India, Partha Chatterjee’s Political Society & Foucault

A street vendor selling blankets on a busy street, Bangalore
A street vendor selling blankets on a busy street, Bangalore

A fellow traveller writes in after his recent trip to Himalayas and then deep down south India to this holy town Rameshwaram. He says, “Something binds us!  Something beyond the gravels of Government!  Something beyond the North-South Blocks at New Delhi!  We were immersed upon this question during flashes of free mind. But we were dark!” He is a man of the Nehruvian era and of the generation which built and ran those “temples of modern India”. I agree with his thought on something that binds us (Indians) as a nation. I’d like to think that he was probably living an overwhelming moment perhaps by the seaside in Rameshwaram, reflecting upon his travel from the Himalayas to the southern most tip of the country.

That binding factor to me is more evident in this class of people which Partha Chatterjee (a political theorist) defines as the ‘political society’. Sides taken! I am partial on identifying the bond and unity as more evident in the political society.

In an ideal state-people relationship the state guarantees equal rights and benefits to all the people, assuming that “people” is a mix of all classes and groups – the rich, middle class, poor, literate, illiterate etc. Also that the laws apply equally to all the people. But, in practice one observes that the everyday experience of people in engaging with the state is vastly different. The state does not treat its people equally not it sees everyone as equal. This, some would argue is an allegation. And I say live the life of an ordinary Indian who takes the public transport to office, uses the public services and the likes. Then you might want to reconsider that position.

It turns out that the ideal and actual nature of state’s behaviour is different. Partha Chatterjee focuses on this inconsistent behaviour of the state and formulates that everyday state deals with people differently and has a different mode of conducting its relationship with them. It governs in a different style where it tends to engage with one set of literate, elite and ‘aware’ group of citizens who know what their rights are and also ensure that they extract it out from the state. This set Partha C labels as ‘civil society’. With these the state engages in appropriate legal framework and processes. The manner in which civil society relates to the state in return is different from the rest of the citizenry.

Then there is this other set of people whom the state manages and negotiates with. This other set of people are poor, often the underclass employed in jobs like domestic help, office assistance, driving, hawking etc. They are semi-literate or illiterate. To govern them the state does not extend the same set of laws that are applicable to civil society. This class is handled as “population” by the state and managed through welfare schemes, public programs etc. This class with which the state seems to be negotiating on a case to case basis is termed ‘political society’. There are exceptions made by the state. Often a cascade like laws, sub laws and further laws (amendments) are made to accommodate the demands of this category of political society. For instance, an agitation for land compensation and acquisition of land by corporates, in various parts of the country is dealt differently without the aid of a national law even when such a law exists or a bill regarding the same is pending in the parliament of the country.

In Indian context this seems to fit in a sense that Partha C’s civil and political categories of society offers a starting point for one to think about the processes and dynamics happening in post-colonial India. It often gets difficult for one to understand and reason out what is happening in the Indian society when campaigns like Anna Hazare’s against corruption or Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan occurs. What are these people demanding, its long term implications and manner in which the state handles these demands make much sense when seen through Partha C’s theoretical framework. However, this does not imply that it explains every process happening in the Indian political context.  Neither does it suggest that this theory does not have shortcomings. The point made here is that the articulation of civil and political societies is an interesting one and offers an important starting point to think about state-people relationship in India.

Governmentality as Foucault observes, is the mechanisms through which state establishes itself over its people and the levers which actuate the presence of state amidst the people. This could be seen as the numerous welfare schemes and large public planning exercises that the state does periodically. These are mechanisms through which the state asserts its presence. Large programs like MNREGA and acts like Right to Education illustrate the above mentioned mechanism of governmentality. In his conception of political society Partha C utilizes this idea by explaining how the political society is ‘governed’ by the state using these mechanisms. The state pacifies and manages this population by the way of welfare schemes. At the same time the state realizes that this section (political society) is powerful in its own way (their numbers being large & that they form a sizeable vote bank). Therefore the state adopts tactics which are in effect careful negotiations. This then emerges as a strange and unique form of governance that is being practised by the state.


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