The class conflict and populist narrative in Modi’s India under COVID-19

The class conflict and populist narrative in Modi’s India under COVID-19


Perhaps without being into plain eyesight yet, a fundamental transformation has occurred in the Indian political discourse and the most visible symptoms of which have been exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

From 2014, India has made perfunctory attempts to justify the falsification of history, the obliteration of Mughal past and the subjugation of a particular religion. The Hindutva doctrine of politics has been slowly sliding into people’s homes and looking into their fridges. The religious divide is the farthest now, and the terror is in its zenith.  There has been a constant renaming of places that had a connection with a particular religion. Like any other populist sensation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power was on the repressed dreams of the majority.

If Adolf Hitler used the Reichstag fire incident to usurp absolute power, Modi turned the 2002 Gujarat pogrom victims’ corpse and the majority community’s communal sentiments his stairways to power.  There can be no denial of the Congress party’s political mismanagement and the sheer dissatisfaction it caused. But there was a communal undertone in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) campaign, which can’t be dismissed. The majoritarian section felt their under-representation, by which, the indication has been towards their representation as a religious block. The fundamentalist and conservative Hindus always felt discrimination in the Congress party’s rule as they accused the latter of having an Islamic tilt. And, Modi was their chance to fight back, to reclaim what was theirs – a Hindu India.

While accessing Modi’s rise, no one can overlook the role and reach of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was the constant endeavour of the RSS cadres that convinced the Hindu population to trust and vote for Modi without a second thought. There were whispers of Modi reclaiming Gujarat after what happened in Godhra. It was sold like life insurance for Hindus in the rural corners.

So, as soon as Modi came into power, there was a sudden rise in the hate crimes, and not surprisingly most of them targeted a particular religious community. The Hindu concept of ‘Gau-Mata’ (holy cow, revered as a motherly figure) came into the picture for the first time in years on a pan-India basis. Pakistan was posed in opposition to India in every external and internal matter. Despite the history of violence between the two neighbours, the reason of Pakistan bashing isn’t merely territorial enmity. The real reason is to create the optics of two Indias – a Hindu India and an Islamic India – to instigate the majoritarian bigotry and unleash a reign of terror on the minority population. 

COVID-19 and Modi’s India

The right-wing populists have always fortified their position riding the middle class’s aspirations. And, it is no different in Modi’s case as well.

Modi is the Indian elite class’s and urban middle class’s prime minister. In his addresses, instead of talking about significant economic aids, medical infrastructure and the necessary planning to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, he merely hobbles around as a lifestyle and relationship counsellor. He flamboyantly asks Indians to stay at home, invest their time in relationships, and build bonds with family members. But, to do all that, one must have a home, must have food security, and must be economically sufficient to survive. Unfortunately, a good percentage of India doesn’t have these three essentials.

The lockdown enforced by the government might be a necessary step, but its execution has failed the poor and the marginalised section. The migrant workers, due to lack of transport, are walking back to their native places, which may be hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from the cities they live and work in.  Nearly hundreds of them have been killed on their way so far. Who is responsible for their tragic death? Or are they just collateral damage of a bigger process? But how many people must die before we stop considering lives as mere numbers? Maybe that is the question that the right-wing will never answer.

Before the lockdown, when the ‘Janata Curfew’ was announced, the prime minister requested India to clap, rattle utensils, and ring bells to show their gratitude towards the frontline medical workers. It created an unquestionable narrative of service and sacrifice, and somehow, made the prime minister immune to questions as no one asked pertinent questions about the poor medical infrastructure and unavailability of ventilators. No one even questioned if there was any aid for the doctors. It looked as if the entire country cared for the men and women working to save their lives. But the irony was that after the gratitude sequence was over, the same hyper-nationalist Modi fans barred the medical professionals from entering their housing societies.

In Uttar Pradesh, the cruellest of all the behaviour was displayed as a chemical disinfectant was sprayed on the migrant workers to sanitise them; they were bleached with the same chemical that is sprayed on buses to disinfect them. It was an act of indignity despite its futility to act on human skin.  Professor Wiku Adisasmito said that spraying disinfectant to the human body isn’t recommended and can cause irritation on the skin, eyes, and mouth, and respiratory disorders. Around five thousand people became victims of this act.

It brings forth the discrimination done based on class in an ultra-right-wing-ruled India. When non-resident Indians and urban middle class are enjoying the good quality treatment, the poor are suffering from practices of indignity and social condemnation. The poor are treated as pests, and, unsurprisingly, the government isn’t bothered. Why would they? Anyways, the government is focused on pleasing the Indian elites and urban middle class, the very classes that are consumers for the corporate houses.

The brutality of the police has been another facet of the lockdown. Though, the government allowed people to go out and buy ‘essential goods’, the police have been constantly violating section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and unleashing macabre atrocities on common citizens.  It seems like the Indian right-wing populist regime is officially proclaiming the foundation of a fascist state.

As Federico Finchelstein points out, “populism combines low level actual violence with high level rhetorical violence” to give an authoritarian outlook to democracy whereas fascism applies violence to impose the fascist rule.

More recently, the Nizamuddin Markaz case has uncovered the deep flowing Islamophobia in India. While, the Hindu religious fanatics and god-men can go around, claiming to have a treatment for COVID-19, asking people to drink ‘gaumutra’ (cow urine), or Hindu leaders can organise ceremonies in temples, the same is called a preplanned conspiracy to destroy India when done by the other religions. To support this narrative, the Indian mainstream press constantly plays the same discourse on loop, injecting hatred into the majority community’s mind, until everyone is convinced. It adds on to the meta-narrative of two Indias and how one is using COVID-19 to destroy the other, thus further stressing the communal tensions. The internet soon started showing the consequence of the consumption of communalism with further referring to Muslims as ‘Pakistani’, ‘jihadi’, ‘Miya’ and ‘Geda’ (in Assam).  

As Hitler’s Germany saw the Jews as an internal enemy, Modi’s India is glaring at Muslims in the same way, and it’s scary to even address it. The IT mechanism of the BJP and the reach of its threatening ideas can start a pogrom within seconds with well written fake news hitting normal citizens every minute through mobile phones. Their robust circulation method and monetary superiority are changing India digitally. The irrational and unscientific claims without much pondering get forwarded, thus making entire India susceptible to communal vitriol.

Modi not only controls the social media but wants to extend his power by controlling the entire press during the pandemic. His government, hours before the lockdown, asked top media houses to refrain from publishing negative stories on COVID-19. This control over the press, alongside television and social media, would have led to what Money Kyrle called ‘mass suggestion’ and acted to intensify and amplify the populist discourse.  The same happened during Hitler’s reign.

Whatever, the end may look like, the Godot of fascism might be near but hasn’t arrived yet, and so, the struggle to stop it from arriving should go on. This wait should never end.

Sutputra Radheye is a poet and commentator who delve into the themes affecting the socio-eco-political scenario. His works have been published in prestigious platforms like ‘Frontier’, ‘Countercurrents’, ‘Janata Weekly’, ‘Culture Matters’ (UK), Livewire (Wire), Eleventh Column and many more throughout the years.

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