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The Limits of 'Lokniti'?

This is a response to Manish Thakur's critique (1 November 2008) of the article on JP and representative democracy (2 August 2008).


The Limits of ‘Lokniti’?

Ranabir Samaddar

This is a response to Manish Thakur’s critique (1 November 2008) of the article on JP and representative democracy (2 August 2008).

anish Thakur points out the limits of “lokniti” (“JP and the Limits of ‘Lokniti’ ”, EPW, 1 November 2008, pp 62-63) in the context of my discussion, titled “Jayaprakash Narayan and the Problem of Representative Democracy” (EPW, 2 August 2008, pp 49-58). He suggests in his note that, first, I have not been careful enough in keeping in mind those limits when discussing three aspects of Indian democratic history, namely, the historical relation of democracy with the nation form; second, its history of emergence in the anti-colonial and post-colonial milieu as one of immediacy, and, third, the role of associational politics in the Indian history of democracy that makes irrelevant the received civil/political diffe rence. The thread that connects my discussions on these three aspects of democracy in India is a critique of the theme of representation, a theme around which much of today’s political theory and governmental sciences revolve.

My intention in that essay was not to argue that lokniti has no limits. Indeed, I have nothing to say on the old and conventional distinction between direct and indirect democracy. That distinction has been often rendered “absolute” creating in the process a situation of closure. I was only suggesting that lokniti appears as a strategic move to escape or come out of that closure. Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) was not alone in trying such a move. There have been numerous efforts in Indian democratic history to forge such moves and prise open the democratic closures. However I am thankful to Manish Thakur for providing me an opportunity to reinforce some of the points I made there, in the process enabling me once more to argue why the problematic of democracy requires being recast today, wrenching it away from the liberal framework of understanding. So, I was not at all discussing if politics could be really divided into two compartments of rajniti and lokniti, which Thakur says, reminds us “of the theoretically suspect elite-subaltern divide as if the two were self-contained autonomous domains”. Or, if in propounding a notion of lokniti JP was “display(ing) a certain naiveté about what sociologists would call theories of conflict”. The question that I shall like to pose: If as it seems and as Manish Thakur reminds us, “JP’s preoccupation with representative democracy/direct democracy divide made him rather oblivious of the inherent limits of the latter”, why on each occasion when there is an attempt to make democracy “immediate” (a point whose import Thakur completely misses), the tools of representation are deployed to stop the immediacy? This is precisely the question of temporality I was raising in my essay, of the constituent power redefining its own time and space. The problem then will be: how do we make democracy immediate, yet keep it governable? What are the dialogic mechanisms called for such an “impossible” exercise? What will be our understanding of what Etienne Balibar calls the “infinite contradiction”?

The Relevant Detail

Whether the institutions and processes of representative democracy are “imported” or not, the fact is that these institutions and processes make what we can call, “governmentalised” democracy. Thakur refers to the anxiety of some of the Indian thinkers of democracy as to whether these institutions were imported in the beginning. But I do not think that is where the inquiry should be directed, namely, why the anxiety, or if the anxiety was misplaced. Instead we should deal with

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Ranabir Samaddar ( is part of the Calcutta Research Group.

february 14, 2009 vol xliv no 7

Economic & Political Weekly


two points in this context: First, we have to note the power of a specific idea of democracy, which carries within it certain forms of representation and governmentalisation; and second, the equally universal power of democracy to create spaces for contesting those forms of r epresentation and governmentalisation. In this sense democracy is more a contentious history of popular actions and collective claim-makings rather than being an ideology and a system of representative rule. Indeed, one may ask, why again is there so little study of the dialectics whereby rule over the subjects precisely through the representative form becomes direct, after earlier systems of indirect administration and governance are replaced.

I was trying to indicate and mark out some of the ways in which the history of Indian democracy can be retraced. If that project is accepted then we need to concentrate more on actions and thinking (of popular collectives and thinkers as social actors), rather than our judgments on individual thinkers. Our concern will be: how did a thinker problematise a pheno menon? Why did s/he feel the imperative to problematise? And not whether s/he was right or wrong, or as Manish Thakur citing Yogendra Yadav raises the point, if JP was a failure (“Yadav notes JP’s grand failure in offering c onvincing self-definitions to social actors in what Charles Taylor calls the self- defining function of social theory”). Did social theory ever have a self-defining function? That is why, in A Bio graphy of the Indian Nation (Sage 2001) in a chapter on passive revolution (pp 80-118), I pointed out the inability of radical politics in Bihar in the 1970s to forge a union between lokniti, sangharsh (struggle), and radical agrarian politics in m aking the national-popular, from which I traced the dynamics of passive r evolution.

To restate the issue then, “the problem of representative democracy”, is one of democracy being problematised by the overwhelming phenomenon of representation, at the same time being marked by recurrent attempts in popular politics to wrench democracy away from the shackles of representation, and place it in the realm of actions. This, of course, makes democracy contingent on claim-making dynamics, permanently dialogic, a space of interacting and overlapping autonomies, almost an unending era of permanent plebiscite. I was trying to show how JP was driven by that problem; hence the reason why we can gainfully reread what he thought and wrote. After all, political actions that demand immediate demo cracy emerge from degree zero, the point of void, where the preceding system of representing the people had lost relevance.

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Economic & Political Weekly

february 14, 2009 vol xliv no 7

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