Spectacle tactics

Published : Mar 12, 2010 00:00 IST

Jayant Lele says that the Shiv Senas project has always been power.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jayant Lele says that the Shiv Senas project has always been power.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Professor Jayant Lele is arguably the best-known Indian commentator on political, social and religious movements. His incisive and widely quoted critique of the Shiv Sena, Saffronisation of Shiv Sena: Political Economy of City, State and Nation, was written after the 1992 riots in Mumbai in which the Sena played a major role. The paper traced the history of the organisation and set an agenda so as to be able to meet the challenge of the Sena in the future. He has also written on the history of the emergence of Maratha domination in Maharashtra, in which he looks at the role of the Sena in the State.

Prof. Lele is currently teaching at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. He shared his views with Frontline on the Shiv Sena in an interview in the context of the partys most recent jingoistic outburst.

What exactly is the Shiv Sena hoping to achieve when it chooses to protest against things like Shah Rukh Khans support to hiring Pakistani cricketers? Does the party see itself as defending Hinduism or as defend ing the country?

I remember the story about how Uddhav [Thackeray] panicked when Sena workers dug up the cricket pitch in Mumbai protesting against the Pakistan team playing a match there. The only cause that he knew would turn large sections of the population against the Sena. But the times have changed after the Mumbai event. Anti-Pakistan posturing is more than ever fair game in India and no mainstream political party seems to be immune to its appeal. For what each party claims to be doing, one better look up the speeches of the leaders for a clue. As for Uddhav, one cannot deny the possibility of his needing one-upping with Raj [Thackeray] while still attempting to show that the Senas all-India Hindutva alliance is still alive.

Is there actually a seductive capacity for self-glorification that politics like that of the Sena offers a mixture of defenders of the realm and defenders of the faith that directly appeals to individuals?

Once you equate the realm with faith, then defence of the realm as defence of the faith follows. It is the subterranean current of a widespread belief that India that is Bharat is in essence, both culturally and socially, a Hindu nation that was nurtured even in Gandhijis nationalist politics hence neither [M.A.] Jinnah nor [Dr B.R.] Ambedkar could ever contemplate an alliance with it that makes such an equation appealing and it does not have to be made explicit when the ostensible enemy is also believed to have originated in a nation-state that equates faith with realm.

There seems to be a general acceptance by politicians and the public that it is natural for religion to be a part of politics. It also follows that violence is acceptable. Could you trace the changes in politics that have brought in this legitimacy? And why do parties that have no real tradition of violence, like the Congress, overtly support this? For example, the state has rarely, if ever, really clamped down on the Sena when it issued threats.

What was subterranean under Gandhi and surfaced at times with the tension between [Jawaharlal] Nehru and [Sardar] Patel or in the election of [Purshottam Das] Tandon as president, etc., became overt with the launching of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] under the tutelage of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh]. Its legitimacy got established with the Janata Party, when blessed by Jayaprakash Narayan, and was further bolstered when the Congress turned to Hindutva first under Indira Gandhi and then Rajiv Gandhi. So slogans of secularism it was always sarvadharma samabhava and not politics sans religion notwithstanding religion has always been acceptable to people in India public is something else, for me. It was only formally not on the agenda of most parties because it was taken for granted by people and politicians in post-Partition India and not made public so as to not stir passions or to alienate the Muslim vote.

As to violence, my, not yet fully explored, sense is that the new proliferation of violence is directly related, at least in part, to the anything goes ideology that has come to prevail with the neoliberal turn in Indian economy, which I believe started in the 1970s under Indira Gandhi and was entrenched by Rajiv Gandhi and formally adopted by his successors.

Deng Xiaoping described it as black cat, white cat and violence is now legitimate in all circles as long as it brings success. The Congress party used it sparingly when it was hegemonic because it did not need to. As to the Shiv Sena, there seem to be two reasons for the state to be complicit in its violence fear of greater violence in retaliation and its neglect by a complicit police force, and the need for some of its aspiring leaders to keep the doors open for future alliance if the internal squabbles of the Congress stifle their ambitions.

Could you explain the Sena in the context of its history from when it started off demanding better economic opportunities for Maharashtrians to the present, when power is grasped for powers sake?

Its project has always been power, and that means whatever works or, as in American political science, Politics is the art of the possible. Even in its Mumbai politics, it displayed well its penchant for opportunistic alliances. The Sena did rather well in Mumbai with its focus on economic opportunities for Maharashtrians, but its history shows that Bal Thackeray hit upon it somewhat intuitively and it worked at the time. With the Congress powerful and well entrenched in the rest of the State, especially in its rural base, there was no opportunity to extend its tentacles much further.

But by the end of the 1970s, and in the 1980s in particular, the State Congress was on shaky ground for a variety of reasons that have to do with the politics at the Centre and in the State as well. But chauvinism of the kind that worked in Mumbai would not be enough for such a move.

But once Jayaprakash Narayan legitimised Hindutva at the Centre through coalition politics, an opportunity seemed rather obvious. Bal Thackerays choice of the party name, his choice of symbols for his various forms of spectacle, as well as the undercurrent of pervasive middle-class sentiment in the State against Muslims as aliens especially among the white-collar RSS supporters were all part of the bundle that helped the Sena to find a niche in the rest of Maharashtra. Hence its alliance with the BJP has been relatively more convenient and hence more long lasting.

Its steadfast adherence to agitational, provocative, catchy, seductive in short, spectacular style and an ongoing search for issues that can grab immediate attention of the media and hopefully also bring an increment to a somewhat more stable/stagnant electoral support form the key to the understanding of its politics.

With reference to Maharashtra and the issue of outsiders, could you explain regional chauvinism in the context of regional developmental imbalances?

The history of a chauvinistic vision of regional imbalance in Maharashtra goes back to the days of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. It brought together all major political parties, with all shades of ideology (perhaps for the first and the last time) to demand the creation of a Marathi state. The visions ranged from that of a battle against internal colonialism to recreating and extending a Shivaji state. Bombay was the bone of contention and it was felt that alien (read Gujarati) capital was creating obstacles for the new state. One dimension of this was the grievance against the dominant Gujarati-Brahmin Congress leadership (Morarji-Kher) and was centred on the Gujaratis.

That issue went on the back burner once the State was granted but with a promise by the State Congress elite (Y.B. Chavan in particular) to fully protect its interests. The lingering anti-Gujarati (and anti-capitalist) sentiment had to be extinguished. However, expectations of the Marathi citizens of Mumbai for a better life (textile workers and white-collar lower middle-class employees in public and private sectors) had been raised. Since capital and its logic do not recognise language distinctions (unless they are profitable), for both mill and other blue-collar Marathi workers of Mumbai, things did not change substantially in terms of wages and benefits (the Congress had major parts of them mostly under its unions, given the close rural family links of most of them).

However, it seems, some of the more militant unions had South Indians as leaders who could have nurtured the anti-capitalist sentiment. For similar reasons Mumbai continued to attract, in large enough numbers, English-educated, relatively less demanding, young applicants for white-collar (mostly clerical) jobs from the South.

It is not at all clear that Bal Thackerays intuition in making anti-Southerner chauvinism an issue was based on any clear analysis of the situation, but the fact is that it clicked. To an extent the interests of some of the Congress elite seem to have matched. The Sena was seen by some analysts, for good reason, as the gendarme of the bourgeoisie. Bal Thackeray combined the grievances of white-collar workers with the still prevailing sense of Marathi pride and his acid sense of humour, and used them to great advantage. He also added the presence of other South Indian workers to his list of targets, thus reaching into the rapidly expanding numbers of the Marathi informal sector workers and the unemployed. While the targets have shifted since then for contingent reasons, the driving force behind the Senas (and Thackerays in particular) appeal (and of its more recent offshoot) has been the claim that they are the real and only protectors of Marathi interest from the unending influx of outsiders.

It would seem that parties that thrive on regional chauvinism actually feed off poor governance, unemployment and unrest. Do you see this being played out in Maharashtra, and, specifically Mumbai?

All political parties use poor governance as a whip to thrash the government (read the party in power) for its inaction and poor performance. Chauvinists perhaps gain some electoral advantage by focussing on the unemployment of native sons as an example of the lack of correct policy and poor governance. Pointing to the freedom given to alien entrepreneurs to amass wealth at the expense of local consumers can also add to the list of examples.

Spontaneous and spotty unrest may arise from the people because of the experience of exploitation and discomfort and is interpreted in chauvinistic terms. Organisations like the Sena are also good at creating unrest and then using it as an example of poor governance by the party in power.

The Sena has never really come up with any economic plan for the development of the State and it views development issues purely from the point of view of infrastructure. And yet it has an impressive list of members over 20 lakhs some years ago. How would you account for this?

Membership of a major mainstream political party is rarely a function of rational calculation and choice in terms of its public policy postures (let alone its performance). The Sena has cashed in on a permeating sense of grievance among people and a vague but powerful chauvinistic sense of identity among different classes in the State, both sustained through varieties of spectacle, from demonstrations and riots to displays of the leaders grandeur and apparently apt but rather cutting, bitter and penetrating wit. It displayed a distinct urban bias, given its mainly urban, largely Mumbai-based leadership, in its infrastructure projects which included a failed populist project of free homes for some 40 lakh slum-dwellers. And its other infrastructure projects seemed to be aimed at building support bases for a large number of its emerging local leaders in rural areas through a large number (mostly failed) public sector undertakings (irrigation, roads, etc). Ad hocism rather than planning is its style and it counts on spectacle here as well.

The Sena has always been criticised, and in fact it uses the criticism to sustain itself especially among its lower cadre, who see it as a validation. Do you think the criticism against the Sena needs to be taken to another level instead of the standard current one which consists of either labelling it fascist, lumpen and so on? And does the criticism stem from a simplistic understanding of the Sena? What do we need to understand about the Sena before embarking on a new criticism about it?

If one wants to grasp and expose the real basis of the Senas resilience and relatively intact voter support (except for the most recent MNS show) then one should focus on the dual nature of its support base. It has of course systematically cultivated a lot of underclass support, and for that its spectacle tactics should be given credit. These riots and street gang violence also have a dimension of material gain, along with the sense of empowerment that they bring, however fleeting. When you ransack a place and are allowed to get away with it (by a co-opted or incompetent police force), you get to take away a few coveted consumer goods. Because of such rampant defiance of the law and the states often compliant neglect of it, one sees angry judgments of lumpenisation of politics used against it.

But there is another, a far more solid, base of support of the Sena among the lowest of the working classes, in the so-called informal sector, and that comes from the use of its cadre and shakhas, now spread over all major streets in most cities, for grievance alleviation of ordinary citizens, who have neither the means nor the power to command the attention of public officials or corporate executives to get their difficulties solved.

The use of violence, if necessary to get that attention, calls for special skills of the cadre along with the clout of a party like the Sena. This, I believe, ensures and consolidates support as well as a sense of loyalty from many sections of society, including white-collar middle-class workers. This aspect receives little attention from critics who routinely label it fascist or lumpen.

What future do you see for the Sena? Do you see a place for it in Maharashtra politics? And what will it have to do to attain political maturity and overcome its present stagnation?

The question of its future no more hangs by the life span of its founder-leader; that much is clear, the succession has stabilised. The spectacle has had one of its prime elements in the aura and myth that has been built around the founder, but that is not the only one.

The spectacular behaviour of Sainiks seems to have gained a certain autonomy and routinisation. But the chances of the party itself being able to stand on its own and develop what you call political maturity (I am not sure what it means, but perhaps it means abandonment of its current style and adherence to normal, rule of law practices) seem at the moment somewhat dim.

The rivalry between the cousins seems to exacerbate rather than calm down the rhetoric and the associated spectacular practices. It may temper those, perhaps, if its factions find a way to come together again. But even then its future will always depend on the continuity and resilience of its machine that now extends across the State and remains fairly active in garnering support and delivering votes. That is the part that other parties in search of allies will continue to find attractive.

As for developing a niche of issues that will distinguish it from others, I expect that the bankruptcy of its imagination will continue. Its chances of emerging as a stand-alone alternative are, in my view, non-existent. It could still hop along for a long time under the current interregnum as a useful ally for one or the other party, but I am afraid it will neither improve nor die.

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