Monday, January 19, 2009
Beleaguered political imagination
by Shamita Basu
The Statesman, 19 January 2009
A soccer great comes calling: The Implications of State-Sponsored Grandstanding
In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai massacre, the people of Kolkata were treated to a historic football match and the inauguration of an equally memorable football academy by one of the soccer greats, Diego Maradona. The television channels aired a cacophony of claims and counter-claims over which media house had earned the exclusive right to televise the “night and day in the life of the soccer star in Kolkata”. Ministers and football clubs vied with each other over providing nuggets of information on the Argentinian. The overwhelming hype may have left him wondering why he had never ever heard of the clubs of such a soccer-crazy city.
Hype over Maradona
However, the perceptive section of the citizens had realised the objective of the hype over Maradona. Was it a cynical attempt to divert public attention from Lalgarh and the Singur fiasco? It was largely a contrived effort to feel exhilarated. The “transitionals”, that is those among the dispossessed, who had dreamt of power and glory, and the sub-literates who over the years had been deceived by promises of acquiring social mobility, were of course enthused by the arrival of Maradona thanks to the efforts of the state’s sports minister.
It is now established in political theory that the sovereignty of an exhausted political regime evinces a strong tendency to rely on mass ceremonies and engage in ritualistic excesses in order to make its presence felt. A regime, which is in a state of perpetual crisis, its legitimacy tested by pandemics, pestilence, evictions, displacement, environmental hazards, routine corruption and police atrocities and with its executive control pushed to its limit, is forced to regenerate such state sponsored ceremonies. And the exercise is embellished with gold and silver heaped on a retired footballer.
It is intriguing how the ruling dispensation can be further propped up by a section of the intelligentsia which argues that opposition to a totalitarian regime is a conspiracy of the elite against the popular. The equation of the popular with the poor has of course completed the discourse.
The greatest intellectual disservice done to the poor is an understanding that is widely circulated and valorised, specifically their tendency to be vulgar, violent, crass and credulous. This bizarre construct divests the poor and the oppressed of their right to be refined, tolerant, humble and wise. This is an extremely perverse and populist notion of the impoverished masses. Daily wage-earners and domestic helps didn’t throng the stadium to see Maradona in action as it were, indeed to witness the celebration of what was deemed as celebrating popular culture.
What began as the great modernist phase of the Bengal leftists in the seventies was over time vulgarised supposedly to incorporate the non-elitist segment of the society. Ideologically, it sought to establish the most dangerous connection between modernity and the inevitability of exclusion of all that was morally good, ethical and universal within the axis of both cosmopolitan and indigent culture. The pitch for a class character of ethics and morality steadily destroyed the great Bengali culture that had a history of accommodating the vernacular and modern in the nationalism of the 19th century.
Doing away with English at the primary level completed this parody of modernity. The culture, which the Bengalis inherited since the mid-18th century, was abandoned in favour of a dispensation that robbed the under-privileged of any social access to the cultural heritage. Those who felt the loss of this cosmopolitan culture were silenced by the “neo-liberals”. The trend is in accord with the practices of sovereignty in a totalitarian state power.
The reason why a totalitarian party has succeeded in Bengal is the adroitness with which it has successfully combined a political theology of egalitarianism with the classical logic of sovereignty. The great political thinker, Carl Schmitt, observed: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. The exception means the appropriate moment when it can step out of the rule of law for the sake of what it terms as public interest or social good.
Sovereignty is not only exercised by brutality and violence, but through acts of generosity towards its subjects. Hence hooch outlets can thrive. The state must be generous to the deviant among the poor. It also has to perform its social duty to bring over such heroes as Maradona to those who lack the means to be part of the glamour that is associated with international soccer. Therefore, glamour in the form of a state-sponsored soccer match must be organised for the poor.
Scholars, who have studied the character of the Indian state, have argued for a segmentary nature of the Indian state where the central authority can rule successfully through a local network of sovereign rulers. This historic form was faithfully emulated in Bengal through what can be described as local structures of adjudication such as the neighbourhood clubs or citizens’ committees in urban Bengal, unions affiliated to the party in both the private and public sectors. Governance was gradually relegated. The Maradona fever in Kolkata was merely a crude expression of a beleaguered political imagination.
Photo: © Reuters.