Prasanta Chakravarty – Of Demos, Innovation and Affect

Carrying forward the debate around Partha Chatterjee’s article in EPW.


In the wake of the development debates around the nation, one witnesses an interesting array of articles—polemical as well as academic—that takes on headlong issues of political intervention by developing the terms of negotiation and deliberation in a certain direction. And that is the story of growing up—that democracy is the story of pragma, of mature understanding of the contestatory space. These are reminders that politics of good intentions is benign self-deception. Worse: it is apolitical, prophetic, self-indulgent.

Indeed, who would deny the role of tactical moves and innovations in our everyday existence? David Runciman once noted that hypocrisy is a noble tribute that vice pays to virtue. It binds together the social contract. Besides, politics is also an ever-evolving domain and newness in ground reality must be complemented with newness in conceptual innovation. It is in such a context that Partha Chatterjee’s recent piece in EPW makes sense. He has indeed clarified to a large extent the role of his foundational idea of the political society in current conditions.

But surely political moves and contestations can take different directions; innovation and gaming evolve sometimes from another significant attribute in politics: vigilance—possibly another name for demokratia—originally the power of the people. The crucial notions of institutional violence, engaging with ethical apathy and consequent watchdog associational formations play an important role in such a concept of the vigilant society. Strategic usages of subjective concerns—simple indignation at the state of affairs, for instance, can also play a distinct part in democratic negotiations. So, in the context of Chatterjee’s piece I wish to address two issues that seem to beg for a larger framework of innovation than he allows: the idea of democracy itself and the issue of affect and solidarity formation in contemporary India.

Democracy as Principled Pragmatism

If we take the term democracy seriously, both as a form of government in India as well as a political principle, one would notice Chatterjee pitches his arguments at the level of what can be called moderate mainstream liberalism, but writing stylistically as a member of the critical left. He carries his legacy of working closely with the subaltern studies initiative ingenuously. There is a sleight of hand involved here. Consider for instance, the works of Joseph Schumpeter, who famously brought back the nihilist idea of creative destruction in order to make a case for corporatism. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, he advocates a theory of democracy in which the idea of the rule of the people is undesirable and unrealistic. The competitive structure of representative democracy precludes participation in a deeper sense. Rather, sooner the people realize the strategies of democracy and enjoin the game, the better equipped they are for their well being. Chatterjee’s political society is Schumpeter’s dream come true: the use of violence in peasant agitation has “a calculative, almost utilitarian logic” and yet cannot be framed wholly within the structures of govermentality, Chatterjee informs us. The political society works in relative electoral strengths as opposed to majoritarian equations, critiques property and privilege and yet it is desirous of living in the non-corporate structures of capital, fundamentally glad to participate within the ethos of the poverty-removal programs and rehabilitation packages that the managerial class has to offer it. The crucial question is whether this double tendency of the political society is democratic, nay, political in the first place.

Let me address the question of democracy from three angles and view Chatterjee’s diagnosis of the contemporary Indian scenario. This is important also for the historicist argument that Chatterjee offers—that the readings of the demos in India today has to be different than what was offered 25 years ago. One, considering democracy to be coterminous with the evolution of modernity in the West, beginning sometime in the seventeenth century. Two, to bring into the table a more recent and politically influential term: radical democracy, especially while evaluating the idea of the political society. And finally, and more significantly, whether one can salvage and associate an innovative classical notion of the term with what we are witnessing today, in the arguments with the discourse of development from Nandigram to Raigad.

Suppose we take democracy to be coterminous with the story of modernity, we will come across two distinct strands. One begins in the universal rights theory of medieval Europe—one that reaches Thomas Hobbes via Vitoria, Molina, Bodin, Suarez, Grotius and Pufendorf—and which use that very idea as an excuse for building empire in the two Americas to begin with. Most of these apologists of rights are royalist sympathizers and use the idea of individual enterprise, not unlikely as a creative innovation, a la Schumpter. John Locke, famously the designer of The Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas in 1669 was at the same time a co-conspirator in the Rye House Plot, which planned to assassinate Charles II and future James II around 1682-83. Parliamentarians too have routinely played this double game of political innovation.

There is a different line of liberalism though—which has obvious material concerns, believes in political franchise and structures of representative democracy, and yet hark for associations and collectives. Concerns for individual liberty, material equality and communitarian ethics have been the cornerstone for many radical republicans, agnostics and sectarians. John Lilburne, the maverick early modern Leveller talked about democratic principles and property rights in tandem with Coke’s dictum on ancient laws in England. Ideas of common law got transferred into natural, participatory laws in Leveller demands. Significantly, subjective pietistic innovation (without being necessarily messianic) was a prime basis to such associational politics—and I’ll argue still is. But more on this later. In more recent times one recalls people centered governance councils. The Habitat Conservation planning under the US Endangered Species Act emphasizes the holders to evolve governance arrangements that will satisfy human relationship bonding as well as the protection of endangered species. The Participatory Budget of Porte Allegre, Brazil, likewise enables residents siphon off finance away from patronage payoffs to secure common goods that are actual problem centered.

Is India a democracy without association? It would seem that the twin pressures of party politics on one hand and religious and caste affiliations on the other, have paid put to any meaningful democratic associationism in India. But such claims have been discredited at least since the late nineteenth century when voluntary associations worked towards community and public end, and not always pragmatically. Consider especially the associations that sprung forth around JP, taking a cue from the Sarvodaya principles in the seventies. The Navanirman Yuvak Samiti in Gujarat and Chattra Sangharsh Samitis and Janta Sarkars in Bihar in early seventies are sites that remind us of deeply democratic associations in India that worked on principles not congruent with Chatterjee’s political society. One crucial difference, of course, is in the key area of demand of popular control over collective decisions. The political society clearly will be more interested in self-aggrandizement and only secondarily and pragmatically on collective bargaining. Chatterjee’s arguments and examples are historical and contemporary though and he does assert his conclusions on the basis of field study. The groundswell of solidarity, sometimes surely and astutely strategic, in Bengal at least on both sides of the divide, in and around the Nandigram massacre since October last year eludes him, because the interpretive burden of such an analyses will destabilize the neat applecart of the political society. The vigilant society, as I refer to the groups of local organizers, bloggers, community bodies, civic networks that mobilized (and is still working on) itself cautiously and gradually operates, did always operate, via hidden and sometimes not so hidden transcripts. Regardless of the recent panchayat electoral fallout, that has not been too flattering for the strategic political society anyway, the vigilant society carries on crying hoarse over exploitation, and not merely discrimination.

One has to also mark some key points here about a schism that bothers Chatterjee in his formulation of the political society. And that schism has to do with state violence and ethical apathy—attributes that are not part of his imaginative terrain in the transformed democratic India. I am referring to the difference in political gradient between peasant mentalite and formations of the urban lower class. While Chatterjee is almost certain that non-corporate capital in the cities and middling towns are gravitating towards civil society in matters economic, he is less certain about peasants in rural India, what with the spiraling suicide rates and their skepticism about market mechanisms in general.

The idea of civility is also crucial. Partha Chatterjee’s civil society is already sold to acquisitive and possessive incentives and hence is out of bounds for political intervention. This is narrowing down the democratic possibilities from the other end of the spectrum. If one buys to a modern urbane Hegelian notion of the civil society, or to the notion of the patrician or to a purely utilitarian variety of it, Chatterjee’s formulation does make sense. But there is an older definition of the civic that is participatory and other regarding, relying on the principle of vita activa civilis. It relies on messiness and discord in building up political decisions around issues.

This leads us to a more classical notion of democracy, something that has always conceptually eluded Chatterjee. I am thinking of Leo Strauss, Eric Havelock or Josiah Ober’s works on ancient liberalism. I also recall John Pocock on Florentine political ideals, especially the associations around the minor guilds and the subsequent Ciompi (wool carders) revolt n 1378 when republicanism truly took a radical shape. The civic overlapped with the ludic, as it were. A brooding sense of politics, which unites the demos with chaos and cosmos is one reigning concern in such a political imagination. It provides political actors with a sense of humility. Political change is highlighted time and again in conceiving sovereignty. The stakes lie with the polis, not with the purse. Trust is an important notion: not sentimental balderdash but a certain judicious judgment, a state of constant public hope, shall we say, prevail among citoyens. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is a good example that highlights such optimism. This sense of buoyancy, paradoxically aligned to forces beyond the immediate, is alien to Chatterjee’s middlebrow political society.

I am not for a moment suggesting a telos around virtue or implying that Bengal has suddenly transformed into such a world. That would be absurd and culturally meaningless. It is the structural reverberations that I refer to rather. What is unmistakable after Nandigram is that there is a momentous realization in certain key sections of the much-vilified middle class that there is more to politics than the usual metaphors of merit or equality. The story from denationalization to the emergence of civil society has not been uniform in India. An altered notion of the civic is in the air for sure. Part of the civil society, I’d argue, is getting radically vigilant; not romantically but at the level of political programmes too. Undoubtedly, such a swing in mood has to do with strategies and maneuverings within existing possibilities, but the intentions and incentives are not always managerial.

Affect and Solidarity

The first end note to the piece narrates an interesting story of the razing of entire village of Gobindapur in 1758 by the British in order to erect Fort William in Calcutta and the surrounding ground called the Maidan, now often revered by radical environmentalist as a gift of Gaia or mother earth to the city. Chatterjee relativizes the issue of violence by harking on to the notion of forgetting: “Forgetfulness is a necessary attribute not only of modernizers but also of its critics,” he ruminates.

It’s a valid point. The division is stark though. There exist a lot of intermediate positions between a deep ecologist and an instrumental rationalist. Some stand outside of that spectrum. Most classically oriented modernizers hardly envisage peppering the city with foliage, nor with doing away with the quotidian humdrum that a city provides. Thus, in poet and litterateur Buddhadeb Bose’s writings we find an intense imagination of the urban soundscape: factory siren taking off, an odd generator whizzing, drone of a steamer plying over Ganga and so forth. Or take Mihir Sengupta, whose literary oeuvre has a direct bearing upon the politics of the subcontinent. He has imagined the experience of a pre-partition Barisal district by evoking the metaphor of a backyard canal— pichharar khaal—in his work Bishadbrikkho. This tour de force is no celebration of unsullied, pristine nature and yet gives us wider ontological connection to our surrounding. Relationships are formed and nurtured within diverse elements, the canal facilitating the ups and downs in the narrative. Forgetfulness is as much a human attribute as memory and belonging, Sengupta reminds us. It is a layered appreciation.

To appreciate this relational structure between diversity is essential if we are to understand the idea of land or property acquisition by some entity that is outside of such structures. I would tend to think that land grabbing has a strong ethical component associated with it, something that primitive accumulation approach does not address fully, in two related senses—one philosophical and the other sociological. Primitive accumulation in its pristine sense is the means of divorcing the producer from the means of production, right? The robbery of the common lands and usurpation of clan property into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism is directly connected to enclosure movement in early modern Europe, a variation of what we are seeing in changed global circumstances today in India. I would think primitive accumulation itself is constitutive of an ethical move: from an ethics of community to that of austere self-discipline. Hindu rate of growth and local ties and affinities must give way to a Weberian ethics of possessive individualism. It surely is impersonal and yet the ethical shift is not lost upon us. Certainly, the welfare entitlements to labour law provisions to provisions for community review of land use decisions that the state now shuns has a collective dimension embedded to it, and hence a particular ethos of living associated to it. This is changing in the era of primitive globalisation and subnational mercantilism, if I may borrow a term from sociology, to denote what has been happening in India of late. There is no sense of concomitant international economic integration. Such state fragmentation inevitably fails to suggest sustainable forms of social action and hence thwart innovative modes of governance. But there is an ethical loss in this shift too, in the sense that severs cross-class, cross-race, cross regional and intergenerational social exchanges that stand in the way of short-term economic activity.

Affect is an elusive entity in Chatterjee. He begins by writing off Gandhi, Gramsci, Mao and Ranajit Guha and effectively doing away with solidarity based on moral economy owing to the deepening reach of the developmental state under conditions of electoral democracy. The state has now solved this existential crisis of rural life and hence romanticism for a pre-capitalist society is useless. But on the other hand, we learn from him towards the end that the political society is not all anaemic and lifeless, even as it functions within the terrain of govermentality. He turns cautious lest his political society looks utterly indifferent and mechanical. Hence, while discussing the rural peasant axis of his political community, he expects from time to time some emotive responses and militant action from them. Emotion is almost a safety valve that legitimizes political society and its negotiations with the state. This fails to take seriously a deluge of events and concomitant critical literature that has burgeoned in the last two decades dealing with the notion of the political in a deeply subjective fashion. The dialectic of enlightenment goes both ways.

Indeed, mutuality of relations based on justice and fairness does not always address relationality in its fullness. Those who function within the moral economy framework may not have delved deep enough in excavating relational entities. Charles Taylor cautions us in The Secular Age that a relational political condition cannot be understood in terms of mere human flourishing but must be located in the interspace between subjectivities. If we are to make sense at all of political passion, one has to give in to a deeply ringing world where relationships happen independently of us. Objects and agents impose themselves upon the members of the vigilant society, bringing them into their field of force. And such agnosticism does function within the material register, within the everyday.

However, there is something to be learnt from Chatterjee in this context. His piece can be effective as a timely reminder that sheer anti-privilege, anti-prerogative prophetic pamphleteering fails to get the broad middle rally along with the margin against the developmental schemes. We cannot afford to go back to varieties Fabianism or cultural conservatism. Nor is it always useful in the long run to form alliances of convenience as is the trend is some places in Bengal today. The deluge of broadsheets and blogs that deal with the subjectivity issue marking it as a bulwark against the economism that marks the liberal state is astonishing, and yet people are not sufficiently enamoured by such purity, such righteousness. In fact, there is a thin line between existential left and emotive right.

In his memoir Rajani Kothari talked about democracy as a powerful myth, the belief in which cannot be questioned. Neither the Liberal nor the Marxist nor even the Gandhian or the still deeper spiritual ideological conceptions provides us with a workable entry point in the emancipator logic of democracy, was his conclusion. Effective dictatorships require great leaders; effective democracies needed great citizens, Kothari said, and such citizens need to dwell deep into their own psychic, cultural and existential areans of striving in order to conceive a throbbing polity. Such grandeur of imagination has been rarely matched in the political imagination of the subcontinent. A political philosophy of principled pragmatism can only aspire to look soulfully at such classicality.

6 thoughts on “Prasanta Chakravarty – Of Demos, Innovation and Affect”

  1. Prasanta,

    Thouhtful essay. The importance of thinking about affect and relationality cannot be overstated. I will post two responses over the next few days – the first to flag a set of issues with affect and relationality framed as questions to you. You dont have to respond immediately. The second will be an attempt to expand the sociospaital ambit of this enquiry. So here is the first part:

    1) Affect is generally understood to be located in the individual body. It is prereflexive, preverbal. It gets activated into feeling and emotion; and gets mobilized and mobilizes in interaction. That is, affect makes political sense only in motion. I understand that at this point you are only proposing affect as something for us to take seriously. But even so – can you elaborate further on how does one consistently take affect and relational space seriously to rethink democracy.

    2) The dominant modes of formal academic writing – especially in the social sciences – exciese affect from the field of vision. But,
    practical politics always depends on strategic mobilization of affect.

    I am thinking of examples like how the Bhajan mandalis in Beawar, Rajasthan joined the right to information campaigners to sing bhajans for Bhairo Baba – Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the then Chief Minister. These everyday events transformed the context of riht to information dramatically. In fact, it is hard to imagine any political activity in India that does not begin and end with cultural performances.

    In this regard it is the RSS that has charted up the most spectacular successes in the last three decades. The shilanyas where tens of thousands of villagers were asked each to bring a brick to Ayodhya, Pravin Togadia’s trishul dikshas, raja dileep singh judeo’s shuddhikarans and the ceremonial taking up of bows and arrows by the tribal communities in his constituency frighten us precisely because we know how effective they can be mobilizing affect.

    I am assuming that this is one of the entry points to the radical democratic framework you refer to. Strategic alignment of antagonisms through practice that mobilizes affect. But even here, some of the most successful alignments were created by the RSS. The mother of a teenaged daughter living in an alienating urban context needs a viable script and a cue to recognize the Muslim male as a threat to her whole world, the disposessed tribal male needs a script and a cue to see the Muslim trader and money lender as the obstacle to his actualizing his human potential. It is in producing these extremely diverse and highly specific scripts and cues that and linking them up that the RSS has been the most successful.

    Something like that has come toether in West Bengal in the last couple of years. The question is, was the Bengal mobilization strategic ? What was it moving towards ? As I kept wading through the outpourings on the blogs and on mailing lists I kept thinking why is it that this all seems so Bengal centric and CPIM centric ? key actors produced and distributed texts and organized events delineating a variety of antagonisms linking up equivalances that moved through space very rapidly – both cyber and material – resonating with a host of actors and getting reworked by them and sent further.

    I am not making the tired old criticism that this kind of militancy is pointless unless it transcends the particularisms that shaped it. clearly the very fact that this discussion is taking place is a sign that we are trying to move beyond the particularity of Nandigram, Bengal and the CPIM. Rather, I am asking what in your view should we be attentive to, in moving on ?

    Put another way, how exactly do you propose that we should move beyond what you call righteousness ? Does the relative structural location of the middle class and the subaltern and the kinds of interactions that it allows or does not allow play any role in the framework you are proposing ? I dont mean the structural locations in any reified sense or in the sense that they singularly determine outcomes but as configurations of powers to act in particular ways and differential capacities to accumulate capitals of various kinds at the individual and collective scales.

    To make that second question a little more concrete – let me use the example of Gujarat rather than Bengal. The events of Gujarat – first Godhra and then the targeted killings of Muslims provoked horror and outrage in many of us. While Narendra Modi was successful in recrafting it into a question of Gujarati pride – one which English speaking, secular leftists canot comprehend, Nandy writes that the victims simply do not trust their secular saviors and have an instrumentalist relationship with them. One that can break down any time and reveal an ugly truth.

    The response of the ‘civil society’ to the breakdown of such a relationship between Teesta Setalwad and Zaheera Sheikh is quite telling. People who bonded together in outrage at the killing of the Muslims now had to make a strange choice. To look through the window that was opened by Zaheera’s recanting, examine the mess and find possibilities for radical action. Or we turn our face away and continue to express outrage in ways that we are comfortable with. The choice was clear. The outraged civil society asked, is Zaheera a victim or a heroine or plain insane, decided (out of civility) that the question should be left unanswered. The court convicted her of perjury. There is a potential Zaheera Shaikh in Nandigram – Manoranjan Malik. These are not somuch middle class conspiracies, but tragic reminders of the need for a praxis that is critically self reflexive.

    In conclusion, it seems to me that one way to go beyond what you call righteousness — is to find ways to bring affect and structural relationship between the middle class and the the subaltern into the same framework. Do you agree ?

  2. Prashanta Chakravarty’s response to Partha si utterly off-the-mark. He reads Partha in the most subjectively skewed manner possible. He is constantly bothered about what Partha “does not” say in his scheme of argument. And what Partha doesn’t say is what Prashanta has to say. The worst way to understand someone’s argument is to do to things – one, point out what the author leaves out, and two, to interpret the author’s concepts through one’s own world-view. This cuts-off a meaningful engagement. Prashanta’s ‘principled pragmatism’ sounds like Manmohan Singh’s idea of democracy and state-rule. The term is as sterile as Prashanta’s critique of Partha. Prashanta merely shows off on his utterly partial and choosy reading of classical texts and throws them into the debate on Partha’s “political society” which is throwing up new questions on old readings on democracy. Prashanta is merely trying to put the clock back because he has already turned his own clock back into ideas which might serve some pedagogical purpose but they fail to conceptualize the complex post-colonial state-of-being or being-of-the-state. Oblique references to classical liberal and anti-liberal writers and an utterly humanist reading of Partha does nothing except announce another debate which intends to take us away from what the debate is feigning to do – engage with someone else’s ideas. But Prashanta doesn’t engage with Partha. He engages with his own problems and puts Partha’s ideas on the dais to make a surreptitious entry. This is my sub-textual reading of Prashanta’s response.

  3. Anant,

    1.Affect and Relationality: I believe the moment you create a direction in which affect flows—from individual to another/community and so forth, you lose a vital aspect of relational politics: reciprocity. You become communicative and continue to function within a self/other paradigm.. One would then fail to appreciate the kind of examples that you have so eloquently cited happening across India. On the other hand, if you practice humility seriously, be self effusive and rather highlight your interlocutor/antagonist constanly, (say, as political theorists who take Emmanual Levinas seriously do), you also do away with a robust domain of carrying out relational politics. It may in fact lead to a quick and sentimental valourization of the community or the local. So, I would rather push for interstices between political actors or events, where you actually are in motion, as you have put it.

    2.Strategic Mobilization of Affect: Yes, cultural performance has always been a key element is politics. RSS has particularly used the space, left vacant by a unimaginative, scientsitic practitioners of performance—be it the Left or the Congress. But I was not referring to strategy as something instrumental or thought out to the last detail. But outrage leading to innovative and surreptetious moments rather. It is not that in Bengal the civic minded and the so callled subaltern have come into any direct relational arrangement, some great partnership of sorts. But those who participated in that first big protest march in Calcutta after the Nandigram massacre took the risk of identifying themselves outside of the organized Left—affect getting better of instrumentality, leading to fresh strategisation within the city. That mastheads as diverse as Ashok Mitra, Sankha Ghosh and Maheshweta Devi came together in a way, is a sign that civil society does not always work on principles set aside for itself. And the people in the suburbia, quasbahs or affected dsitricts (like Midnapore), via newspapers, rumour, fact finding teams etc, have a vague sense that a wide group of people in Calcutta are fomenting something, which looks like a common cause. This may have given/giving them a fillip of sorts to be ever more vigilant. I am suggesting that, unlike purely pragmatic moves which often conjure and use emotion, relational politics continuously balances between considerations of reason and affect, often working surreptitiously. This may or may not have direct or immediate electoral fallout. But the idea of the political takes a wholly different route.

    3.Materiality: Righteousness is the most apparent chink in the armour of existential responses to instrumental poitical moves. A strong sense of duty charecterises varities of far left and far right: both taking the cudgel against the excesses of hedonism, as it were. One would do good to disentangle kinds of matter, rather than rising above matter here. A deep sense of the viscera, for instance, can temper rigteousness. As can a sense of the aesthetic in politics. The righteous often misses the point that a nuanced sense of poetry or art disturbs the pragmatic to no end. In this respect, the works of Claude Lefort and Etienne Balibar are a judicious corrective to the excesses of numerous French or German theorists who, since ’68 at least, have relentlessly tried to undercut high enlightenment by highlighting affect, leading to a sense of mourning in imagining politics.


  4. dear Prasanta,
    Thanks for the clarifications. Here is the second instalment of my comment. Somewhat rambling and thrown together in a rush … but I hope it makes sense.


    I will begin by making a claim on behalf of PC – affect and relationality are not incompatible with his understanding of political society. In fact, affect via a host of social formations (e.g. caste); and mutualities as a special instance of relational space, are both constitutive of political society.

    PC does not elaborate on these in this essay, but there is enough material in his own earlier essay on political society and in a number of studies on political society in other parts of the world – anthropological studies on the politics of the subaltern (e.g. John Gledhill) in Mexico and sociological studies on urban poor in the Middle East (Say someone like Asef Bayat) and Africa (someone like AbdouMaliq Simone).

    I am making this claim because I want to quickly state my take on the critical assessments made by you and Aditya of PC ‘s essay. Aditya is broadly accepting the framework but he feels that the category – ‘capital’ itself is saturated with historicism and Eurocentrism – capitalocentrism if you will – and so to recover the critical edge he follows Gibson-Graham line of thinking – get out of the discursive realm of capital by visualizing a non capitalist outside. You do not sound particularly impressed by PC’s framework itself – so you look to Ranciere and Balibar post-Althusser for inspiration. I will hold off on my understanding of these two lines of thinking Gibson-Graham and Ranciere – Balibar etc., for now. For the moment it is sufficient to say that in what the two of you are saying, I see neither a major break with nor a major addition. Instead, you are critiquing him from your own prior commitments. This is fine – but it leaves me wondering whether your criticism is motivated more by political disagreement especially in the wake of Nandigram than by intellectual engagement. Honestly I think there is reason to continue as co travellers with PC for some more distance.


    I will not speculate on why PC leaves affect and relationality unelaborated, but just note that the main motivation for these essays is to explore and specify the prospects for equity and dignity for the majority of the population in the former colonies. Implicit in that effort is how to theorize – what categories, and what resources should we draw on to enable radical political action.

    It seems to me in this essay, he is reasserting some of his own prior commitments – for example – passive revolution – Gramsci. He is saying that what we are seeing is still passive revolution in the sense that the elites – the bourgeoisie simply are not in control. That is, they cannot either use coercion or expect to produce self regulating subjects overnight. So, they work through coopting key centers of power and push for a sort of cellular change. That the coalition that came together to execute this passive revolution – in India began to unravel by the beginning of the third five year plan – was one of the key points of Sudipta Kaviraj’s 1988 essay. Regardless of the political arrangements among the elites since then, the strategy more or less continued. But now under altered conditions.

    PC is noting several shifts. Some of which he states explicitly and leaves the others understated.

    First, the state now has extensive reach into the households of the poor.

    Second, agrarian relations have changed substantively with large landowning classes no longer holding villages to ransom.

    Third, the state is no longer as autonomous from big capital and big farmers as it used to be. That is, the modernizing elites are now highly enamoured of neoliberal capitalism.

    Fourth, at the same time, clearly, there are now forces outside the state that are able to push for institutionalization of some of the claims emanating from the political society – claims that would otherwise remain provisional and insecure.

    Fifth, he is noting is that there is now a larger population (not merely the urban middle classes but others as well) that is able to make claims in the name of the citizen.

    The point he is driving at is that while the spatial reach of a variety of technologies of rule is now far more widespread than say 25 years ago, and much of the economic activity is now in the ambit of corporate calculations and the social regimes that regulate it – there remains a zone of operation that is not entirely determined by these regimes.

    So far so good. After all, it is at the point when governmentality fails (as it inevitably does) that state resorts to coercion. And it is at the point where liberal citizenship rights are unaffordable that political society comes into operation. It is at this cusp that we have to judge what kinds of politics to pursue. never argued that political society is a good thing in itself. Nor does he claim that its denizens are happy to be accommodated.

    In fact, in this essay, he emphasises a point in that was not adequately asserted previously – the claims of the political society always result in establishment of provisional, insecure entitlements. That is what the illegal, the alien, the pirate, the men and women who circulate between the labour markets of the city and the homesteads in the village depend on. As the efforts to produce world class cities progresses rapidly, this process of producing an urban subaltern will only accelerate.

    Surely not the prototypical proletariat, nor even the lumpen proletariat. But something much more sophisticated – in some instances much worse off and in others much better off and in yet others — middling to good. The question really is, whether or not this subaltern can form a historic bloc in the Gramscian sense. It is in groping towards that historical agency that is trying to delineate the non corporate capital. I think any assessment of this essay should figure out for itself whether or not it shares this political project that motivates the inquiry. Speaking for myself – I can say that I share that project. Hence my interest in .


    Now, my promise that I will try to expand/deepen the sociospatial ambit of this enquiry. Rather than using disciplinary jargon, I will do this through an illustration.

    The 1980 industrial policy statement of India marks the beginning of India’s reorientation. This statement promised to promote domestic competition and export oriented production and technology import in some sectors. It is not that we can read the dynamics of a polity from a policy pronouncement. But this policy was part of a variety of other instruments wielded by the state – Planning Commission under Pranab Mukherjee gave prime importance to the urban – ministries of commerce and finance together made it possible for commodities to move freely across India.

    All these changes were fought over- each and every detail was negotiated through intense contestation. Overall this new configuration represented the aspirations of new social classes – the rich peasants who were looking to the city for more opportunities for investments, the government employees who were beginning to feel confident about their claims on urban space. The ‘global’ Indian – looking to invest his remittances in productive ventures in the city. All these social classes had one foot still in agrarian economies and they were straining at the leash. This new dynamism and its violence have been documented fairly extensively in the media and in cultural productions of various kinds. But in social sciences it has only been documented somewhat patchily- in studies of rich peasant movements, rural urban migrations and so on. Urban studies was completely innocent of insights into what was going on.

    So in 1988, when Sudipta was writing a ‘critique of passive revolution’ the need to take this altered situation had long been present. Basu in Calcutta, NTR in Hyderabad, Lalu and Sharad Yadav in Bihar and UP- the jats in Rajasthan who ensured that there were always a bunch of independent MLAs in the assembly — It was, however not social sciences but organizations like PUCL, PUDR, ALC that produced extensive critical literature on these processes. The trouble however is that both social scientists and these activists were working with a spatial imagination that was circumscribed by the nation state. And largely focused on growing agrarian violence and state violence in the context of militant movements.

    The spatial horizons of the lived experience of people were however different. Just as the mobility of agrarian surplus and the encashment of social privileges by government officials and professionals and their own transnational mobilities constantly reshaped the urban landscape —

    1)think of the tutorial colleges, small and medium industries, the boom in electronics manufacturing, etc. in the cities; the changes in the symbolic production and reproduction of urban space – the Asian games, the common wealth heads meetings…

    2) And think of how switching of speculative capital from films to liquor to civil contracts to acquaculture etc. reshaped the rural and reconstructed the connectivities between the rural and the urban through communication technologies and roads and so on.

    These physical, material contexts are of course shaped by people, but the altered contexts also reshaped the options available to people.

    Let me illustrate through further examples:

    1) The mobilization around Rameeza Bee rape case in Hyderabad in 1978. The Peoples War was not yet fully formed although trouble was in the air. The incident in which a Muslim woman returning from a late night show with her man was picked up by the police and raped — was like a spark in dry hay. There is no other way to describe it. There were what seemed to be spontaneous protests at many places in the city as soon as the news broke. Police stations were attacked. Railway stations were attacked. The police was completely bewildered. Five days later, one senior officer speculated that a lot of organizational work must have gone into building networks that would be ready to take the opportunity as soon as it presented.

    Although it acquired communal colours after the first few days, the protests when they started were forceful and were an expression of pent up anger against what people saw as an unjust city.

    That kind of mobilizations is not possible in the city anymore. At least, not in the same form – because the city itself has become highly fragmented. In 1978, irani restaurants, street corner addas, college canteens were all very important nodes of public culture. It is not that such places have now disappeared. But the restructuring of the urban economy has now pushed them into nooks and crannies from where they cannot easily maintain communications. This has consequences for the prospects not only of equity and dignity but to the operation of the political society itself. How does the political society operate in a city that is increasingly becoming a space of anonymity? A city where a sort of spectatorship and mall kind of people watching spaces replace the older places which fostered mutual witnessing in diverse neighbourhoods?

    E.g. think how relationships between occupational groups such as dhobis and midwives and upper caste middle class families have changed drastically because of the changes in residential patterns, and housing styles.

    2) The state itself has restructured in significant ways. 25 years ago, the mobility of an IAS officer was something like – district/municipality to state secretariat to central government and back to the state. Now IAS officers go to the World Bank, to the ADB etc., as consultants, they become directors of a variety of special purpose vehicles, they interact a lot more with foreign and domestic consultants. These charismatic hyper mobile officials have a tough time with the more static local government staff who have to deal with flesh and blood situations. It is no longer possible to think of these things in simple nested hierarchies – local-regional-national-global. Nor is the enormous data that must be handled within the power of the local government officials. Under the changed circumstance, poor people who were earlier able to negotiate through local leaders and lower level government staff now need the mediation by NGOs!

    3) The region and the city (usually the state capital) within it – are the targets of international reformers, aid agencies – especially overseas development agencies have much more power over politicians and bureaucracies now than the World Bank or even the national government. Power is now quite impossible to understand in a simple hierarchy of nation, state, and city or even in terms of a federal arrangement. Power flows through a variety of complex networks which are concealed by the very language of transparency that pervades our social space. It is not that the government of West Bengal is lying to us. It is that there are now technologies and regulation mechanisms in place which effectively conceal the processes by which something becomes a truth.

    These historical geographical dynamics do not come through effectively in PC’s essay. So, if I have to answer the question – what is enabling and disabling about PC’s latest essay, I would say it raises the right questions and points in the right direction. But lack of consideration of the spatial is a serious drawback. Space as the realm of contestation, space as active agent, space as political. And in many ways, I think that is where the answer to the apparent historicism and eurocentrism in PC’s essay lies. PC’s historicism and eurocentrism cannot be interrupted by affect, mutualties and such like. He has already considered those. What he has not considered is how spatial interactions, place specificities, mobilization of regional and local historical narratives, production of mobile subjects that belong neither in the city nor in the village but are who they are precisely because they are constantly making and remaking and holding on to places that they take with them – like snails (think of the ragpickers in cities). It is these considerations that introduce the element of the unpredictable and interrupt the smooth flow of historicism.

  5. Dear Anant,

    A nice exposition indeed. Many thanks. I must point out that I have deep misgivings about supplicating to a politics of pure relationality, hence my emphasis on matter and political innovation. I was making a simple point: that Chatterjee is not a classical enough thinker when it comes to imagining democracy, and that comes out most vividly in this particular essay. Someone who takes anonymity of the marginals for granted can only do as much rear guard modernism; and a particular brand of modernism at that. Chatterjee is one of our interesting analysts owing to his limpid prose, handling of data, taking locational risks and so forth. But political imagination is not his forte.

    I also remain deeply sceptical of a particular reading of Gramsci and in fact, of The 18th Brumaire, by Sudipta K, a path which Chatterjee used to trudge. His shift in this essay is stark even by his earlier standards. The very idea of his nation, which did challange Ben Anderson’s thesis, has now given way to state’s negotiation with various networks. So, if you are saying unconcealing these networks and building up afresh is democratic, I am with you. I seriously doubt though that is Chatterjee’s intention. If you are saying non-corporate capital will form a historic block by making slight adjustments, we amicably part ways.

    It was a pleasure talking to you.

  6. Dear Prasanta,

    I hold no brief for Chatterjee. I think we should exhaust the possibilities and move on. Yes, my intention inter alia is to suggest that bringing those networks out of hiding should be high on transformative agendas.

    No social formation can become a historic bloc by making slight adjustments. The question rather was …where exactly is the potential agency for change located ? I think Chatterjee looks at the altered conditions as something ‘out’ there and thereby misses the most important lesson of Nandigram. What Nandigram challenges us to do is to confront very terms on which that question can be asked.

    Neoliberal globalization after all is neither an interloper nor an external threat. It came to India in a fairly mature form and met with an accomplice to remake possibilities of politics. It is everywhere. So yes, we have to ask a lot of questions quite afresh.

    The pleasure was mine.

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