Populism Unriddled

People’s Car: Industrial India and the Riddles of Populism, by Sarasij Majumder (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019)

reviewed by Maura Finkelstein, Muhlenberg College

It seems impossible read the news these days without being bombarded by mentions of populism – indeed, this ubiquitous term, this empty signifier, seems to have become a clickbait-y stand-in for the seemingly impossible task of actually analyzing current political trends, from the United States to India, Turkey to Brazil, Israel to Austria. Sarasij Majumder’s new ethnography, People’s Car: Industrial India and the Riddles of Populism, does what anthropology does best: he shows (not tells) how populism works, specifically through the dialectic of pro- and anti-industrialization forces that emerged in the course of struggles over whether to build (or not to build) a Tata Motors factory in rural West Bengal, in the village of Singur, north of Kolkata.  

Majumder centers his story on the Tata Nano, also known as the people’s car, in this moment of crisis. He explores the political process by which a Nano factory was proposed, the challenges the proposal met, and the ultimate failure of the project to introduce this industrial development in rural India. The Nano was Tata’s smallest and least expensive model of car and as such a kind of “populist” symbol in its own right. Through its account of the car, the attempt to secure a site for a factory, and local politics in Singur, the book tracks tensions between land-rights, development, and complex grassroots democratic politics. Majumder shows us the emergent anxieties present in India about the future of rural, non-agrarian livelihoods. More simply: what does it mean to think India beyond the mega-city? What does it mean to live in “village India” beyond the fantasy of the fetishized pastoral?

Majumder’s first move is to introduce and discard the analytic of populism. The two main and seemingly diametrically opposed political parties in West Bengal, the Left Front (a Marxist coalition) and the anti-Left Trinamool Congress (the ruling part of West Bengal), are often compared as equally populist in their tactics, their discourses, and their relations with rural populations. But rather than criticizing their populist discourses, Majumder is far more invested in untangling populism from notions of rural life, and rural populations from discourses that form and reinscribe them as targets of community organizing and bearers of nearly automatic party allegiances. Untangling the riddle of populism, then, involves exploring obscured nuances of relations with land and labor and the entangled allegiances of Singur residents. Majumder’s work involves “dismantling … the imagination that cast rural West Bengal as a bounded field or single object of study where an iconic peasantry speaks in a unified voice” (p. 22). While populism, as an analytic, becomes the ghost that haunts the text, the ethnography itself becomes a careful exploration of the entangled investments playing out behind the curtain of populist discourse. By demonstrating how land ownership and forms of value work in Singur, Majumder pushes beyond simplistic accounts of the tensions between  pro- and anti-industrial forces in rural West Bengal.

The four main chapters explore “processes that establish land as a special kind of commodity only partially commensurable with money” (p. 24). Within this overarching theme, the book can be divided into two conceptual parts. The first two chapters explore how people’s relations to land create notions of value through processes of identity-formation and exchange. Conversely, the last two chapters consider how such land-relations themselves establish frames—sometimes constraining ones—of identity as a value (here, “rural” identity as well as gendered ones). Thus, the first chapter attends to the identities constructed as “land-based subjectivities” in the wake of decolonization. The collision of development discourses, on one hand, and vernacular idioms, on the other, produced “the village” and “the rural,” as land became subject to dynamic processes of control, contestation, and acquisition. The second chapter, “Land Is Like Gold: (In)commensurability and the Politics of Land,” shows how private landownership shaped village relationality, whether it be on the level of the individual, local political parties, the state, or government officials. As it is vested in such relationships and subject positions, land is not simply property but rather a form of social brokerage. Property values therefore, cannot express the true worth of a plot. This chapter, then, asks how land can be bought and sold when political discourse claims it is not simply a commodity existing on the market.

The third and fourth chapters take the space of activism and protest as frames through which the political value of “the villager” is constructed. The third chapter utilizes the performance of villager protest (describing both the “front stage” and “back stage” of politicized spectacle) aimed at local politicians, the media and urban activists, as well as at the author himself. The performance of protest is shown to be strategic, manipulative, and intertwined with the complications of village life. In a particularly excellent analyses of the performance of gendered protest, Majumder shows how women – often equated with and flattened by images of “the land as Mother” or “the land as goddess” – were often found at the front and center of every protest, both challenging and reifying notions of who village women are. By outlining the expectations for protest performance, the chapter shows how these performances, while effective at garnering media and political attention, failed to present a more nuanced notion of what it meant to be a village-dwelling person. “‘Peasants’ Against Industrialization: Images of the Peasantry and Urban Activists’ Representations of the Rural,” the fourth chapter of the book, looks back at the third chapter by exploring how urban activists, students, and academics construct the authentic peasant, particularly in the frameworks of ethnography and documentary film. However, Majumder doesn’t merely draw on the seasoned tropes of ethnographic reflexivity to critique such a tactic; rather, the construction of an imagined transnational civil society on these grounds is shown to contribute to more inclusive social movements. However, in both chapters “rural reality” is lost to efforts to unite a collective through popular movements. The fourth chapter ends with a call to “recognize” both collective and individual agency in order to “bring various progressive movements together” (p. 152).

The conclusion (“Value Versus Values?”) and the postscript (“From a Defunct Factory to a ‘Crematorium’”) explore the ultimate failure of Tata Motors to establish their factory in Singur, even after substantial building and development had already occurred. In a legal irony, the land that had been set aside for the factory was returned to villagers, but because it had been devastated by the dynamite used to destroy the partially-built factory and to restore its “original” state, the land could not be developed for industrial purposes nor could it be cultivated for agricultural use. Singur was instead left with no factory, barren land, and a fractured community, forgotten as the lens of public interest, focused on newsworthy political agitation, moved on. While the story’s conclusion is a pessimistic one, Majumder leaves readers with provocative questions concerning the social lives of “parties, policies and bureaucracies” and the ethnographic conditions for making “visible the porousness of the boundaries that are too often taken for granted in order to permit analysis” (p. 158). The riddle of populism is about what masks the anxieties and aspirations that drive everyday action on an intimate scale, as stake holders (in this case, Singur residents) struggle to negotiate their relationship to both the past and present of land and livelihood. This text’s critical intervention, then, is less an exploration of what populism is and more an unpacking of what populist discourses obscure: the messy lived realities of a modern rural India, beyond urban hegemonic projections. Anthropologists, South Asia scholars, and readers interested in class, labor, gender and village life will greatly benefit from Majumder’s attention to the rural not as object, but as process.