Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar, in an important paper, “The Politics of Vishwas” (Contemporary South Asia, Volume 20, Number 2), argued based on data that Indian politics had decisively moved to a “politics of vishwas”. Voters prefer to centralise power in a charismatic strong leader and they have faith that whatever the leader does is good. This model is in contrast to the usual models of politics, where leaders are held accountable on performance or because they serve a coalition of interests.
Sircar offers two broad explanations underlying this phenomenon. The faith in the leader is not merely a materially instrumental faith; it represents an underlying shift in the ideological preference for a Hindu nation, an entity that is untied and rises above the messy negotiations with difference. Faith in a leader is deeply facilitated by nationalism: The leader as the simplified embodiment of unity, will and purpose. Behind this phenomenon of producing vishwas is an extraordinary machinery of communication, which literally deploys as many elements in a communicative tool kit as there are feathers in a dancing peacock: From the semiotic command of images to a saturation with messages; from good-old-fashioned hard-working party outreach to literal control of the media.
Three predictions follow from this shift in the underlying model of politics. The first is an immunity to any accountability: You can preside over poor economic performance, suffer a military setback, inflict suffering through failed schemes like demonetisation, and yet the trust does not decline. In fact, it thrives on a certain nonchalance about actual performance. In the face of vishwas, it is impossible to point out that India is in the midst of what historians used to describe as a military-fiscal crisis — both in a fiscal and a military corner. The point about vishwas is that fact, performance and interests are all petty. The second prediction is that this politics requires the continual feeding of ethno-nationalism, moving from one issue or one enemy to the other. And three, it points to the fact that vishwas is not just a political artefact — it has to be continually sustained by a saturation of the mindspace and control of media.
But what is it that enables this politics of vishwas to function? Do we need a deeper cultural excavation? Propaganda plays a huge part, but that is not the entire story. It is a feature of societies run entirely by propaganda that through coercion they produce compliance, but the underlying cynicism in society is also apparent. The bhakti is genuine. Another explanation might be: There is no other alternative to Modi. Given the state of opposition parties, we acquire an investment in keeping faith alive. We need someone to believe in after all. There is a lot to this explanation. But it also does not seem entirely satisfying. For one thing, there can be a reverse cause and effect here. The Opposition is spectacularly inept. But it appears more hopeless than it is because no matter what it does, what facts it marshalls, what incompetence or corruption the government displays, the Leader’s image seems immune. The deeper neuroses of the Opposition could be an effect, not just a cause of the fact that politics is at a dead end.
But more importantly, disenchantment with the government can deeply express itself even in the absence of alternatives. It may not politically manifest itself in a national alternative but historically, disenchantment can signal a retreat to other forms of local resistance, often mediated through caste, region, or even class groups. One striking thing about this moment is not just a shift to Hindu nationalism. It is also that the conventional social bases of mobilisation have dissipated. The logic of caste mobilisation now is not the logic of agglomeration, building bigger coalition blocks; it is the logic of fragmentation, subdivision and internal differentiation. So long as the central government does not do anything to provoke a confrontation on regional lines, the politics of regionalism can be domesticated. And class, agrarian or labour, has not been, for a variety of reasons, the source of political resistance for a while.
In short, the challenge is not just mobilising an alternative at the national level, it is also that politics has become too individualised even for local mobilisations to be powerful. The social basis of resistance, and translating discontent into political opposition has diminished in power, and will have to be created politically. But with no obvious social base to latch on to, the politics of mobilisation becomes difficult.
So there is a disquieting possibility: Politics has, to a greater extent than before, become autonomous from economic or pre-existing social conjunctures. It operates in the realm of the imagination, and the rules and protocols of politics in this realm are different from the politics of fact and interest. There is an underlying cultural nihilism that makes this politics of fantasy possible. Contrary to the rhetoric of the leader, a politics of vishwas is a sign of deep psychological pessimism. For vishwas is necessary only when you have lost complete confidence in your own ability to make, remake the economic and political world.
The elites, including India’s most powerful, are latching onto this vishwas because it disguises their own failures. They are not putting up with Hindutva for growth, sacrificing constitutional liberties for economic transformation. They are putting up with it because they have been exposed as being a mediocre and corrupt bourgeoisie, whose own internal failures mean that India is not on a pathway to being a high performer.
Ironically, when there is a lot of political and economic criticism of a government, it displays a greater optimism. The criticism is in the name of wanting to do better. When there is no performance accountability but just vishwas, it is a pessimistic admission that we are believing for the sake of believing.
But, perhaps, there is an aesthetic allure. After all, the virtue of our current politics of vishwas is that it is not tied to any moral ideals. This is a vishwas that can encourage a politics of disinhibition. All our resentments, grudges, rancour, prejudices, the thrill of combat can be given free rein. We also participate, not in making the world, but in the construction of the leader’s image. And so, as Adorno has noted in another context, the “leader’s image gratifies the two-fold wish to submit to authority and be authority”. The greatest allure of vishwas is that you maintain it by simply believing. You don’t actually have to do anything else. It is truly liberating.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2020 under the title ‘Simply Vishwas’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express