Aakash Singh Rathore. Indian Political Theory: Laying the Groundwork for Svaraj. Routledge, 2017.
Increasingly influential and widespread critiques of the internationally dominant tradition of political theory – that is, Rawlsian liberalism – along with the advent of globalization, have led political theorists toward the view that political theory should not quarantine itself from the world’s social and political realities.
Instead, political theory, they argue, must remain attentive to the burning issues of our time. To achieve this goal, political theorists should be willing to enlarge their horizon of engagement – they should be comparative, global, cross-cultural. The term for this orientation is comparative political theory.
But is it really what we need? I want to throw this into some doubt, but probably not for the reasons you might expect. For, my point is going to be about the “we” within the question that I have just posed, is comparative theory what we need?
According to decolonial theorists, comparative political theory might at bottom be understood just to be a more perfect universalization of transatlantic (commonly called, ‘Western’) political theory. If this is true, then cultivating a more comparative political theory would scarcely contribute to the authenticity and autonomy of political theory as practised elsewhere around the globe – in India, for example, among Indian political theorists. So, what “we” need is not comparative theory, perhaps, but an authentic and vibrant Indian political theory. But what does this signify – what, exactly, is Indian political theory?
Some of the very same forces behind the development of comparative and also decolonial political theory have been serving as sources of momentum and inspiration for many Indian scholars who work in disciplines that theorize the Indian social and political lifeworld(s). These scholars have been trying, against the odds, to inaugurate and cultivate a new tradition of Indian political theory in recent years. My own book belongs quite firmly within this emerging tradition.
What I do in my work is initiate a project that aims to help redirect the gaze of (Indian) political theory back upon the lived experiences of (Indian) political life, and to present an innovative, systematic, compelling case for why we need to.
Theorists across post-colonial nations and the so-called global south continue to work with categories and concepts alien to the lived social and political experiences of the common man, or everyday people. This is especially true in India. Consequently, I wish to emphasize the need to decolonize Indian social and political theory, and rescue them from the grip of Western theories, and fascination with Western modes of historical analysis.
There are many scholars like me. In fact, much of the contemporary generation of Indian social and political theory is oriented more and more toward a program of de-conceptualization – the project not of modifying but of abandoning the dominant political-theoretical vocabulary incessantly emanating from the trans-Atlantic world. Its overriding concern is that of svaraj (a noteworthy Indian social and political concept, which can be translated as ‘self-rule’, or more robustly, ‘authentic autonomy’).
In place of the current lexicon available to us in contemporary social and humanistic sciences, the current generation seeks to retrieve and uncover indigenous conceptualizations, terms and categories, of Indian social and political thought, to find and follow its logic(s), and eventually to experiment with applying it normatively to theorizations of contemporary India’s actual social and political realities.
Our fundamental methodological concern throughout all of this is about how to re-found the discipline of Indian political theory in the present day. In its re-founding, Indian political theory must not rely on transatlantic (or ‘Western’) theory, nor can it glibly participate in ‘global’ or ‘comparative’ thought. The poverty, or inadequacy, of those two alternatives (which I discuss at length in the first two parts of the book) pushes us toward a return to ‘tradition’, but a hybrid and evolving tradition (as I model in the third part of the book).
In my own work, I want to avoid this return being stultifying or oppressive (e.g., hyper-nationalistic, or tending towards ‘fundamentalism’ as I will briefly discuss below). Thus, I introduce a principle of reform alongside the return, which is analogical to what is widely known as the difference principle; that is, the principle that any modifications to be made must benefit the least advantaged and that only those changes that do benefit the least advantaged are legitimate.
Now a bit more on this idea of “fundamentalism.” At present, a nativist turn in social and especially political theory can be observed, saliently in South Asia, but also in Latin America and elsewhere. In prominent post-colonial countries, there is a general assumption that the indigenous thought to which researchers are supposed to be (re)turning may somehow be immediately visible and available by historically leaping back over the era of the colonization of the mind and polity.
In such a conception of svaraj, the tradition to return to would inevitably be that of the indigenous elites. In my book, this concept of svaraj is defined as a thick conception, which links it with exclusivist notions of spirituality, profound anti-modernity, exceptionalistic moralism, essentialistic nationalism and purism.
Turning to the Indian case specifically, post-independence India has faintly borne witness to an alternative trajectory to this thick svarajist idea: I call it a thin svaraj. A good deal of the first part of my book takes up the task of sketching the evolution of the thin conception of svaraj in indigenous Indian thought.
What, overall, I aim to do in my book is to put forward a workable contemporary ideal of thin svaraj, i.e. political, and free of metaphysical commitment. The model proposed is inspired by B.R. Ambedkar’s thoughts, as opposed to the thick conception found in the works of M.K. Gandhi, S.N. Balagangadhara, and others.
As I hope I have been able to show you in this brief preview, the true challenge lies in carving out a space for authentic autonomy in indigenous or native theory that does not get immediately filled in by “fundamentalist” thought.
This is the task that my new book, Indian Political Theory, takes on.
Aakash Singh Rathore teaches political theory at LUISS University, Rome (Italy), and philosophy at JNU, Delhi (India). Other than Indian Political Theory (Routledge, 2017), his other most recent book is Hegel’s India (Oxford University Press, 2017). Aakash is series editor for the Routledge’s Ethics, Human Rights & Global Political Thought as well as the Oxford University Press Book Series Religion and Democracy: Reconceptualizing Religion, Culture, and Politics in a Global Context. He is also Executive Editor of the Journal Plurilogue. Aakash has contributed to Political Theology Today as well as to the Political Theology journal.