It is perhaps because a national, party-based politics of the old-fashioned kind is in crisis that mobilisations at the centre are so concerned with recovering the nation as an undifferentiated and even anti-political idea

National debate in India has been dominated over the past few years by just two issues: security and corruption. Both are marked by their malleability, with concerns about security shifting from terrorism to rape, and those about corruption moving easily between the criticism of individuals and institutions. Such issues are no longer in the control of political parties or the state, and are as likely to be used by them as against. For whether it is a single man or the entire government that is blamed for threats to security and the impunity of corruption, these problems are now consistently posed as those of governance. And the language of governance is dominated by the desire for equality as an undifferentiated and so universal good, rather than, say, justice as one that is based on discriminating between citizens.

Liberalisation and expression

The social movements that increasingly tend to give these undifferentiated issues their visibility often share their activists and forms of expression with one another. Candlelight vigils, for example, emerged in the 1990s to publicise the murder of young women like Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo, whose assailants could evade justice because of their political connections. In the following decade such practices were extended to commemorate terrorist attacks, and today protests against both rape and corruption switch between the silent vigil and the angry demonstration as modes of expression. These largely middle class manifestations of discontent are also unprecedented, given the fact that political parties are largely absent in their organisation.

Such novel forms of mobilisation all date from the period of India’s economic liberalisation, which created a new space for organisation and debate in an increasingly mediatised civil society. But while they have dominated popular interest nationally, what goes unnoticed is how these debates still have little traction for regional politics, where the inequalities of caste, class and community continue to define both protest and voting patterns. There seems to be a widening gulf between politics at the State level, whose influence has been expanded by the steady devolution of power in the country, and at the centre, which can no longer be held by single parties but only in large coalitions with several regional ones.

It is perhaps because a national, party-based politics of the old-fashioned kind is in crisis that mobilisations at the centre are so concerned with recovering the nation as an undifferentiated and even anti-political idea. Such mobilisations are led, therefore, by social movements that are highly critical of party politics, setting governance against government in forms like the Jan Lokpal Bill, which seeks to make Parliament accountable to civil society beyond the electoral process. After all, issues like corruption or security are so unexceptionable as to be universal, and therefore define the nation outside politics by excluding any substantive opposition, for who could argue in favour of them?

Governance vs. government

While both social movements and the political parties that seek their support proclaim their allegiance to the country’s founding fathers, the governance that preoccupies them does not belong to a national history. If anything it was the colonial state that sought to justify itself by the language of fair and competent administration. Since it was run by foreigners who did not depend on elections or “vote banks,” the administration was, by definition, thought to be impartial and non-political. And by the end of colonial rule, the vocabulary of “development” had come to lend additional legitimacy to an unaccountable bureaucracy, from where it has been inherited by equally unrepresentative international organisations and “global civil society.”

But as a global category, governance achieved its current status during the “post-ideological” period following the Cold War. Premised on the retrenchment of the state, which was meant to outsource many of its former functions to private enterprise, non-governmental organisations and the institutions of civil society, governance redefined government as managerial oversight. In the form of “good governance,” then, management was promoted by international organisations like the U.N., NATO, the World Bank and the IMF, at least initially to manage the transition of post-Soviet societies to democracy and capitalism.

Governance of this kind was explicitly anti-political, and meant to reduce the hold of a corrupt and tyrannical state upon its citizens. Yet, the social movements that emerged to oppose such states have been able, in spectacular cases like the colour revolutions of Eastern Europe or those of the Arab Spring more recently, to topple governments but not to form them. Given their distaste for party politics, it could not have been otherwise.

So it is remarkable that “India Against Corruption” has produced the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), though we have yet to see if it is able to balance asocial movement with institutional politics, or maybe transform one into the other. As Cambridge historian Shruti Kapila has argued, the populism of the AAP links it to groups like the Tea Party in America, whose support of political parties does not detract from its anti-statist nature.

Paradox of populism

A precedent for this situation may be found in Hindutva, India’s first great social movement of the post-Cold War period. Achieving a massive mobilisation in the media-saturated civil society created by liberalisation, Hindutva is propagated by a political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and apparently non-political organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, which together constitute the hybrid association of the Sangh Parivar. Rather than being merely conspiratorial, the secretive character of the RSS, for instance, serves to demonstrate its deliberate policy of working outside an arena defined by the institutions of parliamentary democracy, while still being part of a “family” that includes a political party.

The Hyderabad-based political scientist Jyotirmaya Sharma has pointed out that by wrangling for control of the BJP, the RSS seems to have forsaken its traditional policy. This either suggests that Hindutva as a social movement is being subordinated to a political party, or the reverse, both possibilities remaining open if the state is imagined to represent civil society in a managerial way. But more interesting than the shifting balance of power between the two might be the fact that Hindutva has never possessed a theory of state. Unlike the vision of an Islamic State, with its distinctive if non-egalitarian constitutional structure, Hindutva has no alternative political model. And this is its triumph as much as its tragedy, since the absence of such a model repeatedly casts Hindutva back into a social movement.

The BJP has struggled, with varying degrees of purpose and success, to free itself from Hindutva as a social movement, or rather to subordinate the latter to parliamentary politics. And today, its vision of becoming normalised as India’s conservative party looks like it is about to be fulfilled by a leader who, ironically, is the man most associated with Hindutva as a social movement. Such are the paradoxes of populism.

Will the BJP finally manage to absorb the social movement that gave rise to it, or will the latter’s attempt to recover the nation in non-political terms end up establishing a majority-defined democracy against the republic? For being a political category, the republic is opposed to majority rule as a social form, meant as it is to create a public space in which majorities and minorities are made up of shifting and temporary interests, rather than the permanent demographic facts that populism on the Left as much as the Right relies upon.

The only parties that depend upon social movements in India today are the gigantic BJP on the one hand, and the still very small AAP on the other. Although they are very different and even opposed to one another, it is instructive that both parties stake their reputations on governance rather than government. Does the devolution of power in India, and its consequent political fragmentation, suggest that the centre can only hold in such non-statist ways? Is the national arena demarcated by the media fated to represent civil society, with the state serving as its agent in ensuring good governance under the watchful eye of a Lokpal or Vikas Purush? Only those who still act in the world of politics can answer these questions.

(Dr. Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.)

More In: Lead | Opinion