What Should Those in Politics Do in Times of Powerlessness?

The courage of uncertainty as opposed to the certainty of surviving in banal politics is a way to reconceptualise life.

An important question confronting all radical politicians, particularly those who are visionaries is: What to do in times of powerlessness? It is an equally important question for thinkers.

In our own anti-colonial history militant nationalists faced this question as the World War I broke out in 1914. The war stifled the first round of efforts of the nationalist revolutionaries mostly in the first decade of the 20th century and the very early years of the second decade. The last shot was probably fired in 1915 on the sea shore in Odisha.

Gandhi on the Dandi march. Illustration by Ita Mehrotra

Gandhi on the Dandi march. Illustration by Ita Mehrotra

Gandhi and others searched for ways out of the situation of powerlessness, and only five years later found out a way, famous today by the name of Asahayog andolan (Non-Cooperation Movement) in 1920 in the wake of the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919. 

As we know, after 1922, the movement ended and for almost nine years the leaders once more faced powerlessness in face of splits in the Indian National Congress, ideological differences on the idea of independence, and could regain initiative only with the Lahore Declaration of full independence (1929), the Salt March led by Gandhi (1930), and the hanging of Bhagat Singh (1931).

All these enabled the nationalists to launch the Second Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930-31. Yet with the Roundtable conferences and the country torn asunder by the Dalit question, nationalist politics again found itself in a position of powerlessness (even with the formation of ministries under the Government of India Act of 1935) till it once again regained initiative with the Quit India Movement in 1942 and anti-colonial politics culminated in Independence.

If we recall Jinnah’s life, the entire decade of the thirties he went into hibernation till the late years of the decade, the War, and the question of representation gave him the chance to regain initiative in politics.

There are world famous examples as well. When the surge of European revolutions of 1848 subsided and capitalism did not collapse as anticipated. And on the other hand, there was a coup in France followed by a period of harsh reaction in the continent. Marx and Engels then had to dig deep to find out what to do in a situation of the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Right.

Marx delved into an almost decade and half long study and analysis of the phenomenon called capitalism, and had to bide time till that great meeting in St. Martin’s Hall, London, in 1864, when the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was formed.

In Lenin’s life the question arrived more dramatically. 

Also read: Some of History’s Bizarre and Ironic Coincidences

The news of the outbreak of the World War I reached Lenin in Galicia, the part of Poland under Austro-Hungarian occupation. The War seemed to have robbed him of any opportunity for direct political intervention in Russia. He was an émigré with no chance of going back home. He moved to neutral Switzerland, spent two years and eight months there biding his time, focused himself in rethinking politics, reframed the range of tactics and strategy of revolution before he could take a train through imperial Germany to reach Sweden.

And from there via Finland to reach Petrograd with what is famously known as the April Theses “in his pocket”. 

He was till this time largely isolated, relying on uncertain correspondence, with ties with his country nearly cut off. Attempts to organise through these years of wartime conditions were utterly impossible. So, as one commentator has raised an instructive query from whom (Michael Brie, ‘What Is to Be Done in Times of Powerlessness? Lenin’s Years in Switzerland, September 1914 to April 1917’ in Rediscovering Lenin, 2019) I take the title and to some extent the cue of this note: What can one do in these times of powerlessness? 

These instances are important not because they show that leaders face periods of powerlessness, but what they do to overcome such a condition. This may be a historical-philosophical inquiry, but here the purpose is to reflect on a crucial political question. For that we have to descend from those legendary times to our mundane times of epidemic, financial crisis, and increasing poverty. We have  to ask if political leaders face powerlessness in the time of the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath.

What can they do to regain initiative in politics? 

Think of Bengal. The most awaited speech of the populist chief minister among her millions of supporters, followers, admirers, and observers each year on July 21 was this time almost rudderless, directionless, and without a critical edge, except of course as everyone said and the media duly noted that her public address was an election call to rally round and get ready to defeat the BJP in the Assembly elections in 2021. This was, as was said by many, her last July 21 speech before the elections.  

Also read: ‘Bengal Won’t Be Ruled by Outsiders’: Eye on BJP, Mamata Banerjee Sets Tone for 2021 Poll Campaign

The chief minister’s address mentioned extension of food security, a commitment to ensure food security for the lower classes as long as her government would be in power, her work of massive relief operations after the devastating cyclone, her efforts to combat corruption, and her pledge to uphold values of secularism, tolerance, protection to the immigrants, and her government’s policy of developing the agrarian sector.

Trinamool Congress workers maintaining social distance listen to West Bengal CM and partys supremo Mamata Banerjee addressing a virtual rally to observe Martyrs Day, at Gariahat in Kolkata, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Photo: PTI

Noticeable was the absence of any awareness of an appropriate strategy of social mobilisation to cope with the epidemic, any significant policy of restructuring the public health structure to reach health care in the lower strata in society, or any effort to discipline the corporate medical facilities who were reaping huge profit out of the crisis. She seemed to be unaware of the role of grassroots organisations for massive testing, detecting, treating, isolating, and controlling the disease.

Will her campaign on food security be enough to carry her through the following months leading up to the day when the electoral verdict will be out? What will happen to the other great issue of life, namely health?

It seemed that she felt herself to be powerless in facing the juggernaut of corporate money, nationalism, finance, and media. Only once, perhaps jogged by memory, she said, “We have not forgotten the threat of CAA and our protests. We have not forgotten them.” It was the only acknowledgement that there will be other issues of politics waiting in the lurch to take the weak populists by surprise.

Also read: Bengal’s Sluggish Response to COVID-19 Is Unbecoming of Its Potential

Only once her tired voice broke out, “This (disease) broke out in March, then months have gone by, April, May, June, and now July… how much can a government do alone? How much can we do if the people do not help?”

By banning people from epidemiological politics, Congress is in the same situation of powerlessness. Unable to think innovatively on strategies and tactics on a nation-wide scale and frame an appropriate federal strategy, populists are committing the same mistake as of the Congress. The invocation of the Plague Act, the National Disaster management Act, the long months of “quarantine” and lockdown, and the existential necessity of fire fighting as the numbers of infected rise and death toll mount, have robbed political leaders and thinkers of any innovative capacity, of courage to think of a path that may be uncertain but can indicate the way ahead to get out of the closure. 

All initiative seems to rest with the political right – capacity to suggest economic reforms, wave the nationalist flag, and dictate ways to cope with the epidemiological crisis – all these marked by a neoliberal agenda, a neo-Malthusian logic, and a Social Darwinist framework.

Politics along the line of social mobilisation has been disbanded by the opposition political leaders. One leader is busy with tweeting on events, interviewing world famous economists, and suggesting solutions, another leader is silent on all issues of life except meekly criticising the BJP and the Union government with leftist homilies, most others happily silent, and few saddled with governmental responsibility desperately fighting the epidemic with insufficient tools. 

Also read: During the Pandemic, Rahul Gandhi Has Emerged as a Sure-Footed Leader

While the next Lok Sabha elections are three more years away, and probably this explains the inaction of the opposition leaders even though the right is using the moment to entrench further and restructure the economy and society along its preferred lines, this inaction may cost the opposition dear.

There is no indication of conceptualising a federal vision of politics and government, rethinking the question of life’s security, employment generation in cities and towns, or of revitalising rural economy. Or re-stating an alternative idea of the nation. 

Migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide lockdown, on NH24 near the Delhi-UP border, March 27, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary Illustration: The Wire

Leaders and thinkers are today immersed in inaction and passivity. This is not surprising. Politics was not prepared for an epidemic like this. The epidemiological crisis was compounded by economic and the political crises. Such moments appear in political history. The mark of a successful thinker and political leader is that she or he knows of the situation, and thinks of innovative ways to break out of the deadlocked time. 

Indeed, like political defeats, the outbreak of diseases in the past, proved to be an occasion for the weak to find ways to circumvent the position of weakness. The great instance is of Lenin’s famous war time cry, “Either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism.”

With this slogan he launched a massive mobilisation against typhus from which was born the legendary Soviet public health system. 

 Towards the end of the 19th century a band of monks led by Swami Vivekananda came down to the streets of plague ravaged Kolkata, to clean the city. Tagore composed his famous essays in 1903-04 on water scarcity in Bengal. The region was dependent on colonial mercy and Tagore sought to urge Bengal to be self-reliant and undertake public initiative-driven water works on a massive scale. Even the fifties of the last century – the first decade of independence of a just born nation – with its history of malaria control and eradication had something to offer as a lesson for us. 

Public health agenda (based on several instructive experiences such as of Kerala, Dharavi in Mumbai, Bengal, and Rajasthan), social mobilisation, militant philanthropy, solidarity with migrant workers, new thinking on federalisation, food security, employment, and a common minimum programme of our time – these are only some of the issues that suggest the possibility of a new way of thinking that can prise open the situation. 

The courage of uncertainty as opposed to the certainty of surviving in banal politics is a way to reconceptualise life. It gestures at the idea of strength of politics that goes beyond moral enfeeblement, grows out of a mode of somehow surviving in a contentious time. There will be no return to the pre-coronavirus time. The courage of uncertainty will be the first source of inspiration in face of powerlessness. 

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair, Calcutta Research Group, and can be reached at [email protected].