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In the Shadow of Terror: Anti-politician or Anti-politics?

Neoliberal economics, globalisation of aspirations and the hype about India as a superpower have all led the Indian middle/elite classes to believe that they now constitute the backbone of the country. They expect politics to reflect their aspirations and respond to their anxieties. They want politics to represent them since they assume that they represent India. This disconnect leads to constant suspicion of and cynicism about the politician. This is what underlies the tirade against politicians after the Mumbai horrors. The new activism may be short-lived, but the danger is that the "anti-politics" sentiment will seep across social classes and strengthen a vocabulary of a worrisome kind.

COMMENTARY

In the Shadow of Terror: Anti-politician or Anti-politics?

Suhas Palshikar

appreciate the sentiment behind this, but alas, soon, it turned out that it was an attack on the “politician”. Bashing the politician is the easiest thing since the poor species depends so much on the media that however you bash them, they will still flock to the studios and solicit the “byte

Neoliberal economics, globalisation of aspirations and the hype about India as a superpower have all led the Indian middle/elite classes to believe that they now constitute the backbone of the country. They expect politics to reflect their aspirations and respond to their anxieties. They want politics to represent them since they assume that they represent India. This disconnect leads to constant suspicion of and cynicism about the politician. This is what underlies the tirade against politicians after the Mumbai horrors. The new activism may be short-lived, but the danger is that the “anti-politics” sentiment will seep across social classes and strengthen a vocabulary of a worrisome kind.

Suhas Palshikar (suhas@unipune.ernet.in) is at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Pune.

A
s the ghastly attacks on Mumbai unfolded, a new and unanticipated response surfaced.

“Urban” India suddenly found its voice and chanted the slogan: “Down with the politician!”. Given the many faults of our “politicians”, it is no wonder that this slogan finds resonance in the sentiments of many a citizen. Yet, it may not be off the mark to say that the anti-politician campaign has its roots in Mumbai’s elite circles and large urban centres elsewhere in the country. The symbolic gatherings expressing sympathy for the dead and injured and solidarity with the National Security Guard (NSG) and police for their fight against the attackers turned into expressions of severe criticism of not only the incumbent government but the entire tribe of politicians. It is being argued that all politicians are nikamma and we must do something drastic about our politics. While atrocious ideas like appointing a chief executive officer for Mumbai have surfaced in glitterati interviews, the old spectre of making Mumbai a separately governed territory also constitute this elite and middle class discourse.

What happened in Mumbai on 26-28 November was unprecedented and indicates the new strategy that would be adopted by terrorist groups in the near future. Given the newness of the strategy, the surprise, the anger and the confusion are all understandable. But when a tragedy becomes a spectacle, it not only blurs the larger picture, it allows some sections to ride piggyback on the public mood of anger and disappointment. Add to it the newfound power of the electronic media and you have all the making of a democracythrough-TV camera.

While the NSG was still fighting the battle with the terrorists, sections of media went overboard and started the campaign “Enough Is Enough”. One could perhaps hunting” sentinels of democracy! For almost an equal number of hours that the commandos were fighting the battle, the TV cameras were asking anyone and everyone, “isn’t enough is enough…?”, as if there is a certain amount of terrorism that we can accept. Quickly, this theme was picked up by some non-governmental organisations and the upholders of reformed democracy. Mumbai witnessed a flood of anti-politician expression articulated mainly by the middle classes. It is possible that this outburst could be seen as a reaction to the suddenness and the trauma – after all, you need somebody to blame. But one suspects that behind this anti-politician campaign, there is a much deeper anti-politics sentiment. And unfortunately the media is instrumental in shaping and defining it.

The anti-politician campaign appears to have three dimensions: it represents an overall disappointment with our politics felt mostly by the urban middle class; it surreptitiously calls for withdrawal from or distancing from competitive politics; it recommends “tough” measures to combat terrorism; it seeks to “reform” politics. The force and appeal of these are evident.

If things are going wrong, is it not that the political process has failed to throw up responsible leadership? Is it not true that our politics needs to be reformed? Have we not dilly-dallied on strong measures to fight terrorism?

While on the surface these issues seem to be valid, the questions are defined wrongly and the answers are wrong too. That is what makes this anti-politician platform not only faulty but dangerous to the democratic enterprise. In the first question there is an impatience with the democratic process and a naïve expectation that politics, like a magic wand, must resolve all problems. It is typical of the middle class that rather than negotiations and compromises, it believes that there are final solutions to all problems. The

december 13, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
COMMENTARY

issue contained in the second question, political reforms, is undoubtedly important. But we must first define what we mean by reforms. Democracy provides representatives and leaders from among society itself. There is no such thing as a separate class of politicians to be bred and brought up for the benefit of society. Besides, democracy is admittedly a clumsy and complex activity. By seeking to sanitise it, are we trying to rob it of its capacity to shape contestations, its potential to force negotiations? Many supporters of the present demand for political reform forget that institutional remedies have limitations and should not aim at enslaving the struggles for power (Yadav 2000). Reforming politics should not mean limiting politics; it must facilitate the expansion of politics.

This leaves us with the immediate issue of fighting terrorism. Is it political naivety that those demanding tough measures are not aware that this is exactly what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been asking for? Would it not make more sense to ask for effective implementation of security measures? As an op-ed piece in Indian Express by Nandan Nilekani (29 November 2008) rightly implied, why should we give up on democracy for ensuring better governance? But one of the hallmarks of a typical middle class response is “simplification”. Complex issues are presented as simple and straightforward in order to make them comprehensible. Its other dimension is to seek a simplified solution to all problems. Another aspect of the middle class response is to find someone concrete to blame.

After the tragic events in Mumbai, three dimensions were in abundant evidence: simplification, simplified solutions and the need to blame someone. Already, the media and sections of the political class had created an atmosphere in which a simplistic understanding of the issue of terrorism prevailed: that one religion encourages and justifies terrorism, that it is a conspiracy against the emerging Indian superpower, etc. This understanding also believes that terrorism can be stopped or ended by some tough action: that India is a soft state and therefore we are facing such attacks. If we become a hard state (read: a militarist state), we can overcome terrorism.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 13, 2008

But it is the anti-politics tendency more than the tendency towards simplification that requires attention. Middle classes often exercise the exit option instead of aligning with the larger universe called the public. Most of our governance outcomes are a testimony to this exiting footprint of the middle classes. But politics poses a peculiar problem for the exiting classes. They can neither exit politics fully, nor can they control it fully. In the postindependence period, there was a stage when middle classes expressed disdain for politics by keeping away from it. But the force of politics and the magnetism of democracy drew these sections to politics around the mid-1970s at the juncture of post-Emergency politics, and since then the middle classes have been trying to make sense of politics. The advent of Rajeev Gandhi, the anti-Mandal agitation and later the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation

– all these helped the middle classes to align with politics somewhat meaningfully. The rise of the BJP almost provided them with a vehicle. The new economic policies gave them a purpose for engaging in politics. But all these developments did not give the middle classes decisive control over politics.

Democracy in India has thrown up a very complex tension as far as the relationship between the political class and the middle classes is concerned. The postindependence development of the middle classes has led to the de-linking of these sections from the rest of society. The middle class sections see themselves more as peripheral colonies of the elite (Palshikar 2002). Soon after independence, the social contract that had obtained during the national struggle faded: the leadership that came from the urban middle class dominated national politics during the freedom struggle, it was aware of the disconnect between itself and the masses and sought to bridge that through ideology and symbolisms of universality. Democratic politics since the 1930s, but more so after independence, ruptured this social contract. At the state level to begin with, and later, even at the national level, the new politician emerged. He (because it was mostly the male species) was not very sophisticated, he did not speak good English, he did not look like a typical middle class gentleman. Thus, since around the mid1960s, the patience of the middle classes began to wear out. A new disconnect emerged: the politician would be less organically linked to the middle classes, though s/he may not harm the middle class interests much.

Even after the efforts by Rajeev Gandhi, the disjunction between the middle classes and the politician continued. In spite of the growing numbers of the middle classes in our country, the “public” still continues to be dominated by the ordinary, poor, lowincome families both in urban and rural India. But in the meanwhile, the discourse of neoliberal economics, globalisation of aspirations and the much hyped dream of becoming a superpower have all led the middle classes to believe that they now constitute the backbone of the future of this country. Therefore, they expect politics to reflect their aspirations, respond to their anxieties; they want politics to represent them since they assume that middle class represents India. This disconnect leads to constant suspicion and cynicism of the politician.

The sporadic marches and electronic outcry against politicians alert us to these larger issues. By nature, middle class activism is short-lived and does not have the strength to sustain itself. It is possible that within a few weeks time these marches may die down and yet, they would have done enough harm. One, because of the vocal and strategic existence of these sections, the discourse might creep into our body politic. Two, there is the danger of anti-politics sentiment spreading across social sections, mainly because of the power of the media and the vocabulary of security adopted by the current discourse. It is for these reasons that we need to take on board the implicit logic of the agitation against the nikamma politician.

References

Nilekani, Nandan (2008): “We Can Keep Our Heads...”, Indian Express, 29 November, p 9.

Palshikar, Suhas (2002): “Politics of India’s Middle Classes” in Imtiaz Ahmed and Helmut Reifeld (ed.), Middle Class Values in India and Western Europe (New Delhi: Social Science Press), pp 171-93.

Yadav, Yogendra (2000): “Which Reforms? Whose Democracy? A Plea for a Democratic Agenda of Electoral Reforms” in Subhash Kashyap, D D Khanna and Gert W Queck (ed.), Reviewing the Constitution? (Delhi: Shipra), pp 296-317.

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