Gramsci, the “Puranic” and Shekhar Gupta


Re-reading Antonio Gramsci lately, in preparation for a webinar organized by the Dean, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad on “Gandhi, Ambedkar, Gramsci”, I was struck by an aspect of his thought that I had not really understood in all its dimensions earlier. This aspect is directly related to the relationship between subalternity and the political party, a  lifelong preoccupation for him, linked in turn to the problem of “philosophy” and “thought”.  Some of the reflections here on this question were also sparked off also by some questions that were raised during the discussion.

Skhekhar Gupta on Taali-Thaali and Diya

It was while searching for something related to the Indian government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation, that I hit upon this astonishing article by Mr Shekhar Gupta, which is my peg for the discussion that  follows. It is an older article (4 April 2020), for I must confess I had stopped reading him long ago given the  sheer predictability of what he had to say. But here he seems to have surpassed himself. The title itself first caught my attention: “Poke fun at taali, thaali, diya and mombatti all you want. Modi couldn’t care less“. Shekhar Gupta was one of those who had, in the run up to the 2014 elections, come out with brass band to clear the way for Narendra Modi’s accession to power. But hadn’t he lately – so I had heard – started expressing some criticisms of the regime? Tavleen Sigh certainly had. So what is Gupta saying? Well for one thing, I realized that his deep fascination with the Modi persona continues unabated but that is something I can’t blame him for. We can’t determine what our taste-buds like, can we? I am also not surprised that Gupta’s tone regarding his imagined secular-liberal adversaries is one of derision. What struck me was that all that he is basically saying in the article is that Modi knows who he should speak to and he is able to read the popular mind, but this banality is presented as one great insight of all times!

But let us listen to Gupta himself before we move on to Gramsci:

He [Modi] has a gift none of his eight predecessors, from Manmohan Singh to Rajiv Gandhi, had: Being able to speak directly and convincingly to a large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel, and his order like a papal bull…

Can you, at the same time, discount that tens of millions across the country did exactly that, and ended up grateful for it? If at all, too many of them overdid it, for loudness as well as time, scaring poor birds and animals. The virus, in any case, isn’t even a fully live being, so it can’t be bothered with noise. Narendra Modi had neither promised, nor delivered anything. The people, if anything, had over-delivered on his call.

To be fair, Shekhar Gupta is not defending Modi in this piece but he is clearly overawed by this man who the liberals and the “commentariat” love to hate – and he is rendering Modi intelligible to them.  In an earlier piece in this column, I have already discussed the ways in which the fascist demagogue and the marginalized “little man” in revolt against the secular-modern get tied up in a compact. I will not go into that part of the story here.

However, if one focuses one’s gaze, not on the “little man” or Gramsci’s subaltern in general but on the fascist demagogue, the relationship turns out to be clearly manipulative. The Leader has to make this “little man” forget his own woes and perform for the Master. The figure of The Leader and what he speaks is inseparable from what surrounds the “little man” by the time the Leader has made his apearance. The Leader ensures that this “large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel [and] his order like a papal bull”  is insulated from any other message but his, from any other viewpoint but his – in the first place by turning the media into a propaganda machine and then by putting behind bars all those who could carry a different narrative to that subaltern little man, or demoblizing them via the use of draconian laws. What was stunning for me to read in this neoliberal ideologue’s piece is the complete whitewashing of the fact the field where the Leader is playing is NOT a level playing field (a favourite neo-liberal term when it comes to the economy)!

But there is another more serious problem with Gupta’s article. It may be true that in the case of the immediate eight predecessors of Narendra Modi most of them really did not have the grasp of the “popular” in the way he has (though this is not true of V.P. Singh for example). However, NONE of them had the kind of manipulative relationship to the “little man” that Modi has – and a whole book can be written on this aspect so we leave it here for the moment. The really important point is that if anything prevented his predecessors and many of his adversaries from entering into a competition with him in this regard, it has to do with the fact that despite all their problems, they have all had some values and some commitments that held them back. The Congress has and its leaders have much to answer for but even they cannot compete with Modi on his turf in this respect, because thanks to their commitments they have a larger public that they have to answer to.

The Subaltern and “the Puranic”

The difference here is really not as simple as it might seem at first glance, as little more than a matter of personal style of either the current or previous prime ministers. In fact, it is linked to perhaps one of the most fundamental problems that faces us today – not just in India but across the world: the project of social transformation and the struggle for justice and the role of the political party in it. In Gupta’s reckoning it is enough that a political party or a party leader should be able to make  his people dance to his tune without committing, promising or delivering anything (this is quite clear in the article as a whole); it is fine in his reckoning that he is able to manipulate them like nobody else and is able to make them deliver votes regardless of that fact that he treats them with scant regard. And all “secular-liberals”, so Gupta thinks, should “learn” to talk the language of the masses rather than ridicule Modi.

I have written extensively on the really serious problems that secular/modern/ radical people have in relating to the “popular”. I have also argued that what I call the “Puranic” mode of being is a world inhabited by many different kinds of beings apart from humans – spirits malign and benign, jinns and pirs, and populated by all kinds of fears and anxieties. In the Hindu context, the mode of Puranic being is one where malign and evil spirits are either appeased or exorcised. You don’t confront evil by coming out in demonstrations and mass action but propitiate the relevant gods and goddesses. This is even today the predominant mode of being in India. But people who live in the Puranic also simultaneously inhabit the modern and are, given the infinite malleability of their “worldviews”, quite open to behaving in a different way when they are in that world. They do go to modern doctors and hospitals, send their children to schools and partake of all that the modern has to offer.

What we saw on the two occasions when the prime minister exhorted the people to come out in their balconies or verandahs and clap or bang thaalis, or later when he called upon them to light candles and diyas, was a deliberate manipulation of the Puranic element. There was a cynical attempt to summon a popular “belief” in the service of the Hindu supremacist programme insofar as the invocation of this exclusively Hindu symbolism was meant to perform some other function than “fighting” the Coronavirus.  We have seen, over the last few years, how the organizations of the Hindu Right have deliberately promoted such “rituals” or “yajnas” in the public space, not only as a “traditional practice” but also as a way of aggressively asserting Hindu-Hindutva identity/ politics. It is this same populace that has on different occasions also shown an openness towards abiding by a different set of rules where it comes to matters relating to government and conduct in the public space.

In other words, what I am pointing towards is the responsibility of the political leadership in maintaining certain distinctions between spaces and establishing the legitimacy of certain modern-secular practices that are crucial for the larger struggle for social transformation and justice.

Gramsci on Subalternity and the Political Party

That is where Gramsci comes in. For Gramsci, the commitment to the subaltern and the “popular” notwithstanding, the problem of social transformation continues to be paramount. Consequently, he continuously grapples with the question of “tradition” and “traditional modes of thinking”. It is remarkable that writing from inside a fascist prison, Gramsci is able to think of the subaltern populations in their actual flesh and blood, with all their strengths and weaknesses but with great sympathy.  As opposed to many dominant modes of understanding within the Marxism of his day, Gramsci does not see the trooping of the popular masses towards fascism as a sign of “false consciousness”. Rather, he understands the entire process of the “passage of troops of many different parties under the banner of a single party” as “an organic and normal phenomenon” in the context of a “crisis of hegemony”. This is a situation when, “at a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties” – and when this happens, “the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.”   The fact that large masses of people troop towards these men of destiny is a sign of the crisis of the hegemony of the dominant parties rather than a failure on the part of the “people”, so to speak.

But no less important is the fact that what most Marxists saw as “false consciousness” is seen by Gramsci as something far more complex: In his understanding there is no clean break ever, between older, “traditional” forms of consciousness and the “modern” so that every individual personality “is strangely composite”, “it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of histories at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over.” He also talks of this as a “contradictory consciousness” where no element is quite “false”. Of course, there is a teleological ring to the idea that the modern represents progress as opposed to “stone age” elements but that is understandable, given Gramsci’s times.

The more significant point in Gramsci’s discussion that runs through the entire Prison Notebooks is the constant need to eliminate the distinction between High Theory and the popular forms in which “philosophy” operates, almost as faith. He tracks such tendencies toward “closing the gap” as it were, within the history of Christianity, but also sees this as something fundamental to the “philosophy of praxis” (which may not always be coterminus with Marxism). This role of bridging the gap, as we all know, is assigned to the social segment that Gramsci calls “intellectuals” – who are not just academics and scholars but more importantly, those who provide the leadership and function as organizers at the local level. Important among them are activists and functionaries of the institution we know as the political party. It is to the political party that Gramsci assigns the function of mediating between the “modern”  and the “traditional” – in other words, in this organism he sees also sees a pedagogical function but which operates in a different way from the state and its institutions.

“The parties recruit individuals out of the working mass and the selection is made on practical and theoretical criteria at the same time. The relation between theory and practice becomes even closer the more the conception is vitally and radically innovatory and opposed to old ways of thinking. For this reason, one can say that the parties are the elaborators of new integral and totalitarian intelligenstias and the crucibles where the unification of theory and practice, understood as a real historical process, takes place,” (Prison Notebooks: 335, emphasis added)

The word “totalitarian” probably means unified and integrated here but the point seems to be quite clear. From this it should also be clear what the difference is between a sneering “he-can-get-votes-and-you-can’t” attitude; and a position that invests the role of a fundamental social transformation on the political party. For Shekhar Gupta, it is enough that a leader can fool the people and make them dance to his tune, vote and if need be kill, for what is to be ceebrated is his capacity to get votes. For Gramsci, on the other hand, a leadership that is unable to elaborate a new critical intelligentsia from within the suabltern masses is worth little.

It is also important to underline here that precisely for this reason, Gramsci (although he does not use the term “ideology”) recognizes that philosophical ideas become active in practice in a different modality – as faith. And this is simultaneously the source of their power but also of a great difficulty: How can a philosophy that aims to inculcate critical thinking itself become a faith? Does that not create newer problems, as it has in the case of Marxism itself? It does and Gramsci seems to suggest that this might be simply unavoidable given the very logic of the field of action. But in the end, even that is a step in the direction of developing a critical attitude in the long run is concerned. That question remains a conundrum, a challenge to which there seems to be no way around as yet.

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