Guest post by ADITYA SARKAR
On the afternoon of 25 March, Nehru Place felt different. The rectangular maze of shops and offices wore its usual air of busy activity, but instead of being concentrated around a million acts of individualized consumption as it normally is, the energy humming through the place circulated around a public spectacle. Visitors, bystanders, and low-paid office and shop employees clustered in the central square, and on the balconies of the first floor, their gazes fixed on a street play taking place right outside the central Bajaj office. About twenty young men and women, all dressed in black, raised fists, shouted slogans, and mocked the usual suspects – MNCs, netas, and plutocrats, in the name of the aam aadmi. Shop after shop emptied out. Hundreds of people watched, many applauding loudly. The specific target of this public campaign, though, seemed opaque to most, as the publicity leaflets circulated rather more sluggishly than the sentiments evoked by the performers.
Not that the spectacle went uninterpreted. Indeed, from where a friend and I stood – first near the electronics shops we had gone to Nehru Place to shop at, and then on one of the balconies where people pressed together to survey the performance – one interpretation seemed to outstrip others in its general plausibility, and reach the status of a consensus. There had been labour unrest recently at Bajaj. ‘Strike ka maamla hai’, suggested a middle-aged electronics dealer. This view was seconded upstairs, on the balconies, as a number of young men, mostly employed in low-paid jobs in the various establishments in Nehru Place, spoke of wage freezes, unpaid arrears, and mounting debts. The private sector worker, said one, was well and truly screwed – unlike his public-sector counterparts, he could expect no salary hikes, and with the cost of living rising all the time (this triggered an anguished account of the grotesque food and grain prices in the city), what was one to do but strike? I agreed, with all the vociferousness of one relatively immune to the worst effects of this hardship – you must strike, I said, there is no other way. But who are these people downstairs, in the street play? Are they on strike? Yes, said one of my companions, against the available evidence – the performers were mostly well-heeled, identifiably middle-class, and in any other context I would have marked them as students. The man standing beside me seemed to register this too, and his fertile mind came up with a plausible explanation – these, he suggested, were workers in the Bajaj marketing department, protesting against unpaid wage arrears. Why else, he asked, reasonably, would they be staging this play right outside the Bajaj office? The other men standing around agreed, and the conversation turned, again, to wages, prices, the injustice of it all, and the justice of strikes. These young men and women, said one of them, were doing what everyone should be doing, but few have the courage to do.
As the play wound down, leaflets made a belated appearance. To my surprise, and, I confess, extreme disappointment, the spectacle had nothing to do with striking workers. The choice of location – fortuitous, for it clearly swelled the crowd – was accidental. When I hopefully asked one of the actors whether there was, at least, a connection, he looked shocked and said, no, not at all, nothing to do with strike action of any kind. The play and leaflet, as you may well have guessed by now, were part of a publicity campaign for Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death, and of the brilliantly conceived and executed consciousness-raising exercises that served as a prelude to the dramatic events of last week, which have been so exhaustively discussed on this website, and in thousands of public and private spaces across the country of late.
This is as good a point as any to join the conversation initiated by the hard-hitting and insightful pieces published recently on Kafila, in the posts by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Aditya Nigam, and Mukul Sharma. What we saw at Nehru Place buttresses, in part, one of Aditya’s principal contentions – that, despite the unmistakably ‘middle-class’ nature of the protests, the mobilization around the Jan Lokpal Bill tapped into energies much wider, and perhaps potentially more progressive, than the semantic closures orchestrated by state, media, and the leaders of the campaign. The people watching and applauding the street play – performed, incidentally, by the Asmita theatre troupe – were by no means dominantly middle-class. Their frustrations clearly stemmed from the state’s economic policies and the miserly, cost-cutting initiatives of the predatory companies that employed them. The office workers and shop employees so galvanized by the spectacle were victims of corruption all right, but this corruption was both deeper and more precise than that which Anna Hazare and the organizers of the campaign have spoken of. This is the corruption that exacts tributes from low-paid workers and dumps them in the pockets of equally underpaid policemen, the corruption that allows enterprises to initiate formal and informal wage freezes, ensures the permanent unaccountability of the structures of state power and capital to their subjects. It is the corruption that simultaneously sustains and nullifies our ‘actually existing democracy’. I had no doubt on this score; nor did the Nehru Place employees I spoke to.
The opacity of the public spectacle at Nehru Place was the very measure of its success. Given a street play that passionately targeted the holders of political and financial power without ever finally specifying a clear and singular enemy, the many spectators that day naturally read their own concerns and anxieties into the play, thereby momentarily trans-valuing its meanings, wrenching them out of their own context and affixing them to another narrative of discontent, whose sources were different from those that animated Anna Hazare’s campaign. In the nature of much effective political mobilization, a performance such as that we witnessed could be all things to all people. The chain of meanings that animated the campaign is more unruly than the self-anointed meaning-makers, ranging from a respected (if distinctly right-leaning) activist deploying Gandhian techniques, to many of his committed and ideologically diverse followers, to the Barkhas and Arnabs and other TRP-fed 24-hour news-mongerers, would like.
There are two political ‘misrecognitions’ at work here, and they invert one another. On the one hand, the Jan Lokpal movement, or, rather, its recuperation within a media-orchestrated, state-buttressed triumphalism, points in a very precise direction. This is a discourse that systematically misinterpreted (and mobilized) all the signs that were there to be read – the growing frustration at arbitrary forms of power in a context of spiralling inflation and economic hardship, for instance – as an administrative problem, one to be tackled through an authoritarian moral guardian whose power will enthral us into believing we have found a quick-fix. Messy, unclean politics will be replaced by clean, efficient policy, and this will herald the dawn of a new India. Now this is, of course, by no means the only dimension of the movement, least of all for many of the tireless activists associated with it. However, the crucial role played by the televisual media in the state’s apparent capitulation to the campaign’s demands is significant. It suggests that this ‘media orchestration’ has to be understood as a constituent, and increasingly central, moment in the politics of the agitation as it unfolded, and not as something external to it.
The employees in the crowd at Nehru Place that day, on the other hand, enthusiastically ‘misread’ the intended message of the campaign’s propaganda, in the light of their experiences and resentments, and thereby identified corruption as a constituent part (but no more) of a chain of exploitative relations that structure every dimension of the sick social world that they inhabit, that feeds off them. Any attempt to suture these wounds through the installation of a charismatic leader, however enthusiastically received at first, can only end up reproducing the very situation it claims to confront.
In the first interpretation, society is basically virtuous, and what we need is unity against a finite set of materially corrupt and morally repulsive authority-figures: this thieving politician, that crony capitalist. Bad men do bad things: stop them (or hang them, as Anna Hazare has suggested) – that’s what we need. The other interpretation, at the very least, enables an acknowledgment that the ‘messiness’ of politics, exhibited in divisiveness and disunity, is not something that can be cleaned up by ‘national unity’, because these antagonisms constitute society itself – society does not exist outside of this conflict. These two interpretations are locked in a latent struggle with one another, even if they seem on occasion to converge. The question is, as Humpty Dumpty put it, which is to be master?
In this sense, the meaning of the layered social frustrations that gave the anti-corruption campaign its depth is up for grabs. The point, however, at least as I see it, is this – such moments of apparently uncontrollable openness are evanescent. Sooner rather than later, their creative political possibilities tend to get tamed, given a consistency they do not have ‘in the raw’, and gridlocked within an inherently exclusionary set of political signifiers. In this case, the signifier is ‘corruption’, deliberately defined in ways that choose not to go beneath the surface, and to proffer dangerously false solutions to dangerously real problems. As Shuddhabrata has argued, the legislation sought by major sections of the anti-corruption campaign, and enthusiastically supported by the dominant fractions of the state and media, is irreducibly authoritarian as it stands. This is the case no matter what the movement’s guiding impulses may originally have flowed from, and however diverse the ideological motivations of its protagonists. The campaign, now fully engrossed by a happy let’s-move-forward-as-one-nation ideology, seeks to magic away corruption – a product of arbitrary and unaccountable power – through the creation of an institution grounded precisely in that kind of unaccountability.
I am not arguing that the attempt to enforce some kind of semantic closure upon a moment of diverse political possibilities is inherently wrong, or, more to the point, avoidable. Had the movement come to be driven by the forms of discontent we saw at Nehru Place that day in March, had its political possibilities been mobilized by a hypothetical Left rather than a leader who admires Modi and Raj Thackeray, it would have been no less a closure than it is at present. But a different set of political priorities and possibilities might have emerged. Perhaps, to speculate further, ‘corruption’ could have been replaced by ‘injustice’ or ‘inequality’ as the rhetorical lynchpin of the mobilizations. It is a measure of how mentally and ideologically impoverished our mass media are that such a possibility seems utopian, ‘idealistic’, even laughable. But why, after all, should corruption, rather than injustice or disparity, automatically emerge as the target of a mass campaign? These are all abstract nouns, yet only one of them seems to have the capacity to mobilize an assertive political consciousness. The political forces that push mass mobilizations like this towards bland, anodyne and tendentially right-wing invocations of ‘national unity’ are currently much stronger than any imaginable ‘progressive’ or left-wing recuperations. Besides, as Anna Hazare’s fast and the media-driven circus around it demonstrate, such campaigns, with their ‘let’s-move-forward-together-as-one’ overtones, enjoy not only the goodwill but also the active patronage of the powers-that-be.
The timing of Anna Hazare’s campaign, as a journalist friend recently commented, was a tactical masterstroke. The base was laid by campaigns and performances much like the one I witnessed, but the true crescendo was reached, as it perhaps had to be, after the chest-thumping euphoria of the Indian cricket team’s victory in the World Cup. Had Anna Hazare’s fast begun in late March rather than 5 April, would the papers and TV channels, all appropriately ‘bleeding blue’ in the shrill display of mediatized chauvinism as they were at the time, have picked up on it with such enthusiasm? This point may appear cynical, but it is no more and no less than a tribute to the strategic intelligence of the campaign, one that many more progressive mobilizations may do well to emulate.
But then again, we need to come back to Shuddhabrata’s point about the relative invisibility of similar, incomparably more heroic campaigns led by incomparably more embattled activists. Irom Sharmila, Medha Patkar and Binayak Sen are only some of the names that spring to mind. Clearly, the Lokpal agitation, with its blend of tactical hard-headedness and sentimental Gandhism (never mind that Anna Hazare’s defence of Modi would have Gandhi reeling 360 degrees in his grave if he had one) could only succeed because it tapped into an atmosphere of enviable political and tele-visual cordiality, which reached its terminus in the absurd convergence of Sonia Gandhi, Uma Bharati and Barkha Dutt (in other words, the country’s most powerful person, a fascist, and a demonstrably compromised opinion-maker) lauding the spectacle of a ‘great man’ willing to sacrifice himself to clean up the nation. So we have a political conjuncture that is truly grotesque: the ‘India’ of the powerful and influential collectively discovers the virtues of selfless political mobilization and courage at the same time as one of the country’s bravest activists puts her life and body on the line against a rapacious military occupation, and another, guilty only of the crimes of conscience and dissent, languishes behind bars on patently trumped-up charges.
A critique such as this runs the risk of indignant lampooning (and trolling), as many of the nauseously self-righteous responses to Shuddhabrata’s piece testify. You can be accused either of anti-nationalism or of cynicism. The first accusation belabours the ‘negativity’ of the campaign’s ‘detractors’, and says (to quote Dylan out of context), ‘If ye cannot bring good news then don’t bring any’. To refuse to participate in this orgy of celebration funded by corporate media houses and a complicit state is to invite a stream of reproaches. You have to be happy: look, there are all these beautiful people on your television screens telling you what a wonderful day this is for your nation; how can you possibly refuse to join the celebrations at Jantar Mantar, how can you stick to your bitter, wasted leftist doctrines that wilfully blind themselves to this glorious new sun?
The second accusation – cynicism – is more serious, but also more misplaced. These critiques of Anna Hazare’s campaign in no way seek to belittle the depth of the genuine resentment millions of Indians feel at the corruption that structures their everyday interactions with power. The point, rather, to insist that corruption is at a basic level always symptom rather than cause. When an auto-driver, compelled to pay Rs. 400 on a daily basis to his boss, and equivalent bribes to an underpaid policeman to avoid a chalaan, makes up the losses by overcharging his passengers, is it really corruption of the kind Anna Hazare decries that is at work here? Yet situations like these are what make up the daily life of corruption in so many social settings, and they go all the way up the ladder. To reduce social relations like this, grounded in violent exploitation (in which we have some reason to claim to be world-beaters), to personalized episodes of moral ‘corruption’ is to miss the wood for the trees.
This inevitably invites the rejoinder, ‘So what? A single-issue campaign cannot possibly resolve all our social problems. At least this is a beginning.’ This is the mistake: to see the deliberate foreshortening of the political perspective of a campaign as a ‘beginning’ rather than as a closure of a dangerous kind, symbolically consummated by nationalist flag-waving and drum-beating. The misrecognition of fundamental questions of social structure and relations as questions of corruption may seem a minor problem: the point, however, is that this displacement leaves the door wide open for dangerously regressive ideological operations, of the kind we have seen in print and on TV recently. To miss the point that the social conflicts and antagonisms that manifest themselves in a thousand daily acts and relations of ‘corruption’ are irreducible is to seek a short-cut (whether in the benevolent figure of a Lokpal or the sinister one of an ‘incorruptible’ Gujarat chief minister) that is essentially authoritarian. Several of the comments on the previous posts on this website on Anna Hazare, rightfully animated by frustration at a decaying and unaccountable parliamentary system, take refuge in the fantasy that a strong authority-figure, chosen by equally unimpeachable eminences, is the answer to our ills. This, I would submit, is rapidly emerging as the logical direction in which the discourses and practices of an anti-corruption politics tend to drift, despite the commitments of many of its followers. If corruption is to be seen as cause rather than symptom – and in the final analysis how one sees it is a political decision – then the logical corollary of ‘anti-corruption’ is necessarily some version of authoritarianism, in its political implications if not (yet) in any fully realized institutional structures. This, and not the ‘negativity’ that detractors of the campaign are accused of, is true cynicism.
In this sense, the workers at Nehru Place on that day had it right, however off the mark their specific interpretations of the political event they witnessed were. Confronted with a shrill diatribe against a corrupt political system, they instantly translated that ‘corruption’ into their everyday experiences of discrimination, injustice, declining real wages, and workplace-based power relations. In that process, the analyses that circulated in the crowd on 25 March were infinitely deeper than anything the media-exalted campaign for the Lokpal Bill could possibly offer: they were radical, to quote a much-maligned nineteenth-century philosopher – they went to the root. The pity of it is that the panacea offered by the circus of tele-visually manufactured ‘public opinion’, which may crystallize in a new piece of legislation offering us a new, squeaky clean Leader, will have no place for insights – and experiences – such as theirs. Instead, it will falsely engross their grievances and demands through an exemplary ideological operation, by breathlessly promising ‘change’ and ‘reform’ till the cows come home, all so that things, at their root, stay exactly the same.