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India: a general election, emerging model of power, and populist resistance

Make no mistake; a social war is being fought between capital and the subaltern classes who are behind the populists – the party of punitive forces of the rich and the party of populists. This is the matrix of all power struggles today, and the social war of our time.

Ranabir Samaddar
25 June 2019
January, 2019 - Kolkata, West Bengal. Muslim rally demanding minimum one job per family for Muslims, dalits, tribal and other backward classes.
January, 2019 - Kolkata, West Bengal. Muslim rally demanding minimum one job per family for Muslims, dalits, tribal and other backward classes.
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Saikat Paul/PA. All rights reserved.

Political observers loosely speak of authoritarianism, populism, etc., as if these are ideologies and not concrete political practices, ideologically opposed to democracy. This commentary reflecting on the recently concluded Indian general elections, particularly in West Bengal, throws light on some of these concrete political situations and practices through which a particular form of power emerges and resistance too takes shape. In the process the commentary also tells us of some of the dynamics of postcolonial democracy marked by violence and the emergence of a new model of power.

Violence of a democratic ritual

Take the case of the so-called “electoral violence” in West Bengal in the recently concluded general elections in India, which passed through seven phases of voting (11 April -19 May, counting on 23 May). West Bengal had to slug it out through the highest number of voting phases (along with UP and Bihar). For the first five phases, the verdict of the special police observer Vivek Dubey and the special election observer Ajay Nayek was that the polls had been by and large peaceful. The Election Commission of India sought re-polling in only eight booths out of more than 60,000 in the state.

Except on sporadic occasions in the third and sixth phases, people were able to cast their votes and people had cast their votes freely. The chief state electoral officer Arif Aftab gave the same assessment. Life loss was minimal with three unfortunate deaths. In 2014, according to police reports, West Bengal had witnessed at least 14 deaths during the Lok Sabha elections, with around 1,166 recorded incidents of violence. This time, after the six phases the number of incidents, major and minor all together, was 337. With the elections spanning more than a month with seven phases involving 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, readers can make their own calculations about the so-called intensity of violence. Also West Bengal had consistently recorded higher voter turn out in the country in terms of percentage. The so-called ‘peace’ elsewhere had not ensured greater electoral participation of people.

When the West Bengal government was accused of failing to curb or even encouraging election-time violence last year, the TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O'Brien remarked: "To all 'newborn' experts on Bengal, Panchayat Elections in State have a history. In 1990s about 400 people were killed in poll violence under the CPI (M) rule. The number of dead in 2003 was 40. Every death is a tragedy.” Now he said, with the number of deaths coming down below 20 it was at its lowest. A few dozen incidents. Say, 40 out of 58,000 booths. What is the percentage?

Meanwhile on the inaugural day of the elections two people died in an IED blast in Maharashtra. Reports of EVM (electronic voting machines) glitches and multiple complaints from voters about their names not being on the electoral list or the indelible link on their fingers quickly fading marked the beginning. In Odisha repeated incidents of poll-related violence in different districts including the state capital Bhubaneswar became matters of concern. Of four prominent cases the most brutal was the killing of a political activist, Ramachandra Behera in Ghasipura in north Odisha's Keonjhar district. Here armed miscreants dragged him from his house and repeatedly stabbed him to death. Then they chopped off both his hands and took them away. Four days later, the police recovered the hands from a pond. Similarly, a senior BJP leader from coastal Khurda district, Manguli Jena was shot dead while he was returning home after campaigning for a party nominee in Khurda town. Police have arrested a few miscreants in connection with both the murder incidents. As expected, both the ruling BJD and the BJP, who are fighting hard to capture the majority of the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats, blamed each other for the poll-related violence. Both parties alerted the Election Commission over the issue. Scattered bomb explosions and clashes between rival political groups marked voting in the crucial fifth phase of India’s marathon elections. In Kashmir, youths hurled stones at election staff and their security guards as they moved into schools and government buildings on the eve of the elections to set up polling stations in the area. Troops fired shotguns and tear gas to quell the anti-India protests that injured people.

However it was clear that these reported incidents and many such others were considered as of a minor nature. They did not make the elections in the rest of the country violent. But the ruling party at the Centre even before the elections had started had demanded that all state police forces must be removed from the electoral process in West Bengal, and that elections must be conducted solely with the deployment of paramilitary soldiers, who were “central soldiers”, and hence presumably impartial. The Left joined the chorus. In the last phase, an unprecedented number of 700 companies of paramilitary forces were deployed to conduct elections, thus on a rough estimate 70,000 soldiers were pressed into duty to lead people into voting in nine constituencies.

The right wing party ruling at the Centre and on the Left were still not happy in the end. The Kashmir model of holding elections through a military mode appeared to them as the requisite recipe for a recalcitrant state like West Bengal. To legitimise that mode and the overall militarisation of elections, violence had to be produced. There had to be overwhelming talk of violence. Media and a churlish opposition in the state like the Left have only contributed to electoral militarisation.

Selective militarisation

Yet this militarisation was and will be only selective. In the model that is emerging, states like Gujarat, temporarily browbeaten into submission, did not need the induction of paramilitary forces, and elections were held in one phase. The Supreme Court did not intervene in the process despite complaints of gross arbitrariness being lodged. In West Bengal, chained with the iron shackle of seven phases of voting, and with hundreds and thousands of armed forces guarding the iron cage, the paramilitary forces entered election booths, beat up people including a sitting candidate severely, quarantined political activists, and twice opened fire on unarmed people.

An official protested and consequently was immediately relieved of duty. Meanwhile several state police officers and administrative officials had been changed on instructions of the ruling party at the Centre. On the grounds that the Election Commission is a constitutional body, its powers were interpreted in the broadest possible way – often at the cost of the powers of other constitutional bodies such as a state government. For instance, it was argued that since Article 324 vests in an Election Commission the function of superintendence, direction, and control of elections, this Article, as the Supreme Court held in 1977, “operates in areas left unoccupied by legislation” and the words “superintendence, direction and control” operate summarily in the “conduct of all elections”.

According to the Court, Article 324 was thus intended to be comprehensive so that it could take care of “surprise situations”. Yet the Constitution had not defined these powers and they are now interpreted in the broadest of terms. The Court had however cautioned that this power had to be exercised, not mindlessly or mala fide, neither arbitrarily nor with partiality. The recalcitrant government of West Bengal asked, in the absence of any constitutional elaboration of the powers of the Election Commission, who would check if the conduct of the Commission had been mindless and mala fide or not?

In the West Bengal situation, marked by some violence and vandalism, which were not at all alarming during the actual election period, who was to decide if the Commission had any need to invoke its summary powers, including the residuary power granted by Article 324? Ironically violence erupted after the elections were over, results were announced, and power started changing hands at the grassroots.

The fact was overlooked that the Election Commission was not a representative body, or a judicial body, or a democratically constituted body, but an administrative body appointed by the central government with summary powers, and hence could act arbitrarily. In such a closed situation, it was to be expected that violence was one of the ways out. The idea behind this emerging model of power was a combination of selective use of threat and force, ruthless application of law unmediated and unrestrained, and at times aided by the judicial process – in other words, complete centralisation of the process of elections bypassing the federal polity, and the legitimisation of all these steps through the mobilisation of the media for an overwhelming campaign of “mob violence” so that the media-orchestrated campaign could act as a template of the application of power. Who could then later deny that imposition of central rule through Article 356 was the only way out for the central government to end lawlessness, and rein in a disobedient state?

Passion versus might

West Bengal had refused to be browbeaten. Not Leftist homilies, but for the past few years populist campaigns were on to mobilise people in villages and small towns, where the domination of educated gentry was less. Women and lower classes were asked to come out in large numbers to make the election a hard fought political exercise. Such a strategy was deliberately confrontationist. So, if for the BJP it was a question of Modi representing the nation versus the rest, in Bengal the populists ensured that it was Mamata, representing Bengal versus the rest. Likewise if it was for Modi a question of Hindu religion and a pure nation based on expulsion of the impure (the immigrants, Muslims, etc., through an NRC - National Registration of Citizens - exercise in West Bengal), for the populists it was one of syncretism, ecumenism, and a heritage of Bengal whose doors of hospitality were to be open for all.

The polarities are several. One had only to watch how the milieu of tension, confrontation, and violence built up gradually. It is a pressing politics on the part of the populists surcharging the political mood of the people with exposure of the powers at the Centre day in and day out – a sort of relentless oppositional commitment to dismantle the power of the day. It was affective politics at its most pure. Populism posed passion against might. The path as proved later was risky. The odds had been strangely underestimated.

In any case, politics in this contentious milieu could not but be conducted in war mode. Beneath the speeches of campaigners and deployment of soldiers, officers, poll panels, money, media personnel, and countless foot soldiers, also the meetings of villagers in the burning countryside of West Bengal, the rural poor, minority groups, and informal discussions among endless bands of informal workers, one could hear the muffled sounds of a social war.

The parliamentary Leftists said, society was being polarised this way, this was undesirable, and they wanted to stop it. Thus they refused to take sides even when classes entered a tug of war, arraigned against each other, and the Right was advancing. The Left was thus conducting itself like a small town guardian of morality. The parliamentary Leftists refused to acknowledge that authoritarianism could draw legitimacy from democratic sources, and in a situation of what we may call “soft authoritarianism” illegitimate actions of the lower classes acted as the very locomotive of social war. The grammar of baboo communism could not be a guide to politics in such a contentious scenario, where illegal mobilisations and acts became common acts in politics in West Bengal.

Illegalism in election time cannot be rooted out by the authorities of law, who themselves practise it in abundant measure.

A Central Industrial Security Force officer stands on guard at a polling station during the final phase of General Elections in Baruipur, West Bengal, May 2019.
A Central Industrial Security Force officer stands on guard at a polling station during the final phase of General Elections in Baruipur, West Bengal, May 2019. | SOPA Images/PA All rights reserved.

This election showed that one fundamental feature of this emerging model of power is a process that will aim to govern from a distance the entire organisation and functioning of the penal system towards disciplining the recalcitrant components of society. Illegalism will be the target of the institutions such as the Election Commission and the paramilitary forces. Yet coercing the opponent during the voting time is a time old feature of postcolonial democracies, practised by all political forces, and in particular by the legal institutions. So while the opposition states today can be branded as the social enemy, illegalism in election time cannot be rooted out by the authorities of law, who themselves practise it in abundant measure. As witnessed in Bengal, there will be illegal groupings and mobilisations, which rulers will attempt to break up. A supplementary code will be put in place. Think of the model code of conduct put in place during election time (from the time of the announcement of elections to its formal conclusion). Its task will be to complement law to browbeat the opposition. The demoralisation of the enemy is the goal.

The goal is also to break economic and political illegalism ranging from common law crime, economic offence, delinquency, to political insubordination. Faced with such an imposition of law and might, the question may not be, why violence, but why not? Even though, as I said, violent Bengal was a mythical image that served the purposes of law and force.

The emerging model of power

We must pay great attention to the emerging model of power. This general election along with the methods deployed to conduct it, and the role of the institutions along with the promise of speeding up neoliberal reforms and cleansing the polity of undesirable elements (like immigrants) if the ruling party at the Centre was returned to power, point to some of the features of the new model of power. We have to now discuss them in some detail.

In order to cleanse the nation of undesirable elements and “roadblocks” (the word used by the Prime Minister to describe the populist chief minister of the state) on the road to prosperity, the populists whose class basis is in the hundreds and thousands of informal workers and petty producers had to be branded as the social enemy. The entire election campaign made out that the social enemy was a criminal. Not only all available forces were brought to bear upon the so-called social enemy, the model was also based on the declaration that a war had to be waged upon the social enemy.

What kind of war was this? Partly a social war, meaning war between two social sections, partly a civil war, meaning that a political life and death battle was being waged. It involved the reassertion of sovereignty being challenged by populists who were embedded locally, and secured by local apparatuses of power. Hence the war was not only between the centre and the states, the corporate class and the populists, but also between the law of democracy institutionalised through centralisation and the illegalisms of the lower classes. The elections showed how the society of neoliberal consensus was producing its enemies, how petty crimes would be straightened out, and the criminals belonging to the popular classes would be punished.

Civil society, the political class, and the educated gentry backed this model of power. It sided with the central government against the enemy population. In one state only – the state of Assam – 40 lakhs of people had been declared stateless, hundreds thrown into detention camps, scores pushed to suicide, and the enemy population was one that stood outside the law. They obstructed production, ate up the resources of the country, they were a counter-power as they opposed the streamlining of production along neoliberal lines.

This emergence of the criminal-social enemy occasioned the reorganisation of penalties as evidenced in Supreme Court judgments. This criminal-social enemy was made out as lazy. Thus Bengalis did not work hard. Muslims in Assam were prone to criminality. The migrants were criminals. Immigrants were violent as in the border districts of West Bengal. The situation called for surveillance, punitive measures, and a strong national ethos to back the spirit of punishment. As the elections showed, society gave its support to appropriate measures to punish the social enemy, also the recalcitrant states run by populists if they patronised and protected the latter.

Behind the forms of punishment ranging from the alien detection tribunals to deployment of paramilitary forces, special observers, and judicial concurrence with the punitive mode of government, in short the militarisation of democracy, to hiking up prices, demonetisation, and other economic steps, there was this overwhelming idea that the gravity of the offence was in measure with the degree of illegality, of which society morally disapproved. The moral tone became strident. Evil exists, which is why the country remains backward. Populism is evil, because it shelters illegalism. Illegal income, petty businesses outside law, illegal banking, corruption, in fact the very illegality of existence of thousands upon thousands are morally reprehensible. Power is needed to curb it and society will tolerate or bestow such power mandated to suppress the evil. The almost entire range of middle classes, and the liberal parliamentary Left along with some sections of the popular classes became the instruments of legitimacy of this new model of power.

Here then, we see the double function of the new order:

(a) The first function of the new order is to attach to society the nature of a religious community so that moral injunctions can be brought against its social enemies, who are involved in various illegalisms. They are the “enemy of the people”.

(b) The second function of the new order is to devise different forms of judicial-legal-administrative punishments of individuals as a mark of collective social control. Thus selective targeting of individuals suspected of sympathising with the Maoists and their violent methods and putting them behind bars became frequent. It is interesting to see how capitalism in each stage of its development needs a moral order, a kind of moral society, which will control populations, prevent the transfer of property to various unknown sections, and reduce the risks to bourgeois wealth.

It is interesting to see how capitalism in each stage of its development needs a moral order, a kind of moral society, which will control populations, prevent the transfer of property to various unknown sections, and reduce the risks to bourgeois wealth.

These two functions together facilitate the organisation of a new system of production, which will combine the severity of the primitive mode of accumulation and the serenity of the neoliberal virtual mode. To achieve the hitherto unachievable organisation of a new system of production based on a combination of the two, the new order has to situate itself on the borders of morality and punishment.

For the middle classes the brew is heady, they had all along imagined a morally correct and well regulated society. We must not wonder then as to how or why the Left lined up with the new regime in upholding the emerging moral code and was silent about the punishments wreaked upon the immigrants, minorities, small producers, small traders (through GST and demonetisation), local unemployed youth, and other sections of the lower classes. With the middle classes going over to the Right, we could see that punishment too had been moralised. As one watches the incessant declarations from the highest bench, law is now especially infatuated with morality. For that the safety of the State is paramount and sovereignty has to be reasserted to superintend the observance of laws, which requires in its turn ensuring morality in a delinquent society, in this case West Bengal. And make no mistake, the lower classes became and will increasingly be the target of the new model of power.

Where the migrant fits in

What kind of threat does the migrant bring to a society? The migrant symbolises illegal existence, immoral ways of living based on the flexible use of the body, flexible needs, will, and presence, and therefore needs to be disciplined and if possible expelled. But more important is the question, who is a migrant? Here the answer actually supplies the question. The migrant is whomever the society thinks undesirable, alien. So, while the illegal existence can be utilised and is necessary for production, this utilisation must be streamlined and regulated.

Conditions of accumulation will be primitive, but the regulation of labour will not be anarchic. It will be of the twenty first century. The migrant is a danger because migrant labour often declines to obey the regulations and behaves in an anarchic manner, refusing to lend his/her body to the apparatus of production as per the rules.

Who then is the social enemy? Not the worker of industrial capitalism, who has been brought under control through a standardised wage regime (though there too new problems of precarious work conditions have emerged), but the migrant, the jobless, the footloose, the petty proprietors, and the vast masses of wandering peasants who appear as a threat to bourgeois wealth. In short, the emerging model of power has among others the following characteristics:

(a) It unleashes a social war appearing as a war of all against all, but different from the latter in several aspects. It designates “the enemy of the society” against whom the social war is conducted; waging war against the “the enemy of the society” is the condition of its existence. Perhaps then it will be correct to say that through the social war this new regime of power emerges;

(b) It tell us of politics in the age of renewed primitive accumulation, but with the difference that while the anarchy in labour conditions may continue, the political regime will focus on ensuring a well-regulated society with massive powers of punishment;

(c) This is because while part of the accumulation mode is primitive, capitalist accumulation also proceeds in the most advanced virtual manner, at the heart of which lies financialisation of the economy, and a tremendous leap in logistics and infrastructure (digital, financial, transportation, connectivity, etc.);

(d) Therefore, it will adjust the scale of punishment according to the needs of maintaining the simultaneity between the two modes of accumulation;

(e) And, finally, because the duality breeds anarchy, the new regime of power will be severe, and bring its full force down upon the heads of the anarchic, populists, and the anti-nationals – in short those considered as the social enemy.

This is the political apparatus of the nation. Interesting is the way in which politics and economics combine in this new regime of politics. The point to note here is that this regime of severe power emerges from democracy. There is no coup d’état, no takeover of power by a palace coterie, no apparent subversion of judiciary and other constitutional bodies, no usurpation of power, yet order marches ahead ruthlessly. Following from this, the other interesting aspect is the fact that in this forward march of politics, the economy could and can be sidelined.

In this forward march of politics, the economy could and can be sidelined.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during first press conference after the Lok Sabha elections, May, 2019, Kolkata, India.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during first press conference after the Lok Sabha elections, May, 2019, Kolkata, India. | Hindustan Times/PA. all rights reserved.

Economic goals and the ritual of democracy

We already noted the economic goal of this new model of power, namely to steamroll economic reforms, deregulate existing labour, create the large mass of a disenfranchised labour force, create a unified market of goods and services, remove all bottlenecks from the path of infrastructural and logistical expansion, cut out banking losses, ensure the free entry and mobility of capital, manage the vast army of informal labour, marginalise the agrarian sector, and in this way combine the two modes of accumulation – primitive and the financial-virtual.

Yet the noticeable point is that the economic goal can be achieved only by silencing the economic in politics. So how will this paradoxical goal be achieved? Why would society agree to such a manoeuvre? Society indeed agreed to put to one side the economic issues during the past few stormy years of politics culminating in the elections. Herein is the importance of the democratic ritual. In the elections preceded and accompanied by punishments and overwhelming messages of progress and a prosperous life, people voted with their dreams, desires, and the “acts of truth” of their long entrenched identity made up of hatred of minorities, insecurity about the migrants, and their long held but suppressed fears, desires, and fantasies. They had to do their bit to finish off the social enemy.

The electoral rite was the act of exchanging the soul for the security of the body the citizen received in return. Through these “truth acts” the citizens volunteered to become subjects of the new regime of power. The subject had been the sinner who had not appreciated, till the democratic moment arrived, the enormous efforts the rulers were putting in to keep the nation secure. The subject had been lazy. Now was the time for penance by giving away the soul. The birth of authority was through the democratic procedure – the soft passage to severity. It was within the framework of political rationality that the new model of power, with at its core authoritarianism of a new type, was born. The new model became a reality.

Populism as the social enemy, the enemy of order

I have mentioned the role of the “social enemy” in the emergence of a new model of power. The first thing to note is that populism cannot but leave open the possibility for the hegemonic power to use the “people” against the populists. Take the instance of this general election in West Bengal. Divisions in the lower classes and groups were turned into a fight of the “people” against a “divisive” and “corrupt” government, which does nothing for the “people” and disobeys the “state”.

Populists are not holistic; the party in power at the Centre representing the entire nation is. The nation is the people. The nation that is the people is holistic. It defies caste divisions, language divisions, all divisions. And by allowing select sections of the lower classes to voice their demands as “demands of the people”, the authoritarians can show that people are on their side and the populists are the enemy – of progress, development, society, and the people. Thus Matuas (lower caste), indigenous communities in North Bengal and Junglemahals, Sadgops (intermediary caste), and the Dalits in border districts all became anti-Muslims. So they could now speak for the nation, and themselves. The vote became a defining moment for not only West Bengal or India, but for democracy and “people” too. For, this was not a republican moment as the conventional political indoctrination would have liked us to believe. It was a defining moment for democracy which gave birth to a new model of power supported and desired by the people. It was a desire for power that did not claim to be sublime, on the other hand whose extraordinary claim to popular allegiance was that it was severe.

Groups have their distinct demands all pressing on the ruler. But “people” may give less importance to making a demand of the “people”, or even may not forge a collective demand if they are proud of the general power representing the “general people”. After all the government may have come back to power and the king qua king may actually exercise authority, but what will it do for the economy? How will it ensure the $190 billion bank loan clean-up needed to kick start growth, investments, and consumer spending? Meanwhile a crisis among shadow lenders will curb advances from the sector and hit consumer spending. As one report pointed out, of 12 large debtors – the so-called dirty dozen – that were pushed into bankruptcy courts in 2017 by the banking regulator – only five had been successfully sold with lenders recovering about 39% of dues on average. The government of the “people” will be therefore accompanied by a proliferation of precarious work, more intensive looting of nature, and more desperate measures to get out of the stagnation trap. In this milieu of primitive accumulation, “people” must be periodically invented by the hegemonic politics to shut out dissenters, “roadblocks”, lawless groups, and disruptors – all those riff raff sections who do not belong to society, and are “enemies of the people”.

Populist tactics

The populists do not have as yet have any answer to this strategy. Like other features of a crisis-ridden time, the link between people and populism has been turned upside down by the neoliberal model of politics, which now sets the “people” against the “populists”. Thus Trump representing the American people is against Bernie Sanders, the populist; Tories representing the nation are against Corbyn the populist who only wants power and refuses to provide rational answers to political issues, etc., etc., and now in this country Modi representing the Indian people against Mamata, the rabble-rouser, the populist. Populists in the states like Mamata-led TMC (Trinamul Congress) are still to devise any effective strategy as an answer to neoliberal politics in the time of primitive accumulation.

Populists in India are still thinking of strengthening regional identity, welfare programmes, increasing mass contact, strengthening welfare delivery measures, and other policies of yesteryears. Will they work? Alone, what will be their response to the hegemonic mode of the new model of power? Will the populists have an alliance policy, a national charter, a new way of convincing the society that they are the “people”, that the populists are the “people” of the time? We have a paradox here, for the truth is that when the populists are able to present themselves as the people, it will mean that they have gradually reduced their identity as populists and acquired the nature of a new formation. The crisis will be the “vanishing mediator”, and right now it is perhaps a daydream.

Second, how will populists respond to the charge of illegalism and the surge in the punitive actions of power? Given the way the issue of illegalism has been moralised, the populists often back down. They lack the intellectual, legal, spiritual, and social resources to persist with various small and medium scale illegal activities and existences (such as raising money, mobilising capital, giving jobs, tolerating illegal migrants, permitting, tolerating, and encouraging illegal utilisation of “common” resources such as electricity or water, maintaining social domination at the grassroots level by illegal and semi-legal means, etc.) and often find themselves on the wrong side of law.

They become easily identifiable targets of punitive action. This is possible because populists appear to society as immoral people, harbouring toughs, and caring nothing about social ethics and probity. Yet all the while they appear as a threat to bourgeois wealth and order, the bourgeoisie keeps on committing illegal activities, and a significant part of their wealth is ill-begotten, illegally acquired, and depends on extra-legal resources and networks. From Radia Tapes (concerning the Tatas in dealings with the central government over allocation of coal blocks) to Adani (Gujarat-based corporate group), from the birth of Reliance (the biggest corporate group in India) to defrauding the nationalised banks of thousands of crores of rupees, and from running iron ore mines completely illegally (Bellary mines in Karnataka) and amassing unheard of wealth to keeping workers at sub-legal level – the entire story of capitalist wealth is a mix of legality and illegality.

The entire story of capitalist wealth is a mix of legality and illegality.

Yet, nothing sticks on its skin. Governments vie with one another to invite the corporate groups to invest and throw law and caution to the winds to offer them concessions. This is a well known story. The point is: how will the populists combat the charge of harbouring illegalism and avoid inviting punishment? Prima facie it seems there is no way. Populism will have to fight it out and rally the poor more strongly to its side through governmental measures and mobilisation policies. It is an uneven war. But make no mistake; the social war is being fought between capital and the subaltern classes who are behind the populists – the party of punitive forces of the rich and the party of populists. This is the matrix of all struggles of power today, of all strategies of power, and this is what we can call the social war of our time.

Vulnerability to moral attack

Third, the attitude of populists towards wealth and celebration makes it vulnerable to further moral attacks. Rafael Sanchez has given us a fascinating account of the obsession of the Venezuelan populists with dances, carnivals, erecting statues – all to celebrate the ties between the army and the people. In West Bengal, the populists gave importance to festivals and fairs, declaring holidays, allocating money, and inventing new festivals – again the idea being that that these cement ties between the people, and keep the latter away from the ugliness of life. In the face of the puritanical thrust of capital accumulation, the populists involuntarily open up another front of attack on them. They are the “social enemy”, for they squander money, they do not practice thrift, and they are the enemies of development.

Finally, with their naive and simple ideas of democracy and the economy populists themselves are less alert to the reality of social war. They charge head on, they do not practise dialogic politics; they seem to be unaware that dialogues (in Tilly’s words, “contested conversations”) can be part of a long drawn out war. For, lacking strategic vision, they have no sense of the variety of tools that they may require in a protracted war. This incapacity leads to their loss of strength and lack of alliances. They are driven into a corner.

Civil war

What is the way for a populist movement to establish and continue its rule intelligently and with prudence in such conditions? In India the significance of this inquiry is immense as increasingly we find ourselves in a situation where politics cannot be conducted civilly, but in the condition of a civil war – where to say the least the aggressive dominant power through national surveillance will identify the recalcitrant and punish the latter. Compliant, “civilised” states and “recalcitrant” states in the country will be demarcated from each other and the latter will be singled out and punished. The states where populism is entrenched will bear the brunt. Societies will be restructured and reconstituted over the corpses of the populist movements. Populists (that is those who supposedly do politics through kinship and other community networks, who refuse to surrender to majoritarian interests in politics, or belong to ethnic groups, or defend the interests of small property owners, or conduct politics on the basis of various illegalities, or at least tolerate them, and think that democracy must be direct with no intermediary in between the people and the state, and revolve around strong leadership, etc.) will be marked, excluded, and confined. Populists who do not rectify will be punished.

In France hundreds of Yellow Vests today have been severely beaten up and are now confined and languish in jails. In Greece the Syriza government in 2015 was threatened that they would be driven to penury and expelled from Europe if it did not agree to the financial terms of the Troika. For the populists this will be a life and death issue. It will also be a defining moment for the nation. The ongoing civil war signifies the high stakes the sovereign recognises in this challenge from the populists. Yet it will also mean the reconstitution of the sovereign through absorption at least to some extent of populist features and claims. Thus, neither will the illegalities be over, nor the challenges cease appearing. Populism is produced from a crisis, it will in turn produce crisis.

This is the context to pose the question: will populism be able to evolve further? That is the question for “left wing populism” or for the Left vis-a-vis the populists. There is little possibility of the Left devising a creative strategy with respect to the populists while the Left itself is politically bankrupt. Its capacity to innovate is nil. Its hatred for populist mobilisation is immense. It fails to recognise the particular nature of a populist movement and its possibilities.

Yet in the vast sky of dominance of the powerful there are dark spots, holes, which are the opposition to the reasonable order of the world. In an otherwise certain future – a glorious future – of capital they represent uncertainties, locally entrenched obdurate formations (like controlling a state government in a country like India). As of today, populism seems to be the only obstacle in the forward march of capital in India, the only challenge that locality poses to the sovereign.

To conclude: in this entire discussion involving the new model of power, the democratic protocol, and the populists, the most crucial issue is the persistence of populists as the major factor unsettling the smooth passage of democracy to an authoritarian framework by presenting a different idea of people, a different idea of leadership, political practices, defence of the interests of the petty producers, and the issue of illegality.

Even though in all probability the populists will succumb to the sovereign – the rule by the hegemonic power, more appropriately an overwhelming power, it will have at least succeeded in tarnishing forever the democracy game in the neoliberal time. For, when almost everyone (57 per cent of the electorate in India) has truthfully confided that they love the idea of “we are the majority, and we have the power”, the ideas of rule of law, purity of race and nation, and their secretly held dreams of prosperity, some have dissented with this truth. They have spoilt the strategy of turning the elections into a truth game. The populists have disputed the public manifestation of this truth. They will of course be punished.

But this is no small achievement. In these days of neoliberal consensus, in which the Left has been a cynical collaborator, the dissident voice will be resurrected, sooner or later.

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