The Politics of No Politics
As an undergraduate student of politics in St. Xavier’s College Kolkata, I learnt that authority has three bases from which it rules the polity. The monarch rules by tradition, the democrat by legal-rational rules and the dictator by sheer charisma. My professor then went on to say that these are ideal types and a combination of all three is possible, indeed the norm rather than the exception in modern times. What one must discern is the ratio – how far is the polity skewed in favour of one and against the others.
The other lesson that is etched in my mind is this – politics is the allocation of values extant in a society at any given point of time. In a world where all that is desired cannot be achieved, values too must be prioritised. The prioritisation of values in a given polity is politics. Thus, there is no nation or state that is beyond politics, no situation of any import that is not political.
These are as one can see elementary lessons in the study of politics. But they are important nonetheless for they lay a foundation for the future understanding of more complicated political situations and more importantly opened up to us a new way of making sense of what is going around us. And plenty was going around us in the early part of the eighties – political and social, cultural and pedagogical, not to forget the technological incursions in the field of mass media and communication.
The Asian Games brought in colour television and live broadcasts in a big way. This allowed news and propaganda to be beamed directly into our family hearths. The spectacle of what is political was in front of us, one could participate in it vicariously in addition to the more staid and orthodox forms of physical participation.
Everything around us in then West Bengal seemed political. The nation had just come out of a political experiment called Emergency – the suspension of fundamental rights and the disruption of democracy. College and university campuses were abuzz. Many political prisoners of the Emergency surfaced and their tales of woe and torture in incarceration made for intense political debate and discussions. In West Bengal, the political future of the Congress party was doomed, a whole new set of political values were being institutionalised.
The parliamentary Left had in 1977 triumphed over what was termed Left adventurism and infantilism – the short hand for marking the Naxalites. The splits in the non-parliamentary Left were intense – many factions emerged with several acronyms. All in all, the polity reverberated with the sound and smell of politics as well as hope for democracy and a better day. There was no doubt in any mind barring the small bourgeois section of the population that the state and nation was shaped by the politics of the day and that the citizens were directly responsible for the transformation and changes that they would like to usher in. Perhaps after independence this was arguably the most intense political phase in the lives of most Indians.
Thereafter India as also West Bengal fell into a rhythm – a rhythm that was, to use an analogy from Indian rail travel – a gentle patter on the tracks laid down with occasional mild changes in speed. It was status quoist in extremis, as if all that was to be done politically had been done. The ghost of the Emergency was exorcised. Leaders assured us that such draconian measures would be a thing of the past. India as a robust democracy had the wherewithal to thwart the adventurers in politics, right or left.
The courts too pitched in. Fundamental rights safeguarded, constitution amended, the scourge of dictatorship a distant memory. Politics got down to prosaic nitty gritties of governmentality. The new questions were of political decentralisation, the relation between the Centre and the states, the emergence of regional parties, the idea of a robust panchyat and local self-government. In Bengal the added ingredient was one of land re-distribution, the most critical political programme undertaken in rural areas for the re-distribution of wealth and institutionalisation of livelihood for the poor and the marginal.
And yet somewhere along the line unknown and un-noticed, riding on the back of the Janata Party experiment of coalition politics of 1977 as well as the JP movement in general, the seeds of a different political landscape was being sowed. The Jana Sangh was too miniscule to be noticed, and no one took them too seriously, drowned as they were in the maelstrom of the post – Emergency politics. Innocuously but significantly the 1977 cabinet carried two veteran RSS members, those who swore by the dismantling of secularism and too imbued by hate of others to be anywhere near the ideals of democracy that were sought to be fêted.
Their dark thoughts camouflaged in the prevailing libertarian sunlight of hope, the cabinet berths provided them the legitimacy that was so far denied. This is exactly the way cancer spreads – in the first instance too small to be noticed but then increasingly growing and overwhelming the good cells leading to death. In the celebration of democracy’s revival were the seeds of its later destruction sowed. But we are getting ahead of our story and must revert even if momentarily.
In the given sequence of the political history of the nation, many would argue that the most important event of great consequence was the bringing down of Babri Masjid in 1992. The destruction of that dilapidated structure signalled the formal arrival in the mainstream of Indian politics the infusion of majoritarian politics. The subsequent history is all too well known. The incursions and transformations of the political terrain in terms of religious identity based politics, the counter of caste based political retort through the Mandal Commission recommendations to the increasing hold of communal politics in North India especially and the advent of the liberalisation of the economy to rescue India from economic peril all coincided in what can be called the second wave of political resurgence post Emergency.
But it was a mixed political message – affirmative action to widen the inclusion of those traditionally discriminated against and at the same time transition to a market economy whose end goal would be to roll back the state. The rhetoric of that government is the best that governs the least seemed smart and reams of print were being bandied around about the necessity and desirability if not the inevitability of market loveliness. Globalisation was upon us, the market for free movement of goods and skilled persons beckoned buttressing the claim of those who wanted to roll back the state.
The fall of the Soviet Union along with the fall of other East European socialist states of course was the mega international event of this time. The contradictions gestured to above were settled by this event occurring in a distant land. No dithering on transforming the state from the evils of ‘socialism’ was the cry of the elite. The last vestiges of ‘socialism’ were buried without much fanfare though in isolated pockets of the Indian state, the parliamentary Left held on to power. The shift to the Right was set in motion and indeed celebrated in most quarters.
The middle class became the biggest beneficiary of this shift and therefore its most vocal champions. In this not so imperceptible shift there lay a larger re-calibration of society and politics, one that is not talked about much. And this re-calibration meant that the middle classes increasingly became aligned to a certain political position which claimed that there is no merit in politics. The immediate victim of this was of course class based politics and the manner in which the urban middle class youth, unlike their predecessors in the sixties and seventies, shunned the politics of peasants, farmers and industry workers. A cocoon of comfort was being slowly built egged on by the self appraisal of the middle class which felt that at long last they (as a class) were being justly rewarded.
A certain apparent disdain about politics gripped (and continues to) the middle class consciousness. Conspicuous consumption, arrival of new technologies of communication, the dazzle of shopping malls providing a ‘foreign feel’ to shopping, the relatively cheap and ‘affordable’ foreign travel opportunities all contributed in shifting the attention of a newly emerging middle class away from the ideas of struggle, sympathy and understanding of radical politics as emancipatory. This displacement in mainstream politics unleashed a twofold consequence – the arrival of populism as a political force and the Right dressing up its economic policies through doses of nationalism in excess of what is extant.
One complements the other in cementing a new configuration of class domination, a silent counter-revolution that promises to accentuate political silence, marginalisation of entire populations and their ultimate exclusion from the nation and its consciousness.
Interestingly, while the proponents of the ‘liberal agenda’ would claim that the last twenty five years has seen a rise in the politics of the individual it is precisely the individual that is facing a crisis of existence now. The state is now like never before empowered to invade home and hearth. The panoptican that French philosopher Michel Foucault spoke about firmly in the saddle, the history of the nation would be written in a new prose of politics that is evolving fast – a prose that talks about past Hindu glory, hard work and merit (do away with reservations!), valour and courage in taking on enemies so that the nation’s status as a great power is restored (having been lost in the past through conquer and conquest) and cementing the nation through this excess of power both economic and military.
Dissent is taboo, critical thinking suspect, decentralisation effectively banned as a new wave of centralisation threatens to take over the democratic space. A whole set of imponderables are staring us in the face as the politics of no politics takes over our imagination, as the nation hurtles along the twin tracks of populism and hollowing out of the democratic space to the not so distant drum rolls of the New Right. The ratio that my professor taught me to look for in politics as tradition, legal-rational and charisma blends is already looking skewed in one direction, no marks for guessing what! In these dire times there is no escape from being impossible dreamers for a world that must be reclaimed from an impending catastrophe.
The bluff of the politics of no politics must be called. In that call is redemption for all that we as a civilisation cherish. We cannot afford to pass onto our descendants the politics of hatred or nightmares of living on the very edges of bad faith. We simply cannot afford any longer to deceive ourselves into believing that it is business as usual. The bubble wrap that we have spun around us is choking the nation of fresh air!
(Surajit C Mukhopadhyay is an academic, and has held senior administrative positions. He is based in Kolkata)