If one has to say something brief and short about a large and complex subject, which is also a much discussed topic, one always runs the risk of stating the obvious. But one may also chance upon the unexpected and the counter-intuitive. Problems of democracy under capitalism and under socialism have by now a ring of tiring familiarity around them, but they also contain surprises that are hidden in plain sight. While fixing my coordinates by recounting the obvious, my hope is to point towards aspects that may be counter-intuitive to the political common sense prevalent in much of the left and the social movements.
Two things stand out for their sublime quality in the current round of pre-election campaigning. First, the danger to Indian democracy has assumed unprecedented proportions, and there is a clear sense of desperation in the air. The threat emanates, you guessed right, from a group of anarchists who are poised to take over Indian democracy. This is perhaps the dirtiest and most dangerous election that India has ever seen – what with the bunch of anarchists ‘fixing the media‘, ‘spreading anarchy‘, ‘hijacking democracy‘, ‘taking foreign funds‘ for their election campaign (while the others, the impeccable democrats of the BJP and the Congress have to make do with ‘local’ capitalists like Mukesh Ambani). What’s more, these people are ‘political mercenaries‘, urban Maoists in disguise and they want to wreck the neatly and painstakingly built edifice of our hallowed democracy. This widespread love of democracy is touching. For someone like me who has closely watched (and participated in) politics from the mid 1970s, the panic evident in the tone of those attacking AAP is as unprecedented as it is revealing. It is revealing of the fact that the political class is thrown into disarray by this new way of doing politics that AAP represents. In BJP’s case, in particular, one can discern complete befuddlement – neither its hope to reap the benefit of the mass anger against the Congress, nor its tried and tested polarizing communal vocabulary seem to have any meaning any more.
“Delhi is currently being ruled by a bunch of political mercenaries hired, supported and controlled by Congress party. The words and action of AAP leaders expose the fact that it is a Maoist outfit.”
Of course, the Maoists are “hired, supported and controlled by the Congress”!
Arvind Kejriwal is the new Sachin Tendulkar. You throw him the most difficult googly and he sweeps it to add runs for his century. In 2011, he started a national anti-corruption movement with the specific aim of setting up an anti-corruption ombudsman called Lokpal. The movement’s public face and leader was Anna Hazare, a respected social leader, who like Gandhi, believes in fasting for politics. The critics said Anna is just a puppet and it’s Kejriwal’s movement, and that such sophistry showed Kejriwal (who takes oath as chief minister of Delhi tomorrow) had sinister motives.
Kejriwal’s critics said that fasting unto death was a blackmail strategy not suited to a democracy. Kejriwal can’t have a Lokpal just because he wants it. His popular support is just media hype. If he really wants a Lokpal, why doesn’t he form a political party and contest elections?
Kejriwal’s critics said he was supported by the RSS and the BJP, that he is a BJP stooge, that the Lokpal movement was a right-wing conspiracy to remove pristine, super-secular, people-loving, chosen-by-god Congress party from power. Continue reading Arvind Kejriwal, master-blaster
Guest post by SANJAY KUMAR
A Congress rout and the AAP success are the most obvious results of recent polls. Both are spectacular, in their own ways. Even BJP’s landslide victory in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh pales in comparison, for these two open up new possibilities.
Why a party whose legacy of anti-colonial struggle had lost sheen generations ago, whose top leadership is in the grip of a seemingly disinterested and incompetent dynasty, that lacks any organised cadre, coherent ideology, social base, and whose average leader appears more of a wheeler-dealer, and scamster, should continue to get close to thirty percent of votes from Indians even in worst of times, is a genuine mystery. That the Indian social analyses, barring a few exceptions, have tried little to unravel this mystery, is not only an indication of their intellectual limitations, but also of their ideological biases. The enduring success of Congress indicates seamier side of liberal democracy in general, which bourgeois social sciences try more to paper over than explore.
From voters’ perspective elections under liberal democracy are an exercise in choice, but not in freedom. When people vote, they are not acting as citizens shaping their social world, but as little men and women facing pre-existing structures of social power. The magic of elections under liberal democracy is precisely this. They offer a choice, the choice is not fake, its collective outcome is uncertain, yet the choice is already pre-determined in ways that by and large reproduce pre-existing power structures. That is why, exercising franchise is not necessarily a marker of democratic exercise, and leaders of fascist persuasion are often the loudest votaries of compulsory voting. But that is not all. If elections were mere gears in a machine that simply revolved on and on, they would be quickly become a ritual, like those under state socialism in which the Party and leaders always got more than 95% approvals. Elections under liberal democracy in contrast provide flexible adjustment of state political functionaries to changing social conditions. They allow reflection of changes in public opinion, demography, gender politics, caste equations and balance of class forces, whose origins lie somewhere else, onto state politics. Punctuated adjustment with a time lag produces a sense of drama. Personae on stage appear as victors and losers, for voters there is enough stage space to allow their hope, vengeance or gratitude to play their part. For a time, and only for a time, the impersonal structure of state power becomes humanly palpable. Continue reading AAP’s Rise and Congress Rout – Some Obvious but Unconventional Questions: Sanjay Kumar
By SHIVAM VIJ: A new documentary film, Katiyabaaz, presents a problem that I’ve been struggling with. Although the film is set in Kanpur, it’s a problem that faces many parts of South Asia. The film-makers, Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar, obstinately refuse to offer possible solutions. With catchy lyrics and music, the film celebrates Kanpur, its people, and this messed-up system. It’s a snapshot of who we are. It’s when you think about the film that it disturbs you.
The film’s anti-hero is a thief — Loha Singh helps a lot of people steal electricity in Kanpur. He connects the illegal wire that is known in north India as katiya. Katiya is the sort of simple solution to life’s problems that South Asians feel very smart about. It’s an example of jugaad, the shortcut to problem solving that’s now integral to pop management theories. Continue reading Katiyabaaz – the grid thief of Kanpur
Guest post by TERESA CALDEIRA
In June 2013, a series of large demonstrations throughout Brazil have shaken up its main cities and political landscape. They have also perplexed politicians and analysts alike, many of whom found themselves without solid references to interpret the novelty and oscillated between silence and old discourses. It is always risky to interpret emerging processes. Minimally, we risk following secondary paths or, even worst, framing new events with the vocabulary made available by old interpretative models, exactly the ones that the new events are trying to displace. However, in order to reveal what is emerging it is necessary to risk, search for new hints, and follow signs already available. Several references that can guide us to interpret the June events have been around for quite a while; others are new, but we can trace their lineage and contextualize them.
In a brilliant column in the The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta (with whom I have much to disagree about reservations) calls the bluff of the “national” parties who want Indian voters to be wary of the ‘instability’ and impossibility of a third front coalition government. This argument, strangely posing itself in a nationalist tone, is unfortunately also bought by too many left-liberal intellectuals and activists who don’t want us to get out the non-choice of the BJP-Congress binary. Mehta writes:
Sometimes an ordered instability can be more productive than a comatose stability. It is said that a third front leadership is unlikely to have a national perspective. But the cringingly desperate way in which the leadership of the national parties have put their own survival above any principle makes you wonder what the charge of not having a national perspective is all about. The third front will make foreign policy hostage to regional interests. In a way, it already is. But the source of the problem is deeper. Even a supposedly national party like the BJP cannot get its act together on the enclaves agreement with Bangladesh. Why blame regional parties? The third front will be fiscally irresponsible. It is a risk, but no more than a risk with any political party. The Congress squandered the best of economic opportunities in a fiscally irresponsible way. It is something of an irony that the only Chidambaram budget described as a “dream budget” came under Deve Gowda. And many states have shown innovation in a kind of pro-business entrepreneurial capitalism and in social sector schemes. Many of the regional leaders who would make up the third front are autocrats. Indeed, many of them are. But that autocracy is more visible because the national parties can use the state structure in a very sophisticated way to further their ends. But they are articulate and engage with their constituents. In short, the constituents of the third front are as much India and Indian interests as anyone else. [Full article]
India needs a third imagination, and by constantly being told that it is not possible we are told not to imagine it. This is the argument of, as Mehta puts it, the ‘entrenched elites’, to save their privileges. The fear of the third front, of the ‘regional’, needs to be fought and defeated. We see this poverty of imagination thrown at us whether we’re talking of Nitish Kumar or Arvind Kejriwal or Mayawati by people who will do not think it necessary to subject the Congress and the BJP to similar scrutiny. This bias against the “regional” is remarkably shared amongst a lot of people across the ideological spectrum. Their bluff needs to be called.
Guest Post by Moiz Tundawala
After the suppression of the 1857 Mutiny and the British take over of Delhi, Mirza Ghalib was once asked by a military official whether he were Muslim or not. Ghalib is said to have quipped: “Only half Muslim; I drink wine but refrain from swine.” For me, this ripost evinces a flippant disdain for modern forms of rule which essentialize persons and groups purely based on certain attributes which are deemed definitive and prioritized over others. As far as Ghalib’s case was concerned, the idea may have been to find out based on his religious identity if at all he could pose problems for the newly established colonial regime. In later years, this policy, which African intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has recently termed ‘define and rule’, gradually became integral to governmental practices in most parts of the modern world; today, populations are ever so readily classified and enumerated based on empirically observable characteristics in order to make them amenable to effective government. The Aadhaar project of the Unique Identification Authority of India clearly falls within the gamut of such practices, marking a transition to modernity in a radical break from the past. So my reservations with it are just the same as those with any other modernity inspired programme wherein personal and collective identities are reduced to a somewhat arbitrarily determined bare essence which may have no real connection with lived experiences of fuzzy and contextually constructed identities.
Guest Post by Mahum Shabir
Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
Maybe it is silly to think that the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy will listen to the sorrows of a young Kashmiri woman-you have a billion more people to worry about. Maybe your interest in this letter would be piqued if I began by telling you that we have something in common-an education from two of the world’s best universities, yours from Oxford, mine from Harvard. Maybe it shouldn’t take a reference to where one went to school to get attention on a serious ethical issue at the center of democratic governance in India but nothing else has worked so far. I hope jaan pehchaan will work its wonders this once too. Continue reading Kindly Deliver My Letter to the PM of India: Mahum Shabir
“अगर हम ‘लोकतांत्रिक सरकारों के छिपे इरादों और गैरजवाबदेह खुफिया शक्ति संरचनाओं की जांच करने और उन पर सवाल उठाने से इनकार करते हैं तो हम लोकतंत्र और मानवता, दोनों को ही खो बैठते हैं.” पत्रकार जॉन पिल्जर का यह वाक्य आज हमारे लिए कितना प्रासंगिक हो उठा है! हमें नौ जनवरी को खुफिया तरीके से अफज़ल गुरु को दी गयी फांसी के अभिप्राय को समझना ही होगा. काम कठिन है क्योंकि इसे लाकर न सिर्फ़ प्रायः सभी संसदीय राजनीतिक दल एकमत हैं बल्कि आम तौर पर देश की जनता भी इसे देर से की गई सही कार्रवाई समझती है.
नौ जनवरी के दिन के वृहत्तर आशय छह दिसम्बर जैसी तारीख से कम गंभीर नहीं क्योंकि इस रोज़ भारतीय राज्य ने गांधी और टैगोर की विरासत का हक खो दिया है.अगर अब तक यह साबित नहीं था तो अब हो गया है कि भारत की ‘संसदीय लोकतांत्रिक राजनीति’ का मुहावरा उग्र और कठोर राष्ट्रवाद का है. और राजनीतिक दलों में इस भाषा में महारत हासिल करने की होड़ सी लग गयी है.
The tide is clearly turning. You know this when former critics and lampooners start talking of him as a ‘game changer’; you know this when weather-cocks turn away from the corridors of power where once they had been ensconced. You know this when rats start deserting the sinking ship.
Suddenly, everybody is talking favourably about the man from the ‘outside’ who is refusing to respect any of the established protocols of protest and politics. More startling perhaps, is the fact that in the past two days we have had senior journalists and political analysts suddenly telling us that they had known all along that there was a ‘post 1980 contract’, a secret code of silence, that never would the dynasty be attacked – indeed never would any apsiring dynasty be attacked. Everybody knew, says Dipankar Gupta in the Times of India, that the issue came up one and a half years ago – and we all do know that. Robert Vadra’s doings had already been known. A senior BJP leader is even reported to have told a senior journalist that his party had indeed been in possession of the very same documents that Arvind Kejriwal brandished at his press conference. But, this leader went to say, “after an intense discussion, the leadership decided not to rake up the issue in Parliament even after submitting a motion in each House asking for a discussion.” Everybody knew – the parties, their leaders, the media persons, political analysts. And yet, nobody spoke out. All of them colluded, in other words, in suppressing the issue. Politicians kept silent for an understandable reason – aspiring dynasties that they are, after all. But the others? Mediapersons? Any guesses?
As someone who has been trying to understand Indian politics over the decades, I have often wondered at what I have referred to as the ‘implosion of the political’ – that is to say, the destruction of politics in the formal political domain. What is called a noora kushti in Hindustani, had come to mark our parliamentary-political grammar. Farcical walk-outs after equally farcical fire-spouting rhetorical speeches in parliament, and a happy bonhomie away from the glare of the media – that was what our politics had been reduced to.
Politics, ‘Political Society’ and ‘the Everyday’
Lineages of Political Society, by Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011. Pages: 278, hardcover, Rs 750.
Over a decade ago, political theorist Partha Chatterjee embarked on what was a novel journey in the history of political thought in India and perhaps, in the postcolonial, non-Western world. Bringing together the results of decades of his own intellectual engagement with Indian politics and the question of subalternity in particular, Chatterjee began articulating a concept that has now acquired wide currency: his concept of ‘political society’. ‘Political society’, in Chatterjee’s hands, was a way of recuperating a sphere of politics that had been a permanent source of anxiety for theorists of Indian (and postcolonial) modernity and democracy – the vast domain that existed outside the designated spheres of modern politics, where the untutored masses made claims on the state and formed their own associations and organizations, unmindful of the formal grammar of rights and citizenship. A crucial part of what defines activities in this domain is ‘illegality’, or, at any rate, non-legality, where the state itself places the law in suspension in order to recognize the claims of the governed. Thus for instance, squatting by the poor on government land that is strictly speaking, encroachment in legal terms and can never acquire the status of a ‘right’, is nevertheless allowed by governments to continue through the recognition of some kind of moral claim of the poor on governments and society at large.
Respected development tourists, leftists and scholars from the West who have been coming here seeking your heterotopia, welcome to the city of Thiruvananthapuram.
Yes, you are here to see that Kerala which gives you relief from the relentless decline of the left in your part of the world.You have been honouring us with such visits since the 1970s. We have been happy to oblige, cast and recast to suit your projections. When ‘social development’ was fashionable in the UN circles, Kerala was indeed the space where you found ‘social development’ thriving. But when ‘human development’, the theoretical and political provenances of which are quite different from those of ‘social development, became your preference, Kerala transmogrified itself most willingly into the paradise of ‘human development’. And then you came to be fascinated by ‘participatory development’, we diligently turned into the very fount of ‘participatory development’. Thank you very much for keeping us afloat in the imagination of Western left developmentalist intellectuals (though I do see that the oodles of ‘agency’ showered upon us by you may actually be your way of compensating for the shrinking of your own agency in the face of the triumphant march of neoliberal capitalism in your homelands) Continue reading Letter from the Stinkcity of Thiruvananthapuram
Guest post by RUCHI GUPTA
The Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Morocco were hailed in much of the democratic world. However the Occupy Wall Street protests, which till date have spread to 100 cities in the United States and 1500 globally have met with mixed response.
The Arab people are fighting for democracy, and thus their resistance must be respected and supported. But the OWS folks, proudly leaderless and having framed no concrete demands are vulnerable to all manner of criticism, even from those expected to be supportive. Bill Keller, the former editor of arguably one of the most influential newspapers in the world, the ostensibly liberal, New York Times derides, “the Occupiers have been pandered to (“Love your energy!”); patronized (“Here, I’ve drafted you a list of demands …”); co-opted by unions, celebrities and activists for various causes; demonized by the right; arrested and tear-gassed in some cities; and taken lightly by the likes of me”.
However the uprisings in the Arab nations, the OWS demonstrations and even the wave of anti-corruption protests that swept India this year are all ultimately an expression of people’s resistance to disenfranchisement. Whether it’s those fighting for democracy or those who find themselves powerless in face of a system that’s been hijacked by the illegitimate nexus between the financial and political elite (the metaphorical 1%), the underlying sentiment is a demand for fair play and the right of self-determination. Continue reading The need to influence the trajectory of one’s own life: Ruchi Gupta
This guest post by ALIA ALLANA is a despatch for Kafila from Cairo, the eighth in a series of ground reports from the Arab Spring. Videos and photos by Alia Allana
A peaceful protest with men selling candyfloss and making chai turned into an orgy of violence.
Tahrir Square had been quiet for the earlier part of the day today. The Sunday afternoon saw couples strolling, a mother carried her sleeping child, his face was buried in her bosom, scooters with loud speakers blared music. There was no chanting and very few slogans. Small and sporadic groups of people protested. They called for change.
Bhutan’s shift to plural politics remains carefully calibrated, but the emergence of a relatively free press and democratic institutions are important achievements. An account from Thimpu
Political changes in Bhutan over the past five years — the introduction of a ‘democratic constitution,’ the retreat by the fourth King and the coronation of his son, elections to Parliament which now has both a ruling and an opposition party, and governance being the prerogative of the elected government — have triggered two opposite reactions generally. One school has hailed the vision of the Bhutanese monarchy and its act of ‘renunciation,’ and has declared the ‘democracy story’ to be a success. Many others dismiss the transition as being a ‘farce,’ claiming that the King still calls the shots and that Bhutan remains a tight autocracy. Continue reading Bhutan’s cautious tryst with democracy
Guest post by GYAN PRAKASH
In following the discussion on the Anna Hazare phenomenon, I have found the references to populism very interesting. In response to Partha, Aditya reminds us that populism should not be dismissed as non-political or anti-political. Partha clarified that he does not regard Anna Hazare’s populism as anti-political but as anti party-politics and anti government. Team Anna narrowly defines politics as the domain of party politics and the government, which it then identifies with corruption. Om Puri’s rant and Kiran Bedi’s vaudeville performance expressed this sentiment. Politics means netas, who are corrupt. References to 2G, CWG, Kalmadi, and various land scams refer to politics in this sense. Such a definition of politics allows the claim that the gathering at Ramlila was non-political or beyond politics. Anna as a saintly Gandhian figure who does not seek office, and the status of Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal as civil society members, contributed to the representation that the mobilization of the “people” transcended politics.
Guest post by KAVITA KRISHNAN (Editor, Liberation)
The people saying ‘I am Anna’ or ‘Vande Mataram’ are not all RSS or pro-corporate elites. They’re open to listening to what we have to say to them about corporate corruption or liberalization policies. The question is – are we too lofty and superior (and prejudiced) to speak to them?
Throughout the summer, student activists of All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Revolutionary Youth Association (RYA) engaged in this painstaking exercise for months. They campaigned all over the country, in mohallas, villages, markets where there is no visible Left presence. No, these were not areas of ‘elite’ concentration – mostly middle, lower middle or working class clusters, or students’ residential areas near campuses. In most places, people would begin by assuming they were campaigners of Anna Hazare. When students introduced their call for the 9 August Barricade at Parliament, they would be asked, ‘What’s the need for a separate campaign when Anna’s already leading one?’ They would then explain that they supported the movement for an effective anti-corruption law to ensure that the corrupt don’t enjoy impunity. But passing such a law could not end corruption, which was being bred by the policies that were encouraging corporate plunder of land, water, forests, minerals, spectrum, seeds… They learnt to communicate without jargon, to use examples from the state where the campaign was taking place. They would tell people about the Radia tapes, and the role of the corporates, the ruling Congress, the opposition BJP, and the media in such corruption.
Guest post by SAROJ GIRI
A draft for discussion
A ruling class contradiction is being played out as anti-corruption movement. It is however politically articulated as ‘a movement of the people’ with possibly a space for the left to intervene. Can the tide be turned against the right-wing upper classes?
“What we are witnessing (the anti-corruption movement) is nothing short of a revolution. Only on two earlier occasions in recent memory such grand scale people’s participation was recorded. The first was under Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan in mid-seventies. The second was during the Ayodhya movement, in the early nineties, propelled by L K Advani’s historic Rath yatra.” This is the RSS Organiser magazine (August 21-28, 2011).
“The anti-corruption movement must resist repression in every form and align itself with the struggles for democratic transformation in India. Only then can it defeat the UPA Government’s efforts to defend corruption and unleash repression, and expose the BJP’s false claims of championing democracy and resisting corruption.” This is the CPIML Liberation (ML Update, 07-13 June 2011)
Not enough people are asking what is motivating people to go to Ramlila Maidan in such large numbers. People like Ghazala Jamil and Anish Ahluwalia are not asking this question because for them the whole thing is an elite, middle-class conspiracy that is anti-Dalit, anti-OBC, anti-Muslim, anti-justice, anti-equality, anti-peace, anti-love and anti-sex.
These saviours of the marginalised, the poor and the vulnerable make the point that Anna Hazare’s means are showing contempt for the people by not letting people’s chosen representatives delay anti-corruption measures. They are making the point that unless Anna Hazare’s movements takes up issues of land reforms and justice for Gujarat’s Muslims, he should not be supported. Continue reading The People
This guest post comes from GAIL OMVEDT
Why are such masses of people (apparently: in our village some came out for a morcha organized by the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti) following Anna Hazre, when it is now clear that his Lokpal is an authoritarian, centralized and undemocratically pushed proposal?
Several articles, including those by Arundhati Roy and Aruna Roy, have made this clear by now. I can find only one point to disagree with in the otherwise excellent article by Arundhati: that, like the Maoists, the Jan Lokpal Bill seeks the overthrow of the state. It does not. The movement wants to keep the state, in an even more centralized form, but replace its current rulers with a new set. And Ranjit Hoskote’s comment that “Anna Hazare’s agitation is not a triumph of democracy [but] a triumph of demagoguery” deserves to be remembered. The increasingly authoritarian, even fascist forms of activities are disturbing even many of its supporters.