The Relevance of Ambedkar’s Idea of ‘State Socialism’ in the Time of COVID-19

 Co-Written by Badre Alam Khan  & Dastagir Khan

ambedkar constitution
Image courtesy: The Statesman

In spite of educated from prestigious university like Columbia and Landon School of Economy (LSE), Babasaheb Ambedkar (1891-1956) had struggled a lot in his entire life and faced caste discriminations, humiliations and experienced untouchability during his lifetime. After the 129 years of his birth, still the larger conditions of India’s Dalits in particular and subaltern classes in general (for whom Ambedkar dedicated his entire life and struggled lifelong battle against the brahminical hegemony in the civil society) are not worthy to celebrate.

As several reports have documented that India’s Dalits are still humiliated and facing social discriminations and economic exclusion from the larger public sphere. In the wake of COVID-19, one cannot deny the fact that Dalits, Tribals, women and extremely poor section of our society are facing huge challenges in comparison to India’s great middle class (who are the product of, and enjoyed the fruits of development for the last forty years of neoliberal economic policy and use to live in the gated colony of rich metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Gujarat). Unlike the disease such as the plague which took place earlier, current lethal virus have first spread among India’s middle class who were earlier living and doing business from abroad. However, due to the national lockdown, the marginalized and vulnerable groups are facing disproportionate burden because of being poor, landless, homeless who are working in the informal sector of our economy (who are mostly living in slums of metropolitan cities). When sudden and unplanned national lookdown was announced by our Prime Minister on 25 March 2020, the migrant workers and poor who belonged to Dalits, Tribals and women of the lower echelons of Indian society have no option but forced to leave metropolitan cities. As a result, several of them straddled in their way and suffered a lot before reaching their respective villages. Besides, the economist and even International Labour Organization like ILO have predicted that there will be millions of people who will lose their jobs because of the world economy including the Indian economy too, is going to enter into the phase of recession, even the danger of coronavirus will be over in times to come. Keeping these sad and depressing situations in mind, a section of scholars have underlined the current phase of neoliberalism is facing   crisis. And now there is time to talk about the modicum of socialism and welfare economy to address the problems of adversely affected strata of Indian society and to overcome the crisis in health and economic sectors too. In this respect, debates among scholars have been already started in America and European countries.

The point has to be noted that the countries (like Cuba, Vietnam and South Korea) which have adopted robust welfare measures and health policies are the least affected and soon have overcome the threat of the virus. Given the recent examples, it would be not wrong to put forward view that within the framework of neoliberal economic policy, it is not possible to overcome the crisis which is looming over in the sectors like health and economy. Besides, amidst lockdown of part-1 (again our PM Modi has announced that national lockdown-2.0 will continue till 3rd May 2020), the socio-economic implications on India’s Dalits, Tribals, women and poor are witnessing more adverse impacts because of the lack of welfare measures on the part of the government. While addressing the nation on 14th April, PM Modi has talked about the duties and responsibilities of citizens (like social distancing, washing hand, use masks and drinking warm water to fight against Covid-19), but has not announced any substantial relief package to address the adverse impact on subaltern groups in particular and toiling masses in general who have forced to share the disproportionate burden, as pointed out by opposition parties also.

Keeping current depressing situations in mind, we have to also critically review the neoliberalism, as a public policy and search for an alternative path like democratic state socialism which had been long ago proposed by Babasaheb Ambedkar in his book ‘State and Minorities’, 1947. It was unfortunate to note that when Ambedkar had put forward the idea of state socialism in the Constituent Assembly for discussions (which was dominated by the upper caste and landed gentry) had not been paid serious attention by the dominant members of Congress Party. Before coming to Ambedkar’s concern for the state socialism and welfare economy in the case of India, let us discuss the concept of the welfare economy, as propounded by J.M. Keynes during the time of the Great Depression (1929-1930).

Since the Great Depression, for the first time global capitalism based on neoliberal ideology is now witnessing a huge crisis in the wake of the Covid-19 which has now engulfed the entire world. Before coming to the current crisis, let us unpack the debates (between those who were supporters of classical political economy on the one hand and welfare model of political economy which took shape during the Great economic Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s on the other) around which pattern of economic whether welfare or classical economy was preferred to address the economic and social crisis widely noticed at that time.

To be precise here, while criticizing the classical political-economic perspective (put forward by economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others), J. M. Keynes (who advocated modicum of welfare economy to overcome economic depression within the broad capitalist framework) had reminded us during the 1930s; the free market-based economy would not be able to address the economic depression and the crisis of unemployment widely prevalent. That was the reason why Keynes supported the idea of ‘state intervention’ in the economic activities mainly to maintain the proper balance between effective demand and supply chains. It is crucial to underline that during the time of economic depression, the classical economic perspective based on ( the idea of ‘invisible hand’ will automatically maintain the balance between demand and supply chains in the free market economic) notion of free market and the non-interventionist economic model came into crisis, during the Great Depression of 1929-1930s.That was the reason, why Keynesian welfare economic theory came into the surface to rescue and overcome economic depression by enhancing the effective demand and addressing problems of huge unemployment widely seen during that time.

However, more than three decades later, Keynesian model of welfare economics was also replaced by the neo-classical theory of laissez-faire economy (this theory is based on free-market policy where a state should not be supposed to intervene or regulate the economic activities and the invisible hand will automatically take care of everything) in the wake of the oil crisis witnessed in the late 1970s. The concept of free-market economy (however, in actual sense, free the market economic model has had always based on the exploitation of labour and in doing so, capitalists forces used to accumulate wealth and capital from surplus generated by labourers, as reminded by Karl Marx in his various writings) was adopted by the European nation-state and America in the late 1970s and later followed by third world countries in the late 1980s.

When a country like India had witnessed huge economic crisis in the 1990s, it had no option at the time but followed the path of free market neoliberal economic policy. While doing so, India had entered into the Structural Adjustment Programmes(SAP) under the guidelines of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and WTO (World Trade Organization).While adopting these programs, India had finally abandoned hitherto the Nehruvian state socialism where the state was having the commanding height in the economy, health and education sectors.

After the five decades, once again in the Europe and America the left leaning economist like David Harvey and others have recently indicated that neoliberal capitalism is under the crisis and now it is a crucial time to think about a kind of socialistic pattern of the economy (mainly to address the economic and health crisis) to fight against the current recession (See Harvey, “Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19”). In short, the left-leaning economists have underlined the current form of imperial capitalism is under the huge crisis. Given the world-wide crisis in both economic and health sectors, there is a need to return towards the version of socialism that is relevant in the 21st century. These kinds of debates in our country have also started appearing in the India’s poor.

The impact of coronavirus in the case of India will have huge implications and several million people will have to face crisis of unemployment, as a result of an economic downturn, added by the ILO in his latest report. However, actual impact will be seen in times to come which will depend upon the commitment of respective governments towards the affected strata of society mainly poor and migrant workers who are mostly working in the informal economy.

While describing the sad situations and role of government, P. Chidambaram says, “the poor and the vulnerable have first claim on the resources of the country. The Central government’s Financial Action Plan( announced on March 25) was miserly, ignored many sections and was a big factor in pushing migrant workers to leave the towns and cities to go back to their villages- tragically, may have carried out virus with them” (See, ‘Remonetise the poor’, Indian Express, April 12, 2020, p-9). The given conditions have compelled economists to think about the welfare economy model, as suggested by Keynes during 1930s, to address the problems of unemployment and economic recession. Having said that let us come back to Ambedkar’s idea of State Socialism, proposed during the Constituent Assembly deliberations.

Dr. Ambedkar had advocated a kind of democratic state socialism (in his noted work like State and Minorities) is much needed in the context of hierarchical cased based society like India to address the socio-economic inequality in the wake of COVID-19. While addressing the railway workers, Dr. Ambedkar had rightly reminded us that we have to fight and possibly uproot twin enemies namely Brahminism (caste question) and capitalism (class question) at the same time. However, it is ironic to note that current political dispensation led by PM Modi has often talked about the economic and social problems of Dalits and vulnerable people. For Modi (including the middle-class Dalits), it could be addressed by enhancing Dalit entrepreneurship and economic activities such as start-up India, make in India, Digital India, etc. While doing so, the current ruling political dispensation has also thought that Dr. Ambedkar was a supporter of the neo-liberal economic policy and the free market. For middle-class Dalit (who supported the case for Dalit capitalism, DC) opined that market-based capitalism will help to reduce the caste-based discriminations which are deeply rooted in Indian society.

However, scholars like Anand Teltumbde and Prof. Gopal Guru have shown in their writings that it is fundamentally wrong to say that Ambedkar was a proponent of free-market policy. To demonstrate this point, Teltumbde writes, “the sole source of Ambedkar’s characterization as monetarist or free market or neoliberal economist is the mis or, shall we say, mischievous reading of his D.Sc. thesis-The Problem of Rupee”. (Anand Teltumbde, “Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Neoliberal Economic Reforms”, September 2011,, accessed on 12/1/ 2018). Even for left-Ambedkarites and progressive forces, it is empirically not persuasive to say that market as a force will help to eliminate the caste atrocities and discriminations in the larger public sphere. For Teltumbde, Ambedkar was influenced by the ‘Fabian Socialism’ like Jawaharlal Nehru and supported the idea of ‘state socialism’ to overcome economic disparities.

Unlike the Hindu Right (who have misinterpreted that Ambedkar was a supporter of the free-market economic policy); however, Teltumbde and other scholars have rightly indicated that caste inequality and discriminations have not been so far reduced in our society, since the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, 1990s. On the basis of empirical studies, it is correct to say that market-based capitalist globalization have not sincerely addressed the problems and aspirations of Dalits, but it has to a large extent further excluded them from the mainstream socio-economic development. For Teltumbde, it is untenable to say that caste atrocities are declining in the era of globalization. As he writes, “if caste atrocities are taken as the indicator of casteism (and I would take it as the best indicator), one will have to infer that casteism is on definite rise during the period of globalization”.

Ever since the BJP led PM Modi came into power in 2014, it is often claimed that the present ruling government has done more works to promote Ambedkar’s ideology and constructed statues and buildings in the memory of Babasaheb in comparison to the so-called secular Congress regime. While paying homage to Babasaheb on the occasion of 129th birth anniversary (14th April has been declared as Rashtriya Samrasta Divas by the present government) our Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated, “Babasaheb stood for the upliftment of the weak, the oppressed and the excluded. And, he lifted us all to a higher cause of humanity; to build a future of justice, equality, opportunity, and dignity for all humans; and peace among the people” (this statement appeared in Hindustan Times, April 14, 2020, p-3). However, if the above statement will be critically analyzed (keeping the actual situations of Dalits and Women on the grounds in mind), it is not wrong to say that since the BJP captured state power in 2014, the incidence of caste discriminations, violence against women and communal tensions have largely increased in the public domain. To note that Babasaheb himself reminded us of the dark side of hero-worshiping in politics, as current ruling dispensation appears to be doing so. While reminding dark side of hero-worship, he says, “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation to eventual dictatorship”.

To conclude here, it is a high time to revisit the legacy of Ambedkar especially his idea of the state socialism in times of coronavirus. Time and again Babasaheb had rightly reminded during the formative years of nation-building that we have now got political democracy in 1947, but without social and economic democracy, political democracy will have no meaning.  For him, if glaring inequalities will persist (as seen today in all walks of life), the substantive democracy could not be achieved in times to come. That was the reason; Ambedkar had advocated a kind of democratic state socialism (where the state will have a commanding height to address the economic, health and agrarian questions) in the sectors like industry, health, education, and agriculture. Put it bluntly, the real tribute to the philosophy of Ambedkar would be to fight against the economic and health crisis currently confronted by a large section of our society especially marginalized groups like Dalits, Tribals, women and minorities. The point has to be noted that amidst national lockdown of part-1, huge migrant laborers have forced to leave the metropolitan cities like from Maharashtra, Delhi, and Gujarat to their respective villages. As a result, migrant workers who mostly belonged to subaltern classes have  badly suffered during the mass exodus (because of sudden and unplanned the national lockdown was announced by our Prime Minister on 24 March)and still continue to face problems in terms of getting livelihoods and basic essential items like foods and medicines even after reaching their respective villages.

To deal with the said problems, our Finance Minister has announced 15,000 crores to address the basic concerns of India’s poor and migrant workers amidst lockdown. Given the already week PDS (public distribution system) and lack of robust welfare measures, the economists have commented that this is very meager amounts and will not going to provide much relief to the vulnerable groups. As the duration of lockdown has now extended up to 3rd May 2020, (but it is unfortunate to note that Prime Minister has not announced any relief package) the question arises what appropriate and effective welfare measures will be taken by the Central government and various States so that ill-effects of national lockdown will be minimized, is a challenging task ahead which needs to be posed here. Before concluding this essay, let us emphasized once again that it is a crucial time to remember and pay tribute to Dr. Ambedkar on his 129th birth anniversary. Given the humanitarian crisis amidst COVID-19 across the world (including in the case of India), it is crucial for us to take intellectual insights vividly mentioned in the concept like State Socialism (which had been expressed by Babasaheb long ago in his book like State and Minorities, 1947) in times of deadly coronavirus.

Badre Alam Khan is a Research Scholar University of Delhi and Dastagir Khan is a former student of Jamia and President of Mercy Care Foundation




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