The political heat wave during this summer has led to a constitutional meltdown. From Udupi to Udaipur – via Khargone, Prayagraj, Delhi and Gulbarg Society – we have covered a long distance. During this summer, we have come a long way – from banning Hijab in classrooms to preventing azaan on loudspeakers, from bullying to bulldozing, from blasphemy to beheading. The façade of constitutional niceties has wilted. We stand face to face with a new political order. It is pointless to describe this order merely as a distortion of India’s liberal democracy. It demands to be understood in its own terms.
Why did the BJP government wish to whitewash the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi’s Congress from school textbooks? Why did the Yogi Adityanath government perform the public ritual of bulldozing Javed Mohammad’s house even after a handsome electoral victory? Why did the government go after Teesta Setalvad and Mohammed Zubair, fully aware of adverse international publicity following recent diplomatic embarrassment over blasphemy? These questions cannot be answered through a simple calculus of political gains and losses. Nor are these blind acts of an authoritarian government gone berserk.
There is a method to this madness. We are looking at the rise of total politics. It involves total dominance of political power over all other sectors of power – social, cultural, religious or economic. Within the political domain, it seeks total control over all forms of power – electoral, governmental, ideational as well as street power. It is a relentless pursuit, total in its ambition – it leaves no gaps or breathing space. There are no brakes with the driver.
And 2022 was the summer of total politics.
Total politics, with public support
This is not ‘totalitarian’ politics of the Cold War era or replay of fascism or fundamentalism. Unlike authoritarian regimes, total politics needs continuous and visible popular endorsement. Hence the need to keep the public enthralled in a constant state of engagement. Unlike European fascism, this is not the product of loneliness, but of boisterous communitarian life. Unlike fundamentalism, it seeks primacy of modern politics over religion.
Teesta Setalvad’s arrest reveals two elements of this new order. There is nothing new about the ‘clean chit’ in the Gulbarg Society case; our judiciary has usually tailed public opinion in turning a blind eye to the actions and inactions of political leaders during riots and pogroms. But this case opens the way to punishing those who seek punishment for crimes against humanity. So far, the judiciary has been a mute witness to such a witch-hunt; this time, the court’s ruling was used to launch a witch hunt.
Zubair’s arrest brings out the incessant quest for total control. His arrest is not just about taking revenge. That only explains the ham-handedness of his arrest and the sloppiness of the pretext. In fact, the ridiculous nature of the official charges serves to reaffirm the political will to subdue: We shall not allow evidence, facts or legal niceties (and judiciary) to come in the way of punishing our enemies. But Zubair’s arrest came with a large-scale crackdown on several online activists, including supporters of the farmers’ movement. It is a necessary move towards establishing total control over the social media space. The assault on AltNews, with its stellar record in debunking the lies of this government (and the opposition too), is meant to send a message to everyone: Media must become a partner in total politics.
The quest for total dominance continues in all domains. In the presidential election, it is about smart and perfectly legitimate moves to ensure an emphatic victory of the NDA candidate. In the Lok Sabha by-elections, it was about using everything to put the Samajwadi Party in its place. In Maharashtra, it is about affecting a regime change with perfectly dubious means – saam, daam, dand, bhed – making a mockery of constitutional provisions. In the domain of economic policy – whether it is the inordinate delay on the part of the RBI in fulfilling its legal mandate of inflation targeting or the wheat export ban – it is about the primacy of political imperative over economic rationale. The Agnipath scheme too carries a stamp of political authority overruling the best judgement of the armed forces.
A permanent emergency
The banning of Hijab in classrooms, silencing of azaans and, finally, bulldozer justice have effectively introduced a two-tier citizenship that was only hinted at by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Court proceedings in Umar Khalid’s bail petition have confirmed that it is not just the administration and police but also courts that apply different standards for Muslims and non-Muslims. As this column has argued earlier, for all practical purposes the Constitution has been amended. And now there are double standards in death as well. If Muslim bigots behead a Hindu, as in the horrific hate crime in Udaipur, it invites national outrage, as it should. But if Hindu bigots lynch a Muslim, it is routine, local and contested news.
The gruesome murder in Udaipur also brings out a possible consequence of total politics. While we wait for further investigation, this incident does not appear to be the handiwork of just two bigots or criminals. As in the umpteen cases of lynching, there appears to be a local or larger network that cultivated the bigotry that led to the beheading. Is the complete marginalisation of Muslims and their routine humiliation by the leaders and supporters of the ruling party now beginning to feed into an underground ecosystem? While Punjab is a different case altogether, could the rehabilitation of Simarjeet Singh Mann in the Sangrur by-elections, indicate similar trouble for the border state? I hope not. But that is the problem with total politics: Its profits are cornered by a few, while its costs are born by everyone.
Carl Schmitt, the German theorist of fascism, opened his book Political Theology with a famous quote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. Unlike liberal democrats, who think that democracy is defined by what an elected authority cannot do, Carl Schmitt said the whole point of political authority is the ability to set rules aside. He thought democracy was at odds with liberalism. Popular political leaders can decide upon a “state of exception” in the interest of the people. There cannot be any limit to what and how long this state of exception – a permanent emergency – may last.
I doubt if Carl Schmitt featured in the syllabus of ‘Entire Political Science’. But the Prime Minister’s deafening silence on the politics of hate this summer is as eloquent a statement on political sovereignty as Carl Schmitt may have drafted.
This article was originally published in The Print on June 29 and has been reproduced with permission.