Dividing Lines: How Modi is trying to rework idea of India

Citizenship today is not a refuge, an act of homecoming, a set of entitlements.

Narendra Modi’s government can no longer be criticised or evaluated in a knee-jerk fashion. He is no longer head of a party desperate to outwit the Congress. Failures of the Congress no longer become plus points of the Modi era. As a party that has been transformed into a regime and as a regime that threatens to stay for another era, one has to evaluate it in terms of a mere fundamental set of trends and possibilities. The Modi government has to be seen beyond struggles of left and right or as a populist chorus against the Congress. It is altering the meaning of Indian society in deep and fundamental ways. Most critically, it is an attempt to “panopticonise” Indian society, combining strategies of culture and governance in pursuit of the idea of a great nation-state. The idea of panopticon, coined by Jeremy Bentham, is one the great concepts of a social science understanding of everyday authoritarianism in an industrialising society.

Bentham took the panopticon as an artefact and turned it into an instrument of policy. During the early years of industrialism, when the enclosure movements had destroyed the commons and agriculture as a way of life, there were great migrations of orphans, vagrants, prostitutes, beggars and homeless to the city. They were a threat to law and order and the panopticon was invented as an institution of surveillance and control. The panopticon was a huge room where a sundry assortment of lumpenised citizens worked under the surveillance of an all seeing eye. It embodied one of the beginnings of a techno-managerial control of society. Today, it is part of the everyday mentality of industrialism where the architecture and the architectonic of the asylum, factory, school, prison, and plantation is based on. While the word as a concept remains esoteric, its basic ideas are part of the theories of governance in any modern society.
Basically, Mr Modi is attempting to panopticonise India, using the ideas of discipline and punishment to create what he claims would be a more effective society. The panopticon becomes a shortcut to a decisive, successful and competent world. Mr Modi realises that he is no Hobbesian monarch with authoritarian powers over life and liberty. He is, however, something close to it — a populist regime and a majoritarian democracy. Between catering to the alleged will of the people and the logic of policy, Mr Modi is setting the basis for an authoritarian society. As India still pretends to be a democracy, the panopticon operates not as a totalising structure as in a dictatorship but in terms of parallel silos of authoritarianism. The Modi regime operates in terms of seven panopticonising processes. These include the sites of security, citizenship, media, history, science and technology, the economy and the interconnected domains of the body, food and sexuality.

Each domain has its own authoritarian style and all seven systems are surrounded by a moralising vigilantism, which sees security as a way of life, patriotic jingoism as a duty, body as a site for a disciplinary apparatus, and the violence of vigilante groups as an annexe to the forces of law and order in society. Conveyed as a mix of majoritarianism and nationalist jingoism, it seeks a disciplinary form of society. One needs to comment on the logic of each silo and the connectivity between them, emphasising particularly the link between knowledge, domestic life and public domain. First is the reworking of the primacy of the nation-state into the ultimate good. The nation-state, as the preferred society, is the equivalent of a monotheistic God, which will not allow any others. Central to it is a link between citizenship and security.

The idea of securisation is a prelude to militarisation and emphasises the primacy of security over freedom, or sustainability. The national security state of Mr Modi sees civil society activism and social movements as subversive forces that question the goals, ideals or cost of development. Not only does the Modi government destroy the creativity of civil society, it sets up a parallel civil society comprising the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal which look cantankerous but serve the state in the process of its securitisation. Citizenship today is not a refuge, an act of homecoming, a set of entitlements. It is a hyphenation of identity and identification as expressed in the Aadhaar card. The absence of the card reduces you to a non-being. The struggle by the MKSS in Rajasthan shows how villagers without Aadhaar cards are declared dead. Linking security and identity is a jingoistic act which emphasises a performative, ritualistic adherence and loyalty to the state. Citizenship becomes a performative act where silence or dissent is seen anti-national.

Linked to it is what is the daily morality of dress, body and sexuality, which apart from creating a bounded idea of women, believes that the disciplined body as a domestic space must echo the wider boundedness, the rigid boundaries of the nation-state. Both dissent and sexuality become excesses in the systems which must be curbed or eliminated. The regime outsources to its own forces the acts of policing, threat and surveillance required to maintain such a preferred form of behaviour. Policing and vigilantism become everyday cousins to the larger issue of securitisation. Authoritarianism and policing are not just of the body and of organisations. It involves a policing of categories and of creating mentalities. This demands that knowledge as history and science be policed or at least subject to what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called the rules of gardening, the pruning and grafting required to make knowledge more accommodative to rules of the state.
The last and significant one is the battle against corruption often equated into a fight against black money. Between the Aadhaar and the ATM card, the battle seems more to subdue a cash economy, the mainstay of the informal economy, the migrant classes. It is an attempt to discipline the informal, the grey economy which threaten the effectiveness of the regime. The above seven silos of a panopticonised India are what Mr Modi calls his idea of governance, the softer outlines of a Benthamite panopticon. Civil society needs to respond systemically, not eclectically, to this regime. Otherwise it is our future and our democracy which are at stake.


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