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Mapping the Landscape of Political Theory

Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Political Theory edited by Mangesh Kulkarni (New Delhi: Sage), 2011; pp 304, Rs 795.

Mapping the Landscape of Political Theory

Sarah Joseph

intervention in contemporary debates on justice and citizenship. While justice is a concept of central importance in contemporary political theory, citizenship is a primary identity of members of a political community. Although claims to citizenship are determined according to domi

nterdisciplinary Perspectives in Political Theory, edited by Mangesh Kulkarni, is a collection of papers delivered at a national seminar on “Contemporary Political Theory” organised by him in Pune University in 2006. As is the case with many seminar collections, especially a seminar on a theme as broad as contemporary political theory, the articles address a wide range of issues, concepts, thinkers, debates and perspectives which reflect the diverse research interests of the participants. The authors also come from different disciplines which range from sociology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and cultural studies to international relations. It would not be useful to try and summarise each of the articles here but a brief discussion of some of them will help to map out the scope of the topics discussed in the book.

In a long introductory essay titled “Relation between Theory and Practice for Our Times”, Jayant Lele addresses the question whether, given the increasing risks and uncertainties of life today, political theory has anything to offer to the world. He traces the governing ideas of western political theory to the European Enlightenment, ideas such as liberty, equality and justice. These concepts emerged during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the accompanying development of the natural sciences and the under standing of reason as human, not divine, reason. With the growth of capitalism and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class, two traditions of interpretation emerged, the liberal and the critical. The liberal tradition which affirmed the virtues of capitalist democracy saw liberty and equality in contradictory terms while the critical tradition, though it recognised the potential of capitalism for eliminating want and oppression, also admitted its inbuilt limitations

Economic & Political Weekly

february 4, 2012

nant conceptions of justice there may be
book review dissonances, “fractures”, between the two.
Chatani explores the possible contribu-
Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Political tions of feminist theory to the contempo-
Theory edited by Mangesh Kulkarni (New Delhi: Sage), rary debate on citizenship and justice and
2011; pp 304, Rs 795. argues that it can provide the resources by
which the claims for redistribution and
and emphasised the need to analyse what recognition can both be integrated.
exists in terms of what can be. Lele main- In “Group Identities and Rights: A Case
tains that theory, by engaging in dialogue for a Theory beyond the Nation State”,
between the two, can act as a catalyst in Arpita Anand presents a study of theories
promoting emancipatory action. of group rights and identities. She main-
This provides the background to Lele’s tains that there has been a tendency in
discussion of two formidable challenges social science to view group identities as
which face the world today, i e, economic of purely local and national origin and
and cultural fundamentalism. He assesses focus on domestic factors in identity for
the contributions and limitations of three mation even at the cost of neglecting inter
major contemporary thinkers, Rawls, national influences. Few studies discuss
Habermas and Derrida towards under group identities and rights as influenced
standing our times and asserts the need by both domestic as well as international
for creative and reflexive individuals to factors. She refers to the Indian discourse
pursue an unfolding notion of truth. on the rights of minorities, in particular
In “The Politics of Globalisation: Theo the Muslim identity, to illustrate her point.
retical Debates”, Rohini Hensman discu s- In the pre-Independence period a debate
ses the impact of globalisation on national took place among Muslim leaders between
sovereignty, popular movements of resist those favouring pan-Islamism and those
ance and emancipation, militarism and who opposed it. This influenced their
citizenship. Writing as an activist as well political stances vis-à-vis the British and
as political researcher she discusses the the nationalist movement. In the post Inde
impact of globalisation on national sover pendence period, Indian Muslims have
eignty and democracy and argues that it looked to both the domestic and inter
does not necessarily lead to loss of demo national environment while attempting to
cracy. Though neo-liberal theories wel construct a political identity for themselves
come globalisation because it leads to the and coping with the experience of living in
opening up of markets and the globalisa a secular, liberal democratic state.
tion of capital flows, globalisation also has Prakash Sarangi, in an article on public
emancipatory possibilities. It can generate choice theories and their implications for
wider support for human rights and resist democracy, discusses some of the insights
ance movements which try to impose and limitations of using economic metho
democratic norms on emerging world sys dologies to understand democratic proc
tems. As an example she points to the esses. Voting behaviour, political opinion
World Social Forum and the changes formation in civil society, legislative or
which have been introduced in the World judicial decision-making, all involve col-
Trade Organisation. lective decision-making by citizens and
In “Justice, Citizenship and the Politics theories of collective choice can be used
of Feminism”, Lajwanti Chatani explores to analyse such decisions. He examines
feminist theory for possible points of the assumptions about individuals and
vol xlviI no 5 27

their behaviour adopted in such theories and discusses some well-known studies, for example, Anthony Downs’ Economic Theory of Democracy and the work of Riker and Mancur Olson. He concludes by saying that we need to go beyond purely economic explanations if we wish to understand individual behaviour and democratic institutions.

In a somewhat discursive discussion of the concept of civil society, Sanjay Palshikar (“Civil Society: Alternatives and Differences”) points out that political circumstances in different parts of Europe by the end of the 20th century led to a revival of interest in the concept. It broadly came to stand for free association and the pursuit of individual interests and objectives in contrast to the coercive state. He maintains that although the processes of globalisation have led to conversation among intellectuals across the world the western political tradition continues to enjoy a dominant position and the non-western experience tends to be structured by western theories. He, however, rejects nativism as a solution to this problem but emphasises that ideas which originate in different political contexts need to be “translated” before they can be of relevance in other contexts. In this context he discusses the work of two contemporary political theorists who he feels have recognised the problem without however offering satisfactory answers. Gurpreet Mahajan, in a discussion of Rajni Kothari’s work, has argued that the western trend of upholding civil society at the cost of the state could have negative consequences if it is transplanted to India given the inequalities and diversity which exist in society, and she argues that we need to recognise that in India the state is the guarantor of individual rights. While supporting this position Palshikar also cites certain differences with Mahajan and feels that she has not given sufficient recognition to the dynamic and changing nature of social reality. With reference to Partha Chatterjee’s discussion of political and civil society and his exploration of the ways in which many people who live outside the formal, legal structures of the state may negotiate certain benefits and concessions from it, Palshikar feels that Chatterjee may have exaggerated the distinction between political and civil society and that in fact both are in complex interaction with each other. He urges further examination of such ideas.

Mangesh Kulkarni, in “Albert Camus and the Politics of Friendship”, discusses Camus’ concept of rebellion and its continuing relevance for those facing the challenges of life in the late modern period. He mentions in particular its spirit of moderation, relativity of values and the recognition of the fallibility of thought. He ends with the comment that “in an era characterised by the ‘end of history’ impasse it provides both the utopian energy and the conceptual resources needed to reinvent a humane sociopolitical order anchored in a version of freedom” (p 148).

The philosopher Sayed A Sayeed (“Dismantling the Political”) analyses the concept of “the political” which forms a part of many different aspects of reality although all are linked to power transactions. While politics is a process which penetrates most human relations so that no escape from politics may be possible it


October 22, 2011

Subverting Policy, Surviving Poverty: Women and the SGSY in Rural Tamil Nadu – K Kalpana
Small Loans, Big Dreams: Women and Microcredit in a Globalising Economy – Kumud Sharma
Women and Pro-Poor Policies in Rural Tamil Nadu: An Examination of Practices and Responses – J Jeyaranjan
Informed by Gender? Public Policy in Kerala – Seema Bhaskaran
Addressing Paid Domestic Work: A Public Policy Concern – Nimushakavi Vasanthi
Reproductive Rights and Exclusionary Wrongs: Maternity Benefits – Lakshmi Lingam, Vaidehi Yelamanchili
Reinventing Reproduction, Re-conceiving Challenges:
An Examination of Assisted Reproductive Technologies in India – Vrinda Marwah, Sarojini N

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february 4, 2012 vol xlviI no 5

Economic & Political Weekly


can be directed towards resistance to dominance which can promote freedom as much as towards control and oppression. To promote freedom counter strategies should be evolved and the life and thought of Gandhi can, he feels, provide us with the tools to do this. Other articles in the collection include Deepti Gangavane who writes on Habermas’ discourse ethics, Kannama Raman who discusses the debates on protecting traditional knowledge in the age of globalisation, Shardool Thakur who uses Giorgio Agambens’ notion of the camp as nomos of the modern to interrogate the imposition of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958,





in the north-east and Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg in “The Crime of Torture”.

Given the wide range of topics, perspectives, issues and disciplines represented in the book what, if anything, holds it together? In his introduction Kulkarni maintains that the diversity of the articles reflects the global and interdisciplinary character of the enterprise of political theory and that such interactions between political theorists and other colleagues in the social sciences can help to strengthen our “collective intellectual and practical capacity to shape the global configuration of capital, power and knowledge that is emerging in the matrix of late modernity





and that political theorists can make a contribution here by drawing on their own heritage and engaging in creative collaboration with like-minded colleagues in the human sciences”. These are large aims and I would leave it to the reader to decide whether, and to what extent, the volume has been able to further them. However, it can certainly be said that the volume gives the reader an insight into the lively debate on a wide range of topics which characterises political theory in India today.

Sarah Joseph ( is based in Bangalore.






Economic & Political Weekly

february 4, 2012 vol xlviI no 5

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