In my previous column, I had considered the prospects of American hegemony using Perry Anderson’s excellent new history of the concept, The H-Word. The term hegemony, however, is by no means confined to the world of international politics. If anything, it has even greater currency in discussions of politics within states. Indeed, the question of hegemony has long been a staple of the study of Indian politics.

In the best piece written after the elections in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, Yogendra Yadav maintained that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the “hegemonic party in national politics". The BJP’s hegemony, he argued, had three components: exercise of state power, electoral dominance, and “moral and ideological acceptance of the regime by the people". This hegemony was not without its weaknesses, but it marked a new phase in the history of the republic.

This mode of thinking about hegemony owes a great deal to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Yet, as Anderson shows, the term had a rather different connotation when Russian Marxists first deployed it at the turn of the 20th century. In the Russian tradition, gegemonia was debated in the context of the class struggle necessary to overthrow the Romanov autocracy.

In keeping with their stage-ist view of history, the Russian Marxists maintained that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to overthrow the Czarist regime and usher in a bourgeois revolution, which was deemed a prerequisite for the eventual transition to socialism. The Russian proletariat had to lead the struggle by forming a hegemonic alliance with other classes opposed to the autocratic regime—above all the peasantry. This usage of hegemony was a straightforward transposition of the notion from international to domestic politics. The term was now used in the context of an alliance of classes—as opposed to states—where the hegemonic class would command the consent of the others.

Vladimir Lenin was the most forceful advocate of such a strategy and would deploy it successfully in the revolution of 1917. The outcome, however, confounded the expectation by resulting in a direct leap to socialism and the consequent abandonment of hegemony for the “dictatorship of the proletariat". For an Italian Communist like Gramsci, the context was rather different. His challenge was to understand the prospects of socialism in an established capitalist state led by the fascist party. The central question was not which classes might make common cause with the proletariat, but why all of them submitted to an order inimical to their interests.

To Gramsci, the critical components of a full hegemony were the creation of a “national-popular" will and culture, and the role of intellectuals in diffusing these ideas to the subordinate classes. Gramsci himself was inconsistent in the usage of the term hegemony in his Prison Notebooks, suggesting at some points that hegemony was a function only of securing consent and at others that it involved coercion too. Nevertheless, Gramsci’s writings flagged off an armada of books on hegemony after they were translated in the 1960s.

Amongst Gramsci’s most sophisticated posthumous interlocutors was the Indian historian Ranajit Guha. Anderson rightly observes that Guha ironed out the wrinkles in Gramsci’s conceptual framework and applied it brilliantly to the context of colonial India. In Guha’s formulation, hegemony was a form of dominance in which persuasion exceeded coercion. The British Raj was a classic example of dominance without hegemony. Guha claimed that this was equally true of the Congress in the nationalist movement and of the Indian state after independence.

Guha was arguably the most creative Indian historian of the 20th century, but his grasp of contemporary politics was less than secure. Against the backdrop of the Emergency, it was tempting to think that the Congress’ rule was a form of dominance without hegemony. Not only did Guha underestimate the role of democracy in establishing the Congress’ hegemony, but he also failed to see that Indira Gandhi was transforming the bases of this hegemony.

Around this time, the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall was deploying Gramsci’s ideas far more perceptively in analysing the political phenomenon he labelled Thatcherism. Hall saw Thatcherism as a response to the crisis of post-war social democratic settlement. By threading together contradictory strands of neoliberal monetarism and organicist Toryism, Margaret Thatcher was aiming to construct a new “common sense" in the Gramscian usage. Thatcher’s opponents, focused on exploiting the chinks in her electoral strategy, never quite grappled with her hegemonic project. The durability of the enterprise was demonstrated when Tony Blair’s “New Labour" appropriated the Thatcherite model. Only in the most recent elections in Britain have the Conservative and Labour parties abandoned it.

No serious discussion has yet taken place in India on whether Narendra Modi’s BJP actually enjoys hegemony and what might be the character of such hegemony. Supporters tend to assume the natural superiority of the BJP’s ideology, while opponents remain fixated on the next electoral contest. The analytical challenge, however, is to delineate the contours of the BJP’s “national-popular" project and the mechanisms through which it seeks to elicit the people’s consent. Gramsci’s ideas remain the starting point for such an inquiry.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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