Archive for April, 2009

Power and Contestation

Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam (2007) Power and Contestation: India since 1989, London: Zed Books.

Power and Contestation, written by two well-known political theorists-cum-activists in India, presents the most up-to-date and comprehensive chronicle of India’s political history since 1989. Combining post-nationalist, feminist and new left perspectives, the authors candidly illustrate how the power of capital and nation in post-1989 India has constantly been contested in public and political discourse.

Narrating the political transformations and changing state–society relations in India in the last two decades, the authors argue that India post-1989 has witnessed a significant departure from its foundational principles such as Nehruvian socialism, secular nationalism and the principles of non-alignment. Although global factors like the ‘end of the Cold War’ and neoliberal reforms have significantly influenced developments in India, the authors argue that it was primarily the ‘internal conflicts and logics’ that propelled these transformations in India (p. 2). With the decline of the Congress party and the regionalization of Indian politics, the issue of caste has re-emerged in the political sphere. The ‘mandalization of politics’ (p.16) and the increasing political mobilisation of the lower caste has not only challenged the hegemony of the upper castes but also significantly influenced the imperatives of electoral politics in India. Secularism, a key political principle which traditionally provided considerable psychological and political security to religious minorities, has been under vigorous attack with the rapid rise of Hindutva politics manifested in the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992 and the ‘state-sponsored massacre of Muslims in Gujarat’ in 2002 (p. 51).


Globalisation and neoliberal economic reforms, as updated incarnations of the old idea of development and modernisation, have dispossessed people, disrupted communities and destroyed their cultures and livelihoods without offering them any viable or dignified alternatives. As a response, various non-party political formations and grass-roots movements or what the authors call ‘new left’ movements have emerged to contest the exclusive and exploitative logic of global capital and its local ally the nation/state. The conflicts in the north-east and Kashmir region have also challenged the ‘idea of India’. Although global capital has helped the Indian nation to secure a place in the world, the authors conclude that ‘in India, as elsewhere in the world, the contestations to the power of Capital and Nation are so many, so varied, and so relentless’ (p. 181).

Since the book is written from the ‘new left’ perspective, it captures only one aspect of India’s transformation since 1989. Despite this, the strength of the book is its numerous recent examples and candid analytic style, which make it an admiral contribution to the Zed Books series on ‘Global History of the Present’ and a rich resource for anyone working on India.


@ Sarbeswar Sahoo, Political Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 2009