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Theory Of Choice & Modern India…

Dr Partha Chatterjee – the India-born Political Scientist, Historian, Anthropologist, and a Professor of Anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University – recently visited his hometown, Kolkata. During his stay in the Eastern Indian city, Dr Chatterjee – who is highly influenced by Michel Foucault, Edward Said and Antonio Gramsci – shared his views on the Modern State with a local vernacular-language Daily! During the interview that was held, the Political Scientist tried to locate a suitable definition of the Modern State…
Q: You consider Nation and People-Nation as two different ideas as far as the concept of ‘State’ is concerned. In India, the people have started explaining the concept of State from two angles – ‘Pluralist’ and ‘Hindutva’! You have recently mentioned that both the concepts consider the State as ‘Singular’… however, it should be considered from the ‘Relativist’ point of view. Your research on ‘Nationalism’ has added a new dimension to it…

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Dr Partha Chatterjee

Dr Chatterjee: In Europe, ‘Nation’ and ‘State’ are two different concepts. However, it is a complex issue in India… the Indian languages fail to differentiate between the actual meanings of words, like Nation, State, People, etc. Here, we use the word ‘State’ to mean ‘Province’, and not ‘Country’! Similarly, ‘Nation’ means both ‘State’ and its ‘People’ in this South Asian country. In that sense, the concepts of Nation, State and People were there in Vedic India!
In fact, the people are sovereign in a Modern State and this concept is very new in India. Each and every Indian province explains the concept of State in a different way in its own language! It doesn’t mean that there is no state, called India… the fact is that the Marathis, the Tamilians or the Bengalis visualise the concept of India in different ways. It becomes really difficult to get rid of this relativity, and say that “this is the real State” and others are different forms of this particular concept. There cannot be any such position. So, I don’t accept the pluralistic view. There is a clear explanation of State or Nation in academic language… but that, too, is a ‘concept’, like other linguistic concepts… means it is ‘relative’! These are some important points. If we consider that there is a single concept of India as a State or Nation, then we try to force everyone to accept this ‘Truth’. It is very difficult to accept ‘Relativity’…


We usually ignore the fact that the concept of Federal India is based on the ‘political imagination’ developed by the languages and cultures of 29 Indian provinces and seven Union territories. The concept of Federal India is not only a Constitutional concept, but also a Cultural concept! India is a Federal Nation or State in a true sense. We can strengthen the concept of ‘Federalism’ only by giving importance to each and every regional language and culture. Unfortunately, the ‘Hindi’ language has gradually become the ‘political language’ of India! As a result, the Indians have started visualising the concept of India as a State from the ‘Hindutva’ point of view as explained by the ‘Hindi’ language. The Hindi-speakers believe that the Indian civilisation is based only on ‘Vedic’ and ‘Sanskrit’ languages. However, the fact is that many people had formed India, the State, together. Again, if we try to impose the concept of India developed by the Hindi language on all the Indians, then some people may consider themselves outsiders. They may also consider that there is no need to accept the ‘Democracy’ because the system doesn’t serve their interests. So, it is important to deal with the issue from the ‘Relativist’ point of view…

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Q: You often talk about the relation between ‘Capital’ and ‘Community’. Once, you wrote that the ideology of ‘Nationalism’ allows us to deny the conflict between these two. You also wrote that we try to overcome the loopholes of Nationalism with the idea of Development. According to you, the Capital should not accept the concept of Community. However, both maintain a close relation in India. Now, ‘how could you explain the concept of Community?’
Dr Chatterjee: Actually, the type of development in India can be divided into two parts: from the 1950s through to the 1970s, the Government had tried to develop the Public Sector, established heavy industries, and also had concentrated on infrastructure development. However, there was a specific area for the private capital, such as the production of consumer goods. The duty of the Planning Commission was to maintain a balance between them… the Government used to state that it was safeguarding the interests of the people as a whole. In actuality, the Government had tried to portray the concept of a ‘National Community’ by describing different communities as partners.
A new phase began after the Emergency (1975-77), which got its final shape after the Economic Liberalisation in 1991-92. The Public Sector lost the control over the Organised Sector in one stoke, and Private Capital started playing an important role in the Indian economy, gradually. Inevitably, the Middle Class Society went through many changes. At the same time, India experienced the expansion of the Unorganised Sector
The difference between the Organised Sector and the Unorganised Sector has triggered some important changes in the Indian Political scenario! The Unorganised Sector adopted a different process to place their demands or to stage protests. The Politicians, in a way, became dependent on the Unorganised Sector, slowly. The dependency has also changed the concept of the Community. First of all, the Traditional Community or the Local Community or the Ethnic Community has been developed in a likewise manner to meet the local demands. However, this Community has, by this time, lost its traditional identity. Perhaps, the Community still uses the word ‘tradition’, while staging protests, but it has already become ‘modern’.
Ethnographers are of the opinion that those – who did not consider themselves as members of one specific group – have developed the feeling of ‘Unity’. The Yadavs of Bihar and Mathura tie nuptial knots now-a-days… so, there is a change in the concept of Community. Gradually, members of different ethnic groups become members of a Community! Earlier, the Civil Society easily identified members of a Community that used to belong to the Organised Sector. The rest were considered as Members of the Traditional Community… Now, the emergence of different modern Communities has changed the character of the Indian Society. So, the political parties make various promises to meet the demands of different Communities ahead of elections. In a sense, the parties have no other option, but to follow the path of ‘Populist Politics’. Therefore, there is no secret Community. A large section of people does not belong to the old Agro-based Economy or to the modern Organised Sector. It is the duty of the Government to take care of these people. This is the essence of a Democratic Society. A new relation between the Capital and Community has been created!

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Q: You had described the masses, who were not members of the Civil Society, as Political Society. You have recently mentioned that you thought the Liberal Democracy to have collapsed in India during Emergency. However, the State learnt a lesson from Emergency. Instead of depending on repression, the Government made an attempt to make the (Capitalist) Development(al) Projects acceptable to the people. You also explained the new format of power structure with the help of Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘Governmentality’, calling it ‘Administratility’. The technique of Administratility to counter the Political Society becomes prominent in every society. You had further claimed that the subalterns’ relation with the State changed completely. For the subalterns, State is no more an outsider…
Dr Chatterjee: As far as democratisation is concerned, the Indian politics became matured enough after Emergency. The most important sign of the expansion of democracy is public gathering… to place demands to the State through the Political Society. On the other hand, people – who are in power – mastered the strategic tactics of Governmentality to meet their demands. The Politicians would definitely say that the Administration has become more benevolent or People-oriented. However, the fact is that the Administration has become active only to tackle any untoward situation. What the Administration is doing is breaking the large gatherings into small fragments on the basis of specific problems and solutions…
The main task of the old Welfare State was to take care of important sectors, such as Health and Education! Today, the State allows private players to look after these sectors, as it knows that if the people are unhappy with such universal systems, then they could trigger a massive protest and destabilise the State. The modern administration tries to break the possibility of mass protests by implementing various small-scale projects, like projects for elderly people or for children. So, the mass would not be able to get involved in protests even if the projects fail to perform. In order to establish this micro-management system, the Government had to change the entire set up!
If you consider the Peasant Rebellions in India, one would find that the relation between the State and the peasants was heavily dependent on Police Stations or Magistrates, who were ‘outsiders’! Now, peasants – living in rural areas – become active members of the Political Society. The local politicians have educated them, keeping in mind the electoral politics. As a result, Democracy has started using the Administration in a smart way. Even the armed Maoist rebels mediate between local people and the Government in order to ensure development in rural India. What is the long-term consequence of this? I think that the ‘Administratility’ has already separated the two things… because, the organised Civil Society is no more dependent on the State. Now-a-days, the Middle Class people rarely visit the government hospitals, schools, colleges and post offices!
Q: How could you explain this difference through Corporate and Non-Corporate Capital?
Dr Chatterjee: The ‘Administratility’ has always tried to hide this difference… but, failed! The Government tells the Civil Society that it becomes increasingly difficult for the former to bear the cost of education. Meanwhile, the Unorganised Sector has also put the Government under tremendous pressure, and the Government knows that it will have to tackle the pressure, somehow! One of the most potential consequences of this is the Upper Class and the Middle Class would try to disintegrate themselves from the Government or the democratic process. Their votes are too insignificant… so, there is no need for a Government. A Housing Society in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore once said that it won’t need water supplied by the local municipality, as it would manage it by themselves. This tendency of the Civil Society will definitely have far-reaching impacts on Democracy.
Q: We often accuse the State of forgetting its Duties and also of allowing the Private Sector to play a bigger role. However, you don’t agree with…
Dr Chatterjee: The State is moving away from Middle Class Society and is concentrating on the poorer section of the People…


Q: But, there is no scope to implement a policy for the development of all sections of people in Democracy that you are talking about. The Middle Class is not all happy with your concept of Democracy. You believe that those, who have nothing, find out many ways to serve their interests. In the introduction of one of your publications, you wrote that mediocre people would take control of the Indian society. Not only in India, but also in (eastern Indian province of) West Bengal, ‘Populist Politics’ has gained ground…
Dr Chatterjee: Those – who are not mediocre – have different needs… and it’s not possible for ‘Populist Politics’ to fulfil their ‘psychological or aesthetic’ needs. The culture, which the market wants, is not for these people!
Q: Some might say that it is the business of the market, and not a matter of Democracy…
Dr Chatterjee: How it is possible? For example, we can consider the political discussions in broadsheets. Many might say that the quality of newspaper articles has deteriorated in the last three-four decades. In actuality, the character and mentality of the readers changed… this change is very much inevitable with Democratisation! You can easily move in your own periphery with other languages… but, if you want to enter (into) hardcore Politics, then you have to learn the languages of Common People. It is important!


Q: Right. But… we are well aware of another political practice… common people can also educate themselves through movements… they can modify their taste!
Dr Chatterjee: This is the Educational Aspect of Politics. There was a time when we used to think that the politically conscious people of the society would educate others. This trend was evident in Nationalist or Leftist Politics. However, the expansion of ‘Democratic Politics’ has changed the scenario. Now, only s/he can become a Mass Leader who belongs to the Mass. The people will not accept a person as their leader who is different from them. S/he is the leader because s/he is powerful, and we follow the person because s/he belongs to us. The people are giving the leader Absolute or Sovereign power because they think that the leader will ‘improve’ their condition. So, the ‘Populist’ Leaders have started controlling the Indian politics. These leaders don’t bother about the Rules and Regulations. They are products of the crisis of ‘Liberal Politics’. Liberal Politics tries to solve an issue by following the Rules and Regulations… it is not at all worried about the outcome. The Populist Politics strongly criticises the Liberal Politics, saying that the Neutral Judicial Trial and Legalities harm the common people! According to Populist Politics, Liberal Politics is beneficial only to the Upper Class people who know how to use the law to serve their own interests. Now, if we choose our leaders this way, then who will educate whom?
You might say what the people would do? In my opinion, the Populist Politics brings some respite for the people for the time being, but it can’t trigger a major change in the Society… this Politics hardly has an Ideological Base or Future Plans. So, how it will educate people? They have to develop the habit of imagination through different languages… it’s a Cultural Issue, and not Political! Interestingly, there is a change in our Power of Imagination… Our taste and the popular culture have also changed! Now, we have to think how we could modify our taste…

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Michel Foucault

Q: If we go through Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘Governmentality’, it seems that there is no respite from this situation. You also talked about Antonio Gramsci in the past… is there any type of politics that could harmonise the Indian society?
Dr Chatterjee: The concept is similar to Gramsci’s idea of ‘Hegemony’. However, Foucault did not believe in Hegemonic Politics. Commenting on the European concept of Welfare State, Foucault said that it would not be possible to implement the Politics of Hegemony. However, the view is not applicable here in India… because India is not at all a Welfare State! Although you will find the presence of ‘Administratility’ in India, a huge number of people are not part of the Political Society. Therefore, the ruler needs different strategies to bring them under one umbrella (or a system). So, Populist Politics will work in India! Moreover, the Government has no fool-proof and concrete plan to bring a social change.

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Surprisingly, the Politics of Hegemony is also there in India… it is better known as Hindutva. However, it is election-oriented. They also have some other Long-Term Projects, which constantly influence the Indian Culture! Workers of various Organisations, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are active in different parts of the Country, and their main aim is to sensitise people about the Concept of the Nation-State through the lens of Hindutva. This is a Hegemonic Position!
The problem is that other types of Politics, like the Leftist Politics, have become election-oriented, where the Populist Politics is gaining ground. So, if you ask me whether there is any Hegemonic Project in India, then I will say: Yes, that is “Hindutva”. You can’t counter Hindutva through Electoral Strategies. Because… even if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not be in power tomorrow, the Hegemonic Projects will be there… and Hindutva would never accept the concept of Federal India or the Federal Concept of Nation-State. It could be an alternative of Hindutva… Now, it’s your choice!

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