In his 2006 book Politics of Self-Expression, Markus Daechsel, lecturer at the University of London, describes the nature of politics practised in India and Pakistan as “politics of interest.” By this he means a negotiated process and interaction between the landed or business elite and an ethnic, class or religious community. In this arrangement, the elite, to sustain its political and other interests, looks after the everyday interests of the community. These can include employment opportunities and basic amenities such as water, electricity, roads, etc.
This process is embraced by mainstream political outfits when the elite become part of it. This connects the political outfit or party with the interests of communities at a grass-root level, thus strengthening the party’s electoral appeal. According to Daechsel, those who fall outside this arrangement — members of the urban middle classes — become mouthpieces of the elite, in the form of white-collar employees, bankers and lawyers.
But what happens with those members of the urban middle classes who feel completely left out by this arrangement or are frustrated by it?
Middle classes alienated from ‘politics of interest’ are often looking for catharsis rather than solutions
In his detailed study, Daechsel writes that those members of the middle class who reject the mainstream “politics of interest” begin to indulge in what he calls “politics of self-expression.” He explains that “anti-societal” politics rejects the interactions, networks and ground realities with which the fabric of a society is woven.
Daechsel writes that “politics of self-expression” romanticises metaphysical notions of ideologies through abstract, jingoistic and even audacious postures and rhetoric. He adds that this is done to jolt the people out of the comforts of the aforementioned “politics of interest.”
However, Daechsel’s study also shows that men and women who indulge in the “politics of self-expression” often operate in a delusionary scenario where they see themselves as messiahs who have emerged to warn and regenerate a mass of people that they believe are just going through the motions of serving the elite.
Daechsel writes that the “politics of self-expression” is born out of frustration and that even though it produces shock value, its practitioners are often sidelined in the mainstream as cranks.
After closely studying politicians of self-expression who emerged from India’s urban middle-classes before Partition, he looked at men such as radical Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose; animated Hindu nationalist VD Savarkar; radical Muslim agitator Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi and a young Islamic cleric, Abdul Sattar Khan Niazi.
These men were least interested in coming up with schemes to improve the economic and social standing of the community of people they were operating in. Instead, they heaped scorn at these communities and their leaders. They eschewed the conventional political language and replaced it with highly symbolic and militaristic imagery and prose. Bose detested Gandhi’s peace protests; Savarkar saw the “Hindu nation” as something that had a soul; Niazi waited for a Muslim Ubermensch which he called khuda mard; whereas Mashriqi went to the extent of lambasting the idea of having a family because he believed it restricts a man from fulfilling his natural militaristic destiny.
Another reason why these characters became known among urban-middle-class audiences so quickly — but as abruptly became sidelined as cranks — was because of the way mainstream political parties absorbed their volatile rhetoric and then neutralised it through politics of interest.
But, Daechsel writes, the middle classes have been growing in both India and Pakistan and more and more from this class are feeling alienated by their respective countries’ politics of interest. They are sometimes also called the “blocked elite” — a relatively well-off class of people sandwiched between the upper- and working-classes, who may have gained economic influence but feel blocked when it comes to attaining political power.
So one can argue that the reason why the ideas and imagery of former cranks has now seemed to penetrate mainstream rhetoric in the two countries is due to the growing urban-middle-classes in India and Pakistan. For example, Savarkar clearly echoes in the rhetoric and politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. It is thus not surprising that a detailed study of India’s 2014 election by Suhas Palshikar, Sanjay Kumar and Sanjay Lodha, found that a majority from India’s urban-middle-classes voted for the BJP.
In Pakistan, “politics of self-expression”, as defined by Daechsel in the context of the growing urban middle-class in the country, can best be attributed to Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Like the BJP (which till 1980 was called Bharatya Jana Sangh), PTI, too, was once a tiny party mouthing the disgust harboured by sections of the growing urban middle-class against the prevailing politics of interest.
As the size of India’s urban-middle-classes grew, so did the size of the BJP. The party began to absorb this class-obscure politics of expression. And even though the BJP worked it through India’s established “politics of interest”, it did so through militaristic and reactionary posturing and by echoing the abstract and symbolic shock rhetoric of radical Hindu nationalists of yore.
PTI seems to be going through the same process. As it grows, it is now becoming part of Pakistan’s established “politics of interest.” But it is articulating it through angry, symbolic and even reactionary rhetoric and imagery which was once associated with right-wing fringe groups and even those on the left.
Daechsel believes that middle-class groups who reject the dynamics of politics of interest are not the least bit interested in a party’s programme. He writes that in India and Pakistan especially, the urban youth belonging to such middle-class sections, have always looked towards a ‘messiah’ who could reflect their anger and frustration and help them experience catharsis.
One is yet to see exactly what happens when finally one such raving messiah manages to come to power. He is more than likely to disappoint his middle-class constituency — if not entirely anger it — once the poetic euphoria of nationalistic/religious symbolism, catharsis and messianic rhetoric wears off. Modi, in India, is an ongoing test case.