Unlike in the United States or Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to order a national lockdown for five weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has not become politicised. Many questions have been raised about whether the government did the preparatory groundwork before directing the country to shut down and over how its implementation has been scattershot and unhelpful to the states. But the lockdown itself did not turn into a political issue.
Moreover, Modi has successfully sold the government’s entire Covid-19 handling as a national project, one for which responsibility lies on each citizen. This approach allows him to evade addressing the question of government accountability to the people, whether in its mismanagement of the migrant labour crisis, its unwillingness to release cheap food stocks to the states or the mess in acquiring rapid testing kits.
Political scientist Suhas Palshikar, the chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics, warned from the very beginning of the lockdown that it also brought with it a suspension of politics, one that is dangerous for democracy. Palshikar has argued that the lockdown and its effects will end up deepening the class chasm as well as the Hindu-Muslim divide in India, while also seeing Modi hog even more of the limelight.
Scroll.in spoke to Palshikar about pre-coronavirus issues that will disappear and what Indian politics may look like in three years.
In your first piece after lockdown, you wrote of a “post-people publicness”, and that, “in a world that is ready to turn interpersonal relations into digital artefacts or, worse, embrace the latter as interpersonal relations”. What do you mean by “post-people publicness?”
The idea is that one is digitally connected, there is social media etc, but the actual people and the actual relations are both missing and I thought that this is not just about politics or post-corona, it’s a larger phenomenon that corona will hasten. Maybe India otherwise would have gone a bit slow in this process of transformation, where the interpersonal would actually become impersonal.
Could you give me an example?
If you take from politics itself, the simple example is the entire focus on making statements, either to the press or the social media and forgetting that there are people who have agency, who need to be mobilised and maybe also need to be contacted because there is no two-way process, there is no feedback coming back from the people. And by people I mean not those who are articulate, who are vocal, who can make their points on social media. Our idea of people actually shrinks.
Some people have argued that social media does democratise and takes away gatekeepers.
For the vocal and those who have made some entry into the digital world, social media does appear to have a levelling effect or a democratising effect. You don’t have to be an expert to air an opinion on what should be the strategy of testing in the time of Covid. That’s true, but that’s why it’s a double-edged thing. On the one hand it’s inclusive, but it also tends to exclude, particularly given the social structures that we currently live in, in the Indian context.
So you’re talking about things like politicians who are able to communicate without necessarily interacting with people?
That’s right, and also therefore then, the issues that they frame, the way they understand the public, and the mood of the public, is based on what they get from the social media platforms.
Indeed, we’ve always thought that Twitter is an example of this, in that its actual numbers are tiny, it isn’t representative, yet journalists and politicians take all their cues from it.
Yes, that’s right. One could argue that this nothing new, that it has been happening for the last five-seven years. But my point is that it will gain further legitimacy.
And when we have everyone in their houses during the Great Lockdown, sequestered, and many getting their information online, this is even more so?
Yes, and when you look at social media, whether it is Facebook or Twitter, there is a drastically limited presence of women online. So that tendency of excluding the entire female population from the idea of what matters in the public domain bleeds over from the actual to the virtual.
You’ve mentioned that pre-coronavirus concerns, such as the Citizenship Act protests, the economy, or Kashmir, will be washed away.
Ironically, I would say that one of the most important pre-corona concerns should have and could have been the economy. In a sense it will disappear, because everything will be blamed on the pandemic.
So the question of whether the government was not handling the economy well, what the government was doing or not doing in January, all those questions will disappear and the entire question falls on what the government has done during the pandemic, how much money it has pumped in or if there is more unemployment or more suffering, it can all be blamed on corona.
One presumes that if their management of the economy was bad before, then it may also show up in how they manage the economic situation post-corona.
That depends on how things start unfolding from now onwards. At least in the media, social media and otherwise, this question of mismanagement in terms of what has happened to the migrant labour, has come up.
Now, unfortunately that is precisely the section that is excluded from the gamut of social media. They don’t express themselves. You and I talk about them on social media, but whether they’re happy or not about what the government has done or not done would still remain a mystery.
Secondly, as I have mentioned, the beauty of this situation is that, if something happens, the (central) government in Delhi would be free to say the Rajasthan government didn’t do this right, the Maharashtra government didn’t do this right. They could blame this on the states.
Even for their own party governments, they can say that this was the failure of the Gujarat government, not the Modi government.
This emphasis on making a distinction between BJP as a party and Modi and his government as independent phenomena would probably start taking place.
A lot of the reading on crises in the past say that they don’t tend to upend our ideas of anything, they accelerate pre-existing trends. Whether it is centralisation or the Hindu-Muslim divide, is that something you see happening, this acceleration?
I suspect that has already started in a very indirect manner. At least two reports have appeared today, saying that people are happy, even more trusting of Modi than before. Methodological questions apart – sample size, who did the survey – the impact of this is that the news starts filtering down. If I am sitting in a 10x10 tenement with 10 other people as a migrant labourer, it reaches me, and therefore it also in a sense intervenes in what I’m thinking of this government.
That has already happened. That centralisation, not just in the physical fact of centralisation in the PMO, but the idea that Modi is the saviour would definitely get a further shot in the arm.
What other trends do you see sped up here? Maybe the divide between host states of migrants vs home states?
Yes, there is this diagonal division, but I don’t see that playing out much. Of course, someone like Mamata Banerjee would latch on to the federal question and the Centre-State question. But as of now there don’t seem to be the possibility of these CMs coming together.
In any case, the practical aspect of this would be that every chief minister would be forced to consider what his or her government can get from the Centre. And therefore it would be a kind of individual race that everyone is running.
Secondly, my general point is that most of our political parties running various state governments don’t understand the gravity of the political situation. Therefore, they’re not likely to form an alliance, come together or form a federal coalition.
My sense is that if things about the poor, the migrants or unemployment, they explode, only then a different politics is possible. Because if they explode many of these parties will jump to catch hold of them. But that would be unfortunate because in a sense it would be additional suffering for the poor people.
One thing that clearly has been accelerated, as we’ve seen with the coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat, is the growing Hindu-Muslim divide.
The interesting thing to watch from anti-CAA protests onwards and now because of communalising of some aspects of the pandemic, would there be a more pan-Indian sensibility among Muslims.
Because, while we talk of the religious divide, the fact is that while Hindus are getting more and more homogenised into a pan-Hindu political identity, Muslims remain divided. Even after the advent of Modi in 2014, there is no evidence to suggest that Muslims as Muslims are coming together politically.
That is evident from the limited success or actually non-success of [Asaduddin] Owaisi outside of Telangana. Now the question is whether the concerted anti-CAA efforts, which were anyway not led but usually participated by Muslims, and the current communalisation, would they in a sense push a new Muslim political instrument. If that happens, while there might a temporary setback to the BJP, it would be even worse. Then you have full-fledged two communal platforms.
Though I don’t foresee any possibility of any one Muslim leader actually being able to take that advantage.
Aside from the political aspect of this Hindu-Muslim divide, you have mentioned an “interfaith distance” that is developing in society at large. It could easily fit into a new normal of distancing.
That would happen and maybe if there is a comparison, if one goes back to 1992, after Babri, initially at least, there was a new, additional and sharper religiosity among Muslims. That was a political religiosity, not in the spiritual.
The fact that “we as Muslims are being isolated”, might have repercussions everywhere among the Muslim community.
You’ve written about the minimising of democracy, or the lack of politics in this moment. You wrote that “the frightening success of the lockdown is the willingness of the entire ruling class and the articulate public in the gigantic suspension of democracy”. How could this have played out differently?
On the lack of politics, at least now political parties are realising that this is going to be a long-term game, and they can’t simply sit back and say that after the pandemic, we’ll start doing our politics. Every party has started becoming a bit alert to this fact. There would be some political repercussions. In other words, what I said might not actually happen, in the sense of a complete withdrawal of politics.
But on the other hand, what I said about democratic politics, that’s the larger worry that I have pointed out. Which is that all governments and all those who are likely to be in the government would always be happy to have more and more repressive regulations and government mechanisms.
As it is you don’t have very great democrats ruling the states like in West Bengal, or Telangana or even Andhra Pradesh. Rulers everywhere, and potential rulers when they come to power, would be happy to use the same strategy in normal circumstances even when there are smaller disasters.
This is not only about India. At least some academics internationally have pointed out that this is more dangerous than the pandemic as far as democracy is concerned.
My somewhat exaggerated take on this is that if the 20th century can be described as the century of democratisation, the 21st century could be historically later described as the century that put democracy in its place, cut it to size.
Whether in India with the Hindu-Muslim questions or globally about the question of the state, these are not products of the pandemic. These processes will be hastened because of what is happening during the lockdown.
On the lack of politics, is there an analogy to what happened in 2019, when after the Pulwama attack, the Congress and other parties seemed to withdraw and leave all the space to the government?
The trouble with the Congress and the analogy is that, at least earlier in 2019, the Congress seemed to be making some fight of the election. After that it is a slump, it is non-existent.
So, whether pandemic or not, I’m not too sure what the Congress really would be doing. Therefore the analogy does fit and doesn’t fit. In a sense, you always take this position that the Congress is actually afraid of the media and vocal middle class public opinion, which buys into the argument of the BJP. And the moment you start buying into the argument of your opponent, you have stopped doing your politics.
That is where the problem of the Congress lies. It doesn’t believe it can fight with a separate or independent narrative.
And that’s aside from all of the internal problems of the party. Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi is attempting to push a technocratic image of himself now. There is the odd sight of Rahul Gandhi interviewing Raghuram Rajan.
It’s great optics as far as social media is concerned. But one has to count how many people are still available for politics outside of social media. Your leader talking to some economist doesn’t cut ice with them.
The simple question would be, why is the Congress not saying we are in power in two or three states, and we will begin our NYAY there? Not today, they could have done it after the defeat in 2019.
They could have said okay, we are defeated, but we have three states and we will start NYAY there. If they’re not doing that, then it is an academic point they are making.
We know that migrants are politically disenfranchised. But could this be a moment for healthcare or welfare to become the fulcrum of politics? Christophe Jaffrelot has argued that the class divide may come into play.
There is a potential. The problem is that the potential can happen into a reality only when you have some political group, party or leader actually pursuing that. My worry is that, while the potential is there, the capacity of the government to placate that by various measures in the next six months, might be greater. One has to then wait and see if there is a cascading of the plight of the migrants.
So it is not just the migrants. The entire money-order economy as we used to call it collapses. Their families which are dependent on their urban incomes collapse, and then there is rural distress in not the host states but states of origin.
Therefore if elections happen on time, Bihar would be a good example to watch. Because it comes very close to the pandemic, and therefore all these dynamics can play out there.
Do you see any reason for the BJP to alter its approach to politics post-Covid?
The main thing that has changed from 2014 is their idea of how to reshape the economy. If one recalls, they came with the idea that the economy would take care of itself, the government has only to facilitate its wellbeing.
Now there is a difference, and that will be accentuated, that the government will be more actively investing in packages – not policies, not rights, but packages. Money would be pumped in, and in that sense there would be a change.
But otherwise, in two key matters – the Hindu-Muslim question and the personalisation of authority – I don’t see any reason why the BJP would be changing its approach.
Is there is a historical precedent for this moment? Is there something we can look back to, to get a sense of what might happen after this, politically?
Frankly I would say, no. This is something from what historically we have seen.
This kind of a global pandemic affecting society and politics is an entirely new experience, if one goes back to say the Spanish Flu.
In a sense, it’s a century gap. And, over that century, the governance mechanisms have changed. The way governments can intervene in people’s lives has changed. And this is not only about India, but elsewhere as well. The more autocratic the government, the more deeper the penetration of government’s intervention.
In a sense, this preparedness of democratic governments to use state apparatus is something new that is happening.
If you had to project out by a couple of years, what does this change for Indian politics? What will be different in, say, two years time?
In the near future, very quickly it seems like that we’ll see both the collapse of the bureaucracy and the judiciary.
The collapse of the bureaucracy in a very different sense. This would be represented by actually more bureaucratic authoritarianism, and therefore collapse of the bureaucracy as an instrument of the government. And in the case of the judiciary, there would be a complete absence of any judicial protection of procedures.
Both put together, what one can imagine in the near future is a more strong popular contempt for procedures, and popular disinterest in legal protections.
You have mentioned another future, in which distress ends up with people on the streets.
It would be a situation where you have bottled distress. That’s why I would hesitate to say where India will be three years down the line, because one doesn’t know whether that bottled distress explodes and in which way.