“In a democracy”, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said last month, “people have the final say”. The Trinamool Congress’s “record on development makes us confident that we will win again in 2016.” Her Finance Minister explained that the Chief Minister was basing her confidence on developments like a rise in public expenditure and improvements in the state’s physical and social infrastructure.
Meanwhile Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew and a rising leader in the ruling party, has threatened those criticising the TMC government that party activists would gouge out their eyes and chop off their hands. About a year back, another MP had warned opposition activists and followers that if they continued with their obstructive ways, they would be killed, the women in their homes raped, their houses burnt. This followed another minister’s threat that people would socially boycott CPI (M) followers.
The Congress was not to be left behind. A party legislator from Murshidabad called the state police “dogs” and warned them against becoming “touts” of the ruling Trinamool: “I want to warn these khaki-uniformed dogs… there is a limit to pandering. Stop being touts to the Trinamool. The Trinamool is standing on the support of police who have turned into their touts.”
The CPI (M), chastened of late by successive defeats, had of course duly invoked the people when one of its senior leaders asked the party’s women followers and activists to pull up their saris and show their naked backs to Mamata Banerjee wherever she went. Another leader asked how the CM would be able to understand the problems of poor families when she was unmarried and did not wear vermillion on her forehead. Before that, when the CPM was in power, they had beaten Mamata nearly to death, pulled and dragged her on the street, and had abused her regularly.
Allusions to the people have proliferated dramatically of late, if the newspapers are to be believed, though to be historically faithful, democracy was always in some respects a business of putting the demos on stage. Filthy talk characteristic of daily life, its coarseness and masculinity, threats, words of coaxing and cajoling, beating into submission – everything that we associate with the daily life of the lower depths is now making it mark in politics.
Is this new? We can leave aside the experiences of other states and other cultured nations where these things are done perhaps subtly and where too, unholy acts are performed intermittently and profane words scandalize audiences. In West Bengal, at least, the educated, ‘bhadralok’ dominated politics had by and large avoided vulgarity, coarseness, and profanity. People were killed, as in the Naxalite times, when by a conservative estimate, about 25,000 people died, but they were killed ‘nicely’. When Naxalites were shot dead by the police of the United Front government whose Home Minister was the late Jyoti Basu, the then state secretary of the CPI (M) had reportedly commented in response to human rights groups that bullets were meant to kill. Did the Naxalites expect that the police would use condoms in place of bullets? However, by and large, political language remained civil.
The language is changing with the entry of the lower classes in mass parliamentary politics. The stakes are now high for them. Civility can wait. In as much as the earlier civility of language had no reference to the administrative methods of law and order, today also the barbarity of language has little relation with the amount of actual administrative coercion. Whatever doomsday sayers may feel, Bengal’s cities, small towns, and villages are not burning. Political activists are not killing each other on a daily basis, and intra-party clashes are no more than they were in earlier times. Life is not nastier, shorter and more brutish, even if West Bengal’s share of violence cannot be denied. We must not think that with this noticeable lack of civility, the world is coming to an end in Bengal, though to be sure the middle class euphoria after the change of 2011 has turned bitter, particularly for the gentry.
Living with Populism
The coarse language signifies something else. Power is now exercised in a different way, at a different scale, and at a different speed. This is where the demos come into play. Previously, power was exercised in the name of birth, lineage, education, status, caste, patrimony, etc. Now with parliamentary democracy and regular votes, power must be exercised finally in the name, and with the language, of the people.
Yet populism is a double-edged source. There is nothing called good populism and bad populism. The only thing is that its nature has to be understood in the specific historical context in which it emerges.
In Tamil Nadu, the same AIADMK administration that suppresses opposition and engages in personality cults also extends various welfare services to the needy sections reeling under neoliberal reforms. The same is true of West Bengal. At one level, these populist governments in the states have saved the country from the juggernaut of Delhi after the near washout of 2014.
Populism is not fascism, which our Leftist friends tend to forget, though populism may slide into the latter. There will be grounds to fight populism in defence of the rights of the people, the lower classes in particular, when a populist government becomes xenophobic, subservient to big, autocratic forces, and serves corporate interests. To the same extent, if and when a populist government helps the people with populist measures, howsoever small in duration these measures may be, the Left, who claim to be people’s leaders, must support them.
We need a more discerning view. In the age of post-colonial globalisation, liberal democracy may come and go. Populism as a distinct form of politics marked by the presence of the lower classes will remain. That will be the biggest challenge for the Left in coming years.
Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Forced Migration studies, Calcutta Research Group. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.