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Postcolonial Politics of India

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

Edited by Ajay Gudavarthy
Anthem Press, Delhi, 2012, pp. x 322, Rs. 595.00


Let us begin by posing a simple question: have contemporary western democracies ceased to interrogate their political (democratic) processes? Not quite, perhaps. Moreover, their nature and mode of interrogation are not similar to those deployed by non-western democracies, the postcolonial ones in particular, to assess their political condition. And rightly so, for, among others, the postcolonial condition, coupled with the ‘short’ span of time that the latter have had with formal democracy, drives them, or so it seems, rather too anxiously to take to the ‘performative turn’—meaning here a performance/report card driven approach. Put differently, as compared to western democracies, the postcolonial ones in general and Indians in particular display deeper anxieties so far as the workings of their political systems are concerned.   However, such anxieties, produced by engaging with western concepts and categories and at the same time realizing their inadequate potential in explaining the ‘specificity’ of postcolonial societies, ironically do not lead to the setting in of a state of Orwellian despair. And certainly not in India, as Ajay Gudavarthy’s book would testify, where they result in fact, in the generation of novel ideas and concepts of addressing its highly complex postcolonial politics. Of course, not all such ideas and concepts merit serious intellectual engagement. But there are quite a few which have emerged as exceptions. Political society, a concept formulated by Partha Chatterjee in the ‘context of wide-scale difference over how to approach civil society in the context of postcolonial democracies’ (p.1), is one such which has triggered serious debate among scholars, activists and public intellectuals in India and elsewhere. No doubt this points towards the significance of the concept so far as postcolonial democracies are concerned. More importantly, political society’s critical interrogation lends it an unfrozen, dynamic character—and Chatterjee’s response, included in this volume, to his interlocutors adds to that.   For sure, the living character of the concept comes to the fore through the fourteen essays edited and put together by Gudavarthy. Before we discuss political society’s interrogative potential and promise—both theoretical and empirical—a simple outline of the concept is necessary. Worked upon about a decade and a half ago by Chatterjee, political society is the domain of the rural and urban marginalized population groups whose ‘democratic’ political practices, geared as they primarily are towards deriving benefits for basic survival rather than protesting against deep governmentality, remain ...

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