(How) Does the Sovereign Speak?: Akshaya Kumar

This is a guest post by Akshaya Kumar

In a recent piece, entitled The Modi Wave, I analyzed the orientations of the Modi campaign, and argued that crucial to Modi’s repackaging was his ‘sovereignty effect’. In this case, entirely a property of the media narratives that pitched Narendra Modi as someone from outside history, he was offered as an intervention into national history. I have suggested that this was a masterstroke to the extent that the subject within history has a compromised agency. The continuities – of forces, events, rationales and time as a whole – blunt the provenance of the outsider. In order for the subject to act upon history, he must stand entirely outside it. In this way, he cannot be accessed from within historical time. Modi not only offered a historical narrative of an unending Congress rule, infested with corruption, appeasement and misrule, but also that of him observing this lingering malady from outside the fence. His story of his own rise goes from being a tea-seller to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, from a not-yet to a fully sovereign. He is never a deputy, never a peg within the system; he suffers till his agency is still being shaped, and appears as already the incumbent. This fundamental separation from the substance of historical progression is needed to project oneself as unsullied, unlike those defiled by the their political existence within history.

However, key to this formulation was the role media played in making Modi directly accessible to us – the people. He loathed the media and its anchors but they couldn’t be exempt from discussing his daily routine and statements. By rendering himself in liveness, addressing massive crowds on the other side of screen, Modi made himself available to us, but not to the media itself. His absence within the newsroom, and his ironical omnipresence in each of the discussions held in those very newsrooms, accentuated this effect. The experts and the media spoke about him, his intentions, his past, his policies and his vision, but he refused to speak to them; he would only speak to us, defying them, exceeding them and reaching us directly, unsullied by their petty criticisms. (For my response to the interviews he eventually gave to a few channels, please read the longer piece.)

This multiplied with Modi’s image of the ‘sovereign one’ who spoke back to power on behalf of the people, and shunned the mediators. Speaking here had a direct as well as a symbolic function in a narratively charged universe. The government was in the seat of power, but not in power. Its muteness was symptomatic of its powerlessness. The sovereign challenger was, however, strong enough to dare the powerless incumbents. His rhetorical challenges were themselves statements of sovereignty. The wave that lifted him to Delhi, then, rendered a distinctive aura to the act of speaking, which continues to hold significant purchase. What I want to discuss here is the post-electoral orientations of the aura of spoken word as well as the wave. But before we discuss that, it is important to understand that Modi’s sovereignty effect was not embedded in democracy. It was, quite markedly, in spite of democracy and its regulatory infrastructure. Indeed, as Modi and his supporters would have us believe, every interest was stacked up against him – public institutions, historical pedagogy, foreign interests, class privileges. Yet, he prevailed, trouncing each one of them.

The challenger Modi spoke to those powerless in power, and those of us who could lift him to his destined position. He demanded that we side with him and we took his word. Now, the incumbent Modi – not merely the sovereign but also in the seat of power – has few options. He stands alone at the summit, even as the democratic setup awaits his command. He can no longer challenge; now he has to deliver, while providing a continuity with the topology he created during his campaign. His mode of address during the campaign was a topological challenge to the dreary everyday. The narrative geography of oppositions – Congress time versus Modi time, underdeveloped Bihar versus developed Gujarat, a struggling economy versus a booming one – during the campaign relocated the audience, and overwhelmed their provinciality by placing them on the before-and-after map – a step away from turning it around. The Modi wave was the logic by which Modi’s presence exceeded his location, his address exceeded its substance, and his temporality remained outside and above every temporal channel he entered. Together, they made possible ‘presence as communication’ and consolidated an entirely mediatized topology within which the encounter between the sovereign leader and his masses took place. The vocabulary of Modi’s address had therefore rendered a topological consistency to his relationship with the masses.

That vocabulary must however change now, and it certainly has begun to. As the Prime Minister, his temporality is now aligned with that of the population he represents and outside the realm of the media. The alignment is primarily refracted through a variety of democratic institutions. But indeed, the dreary procedural democracy works as a dampener upon not only the sovereignty effect of Modi, but also his potency at large. This potency then needs to be regularly recovered, reconfigured and declared via a tendency that is broadly described by MSS Pandian as ‘decisionism’. It is in a series of decisions alone that Modi must speak to retain himself, that is: i) his place as the elected leader as well as ii) his exceptional position within the historical narrative he has ridden to emerge from the outside. For Pandian, the problem is popular utopia and the threat is authoritarian violence. As I see it, the site of the problem may be the vacuum left in the media after the enthronement of Modi.

I am not suggesting that Modi is so invested in the media by now that he would become its victim. The next few months will re-establish the balance across political news and the media. Even if the Modi Wave marked a confluence of interests, are we going to witness a strategic segregation of those interests in the coming days or a mere reconfiguration? Will the media continue to interpret and present decisions taken at the top as sovereign declarations, or shall we witness the usual calm settle over the mundane matters of governance? There is indeed something fantastic about the one who promises to set things ‘right’ penetratingly through his mediatized liveness. Media, the site of the fantastic encounter, has thus developed an appetite for Modi’s sovereign voice. My sense is that the confrontational geography created by the Modi campaign may not disappear so soon. The new topology into which we shall be gradually migrated, will comprise of ‘corrective’ decisions lined up as stepping-stones towards national glory.

The first few key decisions by the Modi government have all pointed towards a challenge to the foreign(er). While Nivedita Menon has pointed out in a fascinating piece the blind spots of ‘foreign funding’, what we have been told by the new govt. is that there are foreign interests silently at work against us. It is not foreign funding itself that is a problem but its misalignment with the national project. Dissent in this national project has no space because it is fundamentally against the idea of absolute sovereignty of the newly incumbent. But there are other ideas of the foreign hand also under attack – the Bangladeshi (Muslim) foreigners and the foreign intellectuals such as Dr. Vera-Sanso. The decision to replace the Aadhaar scheme with something far too sinister – a national identification card/number for citizenship – is also going to be a nightmare. The other set of decisions are geared towards sending another strong message – that the legacy of not only UPA, but the Congress, shall be eliminated. The likely elimination of various committees and then the Planning Commission are a case in point. Taken together, these are gestures of redrawing the boundaries within the governance infrastructure. Modi is clearing the space around himself, and also around us, to cut out the noise and let the signals flow uncluttered. He is positioning himself as the first real non-Congress leader, and us as truly (Hindu) Indian. Needless to say, the two are reciprocally dependent on each-other and consolidate both the positions. The idea is to carry us along on the wave.

The language of decisionism, after all, is of a peculiar sort. It cannot speak persuasively or consultatively. It must be dressed in unquestionable and absolute authority. It can declare because it knows. The sovereign incumbent cannot not know. He can see through sinister designs and foreign interests. His penetrative gaze has a pre-determined insight. As we are taken from one decision to the next, while assuring us of changes, the declarations thus made also restore the sovereignty of our leader who must not hit any shores, but continue to ride on the wave. He shall appear to make visible new vistas of development, and then set out to achieve them through decisions broadcasted back to us. Just as the Modi wave exceeded its electoral utility, Modi’s position in the office will also not be limited by historical precedents. He has a mandate to exceed, but only so long as he speaks decisively. Which is not merely to speak with authority but to speak strategically. Modi is unlikely to defend, let alone apologise; he is unlikely to explain or relent. He may still privilege silence over speaking, but it will be the powerful silence, as opposed to its powerless variant. The powerful silence is the one that does not divest its bearer of the power invested in him. His recent message to his own MPs ‘to not speak out of turn’ is an interesting spin on silence. Here, he asserts his power by speaking not to the nation directly, but to his subordinates in a manner that the message is carried to the nation. Here, Modi deploys the power of media to produce authority in silence, by speaking without having spoken, as it were. Crucial here is also the distinction between communicating and speaking. The former will fill into the space gradually evacuated of the directness of the latter, even as his sovereign command will retain its substantive prowess.

Beyond the decisionist continuity, however, we may as well distinguish Modi from NaMo. The compulsions NaMo has called upon itself may not directly apply upon Modi if he is able to distance himself. How, then, will Narendra Modi reconcile with NaMo? The latter, astutely defined by Yogendra Yadav in an interview as the point at which ‘economic power, social power and media power converged’ was a figure of convergence.

It came into being as the effect of the vertical integration of several modes of addresses, and investment in an architecture which would produce two distinct layers of radically opposite vocabulary. The front layer, comprising of a grammar heavily borrowed from the corridors of sales and marketing, sold an illusion of newness and departures. The second layer, however, leaned strictly upon the ways of classical Indian politics, negotiating with the structures in which power continues to be embedded (communities, corporates as well as institutions). NaMo spoke in a variety of voices so as to draw each one of us towards him. What held the converging forces together was the electoral urgency narratively heightened to an epic scale. With the force of that urgency behind us, new urgencies have to be invented. And as we know, there is no site more suitable to the act of producing charged folds in the sheet of time than the media. A diverse range of narratives could be deployed to the affective regime of liveness that television breathes through. New convergences could be called upon to serve the command of the sovereign one, particularly when the transmission losses have already been minimized by the subversion of public institutions. The folds that have been created in the public discourse cannot be straightened right away. The NaMo figure will continue to force our contemporary into shapes favouring itself. Narendra Modi may not get any waivers and stands to be swept off by the same. However, it is the services of a buffer zone that may give some breathing space to Modi.

Yadav speaks of an ‘entire spectrum of the image machine, from the anonymous person who wrote obscenities about Arvind Kejriwal to Swapan Dasgupta’s sophisticated spin doctoring’. The layers within this spectrum, even though contributing to a cumulative effect, were horizontally laid out during the electoral campaign. In other words, different projections and narratives were deployed so as to speak to the existing ‘split publics’ (Rajagopal 2001). NaMo was the referential anchor that held the entire set together. In the post-electoral scenario, the split publics are assumed to be laid out vertically. Quite obviously, they have been returned to their respective places within the social hierarchies. Laying them out horizontally was a task as per the electoral requirements. Now, the vernacular publics are not going to be addressed directly; they would be expected to receive the messages as refracted by the top layer of the (‘Dasgupta and Kohli’ type) spin doctors. This means that the image stabilizing machinery must act as a vital buffer zone; it must not let things go out of control. Or to put it differently, it must distort them sufficiently so they stay within the necessary degree of alignment. This televisual management of intimacy is one way in which Modi could reconcile with NaMo, ride the wave when he can and be protected from it when necessary. The direct addressees of such management would indeed be the urban middle-class. Which then takes us right into the materiality of their analytics.

My fear is that because our televisual media is heavily dominated by the same social composition of interrogators, we shall be increasingly sucked into the echo chambers that burst with outrage on Jessica Lall and Aarushi Talwar murders, but only pay lip service to the alarmingly outrageous caste dimensions of Badayun rapes and murders, let alone the violence in Kashmir perpetrated by the armed forces. The railway fare hike is indeed a case in point. The lack of challenge to the idea that every public enterprise must be self-sustainable (which can then be extrapolated to make an argument for privatization as the only basis of autonomy, as Mr. Jagannathan has already rolled out in the case of the Delhi University) has been conspicuous in its absence. Indeed, speaking to this buffer zone is far more convenient for the policy framework within which Modi wishes to run his government. To construct NaMo out of Modi, the task was to aggregate the plural under the sign of the singular, to address the former via the latter. One of the unifying forces deployed was Hindi. But just because a Hindi speaker eliminated the English-wallahs does not mean a reversal of the hierarchy across English, Hindi and the ‘vernaculars’. Once triumphant, this Hindi too is likely to treat the Delhi newsrooms as the key site of defense – the singular from which the command as well as analytical modules will flow ‘downwards’. This singular, having established a deep resonance with the media, will not be easy to shrug off.

But efforts on that account may also be underway. What do we make of the language of insinuations? Note Hartosh Singh Bal’s comment in a powerful article, “It is evident to most people with any semblance of common sense that IB reports do not just start appearing in public unless the agency or the government wants them to appear. In nearly twenty years of journalism, I have never seen IB reports become public in such profusion as they have in the first month of the Modi government, and in each case they serve to further a decision that the government seeks to implement in the face of criticism.” What does it mean for the sovereign voice when it hides behind a leaked, even if plagiarized, report? What does it mean when a Supreme Court recommendation is offset by some very convenient and flimsy insinuations? Are we to believe that the decisive ‘message’ still goes across? That behind these smart tricks and a powerful silence is the man himself, fully in command of his own will and his method? Are these cheeky but dreadful moves to communicate that the sovereign will can find its way without necessarily deploying the sovereign voice?

Therein lies the final point I wish to make. The massive success of the sovereignty effect should not mislead us into thinking that the voice of authority alone forms the essence from which the sovereign one must not deviate. The sovereignty effect fundamentally draws upon the ability to move across vocabularies without divesting oneself of the supreme authority. This means that one can make requests and hide behind a strategic silence, shift across registers of shocking humility and obscene authority, all without compromising one’s sovereignty. In fact, more than any other factor, it is the smooth mobility across different registers that reinforces the sovereignty effect. In the political narrative of AAP, this may well have been the missing link. In a sense, their vocabulary seemed to increasingly undercut their mobility and put them in a tangle. The realm of politics in India never ceases to appreciate a degree of performative openness across modules as the very basis of sovereignty.

Akshaya Kumar is a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow. He is extremely thankful to Atul Mishra for his sincere comments.


Rajagopal, Arvind 2001 Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

One thought on “(How) Does the Sovereign Speak?: Akshaya Kumar”

  1. This is narcism ( self love ) and not sovereignty. Media has minted money in this General Election. In fact this is Media Sarkar. For the media, by the media and to the media. Though there was embarrassment for the media within 30 days but they have recovered.


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