Here's Why the Crisis Modi is Facing is Unique in Nature

The prime minister's rule, right now, is a macabre fantasy located in a permanent state of exception.

BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership has reached a new milestone of completing the first year of its second tenure.

The party has been celebrating it by sending more than a crore citizens personal letters from prime minister Modi.

The signposts are clear that while most of the year has been a kind of social crisis, initially with the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, now the mode of dealing with the pandemic has created the crisis of the migrants, apart from the state of emergency of the economy.

The crisis of the Narendra Modi government is not a mere symptom of mis-governance but is in fact a modality of sovereign rule and the rest of his tenure seems to be prepared for a permanent state of exception.

German philosopher Carl Schmidt argued that, “Sovereign is he who decides the state of exception.”

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Sovereign is not the one who governs through constitutional mandate but one who has the capacity to overrule the rule of law and declare a state of exception. In other words, if there is some person or institution, in a given polity, capable of bringing about a total suspension of the law and then to use extra-legal force to normalise the situation, then that person or institution is the sovereign in that polity.

Any legal order, Schmitt bluntly concludes, is based on a sovereign decision and not on a legal norm.

Schmidt refers to this process as the emergence of what he refers to as “sovereign dictator”.

“A sovereign dictator is a dictator who does not defend an already existing constitution but attempts to create a new one and who does so not by his own authority but in the name of the people.”

Exception becomes a permanent state of governance and imposition of exception becomes symptomatic of “exercise of people`s constituent power”.

It is necessary for the ‘sovereign dictator’ to demonstrate his ability to declare a state of exception and thereby claim singular authority. What we have witnessed in the last one year of Modi’s second term is this emergence of a ‘sovereign dictator’ who has to compulsively demonstrate his singular power to declare exception and govern it in the name of the people by undermining the available legal framework.

Women at the sit-in protest against the CAA at Lucknow’s Clock Tower. Photo: PTI

Righteous lawlessness is an integral component of this model of governance. Crisis has to be itself a permanent feature in order to justify the need for declaring exception. While,CAA-NRC was a step to undermine known constitutional values of citizenship, creation of the migrant crisis demonstrated Modi’s popularity inspite of the crisis or popularity because of the crisis.

He becomes both the source and solution to the crisis. The crisis is also meant to demonstrate how oppositional forces cannot breach his sovereign power, and no counter-narrative can find a legitimate space. Migrant crisis, ostensibly demonstrated the virtual ineffectiveness of the opposition in blaming Modi for mis-governance.

Modi could afford to announce a lockdown with four hour notice, yet not take the blame for the migrant crisis. But as is the trend, he has the audacity to pass the buck to the states, especially in Bihar and Bengal that await assembly elections. Yet, the states are neither able to galvanise the victims nor a counter-narrative.

All that we seem to have is chaos and civic crisis for which again Modi alone can afford a solution. On his part, Modi therefore in old monarchical style announced an economic package and a call for ‘self-reliance’ of ‘the people’. 

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A ‘sovereign dictator’ by the very compulsion of its logic has to create a state of exception and invite people to follow the leader. If this analysis is right then one can only expect higher forms of exception with greater reach in the name of the people and nation.

The nature of the crisis, however, in this case, is linked to the ideological moorings of far-right cultural majoritarianism. It is inextricably linked to the ideology and fantasies of the RSS that are closely tied to playing with ancient glory and injury to the glorious civilisation.

One could then stick ones neck out to predict what this would involve in times to come. It could include declaration of an economic emergency that would replay Modi’s ability to endure pain yet win people’s consent the way he demonstrated in implementing demonetisation.

Further, it could involve mass violence, and far-reaching legal-constitutional changes with regards to religious minorities.

A migrant worker rides a cart with his family on a highway as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 27, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The migrant crisis, in a cynical way, was a replay of the fantasies of partition that created the ugly spectacle of scores of displaced people on the streets. Is this a foregrounding a different kind of a spectacle of displacement of religious minorities?

Further in the pecking order would be ‘sovereign dictator’ ruling over the nation as a war-time prime minister, with all emergency powers vested in the executive.

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The noises being made on border skirmishes in Ladakh and elsewhere signalling a possible conflict with Nepal and China are only initial signposts that are creating preparedness for a mass consent for war. One cannot rule out the possibility and it is not going to be this time about electoral outcomes but more about breaching the limits imposed on authority by legal-constitutional procedures. This is indispensable for a ‘sovereign dictator’ to rule in the true sense of the term.

Opposition of all kinds whether political parties or social activists or students or alternative media remains suspended and delegitimised in this imagination.

It took a great deal for Indira Gandhi to impose Emergency for merely two years but the current mood being created seems to be more ominous without a possible opposition or a credible counter-narrative.

If even a portion of this analysis is correct then one has to as yet wait and watch where would the murmurs for a counter-narrative begin and whether democracy and diversity still hold the potential to hold back what looks like a macabre fantasy located in a permanent state of exception.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.