Comment

When crises pay politically

Contemporary India mirrors a pendulum oscillating between crises and a saviour. The recent acts of aggression by China and cartographic adventure by Nepal have underlined the question of national security and territorial integrity. The economy, already deteriorating since 2017, has experienced a further setback during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the forced movement of thousands of migrant workers in the wake of the sudden announcement of a nationwide lockdown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi signified the state of the precariat of the republic, abandoned by both the state and, largely, society. This set of crises is partly systemic and partly the outcome of the Central government’s policy responses. From the vantage point of political economy, which assumes the people as rational actors, these should have heralded the beginning of the end of Mr. Modi’s populist regime. However, according to ground reports and national surveys, his popularity is on a constant rise. This presents a political puzzle.

An unusual tenacity

Contrary to the dominant argument that personality-driven populist regimes dissipate as quickly as they emerge, Mr. Modi’s India reveals a tenacity to surpass material and social crises by recreating and sustaining cultural narratives. Unlike the right-wing populist regime of the U.S., material and social crises in India do not seem to translate into a political predicament for the incumbent. In this sense, right-wing Hindutva populism operates in a specific and complex sociocultural matrix whose mechanisms go beyond the assumed ebbs and flows of populist regimes in general. Here, crises are not simply overcome; rather, they are created and utilised to further entrench and empower the image of the leader as the only saviour. The overarching majority breathes a sigh a relief for the fact that in all these testing times, the country is being led by Mr. Modi.

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This holds true even when the crises are created or aggravated by the Central government’s ineptitude, as was the case with the announcement of demonetisation or the social chaos on account of the lockdown. Some analysts have called this phenomenon as the shift from the politics of vikas to vishwas. However, the source and sheer intensity of the crises, and the shortcomings of the political-economy and political-sociology approaches to adequately understand Hindutva’s populism, warrants the employment of the framework of political psychology. This is desirable all the more in the backdrop of the euphoric societal reception of Mr. Modi as a startling political fact — particularly when it remains independent of one’s material condition — being primarily more psychological than logical.

In this backdrop, the Indian case goes beyond the thesis of authoritarian resilience by political scientist Andrew J. Nathan, who explained how the Chinese authoritarian regime led by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) has successfully been managing the democratic legitimacy crisis since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, The End Of History, Mr. Nathan argues that the CPC’s strict adherence to elements like norm-bound succession politics, meritocracy over factionalism, employment of the structural-functional approach in the party, establishment of input institutions at the grass-roots levels and whopping economic success are the factors behind the resilience of the non-liberal authoritarian regime even after embracing avant-garde capitalism. Right-wing Hindutva populism does not have such mechanisms, nor does it seem to aspire for them. Rather, the Indian scenario resembles what the dissident Chinese novelist Yan Lianke termed shenshi zhuyi (mythorealism) that defies any rational attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between events. Instead, it offers a grotesque, hilarious, distorted and precariat world wherein Kafkaesque absurdities constitute the everyday realities of public life.

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State of normative flux

This shifts analytical focus back to the societal realm wherein laden with the ubiquity of the social media, something profound and sublime is taking place. The WhatsAppification of our everyday life has led to an unparalleled reach of the right-wing populist narrative. The resulting restructuring of society according to the ever-changing political expediencies of the populist regime ensures that norms and normalcy are fluid. Any thought which does not conform to their domineering cognitive wishes is labelled by the majority as being abnormal and extreme. Consequently, the Hindutva Right is perpetually obsessed with the idea of delineating authentic Indianness and declaring challengers as un-Indians. This choir derives a collective sadistic pleasure which will stop at nothing short of declaring a vast section of people as being spurious Indians, wherein the markers of authenticity are ever-expanding with time.

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The advent of deriving pleasure in the sufferings of one group by the other weaponises the public sphere with the discourse of political sadism. This, in turn, twists the obvious, and by deliberate mix and match of variables, leads to something grand but absurd. Hence, political sadism acts as a red herring and defines the contours of the rising wave of new politics. It offers a biographical solution for structural and systemic problems. When there are visible cracks in the material realm affecting the people, the political sadists aim at certitudes by tactically embracing a delusional but grand ideal. Therein the cultural realm emerges as the prime refuge. This state of affairs not only reinforces the primacy of cultural politics over the material one, but helps constitute a biographical villain even for the material crisis. It invests heavily in instrumental rationality where logic has become separate from moral standards. It keeps creating simplistic binaries of friends and enemies as per their cognitive desires. Among the deviants, no one is spared, whether an Army officer or a Shankaracharya. In this state of normative flux, there are neither restraints nor stakeholders of public probity. The participants constituting a significant section of society possess the need-for-chaos personality wherein disruption is constantly caused and cherished, followed by the grand invocation of the saviour to bring an order to the chaos. Therein, sections of the mainstream media and social media do their everyday bidding by devising a number of customised techniques to evoke desired psychic responses from society. In every case, while the leader is the sole saviour, the face of the villain keeps changing. This explains the celebration of absurdities in the wake of the pandemic. A public health crisis that quickly led to an economic crisis found the deafening clamour of “corona jihad” as the prime villain. While the COVID-19 crisis continues, the latest red herring is a news story targeting candidates in civil service exams on the basis of religion.

Everyday presents a spectacle which defies any sense but sets the agenda of the day. These spectacles become the instrument of inflating pains of the past, real and imagined. The solution for the same is implicit. Thus, the saviour takes a mystical aura. Everydayness gets laden with the quest to define the moral decay and then tools to remedy it. The anchors of this discourse lack any sense of guilt as larger society resonates with their tune and both become a part of the populist discourse. Unfortunately, this phase seems to be there for the long haul, as we are in a state of democracy wherein we have an Opposition but no political action. They are full of angst but lack formidable convictions.

Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 4:03:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/when-crises-pay-politically/article32481278.ece

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