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How ‘Street Politics’ articulates the will of the people in ‘New India’ – The Dispatch


  • The book “The People of India: New Indian Politics in the 21st Century” was edited by Ravinder Kaur and Nayanika Mathur.

  • “The People” and “New India” are terms that are freely invoked to understand and govern India as it enters its 75th year as a postcolonial nation. Yet there is little clarity about who these Indians really are, what they do, their desires, their stories and their attachments to India. In this book, some of South Asia’s most respected scholars come together to write about a person or concept that has a particular influence on contemporary Indian politics. In doing so, they collectively open up an original understanding of what the politics at the heart of New India are and how best to analyze them.

  • This brilliant collection includes original and accessible essays by leading South Asian social scientists and humanists.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is taken from the book’s introduction.

A key feature of the new Indian politics is the way the will of the people is articulated as much through street politics as through the formal political party system. These popular protest movements arose in the face of a strong centralized state, characteristically in the absence of an effective opposition to articulate grievances. What sets these protests apart is also the way they have brought new political figures to the fore and mobilized religious minorities and marginalized people into new coalitions. It should also be noted that the media, always in search of a single charismatic leader, often characterized the demonstrations as “leaderless”, thus neglecting the work of collective leadership in the conduct of the demonstrations. It is on this uncertain turf between the street and political parties and between modes of exclusion and inclusion that a diverse people of New India has emerged. But we are ahead of ourselves. Let us return to the Farm Laws and their repeal to further examine India’s new policy.

That the repeal signaled troubling political ground in Indian politics was evident from social media trends that gained instant popularity. If trending #farmlawsrepealed signaled a clear, often joyful fact, then #disappointed captured the state of disenchantment among Modi’s supporters (nicknamed bhakt) as well as the trade policy elite who had long been advocating for favorable “deep reforms” to the market’ in the agricultural sector. The passionate #disappointed response was not just about the failure to implement market reforms by a leader who had forged his image as someone who “means business” in more ways than one. It was also a public expression of disillusionment, the breaking of a spell that had bound supporters to a strong leader who delivered on the promise of capitalist growth and the civilizational glory that came with it. Some have attempted to mend the broken spell by co-opting the repeal as a political masterstroke, a kind of ruse (Chanakya Niti) whose true intent and effect had yet to be revealed. Others regretted the “street veto” that had cast a shadow over Indian democracy. This anxiety was particularly evident in prime-time television debates where presenters framed the street protests as a challenge to the “power of the ballot”, which threatened to undermine the power of parliament.

It is indeed not easy to make sense of this strange turn of events. After all, the repeal was a dramatic reversal that Modi supporters had least expected, and that too a reversal staged in the full glare of global publicity. It seemed to have upended everything that had come to be considered mainstream politics in a post-2014 New India. Some have speculated that the repeal was a calculated decision taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it sensed a loss of ground in states such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh which were preparing for national elections. . While this electoral arithmetic should be taken seriously, especially given the cynical politics of the BJP and its government, which is always and only in “election mode”, it would be simplistic to believe that this calculation was the only driving factor. This breaking moment not only exposed the highly charged emotional fault lines in the political landscape, but also laid bare new areas of conflict and fissures in the face of a power hitherto considered invincible. Above all, it made visible the diverse people who inhabit this political landscape, the many political agents forged in the new antagonisms of post-liberalization India. As farmers’ protests refused to subside and instead new outposts sprang up in different parts of India, we heard many ask, “Who are these people? This question was not entirely new. Similar rhetorical questions had been posed to the myriad of protesters who spoke out against the CAA-NPR-NRC’s evil trinity in 2019, before the toxic mix of the authoritarian state, a Delhi pogrom and the pandemic stop these protests. Similar questions were asked at the time: “Who are these people? Tellingly, Modi had dubbed them andolanjeevis or those who live – parasitically, it was assumed – from protest movements. The subtext was apparent: those who protested against the government were subverting the national interest, even tarnishing the image of the government and the nation on the world stage. In this order of things, the government and the nation were inseparable, and any opposition to the government was seen as opposition to the nation. Andolanjeevis was the 2021 edition of the “anti-citizens” category, a derogatory term popularized by supporters of the Modi government to accuse dissidents of treason. It is a theme that seems inexhaustible, reappearing in ever new forms. The most recent iteration has been the identification of activists and civil society as the “new frontier of war”, the enemy within the nation – a war that has required the deployment of “war of fourth generation” against citizens who oppose the government. .

What we are witnessing here is a troubling and unstable terrain of new Indian politics and the many people who are forging it. Three essential characteristics of these new antagonisms can be identified. First, protest politics has become the scene of conflict between the state and a wide range of peoples, especially when opposition parties are weakened and confronted by a dominant government in the center and a hypernationalist majority politics. . Second, the push towards centralized governance – the ubiquitous “one” model: one nation, one market, one tax, for example – and an authoritarian style created a strong state as well as friction within the federal structure of the Indian union. The characteristic style of Modi’s strongman politics is to evoke spectacles: sudden political decisions, often announced on live television broadcasts. If the element of surprise keeps the public captivated – or petrified, as the case may be – and ensures undivided media coverage, it simultaneously overshadows political opponents. This hegemonic control of the media is crucial in shaping the political field within and against which popular protests have emerged. Third, ideological movements aimed at resetting the nation as a precinct of global capital aligned with Hindu nationalist culture are tied to this. This ongoing capitalist cultural shift is evident in a number of signature laws passed over the past two years – from the revocation of Kashmir’s special status and the CAA/NRC to agricultural laws and the labor code – which seek to open new markets. within the national territory even as the nation itself reorganizes itself within the framework of Hindu nationalism. Change has accelerated during the pandemic, a deployment of a crisis approach as an opportunity to attract investors seeking alternatives to China.

The appearance of people on the streets is more than an expression of dissatisfaction. It’s taking matters into your own hands or what has been called the “street veto”, a political action akin to showing a red card when the rules of the game are broken or redone without prior agreement. The term ‘street veto’, invoked in the wake of the repeal of the Farm Bills, has been used to express disapproval of both an out-of-control, out-of-control protest as well as the abject reversal of the Modi government. If so, the critique of street politics has revealed an inherent paradox of democratic mass politics: the raw potential of crowds is at the heart of mass democratization, and yet it is only by imposing discipline and control that political energy can be harnessed. Democratic politics is renewed by both active and disciplined subjects. It’s that kind of constant tension out of which many people, the political figures, emerge.

Excerpted with permission from The Indian people: the new Indian politics in the 21st century, edited by Ravinder Kaur and Nayanika Mathur, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

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