On Populism – A response to Partha and Aditya: Gyan Prakash
Guest post by GYAN PRAKASH
In following the discussion on the Anna Hazare phenomenon, I have found the references to populism very interesting. In response to Partha, Aditya reminds us that populism should not be dismissed as non-political or anti-political. Partha clarified that he does not regard Anna Hazare’s populism as anti-political but as anti party-politics and anti government. Team Anna narrowly defines politics as the domain of party politics and the government, which it then identifies with corruption. Om Puri’s rant and Kiran Bedi’s vaudeville performance expressed this sentiment. Politics means netas, who are corrupt. References to 2G, CWG, Kalmadi, and various land scams refer to politics in this sense. Such a definition of politics allows the claim that the gathering at Ramlila was non-political or beyond politics. Anna as a saintly Gandhian figure who does not seek office, and the status of Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal as civil society members, contributed to the representation that the mobilization of the “people” transcended politics.
Obviously, the confrontation of the “people,” who supposedly transcend politics, and the corrupt netas, is indisputably political. Aditya invokes Laclau’s statement that populism may be the royal road to the constitution of the political. He refers (via Laclau) to populism’s anti-institutional dimension, its challenge to political normalization and its appeal as the underdog, to underscore its location in the political domain. Populism may be deeply anti-institutional, and its “royal road” may be paved by a broad spectrum of classes, but it could lead to an anti-democratic abyss. We have seen this before in the Shiv Sena’s mobilization of the “Marathi manoos” in the 1960s that railed against institutions and appealed to the underdog. The same can be said of the Tea Party’s vitriolic rhetoric against Washington elites. Being anti-institutional and political doesn’t necessarily mean subaltern.
No doubt the mobilization at Ramlila jolted the formal institutions of politics and delivered blows to the arrogance of the rulers. So far so good. But obviously Aditya sees more in it; he wants to read populism through the lens of Subaltern Studies. This is evident from his critiques of Partha and (echoing Sumit Sarkar) the “Late Subaltern Studies,” and references to Foucault’s subjugated knowledges. He argues that Partha’s limited view of politics and of Anna’s populism arises from Subaltern Studies’ abandonment of the subaltern.
This is not the place to engage in a detailed discussion of Subaltern Studies. However, insofar as Aditya admits to being haunted by “words from a not-so-distant past, when the subaltern was not always only an instrument of elite manipulation,” it is worth asking what the “Late Subaltern Studies” was doing (besides being corrupted by the Western academy) in turning its attention to elite discourses. A vital point behind the focus on nationalist discourses in the “Late Subaltern Studies,” including Shahid Amin’s work, was to identify the process of producing subalternity and its failures (dominance without hegemony). I suppose one could undertake a similar exercise with respect to the relationship between Team Anna and the crowd that gathered at Ramlila Maidan. And it would not be difficult to show that multiple aspirations motivated the crowd. I talked to several people at Ramlila Maidan who spoke, for example, about mahangai and official highhandedness. But these diverse aspirations and grievances were all laid at the door of corruption, unifying a plurality of demands in an equivalent chain (Laclau). Identifying the corrupt netas as the enemy, and embodying the “people” in the person of Anna (Main Anna Hoon), Team Anna and the media assembled a classic populist “people.”
If we agree that the Anna phenomenon is populist, I am not sure that it can be subjected to elite/sublatern analysis. Indeed, populist logic may work to suppress and subordinate subaltern politics. According to Laclau, we cannot understand populism “as a type of movement – identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation – but a political logic.” This political logic entails instituting a global political subject – the “people” – out of the equivalence of a plurality of social demands. It reconstitutes social antagonisms as a confrontation between a homogenous, unified “people” and their enemy. This is what Laclau calls the expansion of the logic of equivalence at the expense of a social logic of difference, a totalizing process that involves a part claiming to be the whole, a particular demand representing itself as the universal. In this respect, his reading of the Chartist movement is instructive. Is it any wonder that Dalit and Muslim leaders, among others, feel that Team Anna has erased their particular demands by incorporating them into the logic of equivalences of populist politics?
If “India against Corruption” works with populist political logic, then the most pertinent question is not whether the Left should have been there but how this logic affects the broader field of politics, including the netas and party politics and, more crucially, a whole range of subaltern politics. In the desire to see progressive potential in piggybacking on Anna, we should not lose sight of the fact that his single-minded and strident demand for the Jan Lokpal drowns out voices against the massive private loot of public resources going on in the name of the market.