Populism and the Anna Hazare Event: Swagato Sarkar

Guest post by SWAGATO SARKAR

I have been trying to make sense of the Anna Hazare event. I agree that it was historical, but was it a tragedy, or a farce? The swift exchange between Partha Chatterjee (PC) and Aditya Nigam (AN) and their reference to Ernesto Laclau and ‘populism’ have given me a familiar frame to enter into the debate around the event. Here, I will concentrate on the question of populism and its normative status. However, unlike PC and AN, I have got nothing to offer to ‘the Left’ (Independent or Dependent), because I am not a leftist, rather one who likes sitting on the fence on a nice arm-chair and this piece will perhaps bear an imprint of that position. Also, apologies are due to the readers of Kafila as I have not read, just browsed through, the two pieces written by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, which have been wildly popular – if Facebook is an indicator – and have been referred to by both PC and AN. Therefore, I might be repeating what Sengupta has already said.

The main thrust of PC’s argument is that the Anna Hazare event has led to the conflation of corruption with politics. It is a populist moment “where “the people” have identified an “enemy of the people’s” in the entire political class, including the government and bureaucracy.” This is hypocritical [in my words] because “the people” “only [characterise] the enemy” as corrupt, ignoring the fact that “[t]he corrupt people of India are blood relations of those who are flocking Ramlila Maidan.” The anti-corruption movement is anti-political: parliament, ministers, etc. constitutes “politics”, whereas Anna Hazare et al are not political, “[h]ence [the latter] are pure, with the people.”

PC makes a fleeting remark on the connection between law and its violation and the normative evaluation of such a violation: there is a difference in, i.e. non-equivalence between, a farmhouse owner flaunting municipal laws and a person squatting on public land. This gradation of violation of law based on the claims of justice and freedom is, of course, the central thesis of PC’s political society. And because of this non-equivalence, PC does not accept/think that “everything that moves the people is worthy of support.” In other words, PC finds the Anna Hazare event to be populist, but ‘rejects’ it on normative ground.

AN takes issue with PC’s rejection of the event and his “idea of politics.” He thinks PC has abandoned the earlier distinction between “a domain of organized politics and a domain of unorganized politics.” AN has a very definite understanding of popular politics/populism:

  1. one that “escape[s] the mechanisms of control”
  2. one that is marked by “the moment of excess, of escape, of overflow”
  3. From Laclau: “populism” = “‘presence of an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization’ and ‘an appeal to the underdog’” [emphases added]
  4. which “often overshoots (either through direct struggle) or simply escapes (by going outside the state’s radar) the formal domain of politics.”

One can find that AN basically thinks that populism is something that originates outside the formal and organised (therefore routine) representational politics [which is very close to Jacques Rancière’s distinction between ‘police’ and ‘politics’]. AN identifies the Anna Hazare event as populist and defends it by finding transformative potential in it as it wants to “keep political class of representatives in check.” AN thinks that PC no longer sees that transformative potential, rather he (PC) wants to “[subsume] [the popular] within [an] overarching logic of governmentality … [which strives to] bring popular politics under [its] control.” It ends up being an exercise in the “management of populations”, “negotiat[ing] [a] settlement.”

But I am not sure how AN would reconcile his charge of PC being “a voice of normative theorist” with his own discovery of the potential of populist mobilisations; neither it is clear why normative questions would have to be kept outside the discussion of politics – which in any case AN himself had to engage with to argue for the potential of populist mobilisations. I am quite bewildered by AN’s last sentence, “….when the subaltern was not always only an instrument of elite manipulation.” Did he find the overwhelming majority of the people at Ramlila Maidan and elsewhere (whom we saw on television channels) to be subalterns so that a reference to Subaltern Studies would be a valid one and relevant to the context? Or that the present congregation shares similar conditions of (classically understood) subalternity (as Spivak would say, ‘being cut off from the lines of social mobility’)? Or that corruption creates such a condition of subalternity?

I am quite confused by AN’s usage of the term ‘the political’, particularly when he says, “The point of this distinction [domains of organised and unorganised politics] clearly was that there was a way in which politics exceeded ‘the political’” [italics in original, emphasis added]. If AN is referring to Chantal Mouffe’s popularisation of the French distinction between “la politiques” [politics] and “le politiques” [the political], then AN has wrongly reversed the priority. Let me quote Mouffe (2005: 9):

“by ‘the political’ I mean the dimension of antagonism which I take to be constitutive of human societies, while by ‘politics’ I mean the set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political. ”

This distinction basically borrows from the Heideggerian notions of ‘ontic’ and ‘ontology’, as Mouffe explains, “ontic has to do with the multifold practices of conventional politics [i.e. obviously, ‘politics’], while the ontological concerns the very way in which society is instituted [i.e. as denoted by ‘the political’]” [ibid 8-9]. This methodological distinction is a move on which both Laclau and Mouffe build their theoretical framework. Such a methodological approach is however absent from PC’s and AN’s pieces [though I understand that such short-pieces cannot offer space to engage with an issue deeply that an ontological enquiry demands].

It seems to me that both PC and AN are drawn to the concept of populism because of the spontaneity of the mobilisation and the apparent amorphous character of the congregation. But I do not think that they have probed the issue well enough. The Laclau-ian definition of populism is not based on these ‘ontic’ characters, rather on what he calls, “a particular logic of articulation …. of whatever social, political or ideological contents … [which] produces structuring effects which primarily manifest themselves at the level of the modes of representation” (Laclau 2005: 33-34).

The unit of analysis for Laclau is (social) demands, not interests or mobilisation. When these “demands are punctual or individually satisfied” then “[the] social logics operating according to this institutionalised, differential model [is called] logics of difference… They presuppose that there is no social division and that any legitimate demand can be satisfied in a non-antagonistic, administrative way” [ibid 36]. In opposition to this logic, there is “a logic of equivalence – i.e. one in which all the demands, in spite of their differential character, tend to reaggregate themselves, forming [..] an equivalential chain” [ibid 37]. These demands cannot be satisfied in a regular administrative way, attended individually; i.e. “the equivalential chain has an anti-institutional character: it subverts the particularistic, differential character of the demands” [ibid 38]. Here, “the demands share a negative dimension beyond their positive differential nature” [ibid 37 and passim], and therefore “each individual demand is constitutively split: on the one hand it is its own particularised self; on the other it points, through equivalential links, to the totality of the other demands.”

This possibility of totalisation creates an internal frontier and splits the social into [the Carl Schmitt-ian] ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ and constitutes a popular subjectivity. The enemy is constructed by “identif[ying] [a sphere] as the source of social negativity” [ibid 38]. On the other side of the frontier, among all the particular demands in the equivalential chain, one “demand without entirely abandoning its own particularity, starts also functioning as a signifier representing the chain as a totality” [ibid 39]. Laclau [and Mouffe] call[s] the representative demand as “empty signifier” and the process “hegemony.” This process of bringing “equivalential homogeneity [to] a highly heterogeneous reality” “reaches a point where the homogenising function is carried out by a pure name: the name of the leader” [ibid 40]. The totality of “[e]quivalences, popular subjectivity, dichotomic construction of the social around an internal frontier” [ibid 38] and empty signifier defines populism.

Does this Laclau-ian understanding of populism help understand the Anna Hazare event? Yes and no. Yes, because the mobilisation can be seen as the successful formation of an equivalential chain between various groups and their demands; “corruption” being the empty signifier; the government and bureaucracy being the enemy [as PC has already mentioned]; and Anna Hazare being the “pure name: the name of the leader” carrying out the homogenising function. No, because a critical examination of the “demands” of the “groups” reveals it to be quite a pseudo-populist movement.

PC has adopted a sociological approach to understand the ‘groups’ and offers a moral critique, i.e. since “corrupt people of India are blood relations of those who are flocking Ramlila Maidan”, therefore the latter cannot have the moral right to ‘talk about’ corruption. The critique to that position was also of sociological nature: there can be “inter-generational faultlines” and agents therefore can have the moral right to stand against corruption. AN sees the congregation to be an excess to political representation, beyond the formulaic axes, and he refrains from any moral criticism of the agents.

I propose that we take a genealogical look at the mobilisation and place the Anna Hazare event in the long history of non-party political process or mobilisations [this old-style Kothari-Seth term is better than ‘civil society’] in India and identify the critiques of the state and representation and their normative implications to be the central issue. The non-party mobilisations, before the Anna Hazare event, in independent India can be divided in two tracks. The first track is the Gandhian-socialist one and the other is the local, ‘subaltern’, not-easily-ideologically classifiable track. The second track cannot be segmented and we will not engage with it here. The first track can be divided into three phases. The first phase existed till late 1960s. It was dominated by various Gandhian and proto-Gandhian groups, which emphasised on constructing/finding harmony between various elements of the society and saw the state as a colonial apparatus. They firmly believed that this task cannot be performed by the state – it was beyond the capacity of the (modern) state to intervene, and morally or politically there was no need to strengthen the state (which was seen as a coercive force). From a distinct moral (theological?) understanding of human conduct, the crisis of social reproduction was seen as a result of the greed and possessiveness of a few; but vices could not be eradicated by any coercion. It had to be done by inculcating a personal ethics of love and communal belonging. Politics, understood as perusal of interests, could only lead to destruction. This understanding and practice of (alternate) ‘politics’ put forward a different notion of ‘political representation’: it is not representation – understood as substitution – at all, rather it involves a mystical experience of change: individuals become a change agent.

The second phase would start with the disagreement over this understanding of representation: change was sought not only in the micro-(individual) level, but also of the macro structures. ‘Politics’, therefore, is not withdrawing from the conducts of the state, but actions should be directed against it. This move started to steer the concept of representation towards the conventional meaning, i.e. substitution: the action-groups are the representative of the people vis-à-vis the state. The transformation and institutionalisation of the action-groups into NGOs by the end of late 1970s did not necessarily make it less critical of the state. They were quite antagonistic to the state and several attempts were made, since the state of internal emergency, by the state to regulate and govern them.

The third phase starts in the mid-1980s with the arrival and availability of large donor funds, like the anti-HIV campaign. This transformed the locally-focussed, issue-based movements/mobilisations into commodified global issue-based advocacy. The critique of the state and the antagonistic relationship between the state and ‘NGOs’ gave away to the development of a pact with the state. In fact, the state was no longer seen as ‘the state’, rather as ‘government’ – a discursive space which can accommodate NGOs within it, where NGOs can provide critiques of its programmes, improve its functions, supplement it when necessary: NGOs became an internal moment of governmentality. Even then, at least at the rhetorical level, the NGO-sector would espouse a progressive stand and claim to represent the vulnerable sections of the society.

By 2000-2001, a new set of NGOs emerged, which did not try to justify their critique of the state/government from any progressive stand-point, rather it articulated a technical problem of “governance”: bad roads, erratic electricity supply, (petty) corruption, etc. – all that encompass the general daily life in urban areas. The reduction of the concept ‘governance’ to a technical problem is an indicator of the ontological shift in the understanding of the state and freedom, and marks a break in the non-party mobilisations in India.

In the progressive critiques of the state, from the radical “the-state-as-an-instrument of oppression” to the (proto/pseudo)-socialist “the-state-as-an-instrument of social change and protection”, the subject of the discourse was always a vulnerable one and needed attention; the subject becomes free either by the removal of the authoritarian state, or through the supplementation of social resources by the state. The new ‘middle class’ NGOs moved away from such a critique to a libertarian one: the state/government became an obstacle to individual freedom. The individual is capable to sustain and flourish in the market and is independent of the state.

If the yearning of the first phase of non-party mobilisation was a harmonious nation, the second phase understood the nation to be antagonistically split, the third phase saw the government as a discursive space, then certain post-2000-01 non-party mobilisation imagines an individualised nation. Internally, it articulates a demand that the government should simply create and maintain ‘infrastructure’ for the improvement of personal quality of life and the aggregate (impersonal) economic growth, and through the separation of power, refrain from unnecessary interference in people’s daily lives. The society should function in an auto-pilot mode: my entitlements are formalised and I should be able to avail those without bribing anyone or wasting time. If human beings are a problem, get computers and give us e-governance. Externally, it translates into an idea where the nation-state provides the institutional power to negotiate with the world: India should be the ‘brand name’ which the world will reckon with and I can receive recognition from the foreign peers without having to explain myself. Such institutional power is dependent on the capacity of the economy to grow at a much higher rate and to generate surplus capital available for investment, which in turn is dependent on the ‘human capital’ that the middle class possesses or nurtures. The government’s job is to facilitate this circular flow. We need the government for individual needs, not for any communitarian social cause; social policies are not justified on the ground of redistributive justice or egalitarianism in general, but for taking care of ‘poor people’. We understand that the government will have to spend funds for such activities, both for creating infrastructure and for social policies, but such public expenditure has to be duly accounted for. We also object to the “capture of public office for private means.” By definition, there cannot be any corruption involving private parties, because the private sphere is internally governed and hence those would be a case of misappropriation of funds. The Anna Hazare event was the coup-d’état of this strand of philosophical anthropology, the first sign of success in the process of constituting a new concept of human subject in India.

The Anna Hazare event came in the garb of populism, but it was quite different from the Laclau-ian understanding of it. Every group which had congregated on Ramlila Maidan and elsewhere had articulated ‘corruption’ as one of the particularistic elements in its critique of the state. However, in the process of forming the “equivalential chain”, the other particularities were completed displaced and corruption became supreme. This “equivalential chain” collapsed into a singular event, not a hegemonic one. The “anti-institutionalism” which AN finds in the event is not based on any egalitarian principle [this is Laclau’s normative rider, see Laclau’s response to Simon Critchley in Laclau: A Critical Reader and to Judith Butler in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality], rather informed by (right-) libertarianism. [This clearing of political space by libertarianism is perhaps responsible for the rise of right-wing forces after every anti-corruption movement in India, be it JP’s or VP’s.] The unity of “the people” here is an abstraction (as it always is), achieved by ejecting the vulnerable subject of earlier discourses. The clamour for the (limited) “rule of law” actually is a desire for a perfect “logic of difference”, for limited and normalised “governance”, where the government should be in a position to meet the demands individually without leading to social crisis of governability. This is a desire for a procedural democracy, unencumbered of the participatory pressures.

The critique of the state and representation in India until now were in general a part of the process of democratisation of the state and society, understood as a distribution of power and reordering of the society on egalitarian principles. In that sense, the Anna Hazare event was a non-democratic (not necessarily undemocratic) one. Here, the distribution of power was replaced by the demand of separation of power, and implicitly social reordering was sought based on meritocratic, Darwinian principles without any reference to the historical process of becoming meritorious.

While both PC and AN found the event to be populist but disagreed on its transformative potential, I think it was not populist in the Laclau-ian sense and it consolidates the break in the non-party mobilisations in India which started from 2000-2001. My critique is not against reducing corruption to bribery or conflict of interests, or pointing to the moral hypocrisy of the Indian middle-class, but it is about the change in the philosophical anthropology. I am not dismissing the demand for the rule of law, but referring to the understanding that law is a product of social power relationships and its framing should be based on egalitarian principles. Any consideration of the demands and desires for “proper checks and balances”, “accountability”, “rule governed society”, “participatory democracy”, etc. should not lose sight of the larger political and economic context within which these are articulated.


Mouffe, Chantal (2005) On the Political (Routledge, London)

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) “Populism: What’s in a Name?” in Francisco Panizza (ed)Populism and the Mirror of Democracy (Verso, London)

8 thoughts on “Populism and the Anna Hazare Event: Swagato Sarkar”

  1. Swagato,
    Thanks for your response. While I do not particularly disagree with much of what you have to say, I do think a clarification is in order here. I am neither a Laclauian not a Foucauldian – though both Laclau and Foucault have influenced my thinking very much. As such, I will not enter into any debate on ‘what Laclau actually means’ and whether I am in line with his idea of a hegemonic situation. My point about the current moment in the movement, rather, has been that this is a radically open situation and full of all kinds of possibilities.
    As for the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, yes I have reversed the distinction that Laclau and Mouffe make, following Claude Lefort. For here my Foucault warns me that I should be suspicious about ideas like ‘the ontological constitution of the social’. I therefore treat ‘the political’ as an empirical category that has exactly the same valence as, say, the economic. It refers in my use to the formal domain of politics (in the manner of the very old-fashioned Nicos Poulantzas) – of parties, elections, state/ government etc.


  2. why get into this sort of western intellectualism, which does’nt apply in our southern socio-cultural context? i want us to concentrate on our issues with our indegenous ways and not waste our energies on such rather absurd views. the xavier institute students are going to do a case study (announced on tv channel headlines) on this whole experience with anna and his team. let us discuss that when time comes. asha kachru


  3. Pretty funny looking at a ‘Jindal’ School of Governance person, an assistant dean and director, no less, talking about ‘populism’ and get this one guys “Any consideration of the demands and desires for “proper checks and balances”, “accountability”, “rule governed society”, “participatory democracy”, etc. should not lose sight of the larger political and economic context within which these are articulated.”. This takes the cake.


    1. No Mr. Sudip Mukherjee’s personal attack on Swagato’s choice of professional habitat is unacceptable and below the belt, a scholar’s institutional affiliations has nothing to do with his intellectual arguments or choice of research, this is a pretty lame and pedestrian argument and points at lack of ability on behalf of the accuser to engage intellectually. Positions of academia and research all over the world are to great extent financed by corporate entities whose ideological positions hired scholars dont always subscribe and that is the beauty of academic independent. I deplore such postings on an otherwise intellectually stimulating forum such as Kafila Comment section.


      1. I have great regard for Swagato Sarkar’s scholarship and I do think Sudip Mukherjee’s comment here is in bad taste. But it would be naive and simplistic to say that “a scholar’s institutional affiliations has nothing to do with his intellectual arguments or choice of research.” More often than not, it does. That’s what the university-military-industrial complex is all about. To take a simple and well known example, 90% of all research in physics departments in the US are funded by bodies affiliated to the US defence department, and the research has military applications. If you are a Fellow at, say, the American Enterprise Institute, you would have well-demarcated ideological boundaries that you simply cannot cross. Every budding scholar knows that some areas of research are more likely to get funding than others, and as a matter of survival, academics often opt for subjects that will make it easier for them to earn their daily bread.


      2. So if Kejriwal and Sisodia’s NGO Kabir accepts an award/donation from the Ford Foundation, does it or does it not mean that the “fight against corruption” is driven by American corporates?


  4. The Appalling Financial Transparency Standards of Anna affiliated NGOs

    Now that NGOs have attempted to engineer a revolution in this country for better transparency and accountability in the system, let’s have an insight to what actual standards they follow themselves. All the main characters in the Anna Hazare manage multiple NGOs. We review the financial standards of NGOs run by Anna Hazare; Arvind Kejriwal & Manish Sisodia and Abhinandan Sekhri; Kiran Bedi and the father-son duo, Shanti & Prashant Bhushans.

    Read more: http://exitopinionpollsindia.blogspot.com/2011/09/appalling-financial-transparency.html


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