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.

6 thoughts on “Which populism?: Saroj Giri”

  1. Need for Systemic Change or the Increasingly Non-Hijackable Discontent !

    >>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? >>

    What does the systemic change mean ? If we have understood it correctly, it is about some real need of basic change in the system that populism is trying to contain or divert. If one agrees with this interpretation, we would like to point out here : the threat to the system is deeper and more subversive than we think. It is about historically accumulated anger that the system is facing. It was the case ealier as well. But, in braoder perspective, there are some silver linings this time that we would like share. Proto-System or System tries to hijack it again and again, but there can not be any automatism about its outcome/s.

    Which political movement does not start with the promise of abolishing the distance between individual and State ? Between us and the State ? We want better governance, rule of law, responsive democracy, social justice, equality of opportunity, transparency, accountability, equal participation in decision-making bodies, real democracy, authentic democracy etc. Our own laws, own representatives and even our own State.

    Our Independence in 1947 was a culmination of more than hundred years of struggle for more democracy and more participation in the highest-decision making bodies of the Sub-continent.
    After 64 years of Independence we know that it is not only about the abolition of the distance between individual and State. Or, between us and the State. It can not be anything other than about something more than that.

    Should we demand and fight for more transparent democracy, grassroot democracy, online/digital democracy ? All these attempts and more could not save the polling booths in Britain and USA in the general elections of last decades. Only some real showdown like Barak Obama could restore the lost legitimacy of the system : only for a while. The growing voter apathy all over the world, in (medium and ) long-term it seems, is unstoppable.

    All people´s political parties are increasingly deserted by their people.

    In the last elections we needed bollywood stars and campaigns by the shopping malls to seduce the largest section of urban middlewage class back to the polling booth. Few popular chief ministers and NGOs ( for example, Janagrah) are for introduction of compulsory voting in India.
    Was it imaginable in the India few decades ago , for example in 50´s or 70´s ?

    The point is : the more often we have seen the elections, the more often we tend to avoid the path to the polling booth. New sectors of population joining Accumulation recently go for their representatives more readily. Among the old sectors of population, who have already joined Accumulation and democracy earlier: they do not tend to click open the website to vote for the dear representative without any imposed showdowns (or a crisis ). There, too, an increasing passive resistance is to be noticed.

    Search for an ideal representative is proving counterproductive. Be it representatives of people or worker or an identity. It comes out clealy in the history of mass practice of last deacades. It culminated recently in the global gathering shoe-storm against the representatives: be they old or new, regional or global. It was just one of many manifestations.

    In the 60´s, 70´s or 80´s any core team of a movement against corruption was unthinkable without established politicians and their parties like Lohia or Advani or VP Singh. Today any core-team against corruption with any established politicians shall do so at its own risk.

    The radicals of Chartist movement (1838-1850 ) thought :
    with the introduction of universal suffrage all that we shall need will be intelligent legislators. With the hindsight of more than 150 years we can see again that the discontent can not be contained only in the name of the search for some ideal representative –oriented reforms and and ideal governance.

    Our discontent is not about not being able to get our ideal ruler, party or prince for the ideal subjects like us. The all-pervasive, diffused and increasingly non-hijackable social discontent, be it in the name of development or nation or identity, is in fact about our discontent from our status as subject itself. The historically accumulated and learning anger, we believe, is less about new form of State, than about our abolition as subjects of any State. The increasing non-hijackablity of discontent and the measures to contain them have taken infinte forms in the recent decades : direct (shoe-throwing), indirect (growing voter pathy), piecemeal ( growing people-lessness of the people´s parties), rapid ( exponential growth in the surveillance industries, CCTVs, hidden cameras, opinion survery institutes, approval rates, ID cards a la Nilekani for closer monitoring of our movements etc.), active and passive ( growth of a rent-a-crowd industry from the outskirts/slums of the capital cities for political rallys in India after 50´s; its growth is in direct proportion to the growing gap between masses and their representatives ) and semi-passive ( increasing dependence on production of pseudo-events only for the media ) and various combinations thereof . We view, at the moment, this trend as something positive.

    You do not have only differences among various political parties that matter. More significant is the unbridgeable gap between all the various political parties/mass representatives with their portable audiences on the one side and their masses , on ther side.

    See our other mail on Anna Hazare Movement at Kafila here (the last comment ) : http://kafila.org/2011/08/27/are-we-talking-to-the-people-who-are-out-on-the-streets-kavita-krishnan/


  2. I am unable to agree with the following statement – “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”. Firstly, the institution of Lokpal, if created, is going to part of the state and would not be representing the market forces. In fact the campaign is trying to cleanse the state of its corrupting elements rather than trying to limit the role of state in the society as market fundamentalists would like to do. Lokpal is not likely to reduce the power of state and increase the power of the market but rather create a new wing within the state that is expected to check the corrupting influences within the state and its machinery. Thus it shows faith in the state’s ability to control corruption rather than arguing that the role of the state should be minimised. Secondly, if we analyse Anna Hazare as an icon, he is hardly the icon of neo-liberal capitalism but is representative of an imagined nostalgia about certain values of the nationalist movement such as sacrifice, honesty, simplicity and non-violence. The popularity of the movement does not stem from a celebration of the neo-liberal mantra that the state’s role should be minimised but rather that the state needs to be purified and restored to the India that freedom fighters fought for. This sentiment is much more significant than the nitty gritty of the Jan Lokpal Bill.


  3. hi debraj, but why do you assume that neoliberalism cannot go along with “an imagined nostalgia about certain values of the nationalist movement such as sacrifice, honesty, simplicity and non-violence”. i make no such assumption. perhaps we need to keep in mind that neoliberalism need be understood as just a set of economic policies and so on.
    about the state being strengthened by the Lok Pal Bill. yea you are right about it. but there is nevertheless an attack on the government. this attack seems to be about redefining the relationship between the political class and the popular classes (with all its different divisions, based on class, caste and so on): reconfiguring, if you like, the frames of hegemony and domination. so yes, as i have pointed out elsewhere this attack on the government and political class, seems to mark the passage from democratic containment of the popular classes to a more technocratic containment – articulated through the invocation of the kind of values of honesty, simplicity and non-violence that you point out.
    the question i am interested in as far as the debate on populism is concerned, is: what about the populism of the government, of Indian democracy, of the earlier Nehruvian state and now the market-friendly state. can we have a framework which will take us in that direction so that we can critiques all forms of populism? neither partha chatterji, gyan nor aditya seem particularly interested in this question.
    and here we must go beyond laclau’s notion of populism and not just try to interpret him in different ways.
    hence a marxist position is in order here. so i ask:
    “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)…”


  4. Thanks Saroj, for the reply. I agree that Government also indulges in populism. Beyond doubt. If I am not wrong the n Pranab Bardhan has recently used the term “competitive populism” as one of the features of Indian democracy.

    I am however, not in agreement with you that this campaign is reflective of the neo-liberal distrust for the government. The neo-liberal argument against government control comes from elite intellectual understanding of abstract concepts. I think it is more useful to try and understand the popularity of the Anna campaign in terms of the everyday experience of the citizens when they come in contact with the government officials or the political parties. Here the arrogance, insensitivity and at times corruption results in a regular dose of humiliation. This has little to do with the over all economic policy of the state – pro-socialistic or pro-capitalistic. Hence the citizens end up either paying bribes or trying to come close to people in power so that s/he can go to the politician or the state and say that s/he is coming with a letter from such and such high official. Most of us shudder to go and meet any powerful person in India without some kind of a reference to back us up. This was true of Nehruvian socialism, this is true of Manmohan Singh’s India, this was true in Marxist Bengal and this is true in Modi’s Gujarat. This cuts across ideological spectrum in India.

    Anna’s fast was an event, a spectacle, when the aam aadmi of India could relish a moment where the mighty government was in trouble vis-a-vis an old man coming from humble background. This is why it was, to my mind, such a hit on TV. I doubt whether the people watching the show on television or who were actively there at Ram Lila Maidan believed the from now on the government would change the way it treats it citizens on a day-to-day basis. But they enjoyed the moment when the rules of the game was inverted.

    I agree that that systemic transformation is ideal. But I doubt whether any one knows what kind of system would manage to ensure that people in power would not be arrogant, insensitive and corrupt.


  5. The manufactured protest of hazare by brahmanised media is exposed. since they are practically participant in the killings of dalits in Tamilnadu , in a true protest, by not making it a festival. It also showed how the system takes on a true protest, unlike aneoliberal middleclass kumbhmela


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s