The riotous enthusiasm with which Modi’s call for a resonant — or deafening, as it turned out — show of gratitude was met and the subsequent praise for the demonstration and more than that for Modi’s hold on the masses made for a spectacle that’s interesting in many ways than one, none of which ways augurs well for the Indian democracy in general or COVID-19 outbreak in particular.
What was it that standing in the balcony clapping or drumming utensils or sounding a conch or whistling, as some people did, was supposed to achieve?
It was, as the Prime Minister told us, to display our gratitude to those who serve us, like the medical practitioners, nurses, delivery boys and so on. In the times of Corona crisis, we must appreciate the risk they are taking for us. Sure, why not?
So, was it our inadequate gratitude for the service providers that brought Corona to our doorsteps, or was the loud display of gratitude the cure doctors prescribed?
While we should be grateful to all people who serve us, it’s completely unrelated to the crisis that made the Prime Minister address the nation. And on the day of general, self-isolation called by the Prime Minister and christened — rather, re-christened — “Janta Curfew”, when most of the delivery people were off the roads and health workers working in the hospitals or sleeping off their tiredness from work, the din of gratitude was either not heard or could only disturb them at work or disrupt their well-deserved sleep.
Was it really gratitude reflected in the clapping and all the ruckus, or was it the obedience to and support for the Prime Minister? In other words, was it social or political in nature? Need I answer it for the society that has historically treated its serving class (the shudras, the dalits) with utter contempt and breathtaking, unspeakable callousness? Rhetorical question, that. Answer, if you like, and hang your head in shame, if your pride in the “ancient civilization” — or is it “Ancient Civilization”? — permits. But that’s not really the point.
Nobody could possibly believe that clapping or the dinning of the utensils in the balconies could have any curative or preventive consequences with regard to the health emergency except perhaps those who could — and actually did — invoke the “scientific” reasons behind age-old “religious/cultural practices” and contort the less than pseudo-scientific “explanations” to somehow force-fit them into their preferred narrative to make it sound plausible to the ill-informed, credulous commoners, who have been (mis)led to believe that we are on a journey to greatness and every step, no matter how silly and fruitless, is a major milestone.
However, nothing indicates that the Prime Minister himself was under any “scientific” misconception. “Janta Curfew” was to arrest the spread of the virus and clap-and-clank was to display gratitude towards the healthcare workers and home delivery executives. The second one was not a measure at all. So, why, in the time of crisis, did the Prime Minister want people to engage in an utterly unhelpful exercise? It obviously could not generate any actual sense of gratitude in ungrateful people, and grateful people did not need it. Also, it could not have and did not help anybody in any concrete way. So, why?
People did not come to their balconies clapping and clanking because they were grateful (they kept expelling healthcare workers from their rented accommodations fearing infection long after the pointless exercise) but because they wanted to display the support for the Prime Minister by responding to the call. It was not about supporting the nation (donate, if you want to lend real support) or even the government in dealing with the crisis (staying indoors was and is the effective support, which was separately called for anyway) but about displaying support for the Prime Minister, which makes it a political exercise, pure and simple.
Why did the Prime Minister, after urging for the “Janta Curfew” for a day — later turned into a nationwide 21-day lockdown by the Prime Minister by another 8:00 PM magic wand — ask for this entirely symbolic display that served no real purpose? Was he trying to parry a real crisis by sentimentalism? Was he being utterly impractical, naive or plain, old-fashioned stupid? None of that. It was a carefully calculated political move.
The Politics of Symbolism
A sizable number of people stood in support of the Prime Minister Modi because that’s their default setting. Some stood in solidarity with the nation in the times of crisis. A few stood in genuine gratitude towards the health workers and delivery executives. And all of them clapped or drummed utensils together at the same time. In that deafening din, the varied, individual reasons were reduced to just one — support for one man.
The metallic din created the impression of passionate oneness. That’s what such high-octane drumming does. That’s why battling armies have been carrying high decibel musical instruments at least since the medieval times to impassion their troops and intimidate the enemy by a genre of music collectively called “martial music”, which is characterized by shrill sounds combining bass drums, horns and bells. “Battle cry” is also used to the same effect. Both martial music and battle cries are psychological devices to intimidate the opponent and make the charging forces appear daunting, fearsome and invincible. That was precisely the purpose of the clap-and-clang exercise, too.
Politics is a battle of perceptions, which is why political parties regularly engage in shows of strength. In politics, a perception of strength begets more strength, and also makes opponents look and feel weak simultaneously. Strength in politics is about numbers, particularly in democracies, and since the entire game revolves around perception, it boils down to the perception of numbers, which may or may not reflect the actual numbers. Political perception is best helped by the tendency to paint all people and all support with a single brush. So, support for different causes and for different reasons displayed together becomes support for the one who calls for the support — in this case, Modi.
Mob behaviour is a natural dissent neutralizer, which is why it is an effective, and for the reason well favoured, political tool. But mob behaviour is not only displayed in rioting and public lynchings, which are just the violent forms of the same herd behaviour that underpins all thoughtless, collective actions undertaken by people.
A rioting mob of a hundred people can easily take over and lay waste to a colony inhabited by three thousand people or more, and the “dissent” to rioting is “not rioting”, which can only result in the rioters taking over the colony. The only effective defense is a push back, which is nothing short of “counter-rioting,” but that is still rioting, even if defensive. To an onlooker it’s just a riot.
Rioting, if left unchecked, spreads fast and wide because during riots the “normal” changes to the exact opposite of civil. Murder, arson, rape and robbery get normalized and even those who would normally not think of harming a soul get on the bandwagon of wanton rampage. Later, they regret and wonder what got into them.
What gets into them is the infectious mob frenzy, which is the same thing that drives people to do what others are doing only because others are doing it and then another set of “others” start doing the same because the previous “others” were doing it. And so it goes on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody believes in or supports the same thing, but it definitely looks like that. And it works very well for politics because, like I said before, politics is about perception, and what is perceived exists without necessarily existing.
The same goes for other kinds and forms of mob behaviour, too, including the non-violent ones, which can be just as harmful — sometimes a lot more — if allowed to continue for extended spans.
The clap-clang-light-the-lamps is the same kind of mob behaviour. It does not shock, startle or offend only because it’s apparently non-violent and harmless, but thoughtless action is intrinsically dangerous, inherently reckless, and, thus, indefensibly immoral (thoughtful action being the cornerstone of morality). Again, dissent stands neutralized because to disagree is to not clap and not make noise, which makes no perceptible difference to the look of things, for sound is heard, silence is not. And sound takes over silence unless some other sound is added to counter it, which makes no difference because all sounds gets painted with a single brush in the same colour and are heard alike just like all rioting for all purposes — including defensive violence as well as looting and robbery — is simply rioting.
Diwalification of Corona Crisis
Turn off the lights, light up the lamps — that was the next prescribed undertaking. One of the TV Channels called it “prakash parv” (festival of light) — a festival, really? Of course, nothing remedial or preventive about it regardless of the pseudo-scientific reasons — more of mythical tales actually — marshalled in favour, as usual.
So, what’s the purpose served? Display of unity. Joint fight. One for all, all for one. We are in it together. And other such slogans have been paraded as the purposes served.
Unity, alright. Can we opt out? Can we not fight an infectious, highly communicable and rapidly spreading disease together? Which other ways and methods are available? We are to join hands to stay isolated (however ironical that might sound) when there is a nationwide lockdown, under which we can do nothing but anyway. Actually, not only we don’t have to do anything “together,” but the only thing we actually have to do is “not be together,” which is being enforced by a lockdown. So, what’s all the lamp-lighting about? Timepass? Yes, that. But there is more. It makes people feel they are part of something big and significant (true or not, the feeling is important). So, there is this feel-good factor involved.
One could express dissent by not switching off the lights and not lighting lamps, but that makes one stand out, which most people don’t want to do. Dissent takes a lot of courage and self-belief, which is hard to come by. Besides, to most it’s hardly any inconvenience and makes one part of a seemingly “large movement.” So, why not? Again, all lamps lit for whatever reason are part of the same display of support for the same person.
Besides, some people might genuinely believe the fiction of the display of unity as a means to defeat a viral disease, but it’s actually their faith in the romantic idea of unity itself which gets stretched to make the display of unity seem what it cannot be — a cure or a vaccine. It could only be a display, and was.
But if it was merely a display and could not amount to much in terms of dealing with the health crises we are facing, was the Prime Minister misinformed, uninformed or simply under a misconception of some sort when he called for the display? None of that.
Display on call is a political statement. It translates into and is perceived as a display not of unity of the people but of popularity of the man commanding the display. It shows that there is a “strong, tough leader” at the top, who can command people, even if it doesn’t matter to the virus and is completely irrelevant to our current struggle. But we are being “led” by a “strong leader” — not wise, not prudent, not compassionate, only “strong” — is what people want to feel. And creating such an impression is pure politics.
People stayed back at home under the lockdown (what else could they do anyway?) before the sound-and-light displays happened and would have stayed indoors without the displays as well. So, what purpose did it serve? They told the supporters to support even more passionately, and the dissenters to stay quiet because nobody was listening. In short, people were turned into pawns in a political game yet again. A health crisis was used to make a political point. “Leaders” do not make such displays; it’s the grand displays that make the “leaders,” or, in some cases, enhance their political stature.
Some might still wonder what was wrong in the two display events. In a nutshell, two things. One, they were not solutions. Two, they were deceptively political in nature. And milking a national crisis for political mileage signifies misplaced priorities and a dangerous attachment to power.
Also, the way the two display events were undertaken by the people in the streets across India compromised social distancing, which, in fact, is one of the three most viable measures, the other two being testing and quarantine. Thus, a politically motivated non-measure compromised a viable preventive strategy, and may have facilitated the spread of the infection, but that we might never know for sure because the current political climate in combination with a pliant media, which believes more in reporting statements and hosting shouting matches for panel discussions rather than reporting facts, does not make a fertile ground for such discoveries.
For now, we can wait for the next Sunday event.