Spectacle and Social Murder in Pandemic India

By Alf Gunvald Nilsen* – Boston Review 

Narendra Modi’s government has used lockdown to force further neoliberalization and continue its assault on pro-democracy activists.

 “From midnight tonight onwards, the entire country, please listen carefully, the entire country shall go under complete lockdown.” This was how India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), announced on March 24, 2020, the imposition of one of the world’s strictest lockdown policies. A population of 1.4 billion was given four hours to prepare for an unprecedented disruption of life, involving, among other things, a sudden and comprehensive cessation of economic activities and a complete ban on leaving one’s house.

India’s lockdown was never intended to mitigate a public health crisis. Instead its purpose was to advertise a certain idea about Modi’s government, and to take advantage of the state of emergency to oppress India’s pro-democracy activists.

Writing for Boston Review in July 2020, Debraj Ray and S. Subramanian strongly criticized India’s lockdown. National lockdowns, they pointed out, are not supposed to be punitive—but that was precisely what the Indian lockdown turned out to be, both in terms of socioeconomic dislocations and how adherence to the policy was policed. India had failed to strike a balance between lives lost directly to the pandemic and lives lost as a result of the social suffering wrought by the lockdown itself. Moreover, the lockdown failed because it represented the near totality of the government’s response: there was no accompanying effort to boost the country’s medical infrastructure, or to put in place relief measures for those who were hit the hardest when the economy ground to a halt. “The Indian response,” Ray and Subramanian argued, “thus exhibits a perverse politics of visibility: draconian on high-profile measures such as lockdown, weak on the measures that are less easily observed.”

And, of course, it failed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, along with the United States and Brazil, India quickly became a pandemic epicenter.

Ray and Subramanian’s critique is both helpful and astute. However, it can be extended and linked to a wider critical analysis of the country’s politics by questioning whether the actions Modi’s administration took were ever aimed at curbing the pandemic in the first place. Indeed, I would suggest that the national lockdown was never intended to mitigate a public health crisis. Instead its purpose was, first, a cynical public relations move to advertise a certain idea about Modi’s government; and, second, to take advantage of the state of emergency to oppress and terrorize India’s pro-democracy activists.

These maneuvers have not escaped the notice of international watchdogs. In recent weeks Freedom House, the V-Dem Institute, and the Economist’s Democracy Index have all downgraded their ranking of the state of India’s democracy. But to fully understand why Modi’s regime undertook these actions, surely knowing full well how they would be perceived globally, we need to look more deeply at the political modus operandi of Modi and the BJP.

To truly understand the lockdown and the purpose it served, it is necessary to grasp the significance of spectacle in producing the public image of Modi as a strongman leader of the Indian people.

The Modi regime is one of many avatars of the authoritarian populism that has become a global political force in the past decade. And, as is typical of authoritarian populism, the hegemonic project of the BJP hinges, to a considerable degree, on the figure of Narendra Modi as a strongman, linked directly to the people, opposed to both corrupt elites and threatening Others, and, crucially, capable of decisive action and leadership in the national interest.

This image has been carefully crafted over a long period of time—arguably since Modi was chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat (2001–14)—and cultivated through multiple channels, including radio broadcasts, television, and social media. In particular, to truly understand the national lockdown policy and the purpose it served, it is necessary to grasp the significance of spectacle in producing this public image of Modi as a strongman leader of the Indian people.

As Ravinder Kaur argues in Brand New Nation (2020), Modi’s strongman “brand”—she uses this designation very deliberately—has been built, in no small part, through a series of “attention-grabbing spectacles” that have become a core feature of the BJP’s style of governance. Modi’s “signature quality,” she proposes, “is the capacity to make swift decisions—unilateral and almost entirely conducted in secrecy but released in the public domain as a thrill-inducing series of spectacles.”

These spectacular policy decisions demonstrate to the public that Modi is indeed an undaunted man of action—someone who will intervene resolutely in the best interest of the people. The act of demonetization—the sudden withdrawal, in November 2016, of 86 percent of the cash circulating in India, supposedly to combat corruption—is one example of such spectacles and how they work. While demonetization did nothing to combat corruption and caused immense hardship to ordinary Indians, it nevertheless succeeded in building up Modi’s image as a valiant warrior who would wield every weapon in the battle against corruption. Similarly, the sudden imposition of a national lockdown was intended to project an image of Modi as a bold protector of the Indian nation in the face of the coming onslaught of COVID-19.

As Kaur puts it, these spectacles work to “bolster Brand Modi’s strongman credentials and promote public celebration of muscular Hindu majoritarianism.” There’s an obvious sense in which these workings defy the laws of political gravity—after all, in another parallel to the spectacle of demonetization, Modi’s lockdown policy did substantial damage to the country’s working poor, who make up the majority of the electorate in India. However, despite this, Modi’s approval ratings actually improved during the lockdown months. Ultimately, this reveals one of the most important strengths of Modi’s authoritarian populism—namely that it is animated by what political scientist Neelanjan Sircar calls the politics of trust and belief. The politics of trust and belief, he argues, is a form of personal politics, in which the people are asked to trust in the ability of a strong leader to make sound decisions for the nation.

The politics of trust and belief contrasts, of course, with a more conventional politics of democratic accountability, in which citizens judge political leaders based on what they actually deliver. But it fits hand in glove with the designs of Modi’s authoritarian populism, which peddles empty neoliberal promises of prosperity to India’s citizens—some 60 percent of whom live on less than $3.10 a day—at the same time as it seeks to rally those citizens behind majoritarian designs for the making of a Hindu nation.

Modi’s authoritarian populism is animated by the politics of trust and belief. This contrasts with a more conventional politics of democratic accountability, in which citizens judge political leaders based on what they actually deliver.

The hour of reckoning, it seems, is forever postponed for Modi—even in a context where the devastation caused by the national lockdown added to the already considerable burden of a stagnant economy, record levels of unemployment, and deepening inequality.

If the failure of the promise of neoliberalism is, in part, what the dam of Modi’s charisma is meant to keep from crashing down, we can go further and say that we cannot fully grasp the pandemic’s trajectory in India unless we consider how it was shaped by two preexisting crises in India’s economy and polity. These crises have different temporalities: one is a crisis of social reproduction and subsistence for the country’s working poor, rooted in the long-term contradictions of India’s neoliberal accumulation strategies; the other is a more immediate crisis of India’s secular and constitutional democracy, brought about by Modi’s authoritarian populism.

One of the most immediate and dramatic impacts of the national lockdown was the sudden halt of economic life. This caused extreme distress among the working poor in India’s vast informal sector, many of whom belong to a migrant workforce of more than 120 million that circulates between rural and urban areas. Their jobs were decimated overnight, as unemployment in urban areas went up by more than 22 percentage points—from 8.66 to 30.93 percent—between late March and the first week of April 2020.

Rather than abiding by Modi’s exhortation “to continue staying wherever you are right now in the country,” some 10 million people took to national highways to walk home after their livelihoods disappeared. They did so in the hope that they would be able to access poverty relief programs available to Indians via their home territories. Many embarked on their journey without sufficient food or money, and found themselves at the receiving end of harsh and humiliating treatment by authorities as they crossed state borders. Close to a thousand migrant workers are reported to have died during their trek home, in road accidents and from exhaustion, malnutrition, and suicide. Even when they didn’t lose their jobs outright, workers in the informal sector reported huge income losses, averaging between 40 and 50 percent— in a context where earnings were already very low. As a result, the shock of the pandemic and the lockdown exacerbated food and consumption insecurity and deepened indebtedness.

Dubbed the country’s largest humanitarian disaster since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the acute social suffering of the working poor was caused by the very structure of India’s economy, where approximately 95 percent of the workforce eke out a living in the informal sector, with low wages, poor working conditions, long working hours, limited access to social protection, and, crucially, insecure employment.

The suffering produced by India’s lockdown set in deep relief what was already clear before: namely, that India’s economy is a machinery for what Friedrich Engels, in his study of the working poor in nineteenth-century England, called social murder. Engels coined this term to explain how the emerging industrial working class suffered premature death as a result of capitalist exploitation that subjected workers to conditions in which they could neither, as he put it, “retain health nor live long.” Such dynamics are clearly also foundational to the workings of India’s informal economy.

The Modi regime’s unwillingness to invest in pandemic relief measures for the working poor contrasts sharply with its eagerness to use the chaos of COVID-19—chaos caused in no small part by its own lockdown policies—to jam through further neoliberal reforms. In September 2020 the Indian parliament passed new legislation for the agricultural sector and introduced new labor laws. Both sets of laws were passed in a rush, without much parliamentary discussion, and both favor the interests of capital. In introducing these laws, Modi’s government is evidently looking after the interests of Indian big business, which, as a class, has stood more or less uniformly behind Modi since 2014. And Indian capital, mirroring global trends, has done well during the crisis wrought by the pandemic and the lockdown. India, of course, was already a “billionaire Raj” prior to the pandemic: in 2019, the top 10 percent of the population earned 55 percent of all income and held 74.3 percent of all wealth. And it has become even more so during the pandemic. In fact, between April and July, the combined net worth of Indian billionaires increased by 35 percent to a total of $423 billion.

In sum, what we have witnessed during the pandemic and the national lockdown is not only the amplification of a slow-burning crisis that has plagued India’s working classes for decades, but also a further and quite intentional consolidation of the power relations that produce these workings. And crucially, these dynamics intersect, in the current perilous conjuncture, with a crisis in India’s secular and constitutional democracy, brought about by the authoritarianism of the Modi regime. This has arguably never been more evident than during the time that has passed since India became a lockdown nation.

When the BJP came to power in the 2014 general election, it was at the helm of a hegemonic project in which Modi was positioned as a “man of development” who could bring “good times” to the Indian people—and especially to those whose aspirations were frustrated by jobless growth. He opposed the dynastic elitism of the ruling Congress Party, and advocated individual entrepreneurialism as the panacea for the country’s economic woes. Hindu nationalist messages were pushed to the background, and conveyed by dog whistle rather than clarion calls.

But this has changed since the electoral victory in 2014. The politics of the BJP under Modi has become explicitly centred on a majoritarian cultural nationalism that draws a line between true Indians and their enemies, and seeks to rally popular support for a crackdown on those enemies. This line is defined, to a large extent, in religious terms: the ominous Other that authoritarian populism depends on in order to frame a unitary conception of the nation and national culture is embodied by India’s Muslim minority. Hate speech and vigilante violence against Muslims have escalated dramatically under the current government, and more recently, the precepts of Hindu nationalism have also come to be increasingly enshrined in law.

However, it is not only India’s vulnerable Muslim citizens who constitute the ominous Other in Modi’s authoritarian populism. The political dissident who dares to question and challenge a government that claims to be acting in the interest of the people is also an enemy within. In fact, the BJP government has waged a steadily escalating war on dissent in India since 2016, when student activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi were arrested on charges of sedition. The sedition case against the student activists has rolled through Indian courts since then, and has helped spawn the idea that India confronts a threat in the form of “anti-national” forces that are undermining the country from within.

Modi’s government began scaling up its war on dissent in late August 2018, when the homes of several human rights activists were raided as part of what has come to be known as the Bhima Koregaon case. Since then, altogether sixteen arrests have been carried out in connection with the case. Among those imprisoned are Sudhir Dhawale, Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, and octogenarian poet Varavara Rao. Due to the grave nature of the charges, which have been framed in terms of terrorist activities and sedition, the accused have been persistently refused bail and remain in police custody. In fact, Rao was, until recently, repeatedly refused bail despite being in extremely frail health—including being infected with COVID-19. And, significantly, the strategy of charging dissenters with violation of especially draconian sections of the Indian Penal Code has come to be applied more widely—particularly to quell mass protests against the anti-Muslim citizenship laws that the Modi regime introduced in late 2019.

It’s important to recall that, just as the world began to learn about COVID-19 in early 2020, hundreds of thousands of Indians were out on the streets, from Punjab in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south, protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which, in combination with a proposed National Registry of Citizens (NRC), threatens to make Indian Muslims second-class citizens in their own country. By late February of last year, BJP leaders in Delhi incited mobs to attack Muslim neighborhoods in northeastern parts of the city as part of their campaign against anti-CAA protesters. In the riots that ensued, fifty-three people—thirty-nine of whom were Muslims—were killed, and hundreds of families were displaced from their homes. Despite the repression and violence, the protests continued until late March, when the national lockdown made it impossible to organize and mobilize on the country’s streets and public spaces.

As protesters retreated, the Delhi police, who report directly to the central government and the Ministry of Home Affairs under BJP supremo Amit Shah, swung into action, operating under cover of the national lockdown to persecute leading anti-CAA activists. At the heart of this persecution lies the claim, by Delhi police, that riots in Northeast Delhi were the result of a conspiracy carefully planned and executed by anti-CAA activists, rather than by politicians from the governing party. The conspiracy, the police narrative goes, revolved around spreading misinformation about the CAA and the NRC, and then encouraging young Muslims to join in street protests.

Just as the world began to learn about COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of Indians were out on the streets, protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which, in combination with a proposed National Registry of Citizens (NRC), threatens to make Indian Muslims second-class citizens.

The legal crackdown on anti-CAA activists began soon after the street protests had been cleared. The police started by detaining and arresting junior activists from the anti-CAA protests and young Muslim men from the communities affected by rioting. Their interrogations were then used to build evidence that was used to arrest and bring charges against more senior activists. The charge sheets that have accompanied the arrests of more senior activists tend to make very grave allegations without much substantial evidence. Indeed, there is much to suggest that what passes for evidence in these cases has been fabricated by the police to prop up the claim that anti-CAA activists were involved in a conspiracy to provoke violent riots. The climax, so far, in this witch-hunt came in mid-September 2020, in the form of a 17,000-page charge sheet filed by Delhi police under draconian anti-terrorism legislation and various other serious provisions of the Indian Penal Code against 15 prominent anti-CAA activists.

It is evident that these arrests are intended to criminalize dissent in an acutely turbulent moment. Moreover, throughout the pandemic, the war on dissent has remained joined at the hip with the majoritarian cultural politics of the Modi regime, as Muslims have been consistently scapegoated as super-spreaders of COVID-19. The criminalization of dissent, then, converges with Hindu nationalism to erode the constitutional foundations of the world’s largest democracy.

So where is Modi’s India at, one year after the national lockdown was first imposed? Has the spectacle worked its magic? Does the politics of trust and belief still work to ward off the reckoning that one would be justified to expect, given the disjuncture between, on the one hand, Modi’s public image as a man of development and a protector of the nation, and, on the other hand, the realities of deep social suffering and intensified authoritarianism?

If we are to believe a recent survey by U.S. firm Morning Consult, the answer to those questions is a resounding “yes,” as Modi’s approval rating is reported at a whopping 75 percent, higher than that of any other world leader tracked by the firm. But a different story emerges if we turn from surveys of approval ratings to what is happening on the outskirts of the capital city of Delhi. There, protesting farmers have been camped since November last year to vindicate demands that the new farm laws, which further opens India’s agricultural sector to corporate market forces, should be rescinded. The farmers’ movement has been sustained by a commendable resilience and steadfastness—even in the face of escalating state coercion and vilification by a Modi-friendly media. It seems, then, that the BJP government might have overplayed its hand in its eagerness to push neoliberal reform while the country is reeling from the impact of the pandemic and the national lockdown.

If Hindu nationalism is to be opposed, it will depend on solidarities between agricultural laborers, farmers, the working poor, Muslims, and other subaltern citizens. All are in the line of fire in Modi’s war on dissent, but are not accustomed to seeing one another as allies.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the protests against the farm laws will be the rock against which the wave of neoliberal Hindu nationalism finally breaks. It remains to be seen if the demand for the repeal of the farm laws can be won, and if, on the back of such a victory, it might be possible to build a wider counterhegemonic movement to challenge both neoliberalism and Hindu nationalist authoritarianism.

If such a movement is to be built, it will depend on the extension and consolidation of solidarities across many boundaries that are deeply entrenched in India’s social and political landscape—between agricultural laborers, small and marginal farmers, and the urban working poor, but also between these groups, Muslims, and other subaltern citizens who find themselves at the receiving end of an aggressive Hindu nationalism. All are, in one way or another, in the line of fire in Modi’s war on dissent, but are not accustomed to seeing one another as allies. In short, if there is to be a road ahead for a progressive counterhegemonic movement in India, that road has to be built by fusing progressive struggles against capitalist exploitation with similarly progressive struggles for recognition, secularism, and democratic rights.


* Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria. He is coeditor, most recently, of Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations.