ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Provincialisation of ‘Transformative’ Politics

Samar Kavi is the pseudonym of a writer based in Mumbai.

The left and the Dalit political parties put limits on the transformative politics that draws its support and sustenance from the normative ideals available in Karl Marx and B R Ambedkar. Arguably, these limits spring from the conditions of provincialisation of transformative politics into instrumentalities that are internal to electoral democracy.

As most of the election studies show, the logic of elections in parliamentary democracy enthuses among its contenders a fierce sense of competition to capture or be in formal political power. However, for the left, and to some extent for some Dalit parties, elections have turned out to be less of a competitive scenario and more of a matter of predicament. It is a predicament in the sense that the kind of self-limiting1 electoral politics that these parties have given rise to seeks to limit the impact of emancipatory thinkers,2 both in terms of time and space. In terms of space, the impact of ideas gets confined to the electoral constituencies; and in terms of time, the parties choose election time to create the impact of these ideas either with direct or indirect reference to the ideas of these thinkers. However, this is not to suggest that these parties send these ideas on a holiday during the time that falls between two elections. The political parties and their followers do invoke these ideas for pan-Indian mobilisation.

Put differently, these parties in each general election tend to apportion the political impact of universal ideas only to a narrow space as they put up their candidates more or less in a limited number of constituencies. The enormity of these thinkers’ powerful ideas as the motivating force for the party cadre actually fades away in winning a seat here and a seat there, or in retaining political power in a relatively tiny state.

Locating Provincialism

In a limited moral and ethical sense, the Indian left and Dalits are privileged to have at their disposal these thinkers’ egalitarian philosophy that provides transcendental criteria to critique the oppressive social and political reality that exists both locally as well as at the pan-Indian level. Thus, these parties can continuously and consistently use such radical means as transcendental criteria to critique the social (caste) and political reality (instrumentalist right-wing politics) that exists in the local, but has the promise to extend beyond it. In a radical sense, the transcendental criteria for a radical critique of the oppressive system that is available in the egalitarian ideas of these thinkers underlies a hermeneutic/communicative power to give an approximate or expensive account of the local reality that necessarily extends in its essence to the larger reality. For example, in the Indian context, caste, class, and gender exploitation is at once local and pan-Indian. As the experience of left and Dalit politics shows, the logic of electioneering has a constraining impact on the universal thrust of the transcendental criteria that seek to “intensely” communicate these ideas to a limited number of people who exist in a specific electorate as voters.3 Elections involving these two political forces seek to transmute the transcendental into an immanent critique. It is this form of immanent critique that inheres in it the conditions of the provincial.

The transcendental critique of the exploitative and discriminatory system can be better placed in the radical practice of both the left and Dalits arguably in the time that necessarily exists outside electoral mobilisation. As the very recent organised mobilisation by the left over the question of farmers’ issues and rather spontaneous mobilisation by pan-Indian Dalits over the question of the 1989 anti-atrocity act, proves the efficacy of transformative politics when conducted outside the realm of elections. Such oppositional, but peaceful mobilisation guarantees the articulation of emancipatory ideas that form the part of struggle of peasants’ struggle against exploitation and manipulation and the Dalit struggle for dignified public presence.

However, these universal principles are suffocated by different kinds of instrumentalities that become active during the elections. To put it succinctly, the universal ideas necessarily get provincialised into narrow counters of electoral politics. It is in this context we need to primarily understand the provincialisation as a condition that inheres in it the contradiction between the normative promise and the practical political reluctance, if not incapacity, of these parties to articulate this promise. The electoral politics of these parties suggests a new definition of provincialisation that is much more conceptually complex—as suggested by Dipesh Chakrabarty4 in his seminally important work—than its empirical projection in the usual election studies.

Provincialisation as a condition can exist only in the availability of the transcendental/universal ideal as the reference point for actual mobilisation. Thus, as mentioned above, arguably, for the left, Marx “over-determines” the theoretical and political activism of the left, while Ambedkar as a universal ideal provides Dalits with a singularly motivating reference point.

The universal idea as the reference point does provide to these ethically sensitive parties a normative standard by which such parties can evaluate their tenacity in the commitment to expand the social base of its transformative politics. But, such committed articulation of the universal ideas gets halted in the growing provincialisation of politics particularly in the time of elections.

The Universal as Provincial

In both the left and Dalit electoral politics, the confinement of the universal standpoint to electoral constituencies happens primarily in two ways. First, the Indian left seems to treat one single candidate as an embodiment of Marxism, particularly during election time.5 Second, the Dalit adoption of B R Ambedkar, by and large, happens mostly either in rhetoric or hagiographic form.6 However, provincialisation of electoral politics, when driven by a sense of compliancy or subsidised satisfaction, can generate an acute sense of anxiety that the emerging political subjectivity is affected by, at particular levels of politics. At the electoral concrete level, a particular leader or a candidate as an embodiment of an abstract idea begins to take unilateral responsibility and invests in such an electorally charged place a radical meaning of emancipation. Left and Dalit parties would like to limit the universal impact of ideology to a specific context.

Interestingly, such a conception of provincialisation of politics underlies the claim of protecting both the cultural, intellectual, and material interests of the electorate. Thus, such politics offers an endorsement of the need to bring in resources, both ideological and material, from outside and replenish the electorate with these resources. This would, as implicitly suggested, add to the value of this particular context. In this regard, it is also interesting to note that political parties and their leaders try to maintain the existing value of the region’s political credibility by severing from it certain elements that are considered harmful to the particular interest of its contenders: political leaders or their parties. For example, this was evident in the context of Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh. In either case, it is inward movement rather than outer reach that defines the logic of the provincial political mindset.

Such a provincial political mindset produces the following consequences. It rules out the possibility of the party spreading itself thin, aimed not at winning, but at communicating primarily to yourself and to others that you are fighting to establish the transcendental truth, that if we come to power we will offer a better future. Ideally, the search for transcendental truth rules out a party that has instrumental interest in spreading itself thin in terms of contesting seats in every constituency. This is particularly true of the left parties, which arguably are less anxious, particularly after the West Bengal experience with their electoral base being usurped by other opposition parties. As the principled stand taken by the left government in Kerala on the Sabarimala controversy suggests, the left parties are not extraordinarily worried about the opposition undercutting their electoral base. Left parties have reason to argue that they are interested in standing by the transcendental truth. They can promise a future based on reason and rationality.

Arguably, both these parties, which have been known for championing the cause of the exploited, discriminated, and displaced masses, do have a certain moral advantage over other mainstream national or regional parties that do not manifest a rightist orientation. One can understand this advantage in terms of the confrontational politics which these parties seem to be conducting continuously for the realisation of normative values, such as equality, by and large taken up by the Indian left, and the question of dignity and social justice followed up by some of the Dalit parties. These parties also understand the importance of state intervention in the life situation of the most vulnerable groups in India. The capturing of power at the centres becomes all the more important especially when it is the state that has become the sole custodian of the rights of the poor through its redistributive functions. It is astounding that, even in the times of neo-liberalism, in people’s perception the state has become so important.

In conclusion, one could observe that parties working within the framework of provincialism necessarily justify their political existence in terms of the emancipatory purpose and universal promise. But, as their political practice shows, they necessarily choose to pursue this agenda from a particular territorial location. Provincialisation in this sense is paradoxical in nature. To put it differently, emancipatory intentions of such parties are universal in their normative thrust and, hence, have the political promise to mobilise masses across several regions of India. However, the concrete follow-up of these intentions necessarily remains confined to a particular location. Thanks to provincialism that sustains this contradiction between the universal and the particular.


1 The electoral prospects of such parties have been continuously under threat of decline. However, the initiative to pragmatically forge regional alliance with Samajwadi Party at the regional level during the last few years by Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh is a moment of exception.

2 Kal Marx and B R Ambedkar being the foremost among these thinkers.

3 Begusarai in Bihar is one recent example.

4 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000.

5 This was evident in the recent elections of 2019.

6 This was evident in the Dalit electoral mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh.

Updated On : 6th May, 2019


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top