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This article traces the centuries-long evolution of the concept and practice of empowerment, its adoption by radical social movements, especially women’s movements from the 1970s onwards, and its conversion, by the late 1990s, into a buzzword. Situating the analysis in the context of women’s empowerment interventions in India, the article describes the dynamic of the depoliticisation and subversion of a process that challenged the deepest structures of social power. The ‘downsizing’ and constriction of the concept within state policy, the de-funding of genuine empowerment strategies on the ground, and the substitution of microfinance and political quotas for empowerment are examined and analysed.

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