Gandhi, Tagore, Guha Neogi

Of People and ‘People’s Politics’

Pranab Kanti Basu

Messy, mouldy and mad— that is what the world of Indian politics is today. The anarchy and disintegration have surely deepened and spread in the last couple of decades due to the neoliberal virus but the rot has its roots in the political institutions and processes people have adopted and pursued since even before the 'midnight hour'. Serious diagnosis will definitely lead to the very way politics is conceived and practised in this land, where 'people' do have a role, but only in a restricted, ritualistic fashion. The logic of this politics is such that it must, necessarily, land in a kind of a wrestling arena which the contestants see, more so in this age of neoliberal globalisation, as a fantastic ground to build both careers and Swiss bank accounts.

But politics, essentially, is about people; and it affects people in their everyday life. When neoliberalism today poses the greatest challenge to the very survival, every effort needs to be made to restore that "people-centric" character of politics. One must look for ways and means of politics which involve people manifest what people want and emerge from people's daily struggles. What is urgently needed is politics of resistance in people's politics.

In many ways, the paradigm for this 'people's politics' can be located in the works and ideas of communitarians like Tagore, Gandhi and, in a different vein, Shankar Guha Neogi. The hallmark of their approaches is the focus on a political praxis independent of the State; rather, their contemplations are on samaj—community, atmashakti—self-strength and swaraj—self-rule. Sure enough, their ideas have been derided as Utopian, too preoccupied with the "local" to be relevant in this age of globalisation. But the dislocation and impoverishment of the infinite number of people that this corporate globalisation has wrought are once again bringing to the fore the need to critically rethink economic development in terms of "local" needs. People's politics has to emerge symbiotically with this.

These days, people are suffocated by the symbols of globalisation. Every space, each moment in their lives is invaded and occupied by an aggressive corporate culture. In fact, only through the elements of this corporate culture do people make sense of what their lives are about. The telling and retelling of how so-and-so made big money, the idiot-box reality shows in which parents invest their reproduced capital in the form of their children, the constant reminders by parents and teachers that competition and not cooperation makes for success—all these instil in children the notion that human beings are isolated individuals struggling in a Darwinian world where only the fittest survive. This is the mantra of neoliberalism, the ethical basis of corporate globalisation.
Constantly bombarded thus, people deem this to be the only possible world. People believe it is ordained that while many will go to bed hungry, a few will sleep in AC rooms; that while many will scurry about earning their daily bread, some will ride their BMWs. The lonely, self-aggrandising individuals will connect economically through a mechanism of the market and politically through the machinery of the State. Politics should, thereby, be limited to choosing between a Rahul or a Modi. Any other form of involvement violates the code of globalisation and should, therefore, be considered "disruptive" or "subvertive" and severely punished for indulging in acts of 'terrorism'.

Local vs Global
This is exactly the creed that the communitarians' ideas provide an alternative to, even though they were generated much before globalisation had begun to operate and spread its poisonous tentacles. Gandhi's swaraj, for instance, was a spiritual concept integral to the idea of "Independence" and was based on complete rejection of everything English and whatever constitutes the modern nation. What swaraj really means is that one has to learn to rule oneself, not just in matters of governance. And to do so, one has to live in and through one's community. Neither the market nor the State, but the community it is which will determine how one will lead one's own life.

The movement for swaraj was, thus, a movement for reviving the "local" as a counter-hegemonic position against the 'global'. In the context in which this movement was launched, 'global' was identified with the colonial state, while the 'local' was the village community, which had lost some of its independence during colonial rule. The essence of the movement was to be the social, cultural and economic restoration of the independent, self-regulated samaj.
"The word 'nation' is not there in our language, was never there in our country. Recently, by virtue of European education, we have learnt to appreciate the national glory. Although, its ideal has not been internalised by us. Our history, our wealth, our society, our homes, none of them acknowledges the pre-eminence of nation-building. The importance that Europe gives to freedom, we give the same importance to emancipation... Ingrained in the tasks for our householder is our tasks for the entire world. Within our homes we have established the universe and its master.... At the core of our Hindu civilisation is samaj—community at the core of European civilisation is rashtrameeti—State Policy". That is Rabindranath Tagore in ‘Oriental and Occidental Civilisation’, May-June, 1901.

East and West
Tagore, in a similar frame of mind, separated samaj from rashtra—the State. He argued that the East had always relied on its communities and its present dependence on the State was a product of Western influence. On the basis of a sweeping summary of the history of the Indian people, from the ancient times to the colonial period, the poet concluded that the strength of the people of India lay in the autonomy or self-sufficiency of the village community. This marked them as different from the western nations in which the people were dependent on the State. Interestingly, the theme of Asiatic Mode of Production, propounded by Karl Marx and which has fascinated scores of social scientists through a century, suggests the same difference, but in a pejorative sense.

True, the geographical-cultural dichotomies that Tagore talked about hardly make sense in this age of global connectivity; but the argument does gain a lot of ground as people's movements the world over try to recapture for a new human society the space that has been appropriated by the State-capital combine. However, it is not so much about territorial space, but rather thought and decision space. The initial symbolic representation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the occupation for reclaiming what used to be public property (Liberty Plaza), later acquired by corporate capital. After a time, the protesters were forcibly removed from the park they had camped on; yet, the idea behind the Occupy struggle has not died or faded away. It keeps reappearing elsewhere, every time with renewed vigour, and in the form of mass uprisings, as in Taksim Square.

Sangharsh aur Nirman
Though there are continuities between the ideas of Shankar Guha Neogi and those of Gandhi and Tagore, there are also significant points of departure. The community that Gufra Neogi wanted to establish through sangharsh aur nirman—struggle and creation—was of, by and for the toilers. There was, therefore, little need for any mediation or hierarchy.

An avowed Marxist, Guha Neogi had full faith in collective decision-making. Gandhi and Tagore, on the other hand, advocated democratisaticn of decision-making but only in a limited sort of way. The masses, according to them, could not be expected to fully comprehend the philosophy of the community. Hence, the need for mediation by the satyagrahis—truth-seekers (Gandhi) or the samajpatis—community chiefs (Tagore). The question that immediately comes to mind is whether Guha Neogi, too, like the Zapatistas, rejected the Leninist concept of the vanguard, the inevitable necessity of a political party of the working class community. There are no clear indications on this; but the fact is, Guha Neogi never formed a party.

Guha Neogi was, of course, pretty clear in his mind that his radical venture would be stubbornly opposed by the State. Recall, for example, the forgotten genocide thirty-five years ago of the refugees who were making a similar experiment at Marichjhapi in Sundarban. So, sangharsh would become unavoidable in nirman, but it, by itself, could not be the motive of the community.

Whatever their differences, and they were substantial, all three of them were talking of a different ethos, a different politics from the one which fitted the neoliberal ethos. No doubt, it is difficult for city-dwellers to think of such community-based movements. Maybe the increasing sameness of all political parties, the gnawing sense of frustration at being helpless spectators to the impoverishing of the masses by mindless, corporatised globalisation and the attendant growth of a sick society will impel all to be part of a new community-based action. The recent mass upsurges, the raging street-sangharsh across the globe lend cheer. In them, perhaps, one can see a new light.

Yes, these are struggles for nirmannirman of a mentality different from that, of the self-centred and the self-seeking nirman of new human beings.
[Courtesy: People Together, No. 3]

Vol. 46, No. 6, Aug 18-24, 2013

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