It’s not about the ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, but about ‘power’

In our theatres of war, brought to us live on primetime television and on social media, we are presented with a rampant muscular ‘Right’ taking on an anti-national ‘Left’. But if you look closely, you will realise that the political and social conflicts that are being tagged as “Right vs Left” have almost nothing to do with the labels being used for them.

For instance, muscular nationalism today seems to belong to the ‘Right’, while all forms of dissent that makes the government see red denotes the ‘Left’, although this is not really the case if you consider Cold War-era communist regimes and their remnants. When it comes to society and culture, conservatives are ‘Right’ while progressives are the ‘Left. On matters relating to the economy though, free-marketers and innovators are on the ‘Right’, while those favouring state intervention are on the ‘Left’. Yet, India’s right-wingers rarely seems to mind a government that continues to expand its mandate, something that Communists (or the leftists) have been justifiably accused of.

Essentially then, what we are witnessing around us is a pure play for power – power that extends into the lives of people. Researchers have studied ‘power’ extensively: Steven Lukes in his seminal work, Power: A Radical View, introduced us to a three-dimensional view of power: a continuum in ways one can exercise power, ranging from coercion to agenda-control to manipulation. Others, such as Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller have termed the different forms Visible Power, Hidden Power and Invisible Power.

Coercion or visible power is fairly easily understood (and visible) as the exercise of power where one prevails over another by force, where the more powerful can simply over-rule decisions made or sought to be made by the others. Where one’s view is imposed on another through outrightly overruling the latter, or use of violence, it is clearly coercive power at work. For instance, when the Government of India launched demonetisation last year, it effectively expanded the realm of its ‘coercive’ powers, demonstrating that the government could subject its citizens to mindless “inconvenience” at will. The more recent spate of violence and murders in the name of the cow is nothing else, but a means to intimidate Muslims, and coerce them to accept the RSS narrative of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Not surprisingly, the Emergency of 1975, (most prominently, the media censorship and the mass sterilisation camps) is the other stellar example of the state’s coercive power at work.

The second form of power, or ‘Agenda Control’ is the ways in which decisions are prevented from being taken on potential issues over which there is conflict, where the one in power can ‘decide what to decide’. There are elements of ‘coercion’ in this approach, but more importantly, the ability to set the rules of the game. For instance, the government of the day can decide whether to or not to debate a particular issue in Parliament. The manner in which Finance Bill amendments were railroaded through Parliament earlier this year reflected the manner in which the BJP now commands the power to ‘decide what to decide’. Rajiv Gandhi’s use of his brute Parliamentary majority to overturn the judiciary in the Shah Bano case in 1986 is another example that comes to mind.

The third form of power is the one that Lukes called Hidden Power, and VeneKlasen and Miller called Invisible Power. The most insidious form in which power is exercised, this is the “ways in which potential issues are kept out of politics, through social forces and institutional practices or through individual’s decisions”. Through a process of socialisation and normalisation, this form of power controls not only particular behaviours and preferences, but also underlying wants, desires and interests. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum (talking in the context of gender relations) explain how power works when those who are at the receiving end adapt and accept a hegemonic relationship with the ‘powerful’.

By all accounts, this sounds like real power. The exercise of such power is a long-term process, the kind that is initiated by altering textbooks, control of key political battlefields such as universities, subtle advertisement campaigns, and strategic use of ‘dog-whistle’ politics. It is the kind of power the Communist parties wielded in the past, and the kind that RSS and BJP are seeking to capture now. The nationalism debates that seek to establish that there is only one political party that stands up for the nation are clear efforts in that direction. Sycophants chanting “India is India” and “Making of Developed India” are one and the same. Those who wield such power, use it to support and justify acts of coercive power. Violence against political opponents under the Communists or RSS, and the terror unleashed by gau-rakshaks are both backed by those seeking long-term domination through the exercise of hidden power.

It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other – never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.

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A slightly different version of this first apeared on Pragati

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