|Messianism versus Democracy
by Prabhat Patnaik
The Central government’s flip-flops on Anna Hazare are obvious: it went from abusing him (through the Congress spokesperson) for sheltering corruption, to extolling him for his idealism; from arresting him, without any justification, and getting him remanded to judicial custody for a week, to releasing him within a few hours. But the Anna group’s flip-flops are no less striking: it moves from “we-have-a-democratic-right-to-protest-and-place-our-views-in-public,” which is an unexceptionable proposition, to “Anna-will-keep-fasting-until-his-bill-is-adopted-or-amended-with-his-permission,” which amounts to holding a gun to the head of the Centre, and by implication of Parliament, and dictating that the bill it has produced must be passed, or else mayhem will follow. The government’s flip-flops are indicative of incompetence; the Anna group’s flip-flops arise because of the compulsions of a particular style of politics on which it is embarked, which can be called “messianism” and which is fundamentally anti-democratic. The fact that it is striking a chord among the people, if at all it is (one cannot entirely trust the media on this), should be a source of serious concern, for it underscores the pre-modernity of our society and the shallowness of the roots of our democracy.
Democracy essentially means a subject role for the people in shaping the affairs of society. They not only elect representatives periodically to the legislature, but intervene actively through protests, strikes, meetings, and demonstrations to convey their mood to the elected representatives. There being no single mood, freedom of expression ensures that different moods have a chance to be expressed, provided the manner of doing so takes the debate forward instead of foreclosing it. For all this to happen, people have to be properly informed. The role of public meetings where leaders explain issues, and of media reports, articles, and discussions, is to ensure that they are. The whole exercise is meant to promote the subject role of the people, and the leaders are facilitators. Even charismatic leaders do not substitute themselves for the people; they are charismatic because the people, in acquiring information to play their subject role, trust what they say.
Messianism substitutes the collective subject, the people, by an individual subject, the messiah. The people may participate in large numbers, and with great enthusiasm and support, in the activities undertaken by the messiah, as they are doing reportedly at Anna Hazare’s fast at the Ramlila grounds, but they do so as spectators. The action is of the messiah; the people are only enthusiastic and partisan supporters and cheerleaders. If at all they ever undertake any action on the side, this is entirely at the messiah’s bidding, its ethics, rationale and legitimacy never explained to them (no need is felt for doing so); whenever they march they march only in support of the messiah, not for specific demands that they have internalised and feel passionately about. When they gather at the Ramlila grounds, for instance, the occasion is not used to enlighten them, to bring home to them the nuances of the differences between the government’s Lokpal Bill and the Jan Lokpal Bill, so that they could act with discrimination and understanding. On the contrary, the idea is to whip up enthusiasm among them without enlightening them, through the use of meaningless hyperbole like “the government’s bill is meant not for the prevention but for the promotion of corruption”, and “Anna is India and India is Anna”. If the venue was one where discussions, debates, and informative speeches were taking place, the matter would be different, but those alas have no place in the political activity around messianism.
Informative speeches have been the traditional staple of political activity in India. Maulana Bhashani, a popular peasant leader in what is now Bangladesh, used to give marathon speeches that were interrupted when people went home for lunch or dinner, or even for a night’s rest, and resumed when they re-assembled afterwards; and the speeches contained much information about everything, not just politics but even crop-sowing practices and the best means of irrigation. A speech was virtually a set of classes; it had an educative role. I myself have heard election speeches in West Bengal by the inimitable Jyoti Basu, and also others. The speeches were based on solid homework, and conveyed information and argument to the audience. They also sought to rebut what was being said by the opponents, and hence carried forward a debate in public. Political activity of this kind assumed a subject role of the people and prepared them for it; it was quintessentially democratic. Messianic political activity does no such thing; it quintessentially creates a spectacle, not just for the audience but above all for the TV cameras upon whose presence it is crucially dependent.
I am not concerned here with whether the Jan Lokpal Bill is the best piece of legislation on the subject; nor am I concerned with the possible RSS links of the Anna campaign. These issues, though important, are not germane to my argument. My concern is with the “dumbing down” of the people that messianic political activity entails: “leave things to Anna but do come to cheer him.” Just as in a potboiler Hindi film the hero single-handedly does all the fighting required to rid the locale of villainous elements, messianic activity leaves all the fighting, that is, the subject role, to the messiah. The people stand around with sympathy, and cheer. When the Anna group announces that he will take up issues like land reforms, corporate land grab, and commercialisation of education, once his fight against corruption is over, one almost feels that Shekhar Kapoor’s “Mr. India” has finally arrived on the scene! The problem, however, is that “Mr. India” is a negation of democracy; and relying upon “Mr. India”, like relying upon the arrival of an incarnation of Vishnu to cleanse the world of evil, is a throwback to our pre-modernity. It is not just an admission of a state of powerlessness of the people that may prevail at the moment; it reinforces that powerlessness.
Messianism is fundamentally anti-democratic because it is complicit in this objectification of the people, this self-fulfilling portrayal of them as dumb objects that need a messiah. When the Anna group uses the term “people” as a substitute for itself (referring to its own bill as “the people’s bill,” its own views as the “people’s views”), it is implicitly carrying out a conceptual coup d’etat, namely, that messianism is democracy! But quite apart from the fact that the messiah is not elected by the people, a point made by many, there is the basic point that nobody, whether elected or not, can substitute for the people in a democracy.
This presumption, however, explains the flip-flops made by the Anna group. If Anna is the people, then democracy, where the people are supreme, demands that his version of the bill must be accepted over any other version, including what the parliamentary Standing Committee may come to formulate. The people’s supremacy over Parliament entails ipso facto Anna’s supremacy over Parliament. Messianism necessarily implies an “Anna’s-bill-has-got-to-be-adopted” position. Members of Anna’s group, many of whom have been associated for long with people’s causes, may have occasional discomfort with this messianic position, and may retreat to a “we-are-only-exercising-our-democratic-rights” stance; but since they do not repudiate the messianic position, they perforce come back to the “Anna-is-the-people-and-hence-supreme” stance. To accept that Anna’s version of the bill is only one of many possible versions, which the final bill could draw upon, amounts to seeing Anna as one among equals, and not as the messiah, that is, to an abandonment of messianism; the Anna group is loath to do this. “Negotiations” with the government therefore come to mean negotiations to make it accept Anna’s version; “compromise” comes to mean a compromise that makes Anna’s version final.
It may be asked: if the people prefer “messianism” to “democracy,” then what is wrong with it? Those thronging the Ramlila grounds or marching in support of Anna in the metros are not necessarily “the people” of the country, and it is dangerous to take the two as identical. Besides, even if a majority of the people genuinely wish at a particular time to elevate a messiah over Parliament, this is no reason to alter the constitutional order, just as a majority wishing to abandon secularism at a particular time is no reason to do so. The Constitution is the social contract upon which the Indian state is founded, and it cannot be overturned by the wishes of a majority at a particular time. If perchance the government accepts messianism out of expediency, it would be violating the spirit of the Constitution and undermining democracy. Besides, any such licence will make multiple (quasi-religious) messiahs sprout, who would compete and collude, as oligopolists do in the markets for goods, to keep people in thralldom.
Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India. This article was first published in
The Hindu on 24 August 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.