In this year of a global pandemic, bookended in India by massive movements of civil protest, Soumyabrata Choudhury, in Now It’s Come to Distances: Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation, discerns two contending energies of note.
Shaheen Bagh affirms association, i.e. politics, hitherto amorphous groups constituting themselves as citizens. While the Constitution may not have anticipated their voice, their claims rest on constitutional principles. The government, in contrast, wields the Constitution as a book of rules, of limitations, and the pandemic became its alibi to enforce stringent control. The government altered its brief, from managing affairs of state to playing therapist and ministering to society. Moreover, society assumed the character of a patient subject to medical procedure, who must cooperate in the treatment. The quarantine, janata curfew, lockdown, containment zones may have done nothing towards their proclaimed goal, but did deliver a surgical strike against inclusion, participation, visibility and justice, succeeding here only too well.
The following extract, drawn from the opening chapter, analyses the charlatanry and mystical communion between the leader and his people, the cultic rites through which the pandemic became an arena of rhetorical prowess and personal credit to the prime minister, albeit one not without its pitfalls.
The question is, who is the vicar of the martyrs of the viral war? Who enjoys the rewards of a doctor’s and a policeman’s martyrdom? With a soldier’s martyrdom, this is not such an enigma because the vicarious immortality is like a collective national ‘saving’ to be periodically invested by the government to ‘substantiate’ the sovereignty of the state, whenever it starts to ring hollow. However, a doctor’s or a police personnel’s social martyrdom cannot be reaped by society itself. Since the latter is too heterogeneous, too conflictual, even degraded, too mortal to be the vicar of immortality. A doctor cannot be trusted with a doctor’s immortality. In a viral situation, a social being is too living and by that dint, carries the stain of death. Hence the only possible vicar of even social martyrdom and its immortal rewards can be the state—that is, the state’s official vicar, the Prime Minister. Precisely because the state has now ‘invested’ society and converted the exigent and involuntary government of society into a new strategic social power of the state, the PM is now the PM of society.
We must be careful to note that the social power of the state doesn’t arise from a transcendental capture of society by the state. Nor is it the ideological play of institutional authority measuring and evaluating the social legitimacy of state power. Hence we are concerned with a risky power fabricated from the graded structural violence that fragments and minoritises society on the one hand and on the other, the major, if not total, abstraction of the viral threat to biological life. At the same time, as we have seen, this abstraction, in epidemiological terms, equally fragments and minoritises previous identities into new quarantines, isolation wards and containment zones. An involuntary, automatic tendency towards a ‘government of society’ sets in. This government is also ‘auto-infective’. By virtue of their position as agents to govern society they become proximate to the threat of the virus. This material and this tendency, the government holding state power today seeks to put to its strategic uses. For example, in March 2020, when Modi first spoke of an exotic ‘janata curfew’ and followed it up, in a few days, with a lockdown, he set off an automatism: prompted by the circulatory energies of the social and other media, ‘curfew’ and ‘lockdown’ have become aleatory phenomena, as if governed by chance. The janata beyond their legal and social provenance indeed imposes curfew on itself periodically, irrespective of any legal invocation by the government, when a rumour flies around—“the next two days are a curfew, not just a lockdown”—and people forbid themselves from even buying their essential requirements which is still allowed during a lockdown. While creating massive subjugation among populations, this also threatens to explode into vigilante violence as local manifestations of the deeper civil conflict (or war) in society without any strategic benefits (and with damage, sometimes).
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It is this risky ground that PM Modi clearly relishes. On this ground he stands—and speaks. I think, the performative instrument of speech has over time become the sole connecting tissue between society and the state, crisis and discourse, analysis and intervention. At the same time, at least since the demonetisation announcement—though the earliest glimpses were to be found with the Swachh Bharat campaign—Modi’s speech-acts hollow out both sides of these conjunctions more and more, and we are left only with the brutal phosphorescence of the tissue. Not merely do state and society ‘infect’ each other, they also become hollow sounds trying to engineer efficacies. It is not just that in an epidemiological crisis, analysis, diagnosis and intervention lose their discrete stable forms and run up against each other, the entire process becomes engineered into a technical ritual. Modi’s speeches have consistently displayed this ritual character and their main efficacy issues not from ideological rhetoric (like with Mohan Bhagwat, for example) but from cultic reception common to technical and ritual performances (along the lines of the traditional religious mantra almost as a secret charm or a cipher, something which corporate firms today are equally fond of using, for instance the phrase ‘the mantra of success…’). These can be extremely complex repetitions with endless variation inducing great operational competence, again, engineering efficacies. But they are cultic in that they involve the corporate monopoly over codes rather than the public transmission of principles.
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It is in this orientation of his speech that Modi has to contend with the greatest challenge from another genre of speech—the speech of politics. This is an epic contestation because all the genres of speech in question here apparently have a shared goal: to create a ‘people’. While a technicist performativity aims at a people whose efficacy is in being ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ of a shared corporate code (Facebook, for example) and ritual speech further prescribes the congregation of a people who ‘use’ or ‘consume’ a shared code (a religious or economic corporation, for example), politics is an act of enunciation that intervenes in any given corporation or congregation, divides it and extracts out of its technical and ritual neutrality a historical and partisan subject.
With Modi, from demonetisation to the lockdown, the demand is for the same efficacy: The people must be assembled. Yet, such a demand is tautological. The people must be assembled because in their being assembled, they will become a people. With Modi, this tautology finds unexpected magnitudes of embodiment as shown by nearly all the people of India out on the streets after demonetisation, queuing in front of banks, and a large part of the population staying indoors during the lockdown. Two supplements: firstly, being absent from the streets is also an assembly as far as the efficacy of Modi’s speech is concerned; and secondly, the efficacy of the speech instructing the lockdown was far less successful than the act of demonetisation. The latter was the most violent and classic example of a performative utterance in recent memory, while the lockdown announcement led to the unintended effect of people assembled on the streets when migrants were compelled into disobedience.