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On Populism – A response to Partha and Aditya: Gyan Prakash

September 1, 2011

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    September 1, 2011 3:50 PM

    Dear Gyan,
    Thanks for this considered response. As it happens, I don’t disagree with almost anything that you say about the movement, except that precisely because of all that I think it presents a radically open situation containing contradictory possibilities. It can go in an anti-democratic and rightward direction or in the direction of strengthening the democratic process by making the government more accountable. At present, it seems to me, the latter possibility is far greater.
    With respect to the anti-institutional character of populism too, I want to underline that the anti-corruption movement is not simply anti-insitutional; it has a very complicated relationship with formal institutions which appear to be the target at the moment but they in fact direct their appeal differently: towards properly functioning institutions where rule of law is maintained.

    But there is one clarification I owe you and all of Subaltern Studies: I have always worked within the openings provided by Subaltern Studies (both early and late) and it has been formative in how I think about politics and history. This includes Partha Chatterjee, for sure but also your work (in particular Another Reason – which is very much a part of Late SS) and some of Dipesh’s work. If from what I said in response to Partha Chatterjee, you concluded that I thought it was being ‘corrupted by the Western academy’, I am really sorry. This is what being in a hurry does. I should perhaps have elaborated this point there itself. But as I said, I do not think that SS’s engagement with Edward Said and Foucault was at all negative (though it matters little what this nacheez thinks!); on the contrary, it has been immensely productive and helpful for a whole generation of scholars working here in India – myself included. My point very simply was about the disappearance of the subaltern and its replacement with some other (equally important) concerns taking over. All that I have written is a testimony to this fact I have a huge debt to the work of SS scholars. Indeed, with respect to Partha Chatterjee’s work, it now seems to me, in retrospect (especially after Nandigram and after Anna Hazare) that this disappearance – at least in his work is symptomatic of a larger issue, which I have tried to spell out in my post.
    But thanks for offering me this opportunity to clarify.

  2. September 1, 2011 7:25 PM

    You wrote,
    “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”.
    How can Team Anna’s movement deflect attention from private loot of public resources? 3G and CWG scams are precisely that and are in full glare of public attention.

  3. September 2, 2011 10:00 AM

    //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?// I think this is the crux of the issue. When several constituencies with particular set of demands and grievances come together in a healthy “populist” mobilization, they should be able to interpret the lead signifier in terms of their particular set of demands. When such an act of translation is not possible, the always already empty signifier becomes “unfillable” making itself self-referential emptying the movement of all possible political content. Suppose if there was a movement for strengthening local governance it is possible for farmers, Dalits, minorities to interpret the demand in different ways to seek what their constituency needs. In yet another example, the political parties of films stars like Vijaykant and Chiranjeevi are also populist. They allow all those who join the party to imagine the “change” promised in any which way. The parties are not dangerous since the tension between the unifying signifier of the actor-leader and the demands of various constituent groups is unlikely to allow the party to become fascist all appearances to the contrary.

  4. M S S Pandian permalink
    September 7, 2011 1:16 AM

    Thanks to Partha, Gyan and Rajan. My small post which happened early on, might be interpreted as a sectarian statement coming from someone who perceives himself as belonging to a minority religious community. I do not regret that. My trouble was, I have been told to be thankful to small mercies from Anna who allows namaz. Theoretically, it is an act of ‘logic of difference’ being acknowledged and, at the same time, subordinated to the ‘logic of equivalence’.

    And would I ever give up my thumb to learn from Partha? No. My thumb will be mine. That is ‘logic of difference’ against the ‘logic of equivalence’.

    I hope Aditya understands.

  5. ms. asha kachru permalink
    September 10, 2011 6:40 PM

    friends, i am not an intellectual but one very much interested in what and how intellectualism is being unhelpful in times now, where there is a revolution of sorts taking place in our country. most of us were frustrated about the “chalta hai” attitude of our masses. now the same are angry and upset and it is a good sign for change. and if one considers everything as political “personal is political” what use is this discussion on who is political and who not. of course we cant be done with party politics alone, we have to look into all other aspects too. can we discuss how we use this potential in masses to make india a better place for the so many discriminated ones?

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