Book Review: Partha Chatterjee's "I am the People" discusses populism & the rise of the Hindu Right

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Indira Gandhi arriving to attend a Congress Parliamentary Party meeting on July 20, 1969, in New Delhi to discuss the political developments leading to Morarji Desai’s resignation and bank nationalisation. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, brandishing a sword given to him at the controversial “Gavrav Yatra” on September 8, 2002, at Phagvel village near Ahmadabad, which kicked off that year’s election campaign in the State. The Assembly election returned the BJP to power with a huge majority. Photo: SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP

An important book to make sense of the present time and the rise of the Hindu right wing.

The book under review is a revised version of the Ruth Benedict Lectures that Professor Partha Chatterjee delivered at Columbia University, United States, in April 2018. A former student of Nobel laureate William Riker, who served as his doctoral dissertation supervisor, the author in his early days ruffled many feathers of conventional Delhi-based Marxist political scientists who were dismissive of his work. One of Partha Chatterjee’s students, now a faculty member at Jawaharlal Nehru University, once confided to me: “Parthada does not like coming to Delhi.” To which I replied: “But he does fly over Delhi.” For years, Columbia University and Kolkata’s Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) Centre have served as Partha Chatterjee’s intellectual bases, and both attract fascinating scholars of different generations and disciplines from varied corners of the world. Those days of hostility towards him in Delhi’s infamous intellectual ghetto are gone. By virtue of his extremely rich corpus of writings, he has earned legions of fans and followers in academia. While his fans would easily produce half a dozen titles as their favourites, two of them particularly stand out in my view: Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World and The Nation and Its Fragments. Both are now part of an Omnibus. In terms of intensity and breadth, this slim volume is not a match to the two works I cite here; but it is worth reading for the enormous insights it contains.

In this volume, Partha Chatterjee, arguably one of the finest political theorists from India, takes on one of the burning themes of our time: populism and its relationship with democracy. Two aspects of his narrative are crucial to make sense of his formulations. First, his attempt to compare India and the West both in contemporary and historical sense. Second, he employs a theoretical paradigm, which is a synthesis of the theories of three major Western theorists: Antonio Gramsci, Ernesto Laclau and Michel Foucault. Thus, he claims that there is a whole history to populism, much longer than many believe, which needs to be contextualised if we intend to grasp the present-day challenges.

Also read: Roots of Hindutva

For a better understanding of present-day populism in Europe and America, we must pay attention to its longer history in other parts of the world. Therefore, it is worth pondering over his observation that “liberalism at home, autocracy in colonies”, which long defined imperial politics, was not a temporal lag. Thus, the whole range of political developments in the early years of the 21st century, such as the 9/11 attack, the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria; Islamic terror in its various forms; refugee crises; and the 2008-09 financial crisis causing a dramatic decline in living standards in the West contributed to the surge of populism that we have witnessed in the past few years and its growing influence in political discourses. Indeed, the author is correct in calling our attention to the holistic understanding of the political climate in which the poisonous tree called populism began to spread its branches.

The world today is familiar with the fact that the fertile lands of liberal democracy in the West are now facing various forms of incurable ills such as xenophobia, populism, nepotism, tribalism, cronyism and many others. These are manifested in an explosive crisis of the hegemony of the liberal order. According to the author, this hegemonic project could be best understood with the help of Gramsci’s notion of the “integral state”. What is integral state? In this particular situation, the bourgeoisie employs the power of the state with active assistance from its allies to influence civil society and its institutions. Its key goal is to educate people in order to secure their voluntary consent to its rule. This project is advanced, the author further contends, with the use of governmental power, first by producing disciplined individuals as the normal citizen subjects; and then bio-political technologies are used to control populations. This idea of explaining this dual mechanism is borrowed from Michel Foucault’s work.

Also read: Creed above country: Rise of the Right

Whether one buys Partha Chatterjee’s formulations or not, there is no denying that this is a quintessential comparative work. Chapter Three examines the Indian case with exclusive attention to Indira Gandhi’s populism, other variants seen in southern India’s politics, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and with some thoughtful observations on Narendra Modi’s rise and the threat that Hindu majoritarianism presents. This is clearly not a work for a beginner or an early graduate student. Because the reader is expected to know major events and personalities to make sense of the argument that the author is keen to advance, considerable homework is required. Without it, readers may end up seeing woods for tree.

Indira Gandhi’s populism

His discussion on Indira Gandhi’s populism is particularly interesting. He makes four points to share his insights: first; it established a form of state populism; secondly, Indira Gandhi was seen as a Bonapartist leader, standing above partisan and regional interests, and projected as such by the state, and party media; thirdly, the economic policies were full of socialist-sounding rhetoric, but the ruling class comprised big corporate houses and large landowning farmers. It is worth recalling here that none other than I.G. Patel in his memoirs published by Oxford University Press has categorically stated that Indira Gandhi’s decision to nationalise banks was not driven by any commitment to socialism but was intended to neutralise the socialist faction in the Congress in order to reinforce her political dominance in her party. (He made this point to this reviewer in an extended interview at his Baroda residence.) The fourth and final point is that even populism requires validation, as was evident in Indira Gandhi’s decision to go for elections after a year and half of the Emergency.

Also read: India: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right

Indira Gandhi’s populism is widely known. However, almost a national trend seems to have emerged in Indian politics—particularly ever since regional satraps of various party formations such as M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, or N.T. Ramarao began to emerge and dominate Indian State politics. Modi’s rise in this particular sense is an extension of what was already unfolding in various regions of the Indian political landscape. But there is more to the Modi phenomenon. What I have found valuable in this volume is the author’s attempt to present an incisive analysis of the rise of populism in Tamil Nadu politics in the context of Dravidian politics—particularly, the discussion of issues raised by the leaders and programmes of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)—and the demonstration of the connection between these trends and the rise of the Hindu Right, particularly Modi’s rise.

Modi’s populism

On Modi’s brand of populism, the author suggests that it would be misleading to lump it with Indira Gandhi’s populism or other types that are witnessed in State politics, mainly owing to its distinct, clearly defined ideological agenda: Hindutva. The project of Hindutva, he argues, is a hegemonic struggle to achieve a convergence between the citizen-state inherited from colonial rule and the people-nation. The latter is homogeneous, unitary and transcends various diverse regions of India. What is striking, however, is the claim that this hegemonic project is neither the invention of the Hindu Right, nor is it its exclusive political project. This could be traced to the early part of the 20th century in which intellectuals writing in various regional languages such as Bengali, Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati actively participated in it through their writings. In this grand narrative, the idea of the people-nation is as old as Indian civilisation. And the upper-caste Hindu male speaking a northern Indian language is the most legitimate Indian, and every other identity is to be defined and placed with respect to this authentic Indian identity. The Muslims are marked as outsiders, and a sharp reminder of the enemy: Pakistan.

Also read: Aakar Patel: ‘Structurally, we have already arrived at a Hindu Rashtra’

Idea of the enemy

At the heart of the populism discourses, the idea of the enemy remains central, and all political conversations revolve around it. In the case of Indira Gandhi, notions of the enemy shifted from time to time. It began with the old Congress bosses who saw in her a gungi gudiya; then it was Jayaprakash Narayan, and a mixed group of Gandhians, socialists and the Bhartiya Jana Sangh. After her return in 1980, it was the Khalistanis. In the case of Modi and his brand of populism, those who oppose Modi are the nation’s enemies and hence the people’s enemies.

This slim volume, as I said at the outset, is a revised product of the author’s Ruth Benedict lectures. Its Afterward is a response to some of the concerns raised during the lectures. In this part, the author draws a sharp distinction between left-wing populism and right-wing populism. By engaging with Chantal Mouffe’s work on populism, the author tells us that the right-wing populism emphasises national sovereignty whereas left-wing populism speaks for popular sovereignty. Moreover, right-wing populism is xenophobic and majoritarian; left-wing populism champions social justice and calls for equality.

Also read: Creating the enemy

But the most crucial question that Partha Chatterjee raises here is this: What is the prospect of a counter hegemonic strategy that could bring about a significant social transformation? There are two possibilities, according to him. The first is, the participation and mobilisation of left-wing politics to improve conditions of the poor need to be appreciated and encouraged. Secondly, neither electoral participation nor government formation or even a sustained critique of right-wing populist politics and policies is adequate. In the author’s words, “What is necessary is an alternative narrative with the emotional power to draw people into collective political action” (page151). And this narrative will be country-specific.

In the end, Partha Chatterjee tells his readers, as he has done in many of his writings, that resolution of all the political crises, particularly those relating to issues of social justice and equality, could be possible in Gramscian terms. All in all, this is an important work which readers must read to make sense of our current predicament. Even if they disagree in parts or in entirety, they will find themselves theoretically enriched.

Dr Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the author of a forthcoming book, Shikwa-e- Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims (Simon and Schuster 2021).

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