The Empty Signifier of Bharashtachar

Bharashtachar [corruption] has become an ’empty signifier’ in India. Empty signifiers are terms that are empty enough to draw disparate people together in a chain of equivalence. Any term can become an empty signifier. When it does, it works as a surface on which otherwise disparate individuals and groups find themselves as standing in the same row with each other.

Darul Uloom Deoband‘s vice-chancellor Maulana Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani has reportedly said that his institution is against corruption while distancing it from Anna‘s movement: “We are against corruption and want to see our country rid of anything wrong. But it doesn’t mean that we are with the movement of Anna Hazare. His movement and the provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill are disputed and we distance ourselves from it.”

While Darul Uloom has distanced itself from Anna Hazare’s movement, it has nuanced its message in ways that also lend support to movement’s main motto. On the other hand, while the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has openly come out in favour of Anna, the latter has dissociated his movement from RSS. So, while Darul Uloom distanced itself from Anna’s movement, the RSS was pushed back by the movement itself. Yet, the basic sentiment on both sides favoured the movements’ central aims. In both cases, it seems that fight against ‘corruption’ is bringing otherwise disparate social elements together, as they begin to take similar positions on the same issue.

So X and Y can fight against corruption irrespective of other differences they may have with each other, just because it hurts them both. Just because it becomes the basis for formation of such alliances between strange bedfellows, corruption turns into an empty signifier a la Ernesto Laclau.

I was pretty sure that someone must have already written about this possible description of Anna’s movement, and lo and behold, I did find at least one piece taking this position in the online Himal Mag. It says:

Like ‘corruption’, Anna Hazare too has become something of what the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau calls an ‘empty signifier’ – a sign to which any number of contradictory meanings can be assigned. Laclau’s work highlights that populism has no necessary class belonging, no necessary radical or reactionary content. Populism, he suggests, is the ‘royal road to understanding the constitution of the political’ itself. Far from being anti-political, as some have suggested, the populism of the Anna Hazare movement must be able to tell us something fundamental about the nature of politics and ‘the political’ itself. []

There must be many more, I am sure.

If corruption was an empty signifier in the same way in which Egypt was for the protestors in Caior’s Tahrir square, then someone in the blogosphere must have compared Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan (the place of anti-corruption movement’s assembly in Delhi) with Tahrir square. Well, a Google search returned about 13,000 hits for pages that had used ‘Ramlila Maidan’ and ‘Tahrir Square’ in the same breath. This brings me to a tangential observation about the ways in which empty places and empty signifiers appear together in the discourse. Thus we have, just to give you a few examples, ‘green square’ in Libya, that famous ‘red’ square in Russia, not to forget the Tiananmen of China. Its fascinating to see ways in which squares [or a maidans in the case of India] and empty signifiers work together as the surfaces on which populism plays its tunes and dances its dance. This is linguistic turn par excellence.


About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


  1. MQM, the empty signifier? | Just questions! - 10/09/2011

    […] case of an empty signifier at work [See my earlier posts on empty signifiers here, here, and here]. What does that mean? Well, this becomes more comprehensible if you take your focus away from what […]

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