The end of ordinary politics

April 26, 2023 12:00 am | Updated 05:42 am IST

By delimiting what is legitimate politics, Hindutva has declared the end of an order and the birth of another

When the Indian Constitution was being born, its creators resolved that all further politics would be conducted within its bounds. B.R. Ambedkar said: “... We must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods.”

Politics and a distinction

Political theorists make the distinction between ordinary politics and extraordinary politics. Ordinary politics reproduces instituted order. In extraordinary politics, the sovereign, the people, change the fundamentals and reconstitute the order. The establishment of a new order is deemed to be the ‘end of politics’ until it is challenged through insurrection. David Held uses the concept of the ‘end of politics’ to analyse Marxism. “The end of politics (or the end of the era of the state) means the transformation of political life as it had been known ...,” with the establishment of communes. Extrapolating, all politics aim for an end of politics.

The founders not merely eschewed civil disobedience but also retained instruments of the imperial legal structure to enforce obedience by the citizenry — from sedition to defamation, which the principal leader against the current regime now stands convicted of. Not everyone agreed to the new Constitutional order; the right and the left of the Indian political spectrum questioned its legitimacy from the very beginning. The manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 2009, lamented that “the leaders of independent India …continued to work with the institutional structures created by the British”, which was disconnected from India’s “civilisational consciousness”. Political mobilisations outside legally defined contours continued in what could be termed “between the boundaries of insurrection and institutional political activity”. ‘Worse than the British’ became a slur that was routinely thrown at the Congress regime by its opponents. Underground armed rebels, separatists, and political insurgents pushed the boundaries of the constitutional order. Conversely, political settlements with various discontented elements also tinkered with the original order. Then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee would famously state that a resolution to the Kashmir problem would be sought not necessarily within the bounds of the Constitution, but of humanity.

Three points of extraordinary politics are milestones in India’s journey to its current Hindutva order — the J.P. Movement, the Ayodhya Movement and the Anna Hazare Movement, all primarily confined to the region above the Vindhyas. What is common between the three is that they mobilised people to overthrow the constitutionally established order through insurrection, and even violence. J.P. called it a Total Revolution.

The 1971 election made Indira Gandhi and the Congress appear unbeatable through institutional mechanism. The response was the Gujarat Navnirman Movement that attacked legislators, followed in Bihar with similar tactics, and, finally, JP’s call to the army to disobey the elected government. It culminated in the declaration of Emergency and the suspension of democracy itself. In the second, the Ayodhya movement, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar argued that the popular sovereign cannot be constrained by law that is its creation. The Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. In the Anna Movement, a new system was sought for the summary punishment of anyone suspected of corruption; the entire parliamentary model of democracy was targeted as illegitimate, and devoid of popular sanction.

In all these three phases of extraordinary politics in India, the Sangh Parivar was a common factor. In fact, it was sequential, one leading to the next, and culminating in the electoral majority of Hindutva, in 2014. Elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi said India had finally freed itself from “1,200 years of slavery”. A new order was being born.

Paradox of order

When order is reconstituted, the instruments of the previous regime are taken over rather than replaced. As it happened at the founding of the Republic, its transition to a Hindutva order was quickly followed by a reframing of what is legitimate politics. The long journey of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act over many decades through various regimes is instructive. Since 2019, individuals, and not only organisations, can be notified as ‘terrorist’. Mere association with an illegal outfit makes an individual liable regardless of the commission of any illegal act. The Supreme Court of India told protestors at Shaheen Bagh (2019-20) that they must act within the bounds of law. Any criticism of the government is portrayed as anti-national; restrictions on freedom of expression are enforced for undisclosed national security reasons, and foreign links make any opinion questionable. Simultaneously, the Ayodhya insurrection has been legitimised as a sovereign act through a judicial process, retrospectively.

If institutions and law reproduce entrenched order, change often comes from the grey zones beyond them — from M.K. Gandhi to Rosa Parks, from Nepal Maoists to those who were labelled “eco terrorists” by the U.S. legal system, change and order are often conflicting precepts. Much like those in power use the law and institutions, those who challenge them also can use it, but only to a limited extent. The real challenge can come only through popular mobilisation, extraordinary politics.

If the Hindutva regime deems all politics against it as anti-national, the undermining of the political process has a longer history. It is the celebratory ascent of neoliberalism that labelled politics as an inferior, amoral sphere of collective action. Decision making had to be separated from messy negotiations of representative democracy and public opinion, and new concepts were established. Economy and development questions were deemed beyond politics, and to be decided by unaccountable experts for the sake of ‘good governance.’

Civil society organisations were promoted as alternatives to political parties. This was partly an elite response to the deepening of the democratic process that produced subaltern parties and leaders that were not confirming to institutional decorum. Under the United Progressive Alliance, there was an informal ‘core committee’ that became a super cabinet; the National Advisory Council became another body that worked outside the political system. The Congress outsourced deliberations outside of the party.

Last year, after brainstorming survival strategies, the Congress announced a key idea — to galvanise civil society organisations. An indifference, if not contempt for the electoral process, has now become a badge of higher moral standing in the Congress party. This erosion of the political was demonstrated during the agitation against the farm Bills in 2020-21 — the BJP condemned it as ‘political’; its defenders said it was not political. The BJP regime has turned the civil society debate full circle, and has declared it as nothing short of a new “front of war”.

In When Protest Becomes Crime (2019), Carolijn Terwindt formulates the concept of ‘prosecutorial narratives’, “which imply the choice of a context, selection and interpretation of the facts, and the choice of certain perpetrators’. For instance, she cites, in 2000, Spain made a law that criminalised sympathy and glorification of ETA, which made routine politics of separatism illegal and prosecutable. Last year, the Jammu and Kashmir police created a case of “narrative terrorism”. Essentially, the prosecutor has the capacity to declare the bounds of legitimate politics, as it happened in the case of defamation against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who has been expelled from Parliament.

The battering of the political sphere of action by neoliberalism has been brought to a conclusion by the extraordinary politics of Hindutva. Hindutva is still in the process of consolidation. While it is using existing laws and institutions, for instance, to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya, it has also been made clear that the notion of a basic structure of the Constitution is invalid in the face of the sovereign will. The next moment of extraordinary politics is beyond the horizon at the moment — regardless of the outcome in Karnataka which is going to the polls.

By delimiting what is legitimate politics, Hindutva has declared the end of an order and the birth

of another

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