The people: The Sovereign 

Politics now has a new basis in obedience in place of aspiration and revolt  

Of late there has been some expression of discomfort  with the word ‘people’. The method of discursive analysis has been invoked to suggest that the word has been hollowed out by overuse, and it now serves as a substitute for real thinking or content  and is being used to conjure a reality that is actually fiction. The term ‘the people’ is being conjured out of thin air when analysis fails and its actual absence is papered over.

There is some substance in the charge. But many other words have lost their edge because of lack of real practice. The word has become a false signboard for much  illegitimate activity, just like ‘democracy’. We cannot drop it as we cannot drop the word ‘democracy’ or the phrase ‘rule of law’ and they have survived four centuries of abuse along with genuine and effective application. As linguists say words depend a great deal on their usage.

A further cause for worry is the fascist (authoritarian, if you like) misappropriation of words. As is well known they are given token recognition but are used to serve diametrically opposite ends. Apart from blatant misuse, there is the deliberate conflation of “the state”, “the nation” and “the government”. The only way to recover their meaning is effective political practice that restores their kernel. In the meanwhile, we must keep challenging fascist misuse of the words. The whole fascist subversion of vocabulary has to be resisted.

Effective political application is coming to a dead end thanks to the gap between intellection and the social groups who are popular agents of serious political action. Postmodern casuistry took a page out of imperialist codes and in an atmosphere of political passivity assigned various sections of the ‘people’ to different water-tight slots, e.g. men, women, LGBT, transgender, Hindus, Muslims, Atheists, mental labourers, manual labourers and informal labourers, the Adivasis, Dalits, Mahadalits and so on. The splintering is not only theoretical but downright practical. The invaluable, if incipient, unity of the people in a rising democracy, rife with aspirations and conflicts, has now been dissolved by such an approach. It can only be recovered through joint action from a common platform, and not through  refined analysis. Hence continued use of the ringing word is not hollow prophecy but sheer necessity of a dire moment when much requisite organisational work and propaganda are called for but are missing. Appropriate organisers are political parties and new popular organisations with political aims, and not academics or journalists given to analysis and commentary, though the latter also sustain  the environment for change. Yet  parties too seem to miss the bus. Let everyone learn from these lessons from the ground rising like a living flame through cold, damp and dark surroundings.

The people of India had been really united by the long struggle for freedom. The movement for Pakistan was there, but everyone wanted freedom from colonial servitude. And it was the representatives of the people covering practically all sections of the people who met to prepare and accept the Constitution. It replaced colonial arbitrary constraints on individuals with fundamental rights and it guaranteed progressive social change with a view to bring about a society based on liberty, equality and an honourable life for citizens. The decades after independence were alive with tidal energy of popular aspirations. That used to support the political consciousness of the people.

But power by its nature acts like an acid on rulers, weakening their commitment to the basic values of the Constitution. The relics of feudalism and imperialism gain a new lease of life. Feudal dominance and loyalty push into a corner the dignity and just rights of the people. The farmers and the working masses slowly return to the maws of caste and communal identity and the traditional ties which were weakened again get reinforced by chains of patronage as well as walls of separation. Politics now has a new basis in obedience in place of aspiration and revolt. Rulers care more for foreign investors and friends than their own poorer and less privileged compatriots. Academic exercises turn the people into dead specimens for rarefied scrutiny: The voices the scholars hear from their texts are ghostly voices from burial sites. (I simplify the picture omitting the occasional attempts to throw off the shackles.)

Fast forward to a time a couple of decades later.The separation between the people and the political class is now complete. The people no longer have easy access to the rulers, and the rulers and even opposition parties are cut off from the grassroots.

Vital information gets passed upwards from fields and factory floors through political middlemen.

The only mass-contact is through massive meetings and rallies where glorified leaders thunder down at those sitting on the grass from raised platforms. How under these  circumstances can the word ‘the people’  retain its pulsating vital energy? They are plain subjects with the difference that they have the vote.Some sense of dignity fleetingly returns during elections only to be washed away by blandishments and bribes. Or murderous threats. No wonder there is now a comprehensive programme to rob them of their residual vitality. When people lose it what hope is there for the press,the bar and bench,and the academies?

The only way they (and the word signifying their innate energy) can regain their dignity and power is by standing up for their rights and constitutional entitlements under rule of law. Only struggle can revive the dying embers of their spirit. And this is what power-crazy politicians and conservative academics dread most.

The farmers’ stir now into its 5th week threatens to turn the whole edifice upside down.They do not want to take dictation any more,from however elevated an authority, but choose to place their demands before it with implacable resolution. They include lakhs of small and marginal farmers as well as better-off farmers. Their unity transcends caste and creed. And this has upset the rulers. This is sacrilege,reversal of position and role,Khalistani or Pakistani or Maoist conspiracy! And the farmers are not allowing the recognized opposition rulers to manage the affairs on their behalf either, only seeking the help of those who stand with them through thick and thin.

The Prime Minister is stating flatly that the substance of the three Farm ‘reform’ laws is non-negotiable, excepting certain secondary and marginal issues. He has grimly insisted that these are benevolent laws meant to benefit and help the farmers while all the signs point to obvious and massive profit of the corporate monopolists. Obviously this is a kind of ‘people’ the Prime Minister in his lone splendor and majesty is unaccustomed to facing. These are not the sort that adore and offer oblation to him.Hence their very existence and claim as ‘people’ are to be denied. They are not cowed down. If the Prime Minister ignores the message from their hearts they greet his own exclusive homily to the nation by banging pots and pans. They in their turn insist that they know best what benefits and helps them, and the new Farm bills decidedly won’t. This spirit has also been seen in some defiant youths, and sturdy old women too. This provides an opportunity to opposition parties to humbly take lessons on the essence of democracy. This is what puts heart into despairing academics, intrepid  but forlorn journalists and rights activists, and what lonely judges and officials with integrity can take heart from. This is what is putting new life in those three ailing words of the constitution: ‘WE THE PEOPLE…’

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the author’s own. 



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