Anthropology / Everything Human

Why Political Ambiguity Appeals to the Masses

Why Political Ambiguity Appeals to the Masses

A movement in 1990s India illuminates the allure of vagueness from our leaders.

On a December day in 1996, close to 30,000 excited villagers gathered before a dais in an open field in the backwater town of Akola, in India’s Maharashtra state. They came from near and far to fight for change, as promised by the Shetkari Sanghatana movement. As their leader spoke, they pumped their fists in the air and shouted their support for his key demand of the day: to lift the government-imposed ceiling on the commodity price of cotton so cotton farmers could make a better living. Not all of the villagers were cotton farmers; many had seemingly nothing to gain from the leader’s demand. Yet all cheered him on.

In the late 1990s, I followed this political movement through rural Maharashtra for two and a half years as a graduate student in anthropology. My 2016 book describes that journey and examines the role of ordinary participants in the creation of the movement. The Shetkari Sanghatana (the Agriculturalists’ Union) was a massive mobilization of frustrated Indians who sought to disrupt the economic and political status quo. Its central demands were for the end of big government and the creation of an essentially libertarian agricultural economy free of regulations. These were summed up by invoking a familiar saying in this part of the country—“Let all troubles and sorrows pass and the kingdom of Bali return”—that called for the restoration of the glory days of the region, in the far distant mythological past, when the hardworking people of the heartland felt happier and more secure. As a metaphor for change and a justification of the movement’s policy agenda, this was particularly ambiguous.

While most Sanghatana supporters were engaged in agriculture for a living, they represented a broad range of people whose economic interests and visions for the future were often at significant odds with each other. Some of them were relatively well-off (think big farmers with tractors and plenty of land) and some had significant social capital (they were well-connected and well-educated). The majority of them, however, were the salt of the earth—people who typically fought for more government support, not less. These were the regular folks who plowed their tiny fields with bullocks rather than tractors, were all too familiar with debt, struggled to stay afloat in a typical year, and worried about the future for their children. All these supporters, rich and poor alike, expressed deep frustration with the ruling elite in the big cities, who they saw as crafty, corrupt, and entitled. All of them seemed confident that the movement would fight on their behalf in the name of King Bali. Yet they had quite different economic needs and, in most contexts, probably thought about the solution to their problems in very different terms.

Wealthier farmers with vehicles often helped laborers and less-fortunate farmers attend Sanghatana rallies in the 1990s. Michael Youngblood

Onlookers struggled to understand what held the Shetkari Sanghatana together. Many observers declared the movement insincerely populist—concluding that the less wealthy participants had been hoodwinked to support the interests of the wealthiest. And yet, only a few years after its founding in 1978, the Sanghatana built a movement machine that spanned much of the 308,000 square kilometers of Maharashtra state—a chunk of India larger than the United Kingdom—and forged an army of dedicated activists around a half million strong.

All of this may sound strangely familiar to those following U.S. politics. During the campaign for the 2016 presidential election, most pundits and commentators across the nation doubted that the Donald Trump phenomenon could endure. The candidate, his loyalties, and the expectations of those supporting him all seemed so murky. Even the most seasoned political observers were convinced of a Hillary Clinton victory, right up to the bitter end.

On the surface, these two phenomena are very different; the Shetkari Sanghatana was political, but it wasn’t a political party per se. Yet thinking deeply about the two reveals startling similarities. Politics always involves a dose of equivocation, but leaders are usually taken to task by their supporters if they are excessively ambiguous about who or what they stand for. But, as the Shetkari Sanghatana movement showed long before the rise of Trump, sometimes huge doses of ambiguity are not a problem at all—in fact, sometimes ambiguity is precisely what gives a leader or a movement mass appeal.

The Trump campaign was notable for having a number of passionate slogans and repetitive rhetorical phrases that seemed devoid of detail but that resonated with his followers. The candidate promised to “Make America Great Again,” “Drain the Swamp,” and ensure that there would be “so much winning”—but he offered very few specifics of actual policies or steps that his proposed administration would pursue. As cultural critic Lee Siegel wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, Trump had no consistent narrative. The campaign’s key message to “Make America Great Again,” in particular, was widely ridiculed by critics. They demanded to know, specifically, which era of greatness this referred to: Was it an era that included slavery? Genocidal wars against Native Americans? The subservience of women? Or rampant industrial pollution?

Critics and fans alike also had difficulty pinning down Trump himself. He was a former Democrat running as a Republican, a man with an outsized belief in his greatness who appeared desperate for validation, and a self-proclaimed billionaire (though no one could confirm this definitively) who purported to be anti-elite and a regular guy. Everything about him seemed inherently and perpetually contradictory—he was everything from cheeseburgers to chandeliers.

Likewise, Sharad Joshi, the founding force behind the Shetkari Sanghatana and the charismatic face of the movement from its inception until his death in 2015, was equally difficult to pigeonhole. In almost every respect, Joshi was an unlikely leader of provincial villagers. He was an urbanite and a neophyte to agricultural life. He was cosmopolitan—highly educated, fluent in English, and a former United Nations official who had been posted in Switzerland. He was also a Brahmin—a high elite in the Indian caste pecking order. On the surface, he represented everything that the frustrated rural masses normally rejected.

Sharad Joshi, the leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana movement, in western India, speaks to an audience of farmers. Michael Youngblood

Similar to the Trump campaign’s rallies and media productions, Sanghatana gatherings and propaganda were rich with repetitive chants and slogans that often struck observers as having more passion and flair than consistency. Most notable among these was the call for King Bali’s return. Like Trump’s own “great again” version of the past, this supposed golden age of Bali’s rule lacked a clear definition of when, in what way, or for whom it was golden.

Joshi was not at all a Trumpian figure—never a bully, never a vulgarian. During my fieldwork, I met with him many times at the Sanghatana’s headquarters, at rural training camps and rallies, and in his country home to discuss the movement. I admired and respected him, even when we disagreed. But many observers found it intolerable that he was pushing economic liberalization and deregulation as a panacea for the masses when it seemed so unlikely that benefits would trickle down to his poorest supporters, whose interests he claimed to represent. Observers also accused Joshi of collaborating with caste and religious chauvinists while vociferously calling for caste unity and secularism. Critics were outraged that, somehow, the movement’s slogans and demands seemed to create space for so many contradictory possibilities.

The call to restore Bali’s kingdom is a key window on these contradictions. Rural Maharashtrians identify deeply with this figure who, according to Hindu classical texts and living folklore, was profoundly honorable and unfairly deposed by the powerful Brahminical gods. But while Shetkari Sanghatana supporters were unanimous in their calls for Bali’s return, they differed sharply in their interpretations of what Bali and his kingdom meant as an ideal. For some, Bali represented the interests of “rural folk” in general. For others, he characterized the historically dominant and better-off agrarian castes. For still others, he embodied the poorest, most oppressed members of rural society.

It’s understandable that critics viewed all this ambiguity as a problem and that they expressed surprise that Sanghatana followers didn’t demand that their leader endow the idea of King Bali with more specific social meaning. But they were missing a crucial aspect of ambiguity. Unclear, ambiguous symbols—including leaders themselves as symbols—do not lack meaning. On the contrary, they are overabundantly rich with it—it’s just that they don’t mean the same things to everybody.

A Shetkari Sanghatana campaign poster depicts the mythological King Bali being deposed. The text warns of political forces that seek to divide the people and prevent Bali’s return. Michael Youngblood

This range of possible meanings does not necessarily intimate that some supporters were being duped into misinterpreting their leader’s true intentions. Rather, I believe that sometimes people see ambiguous slogans, platforms, and leaders—perhaps only obliquely—as political resources that they might harness to serve their own interests. The more ambiguous the symbols, the more opportunity they may seem to represent for one’s social group to shape and define the issues from below and influence others to the group’s advantage.

This perception of ambiguity as political opportunity may be held not only by members of social groups that are accustomed to wielding influence but also by disadvantaged, regular folks who feel that no one else is championing their interests. Such a perception helps explain some of the mass responses to other recent movements that are otherwise wildly different from one another, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Both, like the Trump campaign and the Shetkari Sanghatana, created space for a wide range of visions to hang together in common opposition to the status quo. It also helps us understand the Trump campaign’s appeal to such diverse constituents as stockbrokers, evangelicals, Obama swing voters, and white nationalists. Each of these groups came to view the ambiguous candidate as their best bet and hoped that by joining in, they could influence the agenda to serve their needs.

But here’s the rub. While ambiguity can be effective for building a movement or a base of supporters, it is far less effective for governing. While ambiguous ideas and symbols can cast a broad net, decisive actions, such as enacting policies, rarely do. This is the paradox of ambiguity for movements and leaders who trade in it: When they shift from talk to action, from protest to governance, they cannot as readily accommodate the same diversity of meanings. They become more defined.

When that happens, we can expect a number of possible trajectories for their supporters. One of these is a progressive narrowing of the base of support, as those who are least served by the new power arrangement concede that their opportunity to harness and shape it has passed. Other possibilities include a heightened internal struggle among competing interests to win or regain control, or a splintering of the supporters into distinct subgroups that attempt to craft new, rival movements or campaigns to better address their frustrations and ambitions.

In the Trump phenomenon, all of these seem pretty clearly underway. In its first year in office, the Trump administration’s loss of top staff through resignations or ousters was record-setting—three times that of the previous administration, according to a Brookings Institution report. The president’s first-year public approval rating was the lowest of any of the seven most recent U.S. presidents, and Trump voters have expressed concern about his positions on affordable health care, international trade, and other basic areas of policy affecting their daily lives and ways of making a living.

For the Shetkari Sanghatana, these trajectories were evident as well. While I was doing my field research, it was clear that many Sanghatana participants were not solely devoted to this one movement. They were also opportunistically engaged in other movements, political organizations, or strategic relationships that they believed could possibly help advance their interests. As the Sanghatana movement became more politically institutionalized—it launched a formal party called the Swatantra Bharat Paksha, or “Independent India Party,” in 1994, and Joshi was elected to serve as a minister in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, in 2004—many of these participants backed off from the movement and invested their energy in other opportunities for representation. Concurrently, a number of Joshi’s top lieutenants broke from the Sanghatana, some founding rival movements and parties. The Shetkari Sanghatana still exists today, but it is a shadow of the enormous army of activists that it was in its earlier days.

What’s most apparent in these outcomes is that the people who supported the Shetkari Sanghatana or the Trump campaign should not be dismissed as delusional fools who were beguiled by vague promises. Such a judgment underestimates people and overestimates the wizardry of most leaders. Rather we should look at these supporters as opportunists, cunningly taking advantage of ambiguity’s interpretive spaces as a chance to insert their own voice and vision, even if imperfectly. Seen through such a lens, movements and campaigns—and the people who support them—look very different from how they’re usually portrayed.

And this leads us to an inevitable conclusion: When people are presented with better opportunities to be heard and represented, they’re likely to take notice. Until then, they’ll try their luck with whoever or whatever seems to give them an opening.

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