Sunday, 12 April 2020

A call for unity or ‘rituals of authoritarianism’?

A call for unity or ‘rituals of authoritarianism’? 

The surging figures of death induced the people in Italy to go to their balconies, and sing and clap for their health workers who face the toughest challenge everywhere. Subsequently, similar sporadic events happened elsewhere in different countries. Amidst the growing deployment of the war metaphor by many world leaders, communities invent their rituals of thanksgiving for people they imaginatively feel bonded with within the national territory. It is not so ironic that in the severest time of global crisis, world leaders from Trump and Macron to Modi, have called for an aggressive reassertion of national unity.

The language of unity whips up the emotional register of solidarity but it inevitably requires tangible forms of action. It is exactly at this point of intersection between apparent well-intentioned messages of unity and the choice of actions that leaders and their followers propound, that the perils of politics threaten to expose the predicament of unity. These ‘rituals of unity’ acquire Frankenstein potential to eat up what it professes to promote.

The head of the state addressing the nation

In two major addresses to the nation, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far assigned two tasks to the nation. A great orator, communicator, and an event dazzler that he is, he hardly presents before the nation the details of steps his government is taking in ‘fighting’ the virus but rather requests in a demanding way to observe rituals of solidarity that transposes the ‘war’ into the realm of faith and frenzy.


Image taken from here

After observing a ‘self-exacted’ curfew for 14 hours on March 22, the nation broke into a frenzy of clapping, banging steel plates, blowing conch shells, and playing metal bells because the leader of the nation had asked it to do so for five minutes at 5 p.m. Unlike in other countries, this was not an organic, spontaneous response but an orchestrated one from the top, which was even ‘rehearsed’ a day before in some parts of the country.

Called for to display solidarity for health and emergency service providers, of course, Modi did not ask anyone to step out of the house which would breach the observance of social distancing. But the ritual, as it usually does, acquired its own dynamics; it rejoiced the nation to the extent that people gathered in streets banging plates collectively, took processions out, and even went to temples to blow shells. It is true that the landscape of India is dotted with deities ascribed with the power of healing but either corona or its divine antidote has not yet made it to that pantheon. Nonetheless, the ‘sound therapy’, which Covid-19 received that day in India drowned the more sensible and critical voices that kept asking the government about its preparedness on PPE, ventilators, and relief packages. Asking these questions are readily branded as acts of defiance against the show of solidarity.

At the sudden notice of four hours, a complete lockdown for 21 days started on March 25. Since then, India has seen massive exodus of poor labour-migrants from cities back to the villages. The initial planning to foresee the effects of the lockdown was missing; in fact, until the 13th of March the official line was of not treating corona as a health emergency.

Deprived of shelter, occupation, and food these migrants had no option but to defy the norms of official lockdown and social distancing. In the process, they had to bear the brunt of police beating while walking for hundreds of kilometres, sometimes thousands, on highways. Modi’s apology to millions of migrants for the ‘inconvenience’ caused due to the lockdown was rooted in emotional appeal sans the robust clarity on the institutional front to assuage the palpable fear of hunger these migrants displayed. This was soon superseded by another call on 3rd of April for a new ritual of switching off the electric lights for nine minutes at 9 p.m. on Sunday the 5th of April.

The charismatic ‘excesses’

Intelligent leaders learn from mistakes; clever ones repeat them to expand and consolidate their hold. When leaders know that their charisma sways over people’s reasoning, and that the charisma has a dedicated and unquestioning support of the mainstream media, our understanding of their acts also need to go beyond the what appears at the surface. The charisma is a packaged product in which his oratory, crafty use of various emotional registers, amplification of his words on social media, and endorsement through print and electronic media plays a crucial role.

In his addresses, Modi imbibed at once the role of the head of the state and of the leader whom the ‘mob’ and the mass deferentially adore. As the head of the state he asked to observe social distancing but as the theatrical leader in him, without saying so, encourages the mass to go beyond his literal message to show an unflinching support. The viral video of a guy banging a steel plate on his head was the mark of this nature of support and devotion people have for their charismatic leader but at the same time it was also the negation of the call given by the head of the state. But because both the roles are fused in one individual, the net worth of this exercise always generates a surplus of political capital. These rituals are therefore not the emptied gestures, as one would like to believe, but loaded with full potential to achieve political consolidation in an indirect but fully concerted way.

The Indian politics in the last eight months has been acutely fractured along sharp ideological divisions due to a series of constitutional amendments, which the ruling party introduced. Two of these have been most divisive: abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the introduction of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which stipulates a fast-track, almost document free, route to grant citizenship to practically everyone other than the followers of Islam from three Muslim-majority neighbouring countries. This introduced the criteria of religion for citizenship for the first time in the Indian constitution. A situation of pandemic, leading to a call for unity, would naturally seem benign in these situations. After all, the virus does not select its host based on caste, class, region, religion, or race.

Turning pandemic into a series of events

However, a pandemic-crisis is not an event that unfolds outside of our social, economic, and cultural faultlines, institutional capacities, and political systems. But it was turned into a series of events in two ways. One, the suspense-ridden advance announcements of Modi’s addresses to the nation transformed what otherwise needed to be a detailing of the collective administrative response into a spectacle of an individual crusade. Angela Merkel who has been widely lauded for her addresses that exuded sobriety and transparency, emphasising the role of democracy and liberal values in times of curtailment on liberties, had not made such advance announcements. It should be clear that the build-up to a spectacle eventually feeds a spectacle in turn: People coming out on streets on a call to observe social distancing is an extension rather than violation of the spectacle that Modi creates deliberately around his speeches.

At the second call of Mr Modi, the pandemic again turned into an event of festivity, resembling the joyous and popular autumn festival of Diwali when people decorate their houses with lights and burst firecrackers. Sadly, nearly a hundred person had already fallen prey to the virus by the 5th April when these ‘celebrations’ took place, and lakhs of nearly starving migrant workers were still on road braving fatigue, exhaustion, police beating, and fears of infection.

To those who argue that these events were not celebrations but exercises in showing oneness and unity, one just needs to ask a simple question: What actually were the pressing tangible markers of ‘disunity’ that required such ritualistic calls? Why were such calls endorsed with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and ‘Jai Modi’ both in real spaces of neighbourhoods and in family and friends whatsapp groups? Once again, the excess in performance is noticeable: Modi asked to light diyas but people in many parts of the country burst firecrackers. This is the mark of endorsement by people, which consolidates his hold although at the face value it seems to repudiate his message. The leader’s excess in demanding these rituals and the masses’ excessive acts of endorsement fuse together to create the invincibility of his political capital as well as maintaining the strain of warrior-victim, that is, all he has in mind is the good of the nation.

The second instance, which has turned the Indian corona response into an event is of the mainstream media’s liking for finding the ‘true’ culprit. Navigating through Kanika Kapoor’s story, it finally hit the Muslim button. The instances of racial attacks on Asians in many western countries, the accusations exchanged between communities of deliberately spreading the virus in the Middle-East, and the recent Muslim vilification in India following the detection of infections caused due to a Tablighi Jamaat event held in mid-March are examples showing that the virus does not only act on given biological infirmities in human bodies. It also violently accentuates existing social tensions, especially if it suits the interests of (and is allowed/encouraged by) the politically dominant. Pandemic then becomes an event of a series of headlines interspersed with propagation of fake news, which feeds on the established imagery of the ‘other’.

Power to cult-ship

After the diya celebration on the 5th, some reports poured in that communities and co-habitants of buildings and residential societies had indulged in vigilantism against those who found little merit in obeying the assigned national task. When desired unity of actions and ideas in the society start becoming violently enforceable at the call of the supreme leader, the slide into faith-based authoritarianism from the questioning-based democracy becomes very tangible, if not inevitable.  

In Hungary, Viktor Orban got the coronavirus bill passed to rule by decree with no expiry date on it. The resurrection of authoritarianism took the usual route of law. In European nations of liberal democracies, fear is being expressed that the corona-induced emergency measures should not re-alter the contours of liberty. In a democracy like India, where majoritarianism has already been on the rise, the pandemic has opened a social schism for power wielders to keep the nation busy with ‘rituals of unity’.

Shekhar Gupta calls it a matter of spicing up. As he says, ‘He [Modi] spiced it up with the idea of ringing of bells and clanging of thalis. You can laugh at this as much as you wish’. Seeing from Modi’s perspective, as Gupta does, this of course might be true. But this is no mere sprinkling of spices in an otherwise potently harmful broth. Through these rituals, Indian leadership is sculpting a different route to authoritarianism. This is the route of cult-ship where excesses are tolerated, even promoted. They may lead to the apparent undermining of the state’s order but eventually augment the individual’s power. The road is not through law or parliament but through direct communication with people, which Modi has always championed since becoming the prime minister. This is neither a matter to be dismissed nor ridiculed away. What the nation needs to seriously discern is that when it zealously participates and enforces such tasks summoned by the leader, it actually partakes in the ‘rituals of authoritarianism’.