August 18, 2019

A Nudge Towards Strengthening Capitalist Patriarchy

Archana Prasad

CONSIDER the severe all round attacks on women’s rights in the last two and a half months of which are recounted here: the gruesome rape and attack on a 17 year old girl in Unnao and the BJP government’s negligence and political defence of the accused bylawmakers of the ruling party; the passing of the Triple Talaq Bill which will render many Muslim women destitute; the passing of the Wage Code Bill in Parliament which dilutes the Equal Remuneration Act; the passing of the bill, which provides for death penalty under the POCSO Act; the reduction in the budget for women’s security, the historic decline in women’s work participation rates as an long term impact of agrarian distress etc. These are only a few of the anti-women measures under taken by the newly elected Modi government since it assumed office. The message is clear, the rights that have been won for oppressed women through hard fought struggles are antithetical to the push for corporate agenda hegemonic influence is being spearheaded by upper caste patriarchal forces whose ideological moorings are anchored in social conservatism and ‘hindutva’ politics. The message of the government is clear: women’s rights have to be subordinated to the larger agenda of majoritarian nationhood. It follows from this that the economic policy and outlook of the government will also be guided by this agenda. This has been indicated in Economic Survey, 2019 which promotes the use of social norms to nudge and discipline people into the acceptance of neo-liberal policy.


Chapter Two of the Economic Survey, 2019 is titled Politics for Homo Sapiens Not Homo Economicus: Leveraging Behavioural Economics of “Nudge”. The title is copied from Nobel Laureate, Richard Thaler’s essay ‘From Homo Economicus to Homo Sapien’ which argues that gradually economics will become “more emotional” and therefore subject to lesser and lesser rational behaviour. In line with this thinking the Economic Survey also argues that: “Decisions made by real people often deviate from the impractical robots theorised in classical economics. Drawing on the psychology of human behaviour, behavioural economics provides insights to ‘nudge’ people towards desirable behaviour (Economic Survey, p.29). In keeping with this the government stresses that desirable social norms should be used as vehicles for nudging people to accept and adjust towards the goals of ‘public policy’. Thus,nudge policies (based on an analysis of ‘human psychology’) are needed to gently steer people towards desirable behaviour even while preserving their liberty to choose. In other words, economic policies should be subordinated to social attitudes and structures with an aim to only bring about incremental changes.

Such a thinking is a major shift away from the goals of the post-independent welfare state which at least set up the goal of bringing about transformations in gender relations. A case in point is the report of the National Planning Committee, 1939 which recognised that women’s potential to contribute towards the nation-building could only be realised if the economic rights of women were recognised in both the household and the workplace. Significantly the role of unpaid housework of women was not only recognised, but it was also recommended that a ‘she’ should also have the right to all facilities like other workers (medical claims, creches etc.). As is well known, this framework was not fully implemented or acknowledged by the Nehruvian regime. But such a vision provided women’s movements and organisations to build their own struggles, many of which remained unfinished (and have even received setbacks) under neo-liberalism. However, one commitment that was,at least partially, met by political establishment in the form of the recognition of political freedom and rights as a first step towards an egalitarian society. These rights enabled women’s organisations to force certain measures to curb dowry, harassment of women at workplace, domestic violence etc. These partial victories would not have been possible if there was no guarantee of basic political rights. This has achieved a significant setback since 2014, with the political space for the organisation of women decreasing significantly through measures that are both coercive and hegemonic in their content.

The discourse of the nudge has to be seen in the above-mentioned context. As is explained by the Economic Survey itself, nudge policies persuade people into accepting options that the administrators want them to adopt. This is done through a method of advertising social messages and schemes, rather than through positive interventions that can initiate systemic transformations. The Swachh Bharat and BetiBachaoBetiPadhao (BBBP) campaigns are shown as examples of good social messaging which have led to desired results. The desired result in terms of the BBBP scheme was in “changing the mental models of people” through the prime minister promoted campaign “selfie with daughter”. One should ask whether this campaign addressed the structural issues that lie at the foundation of the increasing oppression and violence against women. The deeper issues linking patriarchy with multiple inequalities within and outside the household are not recognised by the campaign or the Economic Survey. This is reflected in the fact that a large part of these campaigns has gone in an advertising blitz rather than in doing actual work at the ground level. The result is profiteering by consultant Ad agencies. This seems to be the thrust in the future also, especially under the proposed campaign called BADLAV.


The Economic Survey lays out the future plan for women’s empowerment through a proposed scheme of BetiAapkiDhan Lakshmi Aur Vijay Lakshmi (BADLAV). However, an explanation of this scheme makes it clear that it is largely based on a majoritarian social and cultural perception of the what is the desired role of women in society.The campaign is based on the understanding that in ancient society women were respected and revered. The mythological stereotyping women is to be used to build respect for women amongst citizens. What do these mythological stereotypes denote? The slogan itself makes it clear that that women good charms for accumulating wealth and becoming victorious (usually seen in terms of honour of the nation, community and family). Both these values are two pillars of capitalism and social conservatism which is driving the oppression of women and against which the democratic women’s movement has been raising its voice.

But more interesting aspect of the argument is given away when the document states that people need to be reminded of what issociallyacceptablebehaviourandrepeatedlyshownexamplesoftheirconformingneighbours,until the norm becomes entrenched in society. Seeing is believing, i.e., only when people can see counter- stereotypical role models of gender equality often, will their beliefs start to change. A marketing campaignbytheUSgovernmentleveragedthisideaperfectlywhentheysoughttorecruitwomenfor “men’s jobs” in factories. They supported their marketing effort by caricaturing a cultural icon –Rosie the Riveter – a female taking a “man’s job” without losing herfemininity” (Economic Survey, p.45). This clearly indicates that the BADLAV will not bring about change but promote conformity with dominant social norms.

Thus, we see that the government is not interesting in increasing public spending for increasing the social infrastructure required for women’s safety and socio-economic wellbeing. Rather it would rely on existing social institutions and their fringe and mass fronts to regulate the behaviour of women and promote their values through an advertising blitz called ‘social messaging’, which will help the profiteering of PR and Ad agencies. The challenge for the democratic movement is to develop a counter to this strong nudge policy.