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Mythologies and their role in legitimating plutocracies: Conceptualising the politics of regionalism


Do democracies really reflect the aspirations of the people? On the face of it, the question that I have posed seems totally stupid.  Isn't it well known that in this day and age that democracy's definition and its operation are obvious?  Pardon me, I don't mind admitting to being a bit dense, but to me there is nothing very obvious about the definition of democracy or the ways in which it operates. By the time I finish writing this piece, it will be an exposition of the theoretical concerns of democracy, but those concerns are very much relevant to our everyday lives. Everyday lives because today democracy is seen as the panacea to all social problems, a conception that I am not too comfortable with.  When one ends up with what I think democracy really is, it is possible that we will look at the agendas of democracy in a different light.  Let me not claim that I am doing something very original and path breaking here.  All I am attempting to do is to collate some existing theories and contextualizing the notion of democracy as not reflective of people’s aspirations, since democracy as we know it here in India (and maybe in the rest of the world too) is not equipped with the tools of dealing with the aspirations of the people.


So let me start with the trigger that got me thinking on these lines, after all thoughts have some trigger or the other, I am sure you agree with me about this.   The Telangana Political Joint Action Committee or T-JAC as it is popularly called has been claiming that there is a strong sentiment for separate statehood in the Telangana region and therefore bowing to the will of the people, the Government of India should carve out a separate Telangana state.  This is what the TRS has been saying consistently and at one point the BJP joined this school of thought as did legislators from the Congress party and the Telugu Desam party, hailing from the region.  There have been threats of resignation from their posts and all that in support of the popular sentiment that is supposedly prevalent.


Now let me take the opportunity to refresh our memories about two politicians; Mr. Chandra Babu Naidu, the President of the TDP and Mr. YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, the founder of the YSR Congress.  In the past both made it very clear that they stood for an undivided Andhra Pradesh.  In fact, Jagan Mohan Reddy's father, the late YS Rajashekhar Reddy too stood for keeping the Andhra Pradesh state as it is.  The indecisiveness of the Congress party over the issue has fuelled the TDP and the YSR Congress into action in preparation for the next election whether in 2014 or before that due to some breakdown of the administrative machinery.  Once the games of election politics started a few things have changed.  Naidu steadfastly claims that Telangana and Andhra are his two eyes and that he is not anti-Telangana.  Jagan Reddy is maintaining a deafening silence over the issue despite grave provocation from his detractors.  He has been concentrating on his tactical "Odarpu Yatra" (a tour purportedly to commiserate with the people of the state who are still reeling from the shock of his father's untimely demise) to build his own mass base as a leader in his own right.  From two different vantage points, Naidu and Reddy have now been espousing the cause of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh.


To say that the espousal of the cause of the farmers is an electoral gambit is stating the obvious.  Electoral politics by their very nature demand that political parties and their leaders be in touch with their constituents.  Irrespective of the next election in Andhra Pradesh being mid-term or on schedule, it is increasingly clear that the separate Telangana is not happening before that.  This much has been acknowledged by the TRS and by the T-JAC's Chairman.  They have indicated that this may be one issue on which the next elections will be fought.  Therefore, the TRS and the T-JAC have claimed that neither Naidu nor Jagan Reddy will be allowed to tour the districts of Telangana by the people of Telangana since they stand against separate statehood for the region.  Some of the leaders of the TRS and the T-JAC had even dared the two leaders to come to Telangana.  Unsurprisingly both leaders picked up the gauntlet.  Unsurprisingly nobody except for a few members of the TRS did anything untoward.  Naidu travelled through in peace and Jagan fasted for a couple of days in Armoor (a small but affluent town in which I grew up for a while). If the opponents came from the cadres of the TRS, the supporters of both Naidu and Reddy came from the cadres of their respective parties.  For the common people it was life as usual with the now regular minor disturbances to demonstrate that something is happening throwing life a little of gear.


So what does this tell us about democracy?  It tells us that democracy is actually a surrogate for plutocracy, where the rich in order to control society and become richer still co-opt or coerce other sections of the populations in to their scheme of things by promising the earth, sky, moon and the stars.  While touring Telangana and addressing the press, Chandra Babu Naidu stunningly said that there would have been no separate Telangana movement or a party called TRS if he had not denied a cabinet portfolio to K. Chandrashekhar Rao.  I say it is stunning because while this well known all along, the admission from Naidu himself is tantamount to the admission of his guilt in bringing the politics of the state to this rather than concentrating upon developmental activity.  Unwittingly Chandra Babu Naidu took credit for what, for once, was actually to be credited to him. Jagan Mohan Reddy maintained a stoic silence about anything other than the farmer issue since that was what brought his father to power as Chief Minister.  By saying that the farmers of the state were in a state of neglect, the young Mr. Reddy has unwittingly accepted that what his father did for the farmers of the state (he was Chief Minister for 5 years) was nothing substantial and did not change their lives in anyway. Politicians apparently pay lip service to those sections of society that are in distress and chalk out a strategy much like a macro-marketing strategy to draw the votes of those in distress.  So in India, democracy is a plutocracy of people who become legislators by hook sometimes and by crook oftentimes but claim to have the legitimate support of the people.


So is this peculiar to India then?  The answer will be an emphatic no.  The answer is so emphatic not because I have any firsthand experience of politics in other countries but because I have studied the evolution of modern day democracy.  The Greeks equated democracy to mob rule[1], it was only in the modern capitalist period that democracy found some respect.  The champions of modern capitalism such as John Locke[2] and Adam Smith[3] were also champions of democracy, but they never believed in or advocated the concept of Universal Suffrage or Universal Adult Franchise.  What they had advocated was a democratic plutocracy in which only the propertied and the rich would have any rights and say in decision making for society.  It is for this reason that they advocated concepts of free markets and limited governments.  Over the years, some sections from the mobs that the Greek political philosophers feared, were able to find their way into the process of democracy.  Once such people find entry into the democratic process, they lose no time in dissociating themselves from the mobs to which they once belonged and aspire to be plutocrats.  Therefore, theorists such as Hamza Alavi[4] and Samir Amin[5] are right when they say that politicians constitute a separate class much like the traditional intellectuals (to borrow a term from Antonio Gramsci) think of themselves as a distinct class.  The difference is that intellectuals play around with words and concepts and feel gratified if somebody notices what they say (they do not do anything, and I know I am implicating myself here even though I don't see myself as an intellectual in anyway) while the politicians find economic and financial gratification; something that is far more tangible.  People's aspirations incidental to this grander scheme of politicians and some benefits that sometimes get passed on to some people are also incidental and just by products of the games that politicians play.  To conclude then, democracy is not will of the people, democracy is not fairness, democracy is not justice, democracy is not empowerment of all; modern democracy is just a new name, a legitimation for plutocracy and the furtherance of the agendas of the rich, be they individuals or corporations.


If one were to take (and one has to take since we do not have any option) John Locke as the progenitor of the modern concept of democracy we can clearly see that the limited government concept also meant involvement of a limited number of people in the democratic process.  Representative democracy anyway is all about limited involvement of a limited number of people.  In a simple majority system of representative democracy, a model that is followed by most number of countries in the world, those who do not vote for a particular candidate are perforce represented by that very candidate, even though they had rejected him as their representative.  The implication of this is that the people who have not voted for a victorious candidate are actually going unrepresented[6].


Jean Jacques Rousseau the French philosopher was someone who believed in the true equality of all.  And he did not see democracy as a definite means of attainment of this equality.  This much is evident from his writings where he offers two possible models for reaching a society that is based in equity and equality.  The first of this is "direct democracy" as opposed to representative democracy.  For Rousseau democracy is truly a democracy only if it is reflective of the General Will, a concept with which many commentators of Rousseau grappled with for years[7].  The General Will should be understood as the "good" will which works for the good of "all" (not even one person can be left out of this all) and to borrow a phrase from Immanuel Kant is a categorical imperative[8].  For Rousseau it was clear that the General Will was in no way co-terminus with majority will, a concept which is central to our democracy today. Suspicious that democracy could always take a majoritarian turn, Rousseau proposed the other alternative, his second, which is even more radical than direct democracy.  This one is based in the "Universal Legislator" a person who is capable of understanding the good of all and therefore creates laws and a system of administration that would be beneficial to "all".  Rousseau believed for either of the two models to work one of the necessary preconditions was a republic consisting of very small populations in the range of five thousand people[9]


Take a look at today's democracies and the States that they operate in.  India itself is a prime example of a billion people all participating and sometimes not participating in the democratic process. Non-participation is of two types, voluntary and forced.  The first is self-explanatory but the second needs a little explanation.  In many parts of the country, people are not allowed to vote either by someone else voting for them by the time they reach polling station or preventing people from reaching the polling station.  Now see this in conjunction with the main driving force of modern democracy.  The main driving force of modern democracy is the great capitalist interest.  It is no wonder therefore that Noam Chomsky says that the agenda of democracies is never the welfare of the people, it is the welfare of corporations that are large[10].  But since that cannot be the ground on which democracy can be made to look legitimate, it is given the veneer of working for the people.  For Chomsky, the consent of the people behind democratic regimes is a manufactured consent.  By calling this consent manufactured Chomsky is exploding the myth that democracies survive on the basis of the consent that people give[11].


And that brings us to the question of mythologies.  The title here says that mythology is used to legitimate plutocracies and project them as democracies.  What we have seen of Chomsky definitely supports this.  The question however is "how do myths get constructed"?  Here we can take the help of two Frenchmen, an  anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss and a specialist in understanding the construction of mythologies, Roland Barthes.  Claude Levi Strauss uses the example of how descent from one person is usually used in order to perpetuate a kinship[12].  Let us understand this in the context of India.  Let us take into question the kinship of the Nehru-Gandhi family.  When Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi or now Rahul Gandhi are taken into consideration their descent is traced back to either Jawaharlal Nehru or sometimes even Motilal Nehru.  But when Indira Gandhi is talked of, there is no mention of her mother, Kamala Nehru.  Similarly when Rajiv Gandhi is talked of, there is no mention of his father, Feroze Shah.  In fact, no one remembers the tale that Mahatma Gandhi lent his surname to Feroze Shah and made him Feroze Shah Gandhi when Jawaharlal Nehru objected to his daughter Indira's marriage to Feroze Shah.  Today, there is no Rajiv Gandhi but his wife Sonia Gandhi is alive but both her and her son Rahul Gandhi's lineage is drawn back to Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.  Now see the myth, none of the people who carry the surname Gandhi today are actually Gandhis.  The descendants of the Mahatma are not rightful "owners" of the Congress Party.  It is these other Gandhis.  This is myth construction as per Claude Levi Strauss, a process that is akin to the sleight of the hand, a process of make believe[13].


Now for another example and this time to show the notion of "connotation"[14] which becomes myth construction according to Roland Barthes.  We shall use an example that was used by Barthes himself but we will also remember that this example would serve a great purpose in understanding Indian politics.  Barthes talks about a bottle of wine and says that its primary significance is that it is an alcoholic brew that when consumed in large quantities could intoxicate the consumer and also damage the person's health.  However, upper classes in society have imbued the bottle of wine with secondary significations.  A bottle of wine is considered to be the drink of wealthy, those with taste for the 'finer things of life', an elixir that relaxes the mind, body and soul and also stimulates appetite.  Over a period of time according to Barthes, the secondary signification or the connotation takes over from the first and slowly obliterates it so much so that only the finer things of life, relaxation and possession of wealth are signified by a bottle of wine[15].  In Indian politics, the brew that we should talk about is not wine.  At its worst its some form of hooch and at its best it is cheap Indian Made Foreign Liquor spiked with diazepam or alprazolam to give the consumer a high.  This in conjunction with a local delicacy is enough to buy votes during elections.


During the electoral process, manifestos are released but nobody knows what is in them, speeches are made but nobody listens and developmental agendas are set and nobody gives a damn.  Elections in India are not seen as opportunity to empower oneself, or to change regimes for the better.  They are seen by the lumpen, whose services are bought as opportunities for the consumption of drug spiked alcoholic brews and good food while the election campaigning is on.  Most elections are won or lost on this basis.  Yet the victorious party claims that its developmental agendas have the support of the people.  And if a party comes back to power a second time it is taken as a mandate for the policies that were pursued by the government in the last five years.  However, the money (the most important component of a plutocracy) comes from vested interests such as corporations, business families and the politicians themselves.  It is this money that literally buys votes and the victors then claim that their politics are vindicated.  The agendas based either in ideology, development or identities is the mythology that legitimates the process of buying and selling votes.  This buying and selling of votes is the basis for the perpetuation of plutocracies, but the mythology generated by publicly placed agendas is what makes the plutocracies appear as democracies.


Off late in the State of Andhra Pradesh in India, there is the separate Telangana movement. It started as a movement that premised itself in politics of development and has now wound up as a movement that is premised in identity.  Whenever the Andhra-Telangana issue is raised there is talk of the Gentleman's Agreement and how the Andhra side has reneged on it.  The Gentleman's agreement is not something that anyone knows with any clarity.  Yet it is invoked again and again by both sides who are completely ignorant of its context and content and thereby both sides argue on the basis of a mythology that they seek to perpetuate. Terms such as regional inequalities, backwardness, exploitation,self-determination, self-rule and self-respect are all firmly aimed at furthering these mythologies. The reality is that what is happening in Andhra Pradesh can be brought down to the feuding among a few families that seek to control the State.  


Till the establishment of the Telugu Desam Party, Andhra Pradesh was the fiefdom of Mrs. Gandhi.  NT Rama Rao challenged that fiefdom with his own by setting up the Telugu Desam.  The mantle was subsequently taken over, rather forcefully, by Chandra Babu Naidu and today NT Rama Rao's progeny are the ones who are trying to control the Telugu Desam Party and with it the politics of Andhra Pradesh.  Queering this pitch is the K Chandrashekhar Rao's family, the saviours of Telangana.  Some of the Telangana upper castes will support Chandrashekhar Rao's Telangana Rashtra Samithi so that they can either continue their domination of the region or snatch it back from the coastal Andhra "settlers" who have taken it away from them during the Telugu Desam rule.  YS Rajashekhar Reddy changed the face of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh by considerably lessening the influence of the Gandhi - Nehru family.  When he died his son Jagan Mohan Reddy decided that he should be the heir to the YSR legacy.  So he falls out with the Congress Party that does not recognise any family other than the Gandhi-Nehru family.  In the meanwhile, somewhere Chiranjeevi and his family thought they can control of the State.  That they failed is now well known and the man has saved his face by plumbing for the Gandhi-Nehru family.


These family feuds will use any language that is necessary to perpetuate their own rule in the State.  The case of Andhra Pradesh is being discussed here but this largely true of all states in India.  Politicians and their think tanks are actively creating believable mythologies which seek to project their own plutocratic agendas as democratic agendas that have the down trodden at the heart of things.  But nothing is farther from the truth, that much is now obvious.

[1]See Plato, The Republic, London, England, Penguin Publishers, 1981

[2]Lowe, E J., Locke, London England, Routledge, 2005


[4]Alavi, Hamza and Harris, John, “South Asia: Sociology of Developing societies”, New York, USA, McMillan, 1989 p. 83

[5]Amin, Samir, “Global History: A view from the South”, Oxford, England, Pamazuka Press, 2011, p.56

[6]Lowe, E J., Locke, London England, Routledge, 2005, p. 71


[7]Dent, Nicholas, “Rousseau”, London, England, Routledge, 2005, p.36

[8]Guyer, Paul, “Kant, London, England, Routledge, 2006, p. 48

[9]Shklar, Judith, “Men and Citizens”, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1987,  p. 91

[10]Rai, Milan, “Chomsky’s Politics,  New York, USA, Verso,  1995, p. 25

[11]See Chomsky, Noam, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media”, Pantheon Press, 2002

[12]See Henaff, Marcel, “Claude Levi Strauss”, Minneapolis, USA, University of Minnesota Press, 1991


[14]Barthes, Roland, “Mythologies”, London, England, Paladin, 1972