Mass Politics and ‘Populism’ in the World of Indian Languages

Image courtesy Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy
The label ‘populism’ has acquired unprecedented currency lately and is used to indiscriminately describe such a wide range of poliical figures and political tendencies that it seems to have lost all conceptual meaning. In the best of times, it was always a slippery concept that has been linked to democracy at one end and fascism at the other. On the one hand, it is seen as the democratic ‘excess’ that escapes the attempt of liberal-representative institutions to rein it in; on the other, it is seen as being of a piece with the fascist resort to antipolitical demagoguery and the rhetoric of the (national) ‘underdog’ oppressed by an elite (usually with international links).
The way the term is used these days to describe everyone from a Donald Trump, a Recep Erdogan or a Narendra Modi on the one hand, to the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa or even Bernie Sanders or Podemos and Syriza, on the other, defies all logic. What possible common denominator can one find between such diverse figures and political formations? That common denominator is simply ‘the people’ or the ‘underdog’ that they invoke – even if in completely different ways.

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen put it sometime ago,
‘Populists may be authoritarians, ethnonationalists, nativists, leftists, rightists, xenophobes, proto-Fascists, Fascists, autocrats, losers from globalization, moneyed provocateurs, conservatives, socialists, and just plain unhappy or frustrated or bored people — anyone, from the crazed to the rational, from the racist to the tolerant…’
It is perhaps this infinite malleability of the concept that led Ernesto Laclau to suggest that the term ‘populism’ is a feature of all modern politics and conceals something else – the denigration of the popular.
A Little Bit of History
There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when populism was seen as a problem of ‘backward’ or ‘developing’ societies with an ‘incomplete’ democratic evolution. Populism was a problem either of agrarian societies with predominantly peasant populations, or it belonged to Latin American societies that had not yet become fully evolved democracies. Marxists in general (with rare exceptions) saw populism as tied to the appeal to a ‘vague’ or ‘nebulous’ idea of ‘the people’ – as opposed to the more ‘precise’ and ‘scientific’ idea of class.
At a more common sense level, however, ‘populism’ was always a simple term of abuse, used by elites of all sorts for whoever sided with the ‘underdog’ – the excluded, the marginalized and the exploited. In more recent times, in the era of the rise of Donald Trump in the USA and xenophobic right-wing politics in Europe, the term has now come to envelope practically all kinds of politics – as uderlined in Roger Cohen’s passage cited above. Perhaps this itself should alert us to what is at work here – for it is one thing to attack and reject leaders like Trump or Modi but it is entirely another to denigrate the popular support that rallies behind them, however problematic their stances might be.
With just a little further probing we can see how neoliberal orthodoxy made this term into a special kind of invective that basically rejected any demand to provide what it called a ‘free lunch’ to ordinary people. ‘Free lunch’, neoliberal theologians would tell you, was all about subsidies, cheap public health and education or in countries like India even subsidized electricity or free water. Schemes like rice at Rs 2/- a kilo that some southern states in India had introduced or even midday meals to school children would qualify as ‘free lunch’ in their language. All this, we must remember, while the endless free banquet for the corporations and capitalists continued – in the form of tax holidays, suppression of labour rights, hire and fire, unlimited access to government-acquired forest and agricultural land and of course, plunder of crores of rupees of people’s savings through banks (never to be returned). ‘Populism’ was when you gave to ordinary people and ‘tough medicine’ (no prizes for guessing for whom?) when you gave to predatory capital. All this of course, was justified in the name of an economic theology at the centre of which was Capital – though it was misleadingly called ‘Market’: after all on every one of the above steps, you can see the very visible hand of the State in enabling the banquet loot.
It is therefore not surprising that for a number of theorists and scholars, ‘populism’ represented a revolt against the representative-liberal oligarchy or plutocracy, that is equally misleadingly called democracy. As philosopher Jacques Ranciere underlines, the institution of parliamentary-representative practices in Europe historically, was meant to control rather than facilitate the advance of democracy. ‘Democracy’, in the reading of this group of political philosophers is fundamentally about the claim for equality, which was kept in check by limiting representation to the ‘qualified’, that is, educated property-owners. Just in case we need to be reminded, universal suffrage was not a reality in most parts of Europe till the early decades of the twentieth century. It is not surprising therefore that the Nazi jurist and thinker Carl Schmitt saw in the rise of ‘mass democracies’ – and subsequently fascism and Nazism – the revolt against the constraints of the liberal-representative system.
Our recent experience, globally, shows that electoral-representative liberal institutions have been hijacked by Capital, this time despite universal suffrage. This has been largely made possible by the capture of the institution called the political party – a matter on which much more can be said but we will leave that for another time.
Historically, the two instances that are considered the precursors of twentieth century populism were the rural/peasant formations in the nineteenth century – the Narodniks in Russia and the People’s Party in America. In fact, neither the Narodniks and the People’s Party fit in any way to what is labelled ‘populist’ these days (in the sense of right-wing, xenophobic, fascistoid politics). The Narodniks constitute a slightly different case but the US People’s Party’s ‘populism’ has been generally seen as a reaction to corporate power and aligned to the Left more generally. It is apparently only from the 1950s that the expression comes to be used for all kinds of anti-establishment currents, regardless of whether they were Left-wing or Right-wing.
In the contemporary Indian context, the term has been used exclusively in the pejorative, neoliberal sense referred to above, even though it does not sit well with the historical development of modern politics in India, which has followed a very different trajctory from that of Europe.

The Popular and the ‘Mass’

In our own history, we do not really find the use of terms like ‘the masses’ or even ‘the people’. In fact, to this day, there are few terms in any of the Indian languages that come anywhere near ‘masses’ in the negative sense that is acquires in much of early social theory. Terms like jan or janata [janagan in Bangla] or awaam [plural of aam, or the common/ ordinary in Urdu] or lok are terms with largely positive connotations and almost all of them are reworked and re-deployed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in order to meet the requirements of modern politics. Lok is a good example of such a term, which has a very long history and can mean a range of things from ‘folk’ to ‘this-world’ or simply ‘world’, but is then deployed in a very modern sense to connote the ‘people’ and ‘popular’ as in loktantra or lokapriya, where it points to the emergence of an entirely new condition. Similarly, neither the Urdu term hujoom [crowd or multitude] nor the Hindi word bheed actually carry the negative charge that ‘the mass’ carries – except in some relatively very recent coinages like ‘bheedtantra’. However, it should be underlined that often, this too can carry a very wide range of meanings – including simply unruly behavior. Thus Gandhi, for instance, uses the term ‘mobocracy’ in English, in one of his articles but actually means just this. The context is interesting. Gandhi was so perturbed on seeing the huge and somewhat unruly mass of people who had turned up to see him during the Non-cooperation Movement, that he referred to it as mobocracy. Occasionally, he would also refer to some of the mass movements under Congress leadership as ‘mobs’ – though his stance towards these ‘masses’ was not one of adversity but rather that of a teacher. (Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory 1995: 12-13)

In the accounts of the Great Rebellion of 1857, arguably the first big ‘mass movement’ of modern times, we hear of the sipahis, the rajas and the praja or riyaya in most collective actions that constitute it. Or we hear of the Muslims and Hindus, who believed that their religion was under threat from the Christian white man. (Tapti Roy, Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand 1857, 1994) Colonial accounts however, for understandable reasons, keep referring to ‘mobs’ and ‘crowds’ in much the same way as we find in standard European historical accounts.

Even in much later mass movements like the Swadeshi movement in the first decade of the 20th century or the Non-cooperation and Khilafat movements in the early 1920s, we do not seem to have use of terms that even approximate the term ‘crowds’ and ‘masses’. In the context of social boycott during the Swadeshi movement, for example, Rabindranath Tagore uses the term lok-sammati to refer to the popular consensus or sanction behind the boycott. (Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 2010) New terms like janata, mazdoor and kisan enter the vocabulary, alongside use of caste-specific ‘samaj’ categories. But there is none of the pejorative connotation of the kind that we associate with crowds and masses in European social theory.

Perhaps, this should caution us against wanting to see or understand our history purely in terms of the idea of the masses and the popular as they occur in modern politics in the West. As a matter of fact, it is the persistent denigration of the popular in European social theory that leads Laclau (On Populist Reason, 2005) to draw the longer connection between it and the contemporary discourse on populism. Thus he argues,

‘Populism has not only been demoted: it has been denigrated. Its dismissal has been part of the discursive construction of a certain normality, of an ascetic political universe from which its dangerous logics had to be excluded.’ (Laclau 2005: 19)

He connects this with discussions around the idea of ‘the masses’ or ‘mass society’ in nineteenth century Europe were critically linked to the ‘the crowd’  and ‘crowd psychology’. We can think of a range of 19th century theorists from Le Bon and Hyppolite Taine to Gabriel Tarde. This debate spills into the early decades of the 20th century and among the important representatives of this tradition of thinking, we have Ortega y Gasset and his celebrated book Revolt of the Masses. William Kornhauser identifies two distinct ways of thinking about mass society, where he identifies this particular trend with an aristocratic or conservative critique of mass society. The second trend that he calls the democratic critique is represented among others by Hannah Arendt in the 20th century. Of course, the democratic critics too retain important elements of the conservative critique, especially their central preoccupation with the tyranny of the majority and the threats to freedom posed by ‘the masses, but we cannot go into that question here.

The most significant part, perhaps, on which both the aristocrats and the democrats are agreed, is that the rise of mass society has something to do with the breakdown of the class system, the breakdown of distinctions and the loss of the exclusive position enjoyed by the elite till that time. We only need to recall Tocqueville’s references to the masses, ‘delirious with the passion for equality’ that lies behind the rise of democracy. To this extent, ideas of the Enlightenment, especially ‘equality’, were often held responsible by the aristocratic critics for the collapse of the class system.

The breakdown of community ties, and that greatly valorized process of individuation that the Enlightenment philosophers expected would lead to ‘man’s emergence from self-incurred immaturity’ – in other words, to the rise of the disengaged rational subject – was precisely what led to the emergence of the figure of the mass man. And this mass man, both the conservatives and democrats agreed, was not quite the disengaged rational subject, who desires freedom and who would become the ideal citizen, the bearer of rights. He is rather the character who becomes available for all kinds of fascist and totalitarian mobilizations. The interesting thing about this mass man, noted by scholars, is that he does not want to be free but seeks rather to transfer his agential authority to some figure of authority – the Fuhrer, Il Duce or the vanguard party, or simply the Nation. Masses, in the tradition of democratic criticism too, are not any less threatening to democracy and individual liberty, for they lend themselves ever, to totalitarian mobilizations.

If we try to think of mass movements in societies like ours in these terms, we would obviously be wide off the mark. For such widespread breakdown of community and the emergence of the atomized ‘mass man’ certainly does not constitute the dominant experience here. Class distinctions and the place of aristocratic nobility here were, of course, never anything like what they were in Europe. A proper history of mass politics in our society is still to emerge but we can tentatively say that largely because of the context of nationalist mobilization under colonial rule, a different relationship was carved out between the nationalist elites and the common folk, given that the lot of the former was thrown together that of the latter. Lower caste movements present a complicating moment in this relationship but do not do much to change the overall dynamic of that relationship. Communal riots are perhaps the only context where ‘crowds’ acquire a negative connotation but that is very different from the issue at hand.

Populism in Indian Languages

It is this, perhaps, that explains why most Indian languages do not have a term for populism, even today. In Hindi journalism, the relatively recently coined terms like ‘loklubhavanvaad’ or ‘lokpriyatavad’ are used, which needless to say, apart from being inelegant, are also completely misleading and limited. Similar is the case with a word like janamohini  in Bangla. (Though I directly know of only Hindi, Bangla and a little of Urdu usages, my inquiries with some friends knowing other languages suggests that this is a larger condition). At best, these terms can refer to the ‘populism’ indulged in by political leaders – since all it means is appeasement of ordinary people. But if populism is not just about what leaders do but as the above discussion suggests, constitutes a revolt against liberal-representative political system, we need to understand it as a mass phenomenon. The ‘mass’ here is not simply a deluded lot of zombies but in fact calls into being the Leader who can ‘represent’ them. Two significant features of populist revolt that earlier studies had routinely emphasized were (i) impatience with formal-procedures that had come to be seen as always working in favour of the powerful (ii) the emergence of the Leader who would usually be an ‘outsider’ to the political system and therefore more trusted by the ‘masses’. Both these features refer to a large constituency ‘out there’, so to speak, where populist discourse is fashioned, which is stridently antipolitical precisely for these reasons. In our context, we only need to look at the whole range of blockbuster ‘angry young man’ films of the late 1970s and most of the 1980s (mainly featuring Amitabh Bachchan), right up to a film like Rang de Basanti (2006), in order to recognize that the formation of a populist discourse is not a one-way street. Indeed, Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement and the Aam Aadmi Party admitted in one of his interviews how Rang de Basanti had captured the spirit of rebellion against the political class and also influnced him. The ’empty signifier’ that ‘corruption’ became – which Narendra Modi too encashed with backing of the massive media blitzkreig in the 2014 elections was actually fashioned in these domains of popular culture. ‘Corruption’ was the name that was given in these creations of popular culture to the unholy nexuses of politicians, police, powerful businessmen or smugglers: in short, a wide range of forces that were eating into the vitals of ‘the nation’ and its poor.

If one wants to therefore work with a more complex understanding of populism, terms like loklubhavanvaad or janamohini will not only seem woefully inadequate but also misleading. (In a Hindi essay written some years ago, I have suggested the term janavad – as perhaps the most appropriate for designating what we are calling populism, though Marxists routinely use it to refer to ‘democracy’. In fact, we have a large number of more appropriate terms like loktantra or lokshahi or janatantra for democracy.)

However, the fact that we do not have a word for this phenomenon in most of our Indian languages should be seen not simply as a sign of a lack but rather as an index of a difficulty: the difficulty of trying to think the complex terrain of popular politics in India through borrowed categories by simply translating them, without undertaking the necessary theoretical labour required to make them workable for us. If we undertake a study of mass politics in India, we are likely to come to very different conclusions about what we can very broadly refer to as populism. It is not likely to be anything like the populisms of Latin America or the USA or Europe. That of course, is beyond the scope of this post.

One thought on “Mass Politics and ‘Populism’ in the World of Indian Languages”

  1. For the liberal, democracy is best defined by a respect for the freedom of expression provided it does not move into the domain of the demand for equality. For the electorate in India, democracy ceased to be about equality. In fact we can say that it never was about equality unless a section of society was influenced by the Left. Along with Ambedkar, I would argue that democracy was rarely about equality or fraternity in a casteist and religiously divided society. The appeal to the nation or poverty reduction is superimposed on this substantive reality to stitch together temporary majorities.


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