As the country reels under the second instalment of an unprecedented lockdown, it may be worthwhile to look at the critical areas where the lockdown has been successful — and what that success means. Let us leave aside the claim that the lockdown has kept the spread of the coronavirus under control. Partly because that “success” would not have called for an extension of the lockdown and also because experts may tell us that the virus may not be so easily tamed — it will stay with us for quite some time and raise its head again and again. But victory in the “war” against the virus notwithstanding, whenever India resumes a semblance of normalcy, it would be a new normal. The normal of the future would be based on three successful narratives of the past four weeks.
The first is an unspoken but pervasive narrative. It is about what we do with democracy. A future historian would surely report that it was an extraordinary exercise to more or less bring to a standstill a continental country, putting a mammoth population into home-captivity. What does this success signify? In the urgent enthusiasm to ensure a national fight against the pandemic, smaller voices about cross-party consultation, federal principles, judicial oversight, are all consigned to outdated textbooks of politics and governance. Even as the second phase of the lockdown unfolds, the MHA is fuming that Kerala is not following the Centre’s plan but adopting its own. Clearly, there is only one fount of wisdom, one source of policy, one centre of power.
There are no questions asked as to what gave which government the authority to clamp the lockdown. No discussion on whether the disaster management act should be covering epidemic situations. Nobody seems worried that we do not have a democratically legislated epidemic diseases act and rely on a colonial era act. Political parties are oblivious to these issues. Public discussions bypass these procedural matters. We have installed a hierarchy of principles: Results count, procedures don’t matter. It has been somewhat mildly described by one scholar as an “executive emergency”.
Not many would realise today, much less agree, that the lockdown will prove to be a most dangerous experiment in our democracy. This is not about just the central government, or the ruling party. The frightening success of the lockdown is the willingness of the entire ruling class and the articulate public in the gigantic suspension of democracy. The swift ability with which the civil and police bureaucracy could be mobilised in the efforts to push the entire population into home lock-up should be a model lesson for any future autocrat. It would be a tough task for India to come out of the mental-intellectual lockdown that it has willingly accepted. Not surprisingly, a petition in the Supreme Court has asked for an order to deploy the military to implement the lockdown.
This is not to argue that the COVID threat should not have invoked a firm policy of physical distancing; the argument is about the fallout. We now have a template for undermining democracy: Talk about a public cause, about public well-being and obtain approval for abandoning core principles of democracy. Today, it might appear to be a justifiable move — indeed, both the media and Opposition have said so and the public has acquiesced. What guarantee do we have that our future democracy will not be governed by this narrative of nationally necessary democratic curtailment?
Two other narratives stem from our very own social distancing project. One pertains to the long existing distance between Hindus and Muslims. Everything possible is being done to ensure that this social distance would increase in a manner that it would be difficult for the two communities to peacefully co-exist. The irresponsible gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi only added to the vicious distancing. Seizing that moment, but unrelated to it, was the Muslim-bashing that ensued in the backdrop of the Delhi riots just before the corona outbreak. If you recall that the anti-CAA protests were continuously branded as Muslim protests, and worse, a conspiracy against India, the pattern becomes clear.
Not just social media but the electronic and print media, too, enthusiastically latched on to the Hindu-Muslim divide in presenting the spread of corona and the violations of the lockdown. Over the past four weeks a narrative has made a deep impact: That everything must be seen through the prism of religious communities; that Muslims are conspiring against Indian interest — so much so that terms like “corona jihad” came into circulation and no government made any effort to stem this ugly communal virus. The narrative is not new, but its traction should be noted as a direct contribution of the current moment. We are now perhaps just a step away from the socio-economic boycott of Muslims in many parts of the country. Once that has happened, we shall have achieved complete success in the century-long project of social distancing.
Equally disturbingly, the lockdown has ensured that the class-chasm would become more real, more sharp and yet politically infructuous. The overwhelming support that the lockdown has received among India’s middle classes is noteworthy not just because of the gullibility of that class but also because of its complete lack of social connection to anything beyond itself. Over the last four weeks, many stories of dislocation, destitution and starvation have emerged; information about stranded labourers is flowing in. But middle class conscience has not found it necessary to take this into account. We stop at personal acts of kindness, celebration of philanthropy and a quick lapse into amnesia. Politics of and for the poor has become inadmissible. Politics does not demand that any measure against COVID must, as its first priority, include a decent policy space to address the difficulties of the vulnerable sections. This is not to say that Indian politics was ever really sensitive about the poor; but now, even the cynical possibility of electoral gains does not push parties to fight for the rights of the poor.
This double social distancing — of the majority community from the minority and of the vocal and influential classes from the mass of the poor — sits well with the narrative of cutting democracy to size. In a majoritarian and middle-class driven social universe, the place of democracy is bound to be marginal, if not nominal. We began this “war” with the convenient platitude of “jaan hai to jahaan hai” (we can think of wellbeing only if we live). In turning this platitude into “jaan aur jahaan” later, we admitted that we might be losing both lives and livelihoods. In the midst of that very real possibility, we are on the verge of being haunted by the three narratives: Minimise democracy, maximise interfaith distance and maintain aloofness from the poor. Will that be the shape of life after lockdown?
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 22, 2020 under the title “Nation after lockdown”. The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.
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