Why is Narendra Modi’s popularity immune to disasters?

He can lie about economy or Chinese intrusion and get away. He can contradict himself, take U-turns, make mistakes, be imperious but he is above all failings. Sonali Ranade provides an explanation

NH cartoon by Rajendra Dhodapkar 
NH cartoon by Rajendra Dhodapkar
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Sonali Ranade

Many Indians are surprised, indeed shocked, that Narendra Modi continues to win election after election, even after unmitigated disasters like Demonetisation, a sloppy and flawed GST, a tanking economy, a poorly planned and hasty lockdown that cratered the GDP without controlling the pandemic, and now the poorly thought through farm reforms.

Carl Schmitt provides some critical insights into the politics of identity that enables us to grasp the phenomenon, and to wrap our heads around some ideas that permit rational analysis.

Carl Schmitt’s central thesis is summarised in the cryptic sentence: “The concept of the State presupposes the concept of the political.”

Unpacking the sentence takes up a philosophical treatise, but I shall keep the summary simple and short. Schmitt is taking us back to the state of nature that obtains before a community can go about creating a state that Thomas Hobbs described in his Leviathan.

The liberal view here is well known. The community recognises that in the state of nature, “every man for himself” turns every man against the rest, which is very wasteful of enterprise.

It is therefore in the interest of all, to formulate a few rules of conduct, that eliminate unnecessary violence among members; and to have some individuals elevated as Govt., whose job is to enforce these rules impartially; and that they are compensated for such duties, with levies on the produce of members.

There has been plenty of controversy over the way a Hobbesian state comes about.

A more Conservative view of the process, advanced by Edmund Burke was that, prior to the formation of the Hobbesian state, a community of like-minded individuals is necessary, and that creating conditions of generating “like-mindedness” among individuals itself may take decades.

On top of that, the Hobbesian state presupposes a commitment among members to live together. That implies they share some common vision of the future. In short, a Hobbesian state doesn’t happen by itself. It takes years of shared experience before like mindedness & a shared vision of the future, generates a commitment to live together.

Schmitt follows the line that Burke takes, but gets more specific about how the members of a pre-Hobbesian state decide who is a member of the group, and who is not.

Schmitt argues, rather convincingly, that there has to be some principled criteria, that determines who can be a member of such a community. And there is the parallel question of what happens to those who can’t be members of such a community; either by choice, or by ineligibility.

Schmitt posits that the “political” determines membership. For Schmitt, the “political” is some factor, among all the people that determines whether that individual is a friend or an enemy.

BINARY OF FRIENDS & ENEMIES

Schmitt defines friend as someone who will fight by your side to kill your enemy, or be killed doing so. Conversely, an enemy is someone who is prepared to kill you in association with his friends.

War, or the readiness to war, for the “political” decides who is a friend, and who is an enemy. There is no ambiguity here, no grey areas, no fudges. War, or readiness to fight to death in battle, distinguishes friend from foe.

Friends are in-group, and therefore members of your community. Enemy is the out group, or non-members, who cannot be members, ever. You don’t have to fight and kill every enemy – there can be peace – but there is no confusion over membership. An enemy cannot be a member.

Once a group has agreed on what is the political – it could be race, tribe, religion, or some such basic category, by which the group orders its conduct or politics – and thus sorted out friend from foe, it can proceed to constituting a Hobbesian state and creating a governing structure for itself. It is at this stage you have a community of like-minded people committed to living together.

“Any religious, moral, economic, ethnic, or other antagonism will turn into a political antagonism if it is strong enough to effectively group people by friend and enemy,” writes Carl Schmitt in his “The Concept of the Political.”

INDIVIDUALS AS EITHER FRIEND OR ENEMY

The critical difference between Schmitt’s conception of what constitutes a state, and that of say, John Locke, is in the identity of the individual that determines membership.

Locke is indifferent to the identity of members and insists that like-mindedness is sufficient to constitute a state. Burke’s view is a little more restrictive in as much as he requires like-mindedness, commitment to live together and a common vision of a shared future.

Schmitt’s view is the most limiting. Membership can only be determined in the friend-enemy paradigm as tested by actual war or a readiness to war. The enemy can never be a member.

There is another aspect to the “political” as defined by Schmitt that is perhaps the most troublesome of all. Friend-enemy paradigm presupposes that such decisions are made, not individually, but as a collective.

When friends go to war together, there has to be criteria that decide who is a friend. So, on both sides of the warring groups, the idea of who is a friend or enemy already exists. There can be no “political” if there is no enemy.

“The enemy is always a public enemy, because everything that relates to such a collective of people, especially to a whole people, thereby becomes public.”

The enemy, according to Carl Schmitt, must be collectively identified as the enemy, and must then become a public enemy for all. Anyone who then helps or associates with the public enemy, also becomes the enemy. There is no middle ground between friends and enemies. Both are in the public domain and “interlocutors” are, by definition, enemies as well. Liberals who think such a political divide can be bridged by dialogue are not only foolish but also the enemy.

Politics in the sense Schmitt sees it, comes to end if the enemy no longer exists. Were this to happen, the need for a state itself stands dissolved and the community would have to find a new political and constitute a new state. In Schmitt’s world, you don’t exist unless you have an enemy who is prepared to wipe you out when necessary.

In a manner of speaking, Carl Schmitt’s politics is always about who is a member and who is not. Real politics according to him is always about the core identity, the political.

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Furthermore, the enemy or the non-member has no rights. You may not kill him, you may even give him some privileges, but he is forever a non-member, an enemy that you at best forbear. He can never be a member or a friend.

Carl Schmitt grounds the friend-enemy paradigm in an anthropological assumption about the nature of man. The clear, unambiguous, and universally true assumption is that man is forever evil by nature. To keep man civilised, a continuous and overwhelming application of force is necessary. Relax the application of force, and man will immediately regress to evil.

This bleak anthropological assumption is in stark contrast to the liberal view that there is nothing inherently evil in man, and that threat of retaliation by others to his evil, is sufficient to keep him away from evil. No continuous, sustained and overwhelming use of force is necessary to keep him honest. The natural threat of retaliation suffices. Evil is an exception to be dealt with by the state, not the norm.

Does that a ring a bell? Carl Schmitt is high priest among political theorists of the Nazi state. The unrelenting politics of identity is not his invention, but he gave it a sound philosophical basis, taking off from the work Martin Heidegger on consciousness and identity formation, and that of Friedrich Nietzsche, on the purpose of life; or what it should be, since it has no discernible purpose.

Once you tie these three great philosophers together, you have a very bleak but irrefutable theory of man’s destiny here and now: which is to become an Ubermensch, by any means possible, or ready to hand. Man lives for glory of his higher self, which he achieves through the glory of his State. There is no other purpose to life than that.

NEHRUVIAN IDEA OF INDIA

RSS ideologues never accepted the Nehruvian “Idea of India” as the basis of India’s nationhood. For them, this idea is too wishy-washy and nebulous, far removed from the “political” as defined by Carl Schmitt, and ungrounded in religion or ancient scriptures.

Even the territory of India is unacceptable, as it excludes significant swathes of territory described as the “sacred land” in ancient Hindu scriptures.

Their world view is informed by the Carl Schmitt friend-enemy paradigm in which the “political” is your religious identity.

If you are “Hindu” you are a friend; if you are not, you are the enemy. [Savarkar’s Hindutva is basically a tactical fudge. If bigots were so liberal, why would the Idea of India be unacceptable?] Carl Schmidt and RSS’ view allow no middle ground in the friend-enemy paradigm. It helps them that religion was the political on the basis of which the sub-continent was partitioned.

Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy paradigm creates a very troubling proposition when the territorial boundaries that contain a people, not only contain friends, but also the enemy. This incongruity, or basic disconnect within a given people, where the “political” enemy is also within the territory that contains the in-group friends, sets up a perennial existential conflict, especially for the enemy, assuming the enemy is a significant minority.

Carl Schmitt’s anthropological imperative, combined with fact that there can be no middle ground with the enemy, precludes any integration of the enemy within the State. They cannot be members of the State. They may be accommodated as a matter of practical necessity, but they do not belong. Eliminating their claim to membership is a legitimate aspiration for purity of the State. Every member is duty bound to achieving this end.

Those who don’t believe so, are also the enemy. No two thoughts about that. War by any means is justified in eliminating the enemy.

This sets up another paradigm which is that those accommodated in the State, must all times obey those who are members of the State in return for forbearance.

Their right to existence within the state arises from their obligation to obey and is conditional on it. Should they not obey, all forbearance ceases, all privileges stand extinguished. [That explains lynchings?]

India unfortunately [or fortunately, if you are a liberal] is such a state in which its territorial boundaries include out-members, who have been living there since history began, but who don’t qualify as members according to the “political” preferred by the RSS’ idea of Hindu Rashtra.

This cleaving of a composite people of India, into the friend-enemy paradigm, by positing a religion based “political” lies at the heart of RSS’ politics.

This is not electoral politics. Many liberals misunderstand the friend-enemy paradigm as an electoral strategy. This is a grievous mistake.

Note where the concept of political comes from.

The political comes from the crucible of war, where friends get together and stand ready to kill the enemy, or be killed. As Carl Schmitt explains, this readiness to kill is independent of any other factor; such as a dispute, or a contestation, or differences over access to resources, or whatever. No reason is required.

The enemy here is killed because he the enemy who can kill us. His designation as the enemy is sufficient reason to kill. Or be killed.

Anybody who stands aside from such duty to kill, or be killed, for whatsoever reason, is also the enemy.

It this unconditional obligation to eliminate the enemy among us is what made the Holocaust possible. Evil was a sacred duty under the chosen political – glory of the Aryan race in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. We know the consequences of Carl Schmitt’s “political”. It has nothing to do with electoral strategy per se.

EXTREMISM IS A BEAUTY CONTEST

Many, including I, will argue that holocaust is not on the mind of anybody in the RSS. That may be true for now. But you must remember that an ideology flows logically towards a certain goal. When you perpetuate such an ideology, you are automatically affirming its goals.

In time, people within the RSS will compete for power, the more radical among them will cite the more radical goal, that the ideology sanctifies, and the ugly fact is that the radical wins in any given ideological context until the ideology itself is trashed as dysfunctional.

Extremism is a beauty contest in which the ugliest win. It is therefore no consolation that nobody has Holocaust in mind. A future generated in such a “political” just might act it out because it flows logically from what you preach.

There is another more troubling aspect to the concept of the political. Assume that we have a magic wand by which we erase the religious marker as the political. What happens? According to Carl Schmitt, the State now stands dissolved because the “political” no longer exists, and the friend-enemy paradigm no longer truly separates friend from enemy.

The State now needs to be reconstituted according to a new “political.” Which is what RSS is presently doing, having discarded the Nehruvian “Idea of India” with their religion based political. So, reconstitution of a State is not as far fetched at it appears at first sight. We are in fact living through one such reconstitution, and all of us deep down know the unease and terror it generates.

In short, if we got rid of the religious “political” we will just replace it with another. Since this new political too must be born in the crucible of war, or being ready to war, in order to separate friend from enemies into two neat categories, the new political, be it caste, or ethnicity, status as autochthons, language or whatever, it too would be as divisive as religion.

You cannot escape your anthropological imperative, nor can you transcend Schmitt’s concept of the political, once you assume both to be true. They together will lead you back to the same friend-enemy paradigm, and without a physical separation of friends from enemies into separate territories, or a holocaust, you can never have a state at peace with itself.

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

I repeat, this flows out of the fundamental philosophical assumptions one makes, and is independent of any intentions. It is an ideological consequence of your thoughts, and the act of deifying this ideology as the foundation of your State. Whether you intend it or not, how do you guarantee against its logical consequences in a future generation?

WHY CRITICS ARE DEEMED ANTI-NATIONAL

We can now clearly see why Modi gets a free pass on all that we consider important, be it the economic, the moral, the aesthetic, or the political. In fact, he gets a free pass even denying the fact of a Chinese intrusion into our sovereign territory, or a botched skirmish with Pakistan. Why so?

We live in state that is being reconstituted under a new “political” based on a religious identity, to be called a Hindu Rashtra. This new political is not a new slogan deified by the State. It is political drenched in the blood and tears of our ancient history, purified in the crucible of war, that clearly separates friends from enemy, both within the territory, and those outside.

The friend is Hindu, the enemy non-Hindu, or those who left the Hindus fold when they came under attack, for whatever reason. This is the final chapter on an existential war between autochthons of Hindu civilisation, and those who betrayed it.

We are in a war – civil war that is not yet violent – as we sort out friend from enemy. That is why Pakistan, and things Muslim, etc. is the enemy, and not China. [China is not yet the enemy within, though it can be so imagined when it becomes necessary, by using the Communists as a pretext.] Until we finish this war, we will not acknowledge another enemy to avoid confusion.

This is basic context to all our present politics since 2014, in which everything other than final war to sort out friend from foe is secondary. So, as in any war, the faithful have rallied to the leaders, for better or worse, and there is no going back on it. Your scholarly critiques of the economy are irritating details that needn’t hold up the grand narrative being forged.

If the leader is making mistakes, they are to be endured, not criticised. Critics are anti-nationals and the enemy anyway. They offer aid and succour to the enemy. So, stop wondering why Modi gets a free pass. Stop deluding yourself that anti-incumbency will one day return the opposition to power. Stop pretending that this is politics as usual.

We are in an existential war to finally constitute a new state for ourselves, and if you don’t join in the endeavour you are one with our enemy.

That’s the heady logic of Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, and a necessary consequence of RSS’ dream of a Hindu Rashtra. If liberals don’t get this paradigm, we are doomed anyway.

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