The majoritarian psyche is at the heart of our failure to fight the pandemic. Majoritarianism, unlike what the nomenclature suggests, excludes the majority of the population in favour of a tiny minority. It is this sanction to exclude without a sense of fairness that the persona of Narendra Modi represents, and something society trusted and celebrated, is the reason why today we are failing to fight a pandemic that requires collective responsibility and compassionate mutuality.
The majoritarian psyche justifies things that are otherwise not easily accepted by various social groups. To begin with, it justifies suffering and even violence as necessary to set things right. This often begins with those considered as adversaries or enemies, like in the case of Muslims in the Indian context. It then gradually grips the collective mode of thinking and normalises to an extent where we find ourselves incapable of responding to suffering and violence, as it happened with the migrants. Today, when people are struggling to find beds, oxygen and hospitals, there is a sense of lull and numbness, perhaps, we have accepted in our subconscious that death and suffering are inevitable.
This sentiment is located in a tiny self-seeking minority projecting itself as the majority. Larger sections of the society might come to invest in this worldview but the core is always a tiny minority of hardcore elements. It expands into projecting a majority by patronising the mediocre. This partly explains the institutional collapse not only because they fall in line but also because those who fall in line are supremely mediocre, whether it is the bureaucracy or the judiciary.
In addition, because of the fear and a culture of taking out-of-turn credit and passing the buck, it creates an institutional functioning marked by lack of accountability and also of inefficiency. This again is something we have been witnessing in tackling the pandemic. We need people to take responsibilities voluntarily and willingly, but in an atmosphere of predatory culture with impunity, nobody wishes to be noticed. Anybody standing out for good work will be seen as taking the credit and creating insecurity in the leader.
This is visible in the functioning of the cabinet and all other institutions making any kind of decentralisation almost impossibility. When things are working, Modi centralises to take the credit, and when they begin to collapse – as we have been seeing with the supply of oxygen and vaccines – he begins to ‘decentralise’ and hold the states responsible.
‘Othering’ and false narratives
Another element is proving the superiority of the dominant groups as a norm, and inferirorising those it ‘others’ and also compulsively dislikes and even hates those who are considered weak and inferior. Hatred towards the weak is a core element of the majoritarian psyche. It wishes to not only take out-of-turn privileges but make it a point to prove that it is doing so to add ‘insult to injury’. In doing this, it obviously does not know where to draw a line, any withdrawal or moderation is seen as either weakness or a compromise.
This was visible in the way Kumbh Mela was allowed with a celebratory triumphalism, with a hidden reference to the way Tabhlighis were blamed and Muslim congregations were disallowed. In glorifying the imagined superiority, it lands up in a ‘suicidal majoritarianism’, where more than 1,700 got infected during the Kumbh Mela, and demanding probity is construed as anti-Hindu. It is an ironical case of injuring one’s own self is seen as a cause for celebration.
This psyche also is based on spreading false information and blaming others precisely for what they do. Manipulation and machination of this kind are not a happenstance but a compulsive need in a majoritarian psyche. Wronging others gives succour and security to those claiming superiority. Spreading false information and accusing others of what one does is seen as an efficient strategy and a sign of intelligence and superiority gained by birth.
We have seen the tampering of statistics, especially with regard to the performance of the economy right from the beginning of the current regime. We have also been witness to this unique ‘art’ of blaming others for what one does as in the context of Delhi riots when those working to prevent them and for the cause of rehabilitation were ‘found’ guilty of engineering violence. It also included blaming a doctor who was actually struggling to find oxygen for children.
Creating false narratives and fixing and arbitrarily implicating others is often credited as the art of being a ‘modern-day Chanakya’. This again we saw in various cases of poaching, destabilising governments, planting evidence in the case of Bhima Koregaon as the recent findings of the forensic experts tell us. All of this is today hurting us in fighting the pandemic.
We do not have credible information about the number of deaths and oxygen supplies. When vaccines were running out of stock, Modi declared ‘Tika Utsav’. When no new supplies were available and stocks were exhausted, vaccination was opened up for everyone above the age of 18 years, so that, perhaps, states can be blamed for not fulfilling the requirements when the Centre was generous to allow vaccinations for all above 18 years.
The irony is today those who actively sanctioned these methods as part of a majoritarian psyche cannot speak or resist when they are at the receiving end. They cannot even, perhaps, acknowledge fully to themselves the nature of insecurity and suffering. Far worse they do not know who to blame, except to hallucinate that things are either not that bad or will get better soon.
From a majority that expressed a sense of indignation and supported righteous lawlessness is today robbed of a language to express the nature of discontent. The leader again through serendipity becomes the only hope, and the supreme leader leaves no opportunity of drilling in insecurity and vulnerability as it seems to only bring further discipline and support.
The majoritarian psyche creates a vicious cycle that has come a full circle during the pandemic and the failure of fight it comes with is neither surprising nor any cause for indignation.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.