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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 22, New Delhi, May 16, 2020

Deconstructing Performativity, Power and Populism amid COVID-19

Sunday 17 May 2020

by Zahoor Ahmad Dar and Debdutta Chakraborty

 Keywords: Power, Populism, COVID-19, Public Sphere, Politics of stupidity, Alternative Communities.

A global crisis in the face of a pandemic has engulfed the world. The systemic structures of the world and its rulers have been thrown into a whirlpool of chaos and cacophony. Since the spread of Covid-19, the heads of states are declaring their response as a ‘war’ against coronavirus. In February 2020, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, declared China’s response as ‘a people’s war’. Following this, in March the US President Donald Trump termed himself ‘a wartime president’ and compared the response required to combat coronavirus akin to World War II. Similarly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan terms Pakistan’s response as a war against coronavirus. On March 24, declaring a 21 days lockdown in India, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi compared it to the 18-day long historic Mahabharata battle. Corona as war symbolism is used by almost all states to raise their spirit, but it is hard to see how useful this can be against a non-traditional human security threat. The traditional militaristic national security narratives are all about dealing with the traditional enemy states where ‘overpowering the other’ has been a key element and any scientific discussion is a casualty. In this article we are trying to unsettle the politics of stupidity (irrationality) in public sphere in India through Performativity, Power and Populism amid Covid-10

Provincializing India 

India’s case warrants a deep analysis amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdown, at the behest of Prime Minister’s calling, lakhs of people around the country had taken to their windows and balconies and eventually to the streets to observe his call for solidarity by beating ‘Thaalis’ (saucers) and ‘Taalis’ (clapping) as a gesture of appreciation for the health and medical professionals at the forefront of the COVID fight. Ironically, the noise created by all this banging was successful in letting the larger concerns fade away. This opened the window of vulnerability and discerned acid tests for critical health infrastructure in the country.

India’s healthcare system came under unprecedented pressure. Lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE’s) being the major concern along with the acute paucity of required beds in hospitals. However, the PM resorted to the politics of banging ‘Thaalis’ and ‘Taalis’ to express solidarity to the healthcare workers. When questioned about the lack of available resources for these people, complete silence prevails, and this time silence is not gold. Some other party members of the ruling government believed in the healing properties of ‘Gaumutra’ (Cow urine) and chanting ‘Om’ as a full proof way of containing the virus. This can also be seen as an invocation of Hindutva in the public sphere. The act of lighting candles, ‘Diyas’ and turning on of torches at 9 pm for nine minutes for the front line health workers was a populist propaganda invoking Hindu mythologies as a prescription to prevent coronavirus transmission being similar in nature to the Hindu festival of Navratri which spans nine nights. India is prone to a culture of myth making and manufacturing consent both by propaganda media and ‘WhatsApp University’. All this is spiritualized by state legitimation. Furthermore, chanting of slogans like ‘Go Corona Go’ is part of myth mongering epistemology. Politics of populism is seeing the heydays of Hindutva majoritarianism.

What we witnessed was not just the politics of being stupid but embracing that stupidity as a badge of honor. The act appears irrational at the surface level, but they are strategically planned and executed with an objective embedded in them. This dichotomy of political stupidity is a well-orchestrated performative act by political elites in power intended to generate specific objectives manifesting itself through rhetoric. Political stupidity eventually leads to irrationality becoming a mode of political discourse. Political stupidity is not a discontinuous act. What is even more worrying is the rising legitimization of this trend and the citizen’s uncritical acceptance of it in the public sphere.

Public sphere is expected to reflect and demonstrate rational behavior, supposedly demarcating between rational and irrational acts. Yet when non rational acts are rationalized in this sphere it transforms itself into consent where the act becomes thereby normalized. These non-rational acts result in political stupidity. Yet this in no way correlates to political instability because these acts are more pernicious. While the acts of political instability are more discernible, acts of political stupidity work through latent manifestations and their subsequent actions.

The current global crisis in the form of a pandemic made countries question their policies and seek immediate measures. In dire situations like these, one would expect the PM of a developing country with a population of 1.38 billion at risk to roll out effective healthcare and livelihood support packages as minimum measures. Rather, what we witnessed the PM doing is asking the army to shower flower petals on people, bang Thaalis, light candles and express his sadness over migrant deaths through appearances on TV.

In the third phase of the prolonged lockdown, apart from the obvious questions regarding the loopholes within the system and its gross inability to contain the sporadic spreading of a deadly virus, what is even more intriguing is the acknowledgement and indulgence that these performative acts receive from the common masses and the mainstream media at large. The media’s toxic obsession with political stupidity comes into full play here. Political stupidity has become the standard template where people blindly accept the hollow sermons of their elected leader.

With an ever more polarized political culture and the political institutions that grind and buckle under these, those who genuinely care about the common good of the country should ponder on the consequences, before being tempted to indulge in either doing those acts .Legitimizing these acts under the garb of solidarity for the corona workers shall have far reaching consequences in the long run. When you tend to laugh it off, a normalizing force comes into play. The act of questioning becomes the privilege of a few. While these acts become the endorsements of stupidity, a blatant fact remains that the privilege to laugh it off is not available to all. While the entire country was banging plates and lighting candles, thousands of migrant workers from all over the country were forced to walk to their places of shelter because there is not any food available on their plates and no candles to light up their homes. Thaalis and candles are not just a source of utility, they are now tools for sustaining social hierarchy. At the top is the ruling class, the politicians and at the bottom are these labourers’- the wretched of the earth having no access to these privileges. Using war as a metaphor for a health crisis will not help. The preference to such terms will lead to casualties where the death of some people would conveniently go unnoticed because they would act as collateral damage. A clear example of this was the death of migrant workers on their way home, the extra money being charged for their transportation or the recent case of 15 of them dying on the railway tracks in Aurangabad.

Using war like terms suppresses questioning and evading accountability and thereby legitimizing orders where their subsequent obeying become the norm. Then normalization becomes a text without subtext. This leaves no room for either dissent or discussion. The abysmal condition of the migrant workers reflects the poorly thought out policies of the incumbent government. While even small countries like Singapore gave a 4-day prior notice, India gave its workers a 4-hour notice leading to starvation and death. Many died on the roadsides ignored and unattended. This included a 12-year-old migrant worker girl. The excess money charged on train and bus fares even after hefty contributions being made to the PM Cares fund shows the lack of effective policy making within the government. The BJP led government in Karnataka refused to even let the laborers go despite the conditions after the construction lobbyists asked for the laborers to stay back. Additionally, the Yogi led Uttar Pradesh government considered the pandemic as an opportunity to cancel key labor laws for 3 years clearly highlighting how the government is least affected by the condition of the laborers who shall turn into slaves post the pandemic. Politics of populism is seeing the heydays of Hindutva majoritarianism.

Performativity, Politics and Populism

Isn’t the politics of stupidity the very opposite of the politics of resistance? Does it not then risk supporting the workings of power, akin to Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis”?

The individual has the freedom to choose but one quickly realizes that the terms of the dilemma are already given; the dilemma is not personal but part of a social context. This contextualization makes us talk not about a free subjectivity of the individual but about a process of subjectivation (see Foucault: 1985), which makes someone a subject only as far as to respond to a collective dilemma. What is needed here is to counter performativity of stupidity through the establishment of alternate communities will lead to the critique of knowledge-based discourses while acknowledging those that have been historically marginalized from it. Modi’s election slogan for the 2019 election was Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas yet did he win the ‘vishwas’ of the marginalized? When the media acts as ideological deceivers it certainly impedes the understanding of the substance of news as the organization of actuality. Even in the face of a pandemic, all that media did was garnish the feast of ongoing stupidity with a rather communal angle where the face of corona in India suddenly turned into the faces of the congregation gathered at the Nizamuddin Markaz and the members of the Tablighi Jamaat. Fact finding teams had to deconstruct every prevailing narrative to quell the irrationality among the dominant masses. The politics of stupidity here becomes a major tool for the propagation of majoritarian ideals through mainstream media.

 The process of irrationality has a direct bearing on the propagandist antics of the BJP which has a street-smart understanding of power politics. Their use of traditional strategies is not to bring about some apocalyptic, overnight remedy to their inefficient measures but to play upon the politics of sentiments, that the middle-class population is imbued with. Here, overbearing sentiments of panic are settled by political processes, where the world of reasoned discourse is consciously abandoned. This party now functions on a strategic plane where rationality holds no appeal and stupidity becomes the available instrumentality rationality.

Majoritarian morality has come to become dominant rationality, which is nothing but the tyranny of the majority. In this regard, structures of governmentality reinforce the culture of irrationality where mob mentality becomes a deterministic denomination of the existing power structure in India. Criminalizing marginalized communities under draconian laws has exposed the totalitarian and authoritative disposition of the current government which imposes clampdown on liberal spaces and invokes seditious cases on those who question the government, refusing to respect the diversity and pluralism of a country. Students and activists have been implicated under unlawful activities prevention act (UAPA) without due process of law being followed, especially in times of a global pandemic. Regressive nationalism is increasingly becoming the new Politik of the BJP led government silencing every institution including civil society. This has become a popular culture in India.

Thus, performativity of power when inextricably enmeshed with populistic measures result in strangulation of democratic edifices, democratic fragmentation and hegemonization of power in ruling dispensations characterized by majoritarianism. Elected representatives and public institutions cease to uphold constitutional morality. The subversion of rule of law is dominant rationality guided by personal wisdom not by Weberian legal rational authority.

Alternative Communities as Public Sphere

A narrative deconstruction by the alternative communities is needed as constructive remedial prescription. Akin to how state sovereignty as a practice constitutes identity and authority, political irrationality too functions on farce. Karl Marx had once remarked, historical events and individuals always appear twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. In the current situation there seems to be a reversal to this: farce first, tragedy later. This reversal then clears a space for actual reconsideration. Public spaces need to be reclaimed by alternative communities that can critique these false narratives. Jurgen Habermas argues that “emancipatory potential’’ lies within the realm of communication and the key to this potential lies within radical democracy, which has two intertwined meanings: the free and equal participation of people and democracy having no justifiable grounds outside of the people, that is outside of itself. This is the kind of communication alternate communities will seek to do. Committees that are self-grounded based on self-reflexive questioning with a self-revolutionizing logic of itself, just like democracy.

The project shall be to “broaden” alternative communities, considering the issue of the hierarchy of knowledge in terms of not only performativity but also epistemology. Communication can thereby become a rational base for deconstructing the dominant narratives. This could result in de-naturalizing mainstream norms and practices that fall to critical, conscious, and reflexive individual agents. Broadening this debate of resisting and challenging is to embrace ‘reflexive solidarity,’ an encounter between self-reflexivity and collective solidarity which is the need of the hour.

 What is needed then is the creation of these alternate communities that do not throw up a direct resistance to the dominant power but merely exist within these spaces itself and create a Gramscian ‘counter-hegemony’ to bring about a structural and ideological change. This shall be the beginning of the effort to reclaim public spaces through social rationality. This existence shall give birth to a political subjectivity, an unbowing presence, one that both blocks the discursive system and refuses to be a part of it. An in-betweenness that responds to stupidity and attempted erasure of knowledge-based identity by simply asserting its presence. A presence that both clarifies and yet alters the way it is perceived thereby creating an alternate form of knowledge, one that is assertive and valuable through the simple act of being there

There is a need for in-betweenness where the long-held assumptions about politics and truth, morality and traditions are reconsidered and consequently, reshaped. Thinkers like Hegel and Nietzsche have already argued that truth is a readymade value. What then actually remains true? That which is being masqueraded as truth or that where a political system responds with two falsehoods for every one fact? Or where the dominant lies are accepted as truth and those that they challenge through the depiction of stark reality are dismissed? It is not that truth is not present anymore, we have become so complicit and comfortable in living with falsities we want nothing to do with the truth anymore. Stupidity precedes rational thinking and traditionalist ideas overrule any space for analytical criticism.

Reconstructing and reclaiming these public spaces are thereby called for to deconstruct the prevalent politics of irrationality. The deconstruction of truth was initially seen to be a radical and liberatory political project taking place in college humanities departments across the country. Yet it must go beyond the haloed and ‘sacred’ spaces and occupy the dominant public sphere. The project of questioning truths collapsed on itself even before the 2019 elections, with public institutions, civil activists, academicians and even school textbooks coming under attack. Stupidity prevailed as the newly privileged political mode characterized thereby by absurdity and farce. Stupidity was now a powerful force fusing around itself the dominant narratives. Bowed down by this intangible, unnatural nemesis, the project of marshaling facts to combat propaganda and politics was buried deep under.

Critical Thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci call scholars as “organic intellectuals.” They are not merely consumers and producers of ideas and ideologies, but “organic organizers” of them and thus, in Gramscian terms, “organizers of hegemony.” Organic intellectuals play a central role in formulating “common sense”—although that common sense should be criticized , according to Gramsci, for leading the masses to believe in ahistorical and “extra-human” realities and “naïve metaphysics” (Gramsci 1971: 199, 441). Further, organic intellectuals have the capability to politically organize the masses by exercising “intellectual and moral leadership” and as such can provide “cohesion and guidance to hegemony” (Gramsci 1971: 57)

Resistance can birth new seeds of power. Intellectuals can create a counter hegemony. Where ideological hegemony meant that the majority of the population accepted what was happening in society as ‘common sense’ or as ‘the only way of running society’, counter hegemony sought for mass participation and radical change. Maybe this is the reason the present government has a strong dislike towards intellectuals, activists and students who dare to question—toppling this politics of stupidity. The existence of questioning individuals, even without the threat of an internal revolution serves to justify governments in restricting individual rights in the name of national security. In the post truth economy, consumers will acquire any knowledge that fits their own world view. Stupidity therefore here becomes not an acceptance of falsities but rather an enjoyment of it and these ideas need to be countered with truth and scientific analysis.

 Thus, in this post truth era, fact needs to be verified and finding alternative ideas need to be promoted which must make way within the haloed spaces of public culture to establish different channels for alternate modes of communication. Chantal Mouffe, a political scientist describes the concept of ‘othering’ and ‘agonism’ to construct binaries of othering in the public sphere, whereby politics of rationality is replicated by politics of irrationality. Performative theories need to be provincialized for a critical understanding of this discourse. This needs to be further challenged by alternative communities and scrutinized in the public sphere. Alexander Wendt, a social constructivist, argues that ‘Anarchy is what the state makes of it’ while provincializing it in India’s case we can argue that ‘political irrationality is what the state makes of it’.



Zahoor Ahmad Dar is a researcher based in New Delhi. He has completed master’s in international Relations at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. E-mail: zahoorjnu[AT]

Debdutta Chakraborty is currently pursuing her Masters in Society and Culture at IIT Gandhinagar. She specializes in Critical Theory. E-mail: debdutta2107[AT]

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