Which populism?: Saroj Giri
Guest post by SAROJ GIRI
As I read it, neither Aditya, nor Partha nor Gyan seems to deny that the Anna Hazare movement is populist. The debate here seems to be about: what kind of populism is it? Aditya is saying that this populism can lead to progressive political consequences, ‘by the presence of an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization’, while Partha (and Gyan too if I read him correctly) seem to be arguing that this populism is not progressive even if sometimes anti-institutional. And here Aditya reads Laclau contra Partha: that populism may indeed be the royal road to the constitution of the political. Partha and Gyan maintain that this populism works with a notion of ‘we the people’ who are free from corruption defined against ‘they the corrupt enemy’ (the government and netas). This ‘we the people’ can very well gloss over all internal contradictions, social divides and heterogeneities – hence Gyan points out that Dalits and minorities will not be counted or simply assumed away.
Now let me point out that this (‘us versus them’, pure versus corrupt) does not seem to be the way the divides in the Hazare movement are working. And more importantly this is not where its right-wing character actually lies. The divide constitutive of the movement has been of course between government and the supposedly honest hard working people or a Bharat Mata reeling from governmental corruption, but here the government is not the enemy who stands outside of the pure, homogeneously defined organic harmonious whole, the ‘pure we’.
Instead here the corrupt government is not ‘the enemy’ in the usual populist sense of an external enemy as against any organically well defined and internally homogeneous pure community. Secondly, there is no such organic and harmonious whole which is the pure – such a category was nowhere visible in the movement. In fact, the word corrupt, bhrastachar was in currency but its opposite, the ‘pure’ was not – and this goes to the heart of the matter, surprising many who otherwise have a good nose for populism!
That is, the government is the problem but it is as internal as ‘we’ are – unless of course the government could be presented as ISI funded or as continuing the rule of Aurangzeb in obnoxious right-wing discourse. This ‘internal problem’ approach was also clear in Anna Hazare’s many utterances: ‘so far we have fought the enemy which is outside, attacking us from outside, but here the traitor is within us’. In my piece earlier in Kafila, I pointed this out by saying that the very notion of corruption is not communalised – there is no figure of the enemy disturbing the harmonious community, no corrupt Muslim or corrupt immigrant. The figure of the corrupt are of netas or babus, who are internal.
Hence we have here a different kind of populism – something which cannot be understood simply by how the participants have positioned themselves vis-à-vis corruption (complicity in corruption, etc) but must refer to other societal factors. This populism is in fact of a piece with what can be called market triumphalism and its different expressions at a popular level. Its populism lies in the fact that it says governmental corruption is the only hurdle – otherwise we would have a truly Shining India, a land of milk and honey, India becoming another Singapore or Hong Kong (drawing parallels with Hong Kong’s supposed equivalent of the Jan Lok Pal Bill). There can never be any problem with capitalism and the market as such, since they never got a real chance to deliver because of the government, because of corruption (this is the parallel with the Tea Party).
At another level the populism lies in arguing that we do not need to touch basic social relations or fundamental inequalities in society and yet by just getting back the kala dhan from Swiss banks, poverty will be eliminated. Isn’t the key feature of populism that it displaces the need for a systemic change by pushing for some kind of a partial reform, messianic intervention, a magic policy (the Jan Lok Pal Bill) – and this in the face of a highly politicized, out-in-the-streets mass? Laclau’s understanding of populism somehow does not take this into account. The point though is that the populism here is not just limited to Hazare and his Jan Lok Pal Bill but also to the ‘democratic’ bills. Indeed can we not critique the entire rights-discourse (NREGA) as populist to the extent that it displaces the question of a larger societal transformation into partial reforms? Isn’t the aam admi approach of Sonia Gandhi and her team of left-leaning members an instance of populism?
One aspect of this anti-corruption populism can be understood if we take up someone like Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India. Nilekani says democracy and equality is all about free and fair competition, providing equal and open access, creating a level-playing field for all. In being corrupt, this level playing field and free and fair competition are disrupted. Thanks to neoliberal ideology and the rise of the ‘global Indian’ so well integrated with capitalism, here corruption is ultimately seen as market distortion. Social justice programmes and social policies are just such distortions and, in being linked up with vested interests and ‘vote bank’ politics, all part of corruption. This is what seem to be driving the upper middle class support for anti-corruption.
Lastly, the question of the complicity of anti-corruption protestors in corruption (we all have connections with babudom, don’t we?) – a point also made by Appadurai. It is true that there is tremendous duplicity here and any ‘us’ (pure) versus ‘them’ (corrupt) would involve glossing over this complicity. However, what is politically so important about highlighting this complicity? For to me it looks like pressing for this complicity too much might lead us to another kind of populism. And that is the populism which tries to explain what emanates from a deeper systemic logic (of capital) by pointing to individual rights and wrongs – and hence moralizing about individual acts and so on. So is individual complicity the real problem?
Thus even as singling out governmental corruption was extremely duplicitous (while the movement totally shielded off the corporate sector and casteism from the charge of being corrupt), the positive fall-out was that the problem was located at a wider macro level involving the government and a wider system at work. It was not a question of individual morality and middle class honesty. Of course a lot of it was just a narrow neoliberal, right-wing attack on the government and Parliament – and yet some of us on the left could not here step in to defend this government since was it complicit in precisely these neoliberal policies – and here again the agenda of the ‘authoritarian’ upper middle class and that of the ‘democratic’ government and Parliament fully converge.
Another factor which took things beyond the logic of ‘our’ purity as against the corrupt enemy was the question of poverty – and here again systemic questions did come in albeit in a populist fashion. For corruption got linked with the problem of poverty. And here particularly in the Ramdev phase you had the explicit connection drawn between poverty and black money. In fact the divide here which came to the fore was between the rich and poor. Walking around Ramlila Maidan one could see huge boards outlining how the poor will no longer remain poor once the black money comes back to the country. This was a major plank on which the poor got mobilized in this movement.
Now undoubtedly, it is absolutely opportunistic and facile to say that poverty will disappear once black money is back. And even if it were to come back, it will come back to Indian banks, as one man selling water near the Maidan so astutely pointed out. And yet this means that the ‘we the pure’ versus ‘the corrupt enemy’ was not the primary divide around which the movement was constituted. In fact here was a possibility of locating the corrupt beyond just the government – and here one often wondered why Team Anna never publicised the names of those holding money in Swiss banks. This simple act could have extended the protests from outside the houses of ministers to the mansions of wider sections of the rich and the powerful.
However all this does not now cast the movement in a positive light. For in spite of all the contradictory tendencies that the movement displayed, in it basic impulses it totally fitted the neoliberal logic of attacking the government in the name of attacking governmental corruption. In so many ways the movement tried to equate social justice with corruption, any governmental social policies for the marginalized too as corruption, understood as market distortion, as disturbing the level playing field the market is supposed to bring.
Modi was praised not really to clinch the ‘we pure’ versus ‘them corrupt’ logic but more so to clinch the agenda of technocratic elite rule, efficiency and what is called ‘good governance’ – hystericised upper middle class plank post-Mumbai terror attacks. But isn’t the government itself so invested in bringing about technocratic rule, of bringing in the UID, increasing labour mobility and creating the so-called level playing field without bottlenecks, without corruption? Isnt it Montek Singh Ahluwalia who wants to convert the MNREGA into World Bank inspired direct cash transfers so that labour mobility is not hampered? Hence no matter how populist and opportunist the upper middle classes and Anna Hazare movement, the so-called democratic government and Parliament was not an option – in fact they are two sides of the same coin.