Image Management and Rhetoric – India’s Tale of Pandemic catastrophe: Irshad Rashid

Guest post by IRSHAD RASHID


 ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, laments Hamlet, the Prince in the eponymous play by Shakespeare. Today everything seems rotten in the Indian State. The way lives are being lost amidst this raging pandemic – with the wilful indifference and callousness of the Indian State and its appendages—calls our attention to what looms over the helm of the affairs of the state.

Canadian Communication theorist and philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, presciently wrote: ‘The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be’.  Though populist leaders all over the world have the penchant for images to keep people glued to their empty theatrics, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that, of all the populist figures, Modi in particular seems all image and no substance. This can be vividly seen in his approach in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic right from the beginning. It was on display when Modi demanded on national television that people bang plates at a certain “auspicious” hour; and then few weeks later asked the citizens to light lamps and candles at a certain moment as a way to fight the pandemic. It has now turned out this stylized, ritualistic performance of a sense of control was all that there was in his kitty to fight the virus.

When such theatrics and style replaces substantive policy proposals and genuinely scientifically-informed approach to grapple with the pandemic, it should come as no surprise that India is now the new epicentre of the global pandemic, ravaged by the deaths resulting from it.  Why has state response been so marked by empty theatrics? Are there no people in the government or bureaucracy with even a semblance of serious thinking and substance?  Of course, there must be. Yet it seems that they are not encouraged to do much or even anything at all. Instead they seem to be actively suppressed or made to leave what they might be doing to create substantive tools and processes to deal with the situation.
The resignation of two key scientists involved in the work of Covid monitoring tells its own tale. Eminent virologist Shahid Jameel recently resigned as the head of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), which was set up by the government in December last year for laboratory and epidemiological surveillance of Covid-19 strains in the country. In July 2020, Dr Gagandeep Kang, one of India’s leading vaccine scientists resigned as executive director of the Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad, about two months after a committee to look into indigenous Covid-19 drugs and vaccines that she headed, was disbanded.

Thus the emptiness – moral and spiritual – that lies within the supreme leader is only amplified and overshadows and warps everything that comes within its reach. Usually, the weaknesses of a leader (which are always there) are concealed and covered up by other people when they are allowed to contribute their bit – particularly in unprecedented times like these; people who know better or have the expertise in the field are not stifled but put in charge. They are called upon to douse the fire, when it is destroying whatever comes in its way. However, since Modi believes in not sharing even  an iota of power or credit, others cannot be allowed to be in charge or,  perhaps more importantly, cannot be allowed to seem to be in charge of anything, even of their own constitutionally guaranteed responsibilities or areas of expertise. The result is the most gruesome crisis the country has faced since independence.

 Like all authoritarian figures with fascistic tendencies, Modi’s rise could be explained by an Aesop’s fable: A scorpion coaxes a frog to carry it across the water. The frog asks: ‘But how do I know you won’t sting me?’  ‘Because then we will both die,’ says the scorpion – but having got the frog to trust him, stings him anyway. ‘Why?’ gasps the frog, as they both sink beneath the water. ‘It’s my nature,’ replies the scorpion.’ Except that the scorpion, it appears, won’t sink quite as fast as the hapless frog.

This fable also exemplifies the rise of populist leaders in modern electoral democracies like India, who ride to power on the backs of the well-established democratic norms but end up subverting them along the way, thereby eventually sinking along with the carcass of the democratic norms.  In so-called normal times perhaps the flouting of democratic norms won’t be so widely noticed, or be even condoned by many citizens as a sign of strong leadership for change. When India is facing the worst, with people literally gasping for breath to hang onto the life, this breakdown of democratic institutions and norms has pushed India to the precipice. Some form of democratic institutions and norms which exemplified consistent expertise and leadership underpinned by compassion and care would have been a breather under such dire circumstances.

This government is losing the faith of its supporters. According to a recent survey approval ratings for Modi have dropped from 84% in September 2019 to 64% in May 2021, and disapproval has risen from 14% to 30% in the same time period.

While these figures may tell us that people’s perceptions have begun to change, perhaps even more lasting and monumental proof of the rottenness of the regime is being manifested elsewhere. The dead bodies are being flung into the rivers and scores of shallow graves dot the banks of the Ganges.  While some of them are now being re-consigned to their next hurried funerals, the construction of one man’s vanity project carries on uninterrupted. The Central Vista Project being built as an ‘essential service’ while this dance of death is taking place will stand to tell that story for times to come.

The heart of Delhi is being dug up and some historic buildings pulled down to create an extravagant physical monument to memorialize the presence and ‘grandeur’ of the supreme leader. This is yet another exercise in theatrics and imagery to impose a presence and impression on the senses, rather than substantial work for relief of people who are dying on the streets due to lack of medical oxygen.  A massive sum of 20000 crores are being spent on this project. This money could have been used to build health infrastructure, provide medical oxygen and other life-saving drugs to the Covid affected people. Some say 40 major hospitals of the nature of AIIMs could have been built by the amount of this money. But for this government public health is not important, headlines are. Lives of its citizens are not important, its image management is. People who speak up and point out such grave transgressions are either shut down or threatened with punitive action of the state. Some are locked up.

‘Time is out of joint’, Hamlet complains signaling the moral corruption of the period in which he lived, and also the unbearable pain that emanates from this disjointedness. India too is radically out of joint now—more than it ever was. Or to borrow Derrida’s words, India is like a “disjointed now that risks maintaining nothing together”.

In fact it is mutilated and bruised and its people and their families devastated and in many cases wiped out completely. The excruciating pain and suffering arising from this disjuncture is an inextricable part of the emptiness, the moral wretchedness that lies at the heart of the supreme leader and his apparatchiks. Obsessed as they are with the performance of rituals of power rather than to use it to substantially change things and bring relief, they are busy managing the image.

 The Author has Ph. D in Political Science and lives in Kashmir

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