Theses Doctoral

Competing Populisms: Public Interest Litigation and Political Society in Post-Emergency India

Bhuwania, Anuj

This dissertation studies the politics of 'Public Interest Litigation' (PIL) in contemporary India. PIL is a unique jurisdiction initiated by the Indian Supreme Court in the aftermath of the Emergency of 1975-1977. Why did the Court's response to the crisis of the Emergency period have to take the form of PIL? I locate the history of PIL in India's postcolonial predicament, arguing that a Constitutional framework that mandated a statist agenda of social transformation provided the conditions of possibility for PIL to emerge. The post-Emergency era was the heyday of a new form of everyday politics that Partha Chatterjee has called 'political society'. I argue that PIL in its initial phase emerged as its judicial counterpart, and was even characterized as 'judicial populism'. However, PIL in its 21st century avatar has emerged as a bulwark against the operations of political society, often used as a powerful weapon against the same subaltern classes whose interests were so loudly championed by the initial cases of PIL. In the last decade, for instance, PIL has enabled the Indian appellate courts to function as a slum demolition machine, and a most effective one at that - even more successful than the Emergency regime. A recurring sentiment in these recent PIL cases is a deep impatience with the populism that is believed to characterize political life in India, and with the illegalities fostered by it. However, I argue that the enormous powers of PIL stem from its own populist character, which allows the appellate courts great flexibility in being able to maneouvre themselves into positions of overweening authority. With little or no procedure to regulate it, it is increasingly difficult to locate PIL within the conventional rubric of adjudicatory practice. With radical departures from legal norms that further empower the Courts, I argue, PIL has emerged as the vanishing point of jurisprudence. As a weapon of civil society, PIL appears to be a mere legal tool and therefore a classic example of associational activity. But it is really a mirror image of the populist contemporary politics it assails, just without any of the protections that populist political mobilisation regularly requires in a liberal democracy like India. Just as the practices of illegality rampant among India's white-collared denizens make its civil society uncontainable within any conventional notions of civic behaviour, its favourite weapon, PIL, too, has only a thin veneer of legality. The judicial populism of PIL allows for a radical instability that continually pushes the limits of what a court can do. This dissertation, after examining the why and the how of the rise of PIL, will focus on the most intensive laboratory of PIL in recent times - the city of Delhi. I foreground PIL's role in the radical reconfiguration of the city in the 2000s, and go on to critique the limitations of the existing critical discourses on PIL: their obliviousness to its materiality and their insistence on purely ideological and consequentialist understanding of recent trends in PIL. Lastly, I address the conundrum of the enduring appeal of 'debased informalism' in contemporary India, particularly the self-conscious and opportunistic adoption and celebration of it by the most formal of judicial institutions. If the Weberian account of the emergence of modern law was anything to go by, legalism's stock in India should have risen to its highest with the growth of capitalism in the post-liberalisation era. Instead 'legalism' has decisively acquired a negative connotation in India precisely in this same period. PIL is the most striking illustration of this peculiar historical trajectory.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Messick, Brinkley M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 7, 2013