Reading Achille Mbembe in Indian Majoritarian Politics

In the 2014 Indian national elections the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the stewardship of Narendra Modi, returned to power with a comfortable majority. Over the past three years, through victories in a series of state legislative elections, the BJP has further consolidated its hold over the Indian polity. This ascendancy has resulted in an unmistakable embrace of majoritarian politics, as Nehruvian values of pluralism, tolerance, and agonistic democracy have receded. Combining right-wing majoritarianism with a recipe for economic development that excludes minorities and lower castes, the current dispensation promises to exacerbate and solidify Manichean social and political divides beyond repair. By all accounts Modi and his political alliance is here for a long haul, and this portends ominous times for the Indian polity, not least for the minorities against whom performative violence has become routine.

Achille Mbembe (2006) has interpreted politics, in a Freudo-Bataillean vein, as the sublimation of violence. He argues that three forms have historically emerged in the context of postcolonial African states. Agonistic electoral politics, majoritarianism, and necropolitical regimes have followed each other in rapid succession over a period of four decades. The first of these witnessed the flourishing of ostensibly liberal institutions including high-minded bureaucracies, political parties, elections, and a relatively free press that established the political as the space of negotiations, transactions, and agonism. Soon, however, these forms mutated into majoritarian polities where the marginalized and minorities were silenced. In extreme moments, such polities devolved into necropolitical regimes in which large sections of populations were deemed utterly irrelevant, submitted to random yet committed machineries of death. Indeed, the work of politics in this last form involved not sublimation, but overt manifestations of violence.

Is this framework relevant to the current Indian context? In the exchange that follows, I argue that it is, making a case for the continued overlapping presence of these forms over the last seventy years of the Indian republic. Yet I argue that majoritarianism has become paramount with the ascendancy of the Hindu Right. This rise to power coexists, however, with the generalized perversion (this understood as a descriptive analytic, and not a normative category) that framed the fate of rule of law and statist governmentality from the very inception of the colonial-modern Indian state. Extending this argument, Thomas Blom Hansen locates, in competing frameworks beyond liberal constitutional order, the contemporary mode of Indian politics, in which democracy draws on both deeply entrenched notions of popular sovereignty and a valorization of violence as its regular idioms of articulation. Finally, in a compelling response, Partha Chatterjee challenges the notion of a latent teleological drive to perversion and majoritarianism that inheres in postcolonial polities in Vishnupad’s and Hansen’s narratives.

Reference

Mbembe, Achille. 2006. “On Politics as a Form of Expenditure.” In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, edited by Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, 299–335. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Posts in This Series

On the Three Political Configurations in India

On Law, Violence, and Jouissance in India

Response to Vishnupad and Hansen