|Identity Politics and Political Thought
That political thought is in disarray in India after 2014 when the NDA came to power may not be proposition that many people will contest. At the lowest level television debates have become shouting contests in which people from opposite camps are deliberately chosen with no possibility of their ever listening to each other and agreeing on issues. At the higher levels intellectuals and ideologues, even as they take strong positions, have not distinguished themselves by shedding new light on the political changes of the past two or three years. Their political pronouncements – regardless of the political camp to which they belong – are essentially assertions of their political identities. Even poll predictions depend on the affiliations of the writer. If television personalities are chosen depending upon the camps to which they belong – ‘nationalist’, ‘secular’, ‘left-liberal’, ‘minority’, ‘women’s rights’ etc. – and merely offer the spectacle of a gladiatorial contest to the spectator without the possibility of resolutions, intellectuals, theorists and ideologues are addressing only their own chosen constituencies. If debate between opposite sides might have cleared the air, it is the one thing never in evidence. It is as though pitched battle in the streets between ideologies is the only answer.
While most of the key ‘political soldiers’ are unlikely to suffer more than minor inconveniences and the verbal aggression on both sides is mere bluster at least in the higher reaches, the hostilities create excitement and anticipation in the public space; this leads to the rise ofpolitical stars (admired by some and hated by others) and higher media viewership. But it also fouls the air in the streets and violence often breaks out, the poorest usually bearing the brunt.Take, for instance, an issue which should have been resolved easily but deliberately made to fester: the Supreme Court made it mandatory that the National Anthem should be played at film screenings and that the audience stand at attention when this happened. This fiercely divided the exhibition space between ‘patriots’ (those aggressive on behalf of the tricolour) and ‘liberals’ (those who insist on exercising choice in the matter). But now that the Supreme Court has amended the order and made it optional, why is the playing of the anthem still insisted upon? One senses that it is intentional and intended to keep hostilities alive. Warring groups and political hostilities, it is apparently hoped, help mobilize electorates.
While there is apparently a great deal of polarization of political opinion in the public space it has not led to substantially higher turnouts in the polls, suggesting that polarization is largely among the vocal segments, those who are also educated and better-off. The unfortunate fallout of this is that the sections which should respond to political issues intelligently – by which I mean reflect upon them and aim for understanding – are taking to social activism in a big way, joining and leading rallies. It can be argued that ‘political identity’ has become a key issue in India today among the educated classes and India’s leading political polemicist Arundhati Roy (whose new novel is reviewed in this issue) suggests through her writing that the political act of defining oneselfis often more central than analysis and argument.Roy has is often associated with radicals like Noam Chomsky but political thought of Chomsky’s kind is preoccupied with investigationand not with the assertion of an identity.
Political thinkers in India have rarely tried to be dispassionate and even the titles of their books announce their slants. The most highly respected among them use sarcasm freely; sarcasm is essentially a way of addressing a constituency that laughs along with oneself and shares one’s emotions. It is not nuanced like irony, which merely points out incongruities, but makes emotional demands upon the reader. Sarcasm discounts the possibility that something might deservedeeper understanding. As an instance, in P Chidambaram’s recent book Speaking Truth to Power he calls for a ‘National Laughter Day’ on which Indians can laugh at happenings under the NDA government; my point here is that this implies a writer addressing a constituency already on his side and committed to his viewpoint. Chidambaram is an active politician but one finds sarcasm being used routinely by India’s leading political thinkers as well.
The political scenario in India is far from clear today and applying thought to it would be useful. If one were to consider Narendra Modi as a ‘political issue’, it is by no means clear what he represents. While a section of political writers see him as anti-poor and a tool of the corporates, there are others (e.g.: Shekar Gupta) who lament that the corporate sector has never been as powerless as under Modi. It is evident that Modi cannot be both these things; since there is such sharp disagreement he is perhaps best acknowledged as a puzzle needing decipherment. But instead of dispassionate analysis, political/economic thinkers have gathered around two camps – a pro-Modi one and a stronger anti-Modi one. Here again defining their own identity in relation to the subject seems the only goal to most political writers.
Why defining one’s own political identity should become such an important undertaking for India’s intellectuals is a matter that needs speculating upon but it could be associated with Hinduism being inward-looking. India’s intellectuals are not all Hindus, but if Hinduism is regarded as a way of life rather than a religion, preoccupation with the self being so pervasive among people in the sub-continent – whatever their religion–becomes more comprehensible. Rather than speculating about the world, Indians tend to look at self-fulfilment or personal salvation as their primary goal; the ‘truth’ itself is already known through the scriptures and the utterances of wise men. A religious dogma is a proposition about the world (heresy being its denial/falsification) and the absence of dogma in Hinduism can also be interpreted as an orientation towards the self.
If the ultimate end of mental activity is not comprehension of the social/material world but, rather, the refining of the self, one begins to gasp the intellectual need to mark out a political identity for oneself. It may be noted that India’s academics are partial to the theory-down approach and an instance would be the Marxist social scientist, who regards Marxism as scripture – as a Brahmin might the Vedas. But even when they are atheists –and hence labelled ‘anti-Hindu’ by the unlettered right-wing – these intellectuals revealthat the way of life they are born into cannot be overcome, and hence the need to attach oneself to a political identity rather than speculate and inquire. But what this also implies about India today is that there is are few neutral spaces from which one may interrogate, and one must necessarily give oneself up to partisanship.