in the mid 2000s, whom Sharma does mention. In parts of the book, Sharma seems to hint at these complexities, as in the stage play in the fourth chapter, but these references stand in contradiction to the bogeyman she paints with broad brushstrokes everywhere else, making it difficult to discern Sharma’s precise stance.

Another problem lies in the four frames through which Sharma derives the logics of empowerment. It is never really clear why these four frames are chosen, for they can hardly be the only frames in which empowerment or development or rights discourse functions in India. Karl Marx, for instance, is widely read and understood by many an activist and intellectual. Sharma’s observations on the need for a redistributive, ethical state certainly ring of Nehruvianism. But, perhaps most critically of all, Sharma’s repeated use of Mohandas Gandhi seems jarringly out of synch with the subjects of her study: Dalit women. Why is there no mention or discussion of B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit champion and renowned constitutional lawyer, save for a tangential reference in an endnote, particularly given Sharma’s references to the Indian Constitution and rights discourse? Surely Ambedkar is at least as critical as Gandhi in understanding empowerment in Dalit communities. In the same vein, the narrative takes place in a strikingly depoliticized space, with no mention (again save for a tangential reference in an endnote) of important Dalit political actors like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, or their party the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), this too despite the fact that Sharma’s research is taking place in their home base of Uttar Pradesh.  

And it is this larger engagement with the entire concept of caste that is the book’s most glaring omission. For while Sharma spends admirable time deconstructing the category of gender and problematizing other notional classifications, she is strikingly silent on “the caste question,” to borrow a phrase from Anupama Rao. While she does spend several pages in chapter 5 narrating the stories of various Dalits, and she does highlight “Dalit-ness” to an extent, these are minimalist treatments, especially when compared with the much more rigorous analysis to which gender is subjected in the following chapter. Most significantly, Sharma never goes beyond the term “Dalit” to really discuss the sociological contours of the caste communities she is studying.

Taken together, these concerns represent not insignificant limitations on the methodology and arguments of the book. Nonetheless, Logics of Empowerment is stimulating, thought-provoking reading. In shedding light on the workings of MS, the book provides an important service for all concerned with social justice and sustainable development. 

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Citation: Manu Bhagavan. Review of Sharma, Aradhana, Logics of Empowerment: Development, Gender, and Governance in Neoliberal India. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. February, 2010. URL:

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