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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 25, New Delhi, JUne 5, 2021

In Search of the Politics of Life | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 4 June 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


Covid-19 crisis has shattered our accepted notions of life and politics. Very recently, Ranabir Samaddar has explored different dimensions of the crisis in his search of the politics of life (Ranabir Samaddar, A Pandemic and the Politics of Life, Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2021). He noted in this context: “Covid-19 crisis is a combination of three crises: a public health crisis, the migrant crisis, and an economic-financial crisis”.

Samaddar has offered a powerful critique of neo-liberalism in situating the Covid-19 crisis: “This pandemic has laid bare the extent to which individual health depends on the health of everyone in the community, but public healthcare has been eroded through decades of austerity policies, privatisation, and inadequate planning...Covid-19 has exposed the malaise of the global economy, its public health system, and overall social vulnerability under capitalism, as nothing else has in recent times”.

Who are the main victims of the pandemic in India? To put it in the words of Samaddar:

“...minor population groups –impoverished, racialised, and communalised – would bear the burden of the epidemic...In this tumultuous situation, migrants, especially migrant workers, were the most severe casualty. They got no support from the public health system in cities or states where they were working, when the nationwide lockdown was suddenly ordered. They got no support along the way as they travelled, at times hundreds of kilometres...When finally the migrant workers reached ‘home’, again, in most cases, public health support was minimal –they did not belong to the ‘public’. They had no health insurance, no social security card, no minimum medical assistance, and no welfare measures geared to handle their health needs. There was nowhere they could make any claims”. Samaddar discussed in this context how the subaltern people tried their best to take care of their own vulnerabilities in the pandemic situation.

Samaddar has imagined alternative pathways for addressing the present crisis:

“Covid and the public health crisis called for policies based on an alternative approach, on decentralisation; on the security of common lives; the broadest access to public health resources; the participation of the various groups involved in public health and care in decision-making; and the inclusion of the migrant worker in the idea of the ‘public’. Such an alternative visualises active roles for basti committees, reinforced by local vigilantes, women’s groups –including recipients of the benefits of schemes like Kanyashree in West Bengal – self-help groups, science associations, clubs, citizen-volunteers, barefoot doctors, village committees, associations of nurses, doctors, trainees, and, of course, people’s representatives in various legislative, autonomous, and other forums, and in local bodies”.

While critiquing the “Bio-politics from above” embedded in neo-liberal paradigm of governance and its sheer incompetence to protect human life in the face of a massive health crisis, Samaddar has posed the alternative of “Bio-politics from below”:

“Bio-politics from below is not new in modern human history, but we have little knowledge of the composition of popular politics in a time of war, famine, and from below is an inadequately studied form of politics, and even less is it theorised. It is rarely studied by the conventional Left or used as a strategy, steeped as the Left is in the parliamentary mode of politics and old ideas of representation.”

Ranabir Samaddar argued that the politics of life being forged in a new way before our eyes will become a fundamental feature of politics in the Covid-19 age. Samaddar did not endeavour to offer a blueprint of this new politics, “the politics of conjuncture”. He concluded his discourse by highlighting the basic philosophy of the ‘Politics of Life’ imagined by him:

“The politics of life is a reorientation of politics towards issues of life and death, in other words reorienting political issues as being those of life and death. It is not a special brand of politics; it emerges from the conjunctures of history when life and death become the most crucial issues of social life”.

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