Review of I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (2020) by Partha Chatterjee

Debojoy Chanda reviews Partha Chatterjee’s latest volume I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (2020).

American Republican candidate Donald Trump—with his outlandish white supremacist and anti-bureaucratic rhetoric endorsing gun-toting ethno-nationalism in the United States[i]—was elected President of the country in 2016. As the world looked on agape, Trump’s conservative anti-immigrant electorate felt vindicated because they now had a figurehead in whom they had the affective investment to “want to have a beer with” him.[ii] This situation left thinkers attempting to locate the chinks in the chains of politics that could have enabled the rise to power of a policy-shorn reality-television star. Against such a backdrop, Partha Chatterjee’s I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (2020) attempts to discuss multiple factors that led to the rise of populism through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in various parts of the world. Chatterjee delineates certain broad features of populist politics, and concomitantly traces the crippling of the ‘people’ to the machinery of liberal representative democracy being flawed since its inception. Thanks to this flawed machinery, argues Chatterjee, populism has emerged as a product of the most modern phase of democratic politics.

Bringing Ernesto Laclau’s seminal text On Populist Reason (2018) into dialogue with Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks and some of the lectures that Michel Foucault had delivered at the College de France, I Am the People sees Chatterjee have this dialogue inform his own thought.

Based on the lectures that he had delivered in 2018 as part of the annual Ruth Benedict Lecture Series organized by Columbia University, Chatterjee, by his own confession, had used the meandering lecture format in the chapters of his book, to wander across geographical regions and historical periods in no particular order. However, he maintained an idiosyncratic, though non-linear, plan in the format—a plan that, though clear, often leaves a tantalizing thought trailing off in one chapter, only to be taken up in a later chapter, while too many insightful observations and reflections are merely touched upon in passing. So, I will here outline the substance of Chatterjee’s chapters in an unfortunately truncated fashion, while interjecting with a comment or two of my own. Following this, I will end with a reflection stimulated by Chatterjee’s reflections. This reflection stems from my training as a literary and cultural studies specialist.

In the first chapter, “Even Justice,” Chatterjee details the history of Radhabinod Pal, a judge from colonial India who had participated in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East of 1946. The Tribunal had been put together after World War II to try principal Japanese military and political leaders for war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. It was heavily tilted in favor of the Allied Powers. Unlike the other judges in the Tribunal, Pal exculpated the Japanese of all charges in 1948, on the grounds that the juridical categories for the crimes were not uniformly applicable to all countries: “even justice,” Pal argued, could not be meted out across an international community whose member-nations did not all possess equal sovereignty, as in the case of the erstwhile colonized countries. In articulating an anticolonial nationalist position of self-sovereignty as a worthy moral cause, Pal was appropriating an Enlightenment-inflected Fichtean anti-imperial call for national sovereignty for his own purposes. An anti-imperial/anticolonial cause was one using which, Chatterjee points out in the second chapter, nation-states often made moral claims upon their inhabitants in the twentieth century, with consequent affective bonds tying the people as the constituent category of the nation, to the state.

In the second chapter, “The Cynicism of Power,” Chatterjee discusses the gradual loosening of the affective bonds—a loosening which paved the way for the emergence of populist politics in the twentieth century. He traces this untying to the inception of the welfare states in Europe—a moment that has paradoxically been viewed as the high point of modern liberal democracy. Using the inauguration of the British welfare state amidst World War II as an example, Chatterjee demonstrates that though Britain made an anti-imperial moral call to its citizens, promising them equality of electoral rights, minimum economic security, and social rights in return, equal citizenship itself legitimized social inequality in the state, allowing stratifications in social mobility through inherited privilege. As a result, a schism divided the self-reproducing elite from a discontented mass whose demands, founded on assertions of equality, lay unfulfilled.

In its neoliberal phase, observes Chatterjee, the British state made matters worse by leading the social services promised by the welfare state, to operate through a privatized marketplace. Government support was only provided through the calculation of optimal thresholds of need. This resulted in the creation of Marx’s reserve army of labor, guaranteed work and a minimal subsistence living if market conditions required it. With the state doling out benefits to and imposing penalties upon target populations, the contrary pulls of perceived legitimate and illegitimate inequality among groups of citizens left an unresolved tension dividing them, shearing the state of its last vestiges of moral claim upon them and opening the path to populism. Subsequently, populations were technically administered as ‘things,’ with experts studying their irrational proclivities through surveys, opinion polls, and continually-updated algorithms. Such studies helped governmentally produce desired electoral outcomes based on the standardization of data, with the experts helping fine-tune campaign promises for the short-term goal of yoking together a victory for a candidate. I should add here that Cambridge Analytica’s data modeling and performance-optimizing of advertisements played no small role in populist politician par excellence Donald Trump’s coming to power. These advertisements were directed to target electoral groups in the months leading up to the election of Trump in 2016—a matter that Chatterjee was perhaps tangentially alluding to.[iii]

Chatterjee closes the second chapter by cryptically referring to some people walking away from their reduction to populations and things. He states that this unresolved tension between two collective subject-objects—the populations and the people—that is erupting yet again in the present, is the political phenomenon that is now termed populism. This is a present in which, owing to the inability of the nation-state to make any further moral claims upon its citizens, there has been a new burst of energy around populist leaders and movements who are asserting the moral claims of the ‘people-nation.’

Chatterjee’s third chapter, eponymously titled ““I Am the People,”” deals with populism in the Indian scenario as an instance of the forms that populism can assume in formally decolonized countries. In the chapter, Chatterjee states that during the initial developmentalist-democratic decades following the formal decolonization of India, the leaders of the Indian National Congress could make moral claims upon the people, with the aura of having been anticolonial freedom fighters still surrounding them. With the agrarian economy beginning to be disbanded in favor of planned industrialization, though, the way began to be paved for new techniques of governmentality. Furthermore, once Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi—affiliated to the Congress—declared an unwonted Emergency in the 1970s, the Congress Party’s previously unchallenged dominance began to wilt, and regional populisms cropped up, purporting to fulfill the populations’ demands.

Chatterjee suggests that judging by Laclau’s understanding of the logic of populism, the demands of population groups are fulfilled differentially, all the demands of all groups being beyond fulfillment. Accordingly, an empty signifier termed ‘the people’—deliberately made to lack in policy content—is forged by filling it with equated and unfulfilled popular demands and grievances that are metonymically interchangeable.

Through his study of Indira Gandhi’s brand of populist politics, Chatterjee outlines two dimensions to populism in India. The first is what he calls the governmental dimension of populism, aimed at delivering benefits to target population groups for eliciting electoral support. Chatterjee terms the second the ideological dimension, through which ‘people’ are made to affectively inhabit indignation at politically-projected oppressors—the ‘enemy of the people’—who are apparently responsible for their demands remaining unfulfilled. Representations of this ideological dimension through speech and performance make its emotive content more palpable to the ‘people.’ Importantly, neither dimension bears any specific policy content. Entrenched in capitalism while ironically casting capitalists as ‘enemies of the people,’ populist leaders dole out favors to their cronies, bend bureaucracy for their own ends, and boast about their achievements—not least because of the short-term goal of winning the next elections. Two more features defining populisms, according to Chatterjee, are that populist leaders are authoritarian and not dictatorial in political style, and need to have their electoral mandates renewed, as in the case of Indira Gandhi who called elections to vindicate her Emergency rule.

To show how, at the state level, the ideological dimension of populism is dependent on cinematic performance and on melodrama as the default narrative form in India, Chatterjee discusses regional populisms in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh by drawing upon M. Madhava Prasad’s seminal text Cine-Politics: Film Stars and Political Existence in South India (2014). Since many film stars assumed the mantle of populist politicians in the two aforementioned states, the ‘people,’ constituting closed linguistic communities, vicariously made up for their sovereignty deficit by crowning these stars as sovereigns. These film stars, by assuming the essentialized spirit of the cinematic personae they had played, thus became sovereigns doling out justice in an authoritarian fashion, gifting virtue and punishing vice, as if their political kingdoms constituted a melodrama that people in subalternity affectively participated in as a collective. In this way, the ‘people’ participated in a kingdom whose collective identity depended on the sovereign at its apex. I would add here that Chatterjee’s discussion of the cinematic narrative pattern explains a considerable part of why Trump’s conservative electorate bought into his reality show-based self-projection as a rich man—a sovereign—running a successful business “empire,” with television helping position him in the white American imaginary as a billionaire[iv] at a time when his solvency was in fact endangered.[v] Had Trump’s ploy not worked, his electorate would never have bought into his self-projection of sovereignty as a business mogul and his promise to accordingly undo big bureaucracy and run government in the United States in an authoritarian fashion like he did his own businesses.[vi]

To return to the chapter, Chatterjee insinuates that Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India and the second national populist leader after Indira Gandhi, has evidently drawn upon some of the features of the populisms previously alluded to, while simultaneously inserting other features specific to his own style of populism. With his election in 2014, Modi had promised to usher in probusiness reform of the tax regime and labor laws for rapid economic growth. He ended up introducing the technical administration of things in India through data gathering, state surveillance through mobile phones, and biometric identification of India’s inhabitants. However, with major electoral reverses in 2018, he began attempting to reach for hegemony through the pedagogic agenda of Hindutva. This revisionist agenda of a longing for and reconstruction of an originary Hindu nation required the construction of ‘the people’ as an open democratic—as opposed to a closed regional—linguistic community, discursively disseminated as Hindutva was in the Hindi language, reaching across states. Language thus helped suture ‘the people’ through religious and ethnic affect by defining them in terms of a mainstream Hinduness. This factor of Hinduness propagated by the state, constructed an internal border against the Muslim, projected as maximally deviating from a norm of Hinduness, being a signifier of an originary Hindu nation’s onetime rulers and oppressors, and acting as a metonym of the enemy at the border—Pakistan. What Chatterjee could not have anticipated when putting his finishing touches on I Am the People in 2019, is that the agenda of Hindutva would not be abandoned even during the outbreak of a pandemic in 2020, with the performance of Hindu rituals ostensibly binding a ‘people’ together in and despite the practicing of social distancing.[vii]

Chatterjee closes the third chapter with the point that the brand of populism rearing its head in Euro-American states—with its overt corruption—had been rampant in India since much earlier amidst India’s apparently democratic decades. That is why he describes populism as a product of the most modern phase of democratic politics—one that would inevitably have arrived on Western shores, defined by leaders like Trump who behaved like absolute monarchs while millions of financially impoverished people merely had the formal rights of citizenship.

By my reading of his chapters, Chatterjee has so far demonstrated that be it 1. ‘the people’ of Britain who, it had been thought, would respond favorably to certain interests of theirs being fulfilled by the welfare state, or 2. subjects in subalternity in postcolonial India who affectively invested in regional populist sovereignties, or 3. populations in the West who were reduced to irrational predilections that were subsequently studied for the production of desired electoral outcomes, the people in the purest sense have not been allowed to exercise their popular sovereignty autonomously, owing to the operation of hegemony upon them. In other words, the people have been deprived of the liberty of objectively knowing what their interests are, and of voting accordingly. Unsurprisingly, Chatterjee ends the third chapter with the wistful comment that “the people have still not arrived.”

In the afterword, Chatterjee, among other things, contemplates what might happen if the people were allowed by their political representatives, to establish their popular sovereignty beyond influenced voting. The two popular referenda forwarded to endorse Brexit, came back with results which made it amply clear that the technical administration of things could not encapsulate the people’s sentiments and psychological proclivities that easily—or that comprehensively in terms of a mere affirmative or negative response. Nor could it be predicted when, by historical contingency, the people would identify their own interests and collectively mobilize against populist reason, as happened with the leaderless Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement of 2018 in France.

On a different note, Chatterjee argues that while many commentators try to differentiate between left-wing and right-wing populisms—that is, a progressive populism as ‘good’ vs. a reactionary populism as ‘bad’—they avoid the fact that identifying a figure as ‘populist’ inevitably brings with it the discursive baggage of figures complicit with corporate capital and with the bending of bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, the new fault line decided by populist leaders in India is that of the affluent corporate sector being made to constitute the ‘enemy’ of the members of the financially impoverished informal sector qua the ‘people,’ though the leaders themselves are dependent on the corporate sector.  

The only possibility of a counterhegemonic transformation against populism that Chatterjee can envision in the present, may be made by left-wing populist governments mobilizing to win elections and enter government. In this way, these governments can promote policies that might alleviate the desperate conditions of the poorer and marginal sections of society. This, Chatterjee trusts, will highlight the great divide between the formal and the informal economies. However, asserts Chatterjee, without transcending itself, populism cannot produce a transformation for the better. For such a transformation, Chatterjee believes that there must be a long-term project of producing and circulating a narrative of social transformation in the popular consciousness—a narrative based on sustained critique and imagination for hegemonic transformation that the intellectual can lay the groundwork for.

Given Chatterjee’s belief, I will add a reflection here. I would suggest that the critical project of hegemonic transformation may be the call not for the elite intellectual since he can, according to Gramsci, unwittingly help legitimize the privileged institutional setup that produced him. The groundwork for the kind of transformation Chatterjee desires, will require figures whom Gramsci terms organic intellectuals—figures who will create an ethical consensus among different regional groupings through both scholastic and practical activity. They will be able to forge this consensus by spreading their conceptions in a language and in cultural productions that will, given the ideally popular character of these productions, reach out to the people and facilitate the rise of a counterhegemonic narrative. If I had to put an extremely dense concept across too simplistically, such cultural activity is what Gramsci terms a national/popular culture. Through its swell, judging by my interpretation of Gramsci’s open-ended conception of a national/popular culture spread by the organic intellectual, the counterhegemonic narrative will slowly but surely gain acceptance among the people, the organic intellectual being, as one of the people, both leader and follower, thus mobilizing them into activity.

Unfortunately, the organic intellectual will also have to fight back the hegemonic narrative of a diffused Hindutva—a brand of Hindutva disseminated as apparently part of a post-ideological common sense of the ‘people’ across regions. This brand is disseminated by self-styled public intellectuals whose predilections I would, in makeshift fashion and through a play upon Gramsci, describe as national/populist. The reach of these national/populist figures may, unfortunately, be vast, thanks to their use not of Hindi but of India’s link language, utilizing which these figures circulate conservative conceptions of Hinduness as ‘good.’ It must be noted that such a conceptualization of Hinduness is not new because the narrative of Hindutva has, as Chatterjee points out, been in currency since the early decades of the twentieth century, and has even been part of the Congress’ mainstream intellectual formation. One instance of the kind of self-projected national/populist figure I speak of is Chetan Bhagat—an Anglophone Indian writer who, through the deceptive simplicity of his narrative idiom, has reached out to a great number of readers, including to college-goers who are uncomfortable with English. Bhagat’s misplaced allegiances are exemplified by his nonfictional columns. In them, Bhagat argues against minorities voting for minority electoral representatives,[viii] asks why the wielders of popular sovereignty are “enamoured less by honesty, more by dynasty,”[ix] and so on. How would the face-off between a national/populist public intellectual and an organic intellectual trying to spread a national/popular counterhegemonic narrative, unfold? That remains to be seen, provided historical factors permit the possibility of such a confrontation.

(I have modeled part of my reflection after an idea proposed by Manisha Basu, Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

Debojoy Chanda is an Assistant Professor of English at Panskura Banamali College. He can be reached at debojoy@gmail.com.


[i]              See “Trump and Clinton on Guns: Two Visions of Race, Justice and Policing in the US.” The Guardian. March 21, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/21/trump-clinton-gun-control-policies-race-policing.

[ii]              See Seth Stevenson. “A Cold One with Donald.” Slate. February 11, 2016. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2016/02/trump-is-winning-the-guy-youd-want-to-have-a-beer-with-election.html.

[iii]             See “Leaked: Cambridge Analytica’s Blueprint for Trump Victory.” The Guardian. March 23, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/23/leaked-cambridge-analyticas-blueprint-for-trump-victory.

[iv]             See Diane Herbst. “‘What We Did was a Scam’: The Apprentice Creators Give Behind the Scenes Reveal of Trump’s Show.” February 06, 2018. https://people.com/politics/apprentice-creators-donald-trump-scam/.

[v]              See “How Trump’s Apprentice Helped Rescue His Failing Empire.” The Guardian. September 29, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/29/trump-tax-returns-the-apprentice-empire.

[vi]             See “I’ll Run America Like My Business.” The Sydney Morning Herald. October 27, 2016. https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/ill-run-america-like-my-business-donald-trump-20161027-gsbz2z.html.

[vii]            See Sanjeev Krishna Sood. “Taali, Thaali, Diya Jalao and the Communalisation of Covid.” The Times of India. April 12, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/tali-thali-diya-jalao-and-communalisation-of-covid/.

[viii]         See Chetan Bhagat. “The Great Indian Psychotherapy.” What Young India Wants: Selected Non-Fiction. Lexington: Amazon Publishing, 2015. Kindle AZW file.

[ix]          See Chetan Bhagat. “Being Rich, Being Good.” What Young India Wants: Selected Non-Fiction. Lexington: Amazon Publishing, 2015. Kindle AZW file.

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