'Howdy, People?': Tackling the Question of Who India's Citizen-Subjects Are

What are possibilities for challenging populist authoritarianism in India? 

On September 22, 2019, at a grandly staged event in Texas, a question was posed and answered by a supreme leader thus in Hindi: “Friends, this programme’s name is ‘Howdy, Modi’. However, Modi alone is nothing. I, working at the behest of 130 crore Indians, am an ordinary person. And that is why when you ask, ‘Howdy Modi?’, my mind says that its response is this: In India, everything is fine…”

The performance was flawless, the audience approval roaring, the media floored. The organisers of the event could not have been more pleased. 

While much was made about the event, the question-response received no public comment.

Nonetheless, it was significant even as the silence around it was ominous. For, the body of a leader came to stand in for ‘the people’ (all 130 crores). The representative disappeared (reduced to “nothing”). The body of the leader had become a sign. It no longer referred to itself. It only pointed (as does an arrow) to another object, the signified – in this case, ‘the People’. 

Long ago, a much cruder slogan – “Indira Is India” – made many people nervous. This time, the production and execution was savvier.

The effect devastating – normalised acceptance, appreciation, even awe. 

This phenomenon in which a supreme leader transforms into a sign of ‘the People’ is the stuff that characterises what has come to be known as ‘populism’, especially its modality of authoritarian populism. 

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Why are we seeing the phenomenon of the rise of authoritarian leaders and populist movements the world over, especially in electorally robust democracies in western Europe and the USA? How do authoritarian leaders take power in the name of ‘the People’?

What lessons do longer histories of populism in postcolonial societies (in Asia, Africa and Latin America) hold for Euro-America? What are possibilities for challenging populist authoritarianism, in India? 

Partha Chatterjee’s book ‘I Am The People’.

Variants of the above questions are posed and reflected upon in professor Partha Chatterjee’s latest book I Am The People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today. Based on his Ruth Benedict lectures at Columbia University, this book is lucid, provocative and insightful.

It brings together a select range of thinkers to outline the conditions of possibility of the above phenomenon – the power and historical context that produces it, its mode of existence, and its logic. 

That power is identified by Chatterjee as ‘popular sovereignty’ or the notion of an authentic ‘people-nation’ successfully mobilised by authoritarian leaders.

That historical context is the crumbling of a ‘hegemonic order’ put together in the post-War era (first as liberalism and then as neoliberalism) by Western states and their bourgeoisie (and in a different manner in postcolonial societies – more on that below).

Its objective was to manage citizen-subjects (constituting civil society) by granting them welfare rights so as to acquire consent for being ruled.

Following the Italian revolutionary thinker Antonio Gramsci, Chatterjee views this application of power over citizen-subjects with their consent as ‘hegemony,’ part of the ‘passive revolution’ of capital – a slow set of transformations led by a mass political parties rather than local social groups.  

In contrast, the postcolonial world followed a slightly different path which however, led to the same result – the rise of authoritarian leaders riding waves of populist fervour. For example, Chatterjee argues that countries like India initially only experienced passive revolution as ‘dominance without hegemony’ (historian Ranajit Guha’s term) – a contingent hold of the developmentalist state over a diverse set of propertied classes (landlords and urban bourgeoisie) and a small urban middle class.

By the 1970s, this set of relations gave rise to populist leaders (in states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and later, West Bengal) but also for a brief period at the center (in the figure of Indira Gandhi).

Populist leaders tried to satisfy a growing set of differential demands from various sections of India’s labour classes, most of who were neither in civil society (occupied by urban middle classes) nor in the formal sectors of the economy.

Building upon economist Kalyan Sanyal’s work, Chatterjee argues that this work by the state is done to target ‘populations’ for welfare or ‘development’ measures (food subsidies, housing, health, educational and employment welfare).

This, in turn, ensured the legitimacy of capital formation (many times via dispossession of peasantry) and accumulation in the formal sector. 

A key insight from the case of India developed by Chatterjee concerns the process by which populist leaders invoke and evoke “the People”. Extending communication theorist Madhava Prasad’s work, Chatterjee argues that India offers conditions favourable for creation of ‘embodied sovereign’ leaders by popular demand from the masses.

Interestingly, averring with Prasad, Chatterjee urges us to see how the masses produce the leader (and not merely follow with devotion). In doing so they are able to experience participation in a polity despite being excluded by civil society. The bodies of leaders become sites of or for the political participation of popular classes. This relation between leaders and ‘the People’ proceeds most importantly through the continual creation of ‘enemies’ opposed to ‘the People’. 

Here Chatterjee usefully takes forward the analytical framework developed by Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau on populism. India, he argues, has had a long experience of populist politics in which the body of a charismatic leader acts as a ‘floating signifier’ articulating differential demands (from peasants, urban slum-dwellers, traders, women, youth, minorities and students) in ways that make them logically equivalent to each other – as all unmet by the ruling regime.

AMU students during a protest march against Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Aligarh, Monday, January 6. Photo: PTI

Done successfully, such articulation allows the populist leader to represent the ruling elites and Others as ‘enemies’ of ‘the People’. This construction of an internal frontier (People and enemies) is how Chatterjee wants us to understand what happened electorally since 2014 in India. Notably, the prognosis Chatterjee offers for Euro-American societies, despite their different trajectory of a hegemonic order, is that they will likely face a future not dissimilar to postcolonial societies – the rise of populism as a logic of politics for a long time to come. 

The book includes an afterword, evidently prompted by feedback that Chatterjee was being too pessimistic in the lectures. To rectify this he cautiously examines ways to counter authoritarian populism including a brief engagement with Laclau’s colleague Chantal Mouffe’s call for a ‘left-populism’ à la the movements – Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

While taking care to not outrightly dismiss the value of such movements in electorally staving off the worst effects of authoritarian populism, Chatterjee points to the fact that such movements have serious limits, namely that, like the right-wing populists, they too depend on the capitalist classes to underwrite their populist promises. This makes such movements ultimately limited to seeking tactical victory over authoritarian populism but unable to address the deeper crisis of neoliberal capitalist system. 

In a concluding note (that too brief, cryptic and with some ambiguity – perhaps reflecting the uncharted terrain it enters), Chatterjee outlines his view of a counter-hegemonic politics.

For him this politics would back up the tactical electoral politics of left-wing populism with a more long-term pedagogical project of constructing alternative narratives of social transformation while keeping in mind that the only actually collectivised actor is the capitalist class or the bourgeoisie.

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Such an alternative narrative would build upon the primary contradiction today in India (as per Chatterjee building on Sanyal) – that between the formal economy based on capital accumulation and the informal economy based on subsistence and survival. It would bring together new imaginations of the ‘nation-state’ with the ‘people-nation’ in ways that mobilise collective action. 

Alas, the reader is left to fill in the details of such a project. In light of the situation in India today, can we imagine such a project? 

Ironically, the action by the ruling party to define ‘the People’ of India via the CAA and NRC may have helped crystallise its nemesis and signal new fissures in the hyperbolic teflon image of the supreme leader.

In response to events beginning with the brazen brutality in Kashmir and the NRC in Assam, the quick passing of the CAA in the legislature, and the concerted attacks on students (Jamia, AMU, JNU), a new wave of ‘the People’ has emerged to lay claim to popular sovereignty. 

This is most clearly seen in the appropriation by 100 organisations of the preamble to the Indian Constitution – “We, the People” in coming together to oppose the CAA, NRC, and NPR.

A protest against the CAA and NRC in Chennai. Photo: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

In doing so they also put forward a new narrative of ‘who is Indian,’ that foregrounds a different form and content of democracy, and nationalism. If sustained despite increasing possibilities of repression, such formations of the asli People, the unmayana Makkal, hold potential for arresting or even wresting the grip of the leader over claims to ‘the People’. 

Yet, heeding Chatterjee’s cautionary note, it remains to be seen how this ‘authentic People’ will negotiate the power of the capitalist classes. After the latter’s effusive welcoming of the supreme leader in 2014, the clear economic devastation and a near-permanent state of civil unrest could demand some rethinking, if not abandoning by the bourgeoisie of authoritarian populism. Much is unclear however. 

The asli People need to work with or through key contradictions in society, or what Chatterjee calls faultlines. Here, Hindutva, caste and gender (none of which is explored at any length in the book) need to be part of the reimagination of a new narrative, especially to foreground questions of difference and representation in the ‘people-nation’. 

Following the work of Arthur Rosenberg on fascism, Hindutva can be viewed primarily as a mass phenomenon (having its basis in cultural capillaries of Indian social life) with essentially anti-liberal, anti-left and counter-revolutionary capitalist tendencies.

Against Hindutva’s anti-liberal register, there is now a growing movement to defend the Constitution, to demand fundamental rights, rule of law, safeguarding of minority rights and the rights against discrimination be respected. This is the pressure point where Hindutva is pushed on the backfoot, unable to undertake the radical overturning of the Constitution it so yearns for.

On this register, exist the identitarian contradictions between Hinduism and Hindutva, and between Hindi and other linguistic identities – two of the foundational triad of Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan.

An anti-CAA rally. Photo: PTI

The Sangh today is premised on blurring the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, clearly claiming representational authority to speak for all Hindus. Only when more people speak out as Hindus against Hindutva, when more savarnas and Dalits defy caste strictures to reveal the systemic nature of caste supremacist attitudes and relations in India, and when more regional identities assert themselves against hegemonic Hindi and Hindutva will this contradiction be elaborated (the last point being noted to Chatterjee).

Finally, in opposition to the clearly brahmanical and anti-left moves of Hindutva, we can expect to see an emerging Dalit-led resistance for a united front with Adivasi and Muslims, a militant student movement showing the spirit of azadi, and hopefully a reimagined left collectivisation broadened to bring in the citizen-subject of the informal sector. 

However, Hindutva’s counterrevolutionary capitalist zeal cannot be underestimated for its utility to capital. Despite major failures in the first term (demonetisation, GST, and stalled infrastructural projects), there were significant anti-labor successes (draconian labor reforms and ease of business).

Consequently, capital could simply put the leader on notice to get back to 2014-mode. There is, however, the now firmly-out-of-the-bottle genie of virulently toxic Hindutva including storm-troopers and the daily dose of demagogic ‘national renewal’ that emanates from the ruling party’s tentacular existence. 

Capital will not be able to tame that genie. Only the rising phoenix of the asli People armed with a new narrative can do that. The question is: will the capitalist classes themselves see their interests better served by the ‘authentic People’?

Dr. Balmurli Natrajan is professor, Department of Anthropology, William Paterson University of New Jersey.