On the idea of ‘the people’

[First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, October-December, 2020]

The title of political theorist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee’s latest book invokes an imagery of the masses as described by Sandburg’s poem of the same title. But the book is not about those people per se, but an exploration rather of the phrase. Summoned by many a political aspirant on the election campaign dais, ‘the people’ is an ambiguous construct after all, whose constituency keeps shifting depending on the expediency of the moment of its invocation.

What Chatterjee does in this book is to trace a history of the idea of “the people”, providing an overview of the rise of populist politics, focussing, largely on the Indian experience. He draws amply upon the works of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau in the process, demonstrating the manner in which the meanings conveyed through the phrase have shifted since the end of the Second World War, and also prescribing ways in which a counterhegemonic strategy could be devised to address the current crisis of liberal democracy. Based on the Ruth Benedict lecture series he delivered at Columbia University in 2018, this book builds upon the academic’s previous oeuvre on nationalism and colonial history that foregrounded the postcolonial experience of southern nations. Chatterjee contends that “various features that are characteristic of democracies in Africa or Asia are now being seen in Europe and the United States because of underlying structural relations that have long tied metropolitan centers to their colonial and postcolonial peripheries” (preface). His central argument is that while in the West, populism emerged as a result of the contraction of the integral state, in India, it has been a survival tactic for political parties expanding along with the reach of the state.

Read the rest of the essay here: https://www.academia.edu/44754168/On_the_idea_of_the_people

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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