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Political Sociology, Hegemony and Covid-19

Part I

The second wave of the raging COVID-19 pandemic in India has raised questions about the legitimacy of the BJP regime: How have the sources of political power under the current regime been affected during the brutal second wave? Has the State’s perceived/real apathy towards the citizenry weakened the hegemony of the BJP regime?

The COVID-19 pandemic in general and the second wave, in particular, can be argued as a watershed moment in the current phase of the formation of populist-nationalist regimes across the world including India. The Right-wing ethnocultural majoritarian and authoritarian regime in India led by Narendra Modi led BJP has faced a significant pullback of its popular grip domestically. Data released by the CVOTER study showed that the percentage of the population “very satisfied with Modi government’s performance” has dropped from 65% during the initial stages of the pandemic to 37% almost a year later. A speculative question could be posed in the context of the study: Has the pandemic fractured the social coalitions which supported the Modi regime?

To understand the social structure of the current regime, one must emphasise two of the significantly parallel yet complementary forces of historical development: the rise of Hindu majoritarianism and the neoliberal restructuring of Indian State and politics; a class and caste-based reconfiguration of Indian society. As this writer has previously argued (see Rhea Chakraborty, media and the middle-class) the rise of the “New Middle class” and the hegemony of finance capital not only resulted in the retreat of the government, it also resulted in shifting social and political sources of power. The outgrowth was the displacement of old Nehruvian elites by the financially powerful forward castes.

Historically, BJP governments in the past have relied upon a social coalition of upper caste and upper-class Hindu population as sources of political power and therefore the BJP has been pejoratively called a “Brahmin-Baniya” Hindi speaking party with their appeal confined to certain “Hindi heartland” states of North India. That explains why BJP could never replace Indian National Congress as a one-party hegemony in Indian post-colonial political history. However, several scholars have argued that the newfound electoral hegemony of the BJP since 2014 has been identical to the First Party System led by the Indian National Congress in the aftermath of Independence. To understand the social structure of the current regime, I will employ the concept of Gramscian hegemony coupled with the process of individualisation as argued by Nicos Poulantzas and simultaneously attempt at explaining the crises of transactional order under the current regime in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hegemonic intervention of the BJP regime in Indian politics is defined by the historically mediated construction of socio-political consent among dialectical social forces which are not infinite., implying that hegemony is material: the socially contradictory coalitions with seemingly divergent interests are harmonized for the perpetuation of the hegemony of the dominant group or the ruling bloc. Gramsci notes of a “historical bloc” which will come to represent the general interests including the masses. A vulgar Marxist tends to dismiss consent as “false consciousness” for revolutionary ethos are submerged among the proletarian masses. These contradictory social coalitions operate under the “logic of equivalence” where such contradictions are negated to enable a process of “exteriorization” where social identities and aspirations are negotiated. To invoke Gramsci further, he argued that such innate contradictory forces are constructed by the “totalitarian party” as a conscious political action and therefore it comes to represent the “national-popular” will.

To place this in the context, BJP represents a hegemonic restructuring of Indian polity whereby new social coalitions and aspirations are embodied in an authoritarian figure and the State. BJP has significantly expanded its social base., nevertheless the “middle class” – an ideological and sociological category – remains the vanguard of majoritarianism in post-neoliberal India. Sources of political power for the BJP regime come from the urban middle class (82%) as well as several non-dominant classes within the OBC where BJP managed to mobilize non-Jatav and non-Yadav constituencies to its favour. BJP has displaced Congress as a “go-to” party among the rural population (38%) as well. How has the BJP managed to bring seemingly contradictory social coalitions on board despite preceding decades of “subaltern” movements against dominant groups? This question can be partly answered by the interplaying symbolism of Modi as a welfarist for the rural masses as well as a technocratic reformist for the aspirational middle class and as an embodiment of Hindu consciousness. Political theorist Ajay Gudavarthy is his seminal work “India After Modi: Populism and the Right” characterises this interplay as “performative dialectics”., It implies the collapse of multiplicities and instantiation of singularity.

To historicise, I would invoke the process of individualisation as theorised by Nicos Poulantzas to understand the mobilisation of subaltern groups for BJP. Nicos argues that a capitalist State establishes “individual” as a frame of material reference – an isolated yet identical entity – whereby experiences and aspirations are increasingly individualised. Here, the individual becomes a unit of analysis and social relations. In post-neoliberal India, this process of individualisation has altered the language of political mobilisation and relative perceptions of upward mobility. To borrow from political scientist Ajay Gudavarty, capitalist restructuring of the Indian State in a performing democracy meant a new phase of upper mobility for the erstwhile deprived communities. Democracy in a capitalist State meant that while the claims for political representation increased among “backward” groups, such claims increasingly took a material and individualist dimension. A UN report noted that 271 million Indians were lifted out of poverty between 2006 and 2016. The report noted that there was a transition from “abject poverty” to “relative vulnerability”.

The rise of Narendra Modi signifies a complementary relationship between capitalism and democracy in India. While the critique of capitalism is that it has reinforced new forms of hierarchy which possessed distinctive characteristics of traditional social relations between caste and class in India, democracy complemented this hierarchisation with a perception of upward mobility through robust representation. This meant Indian democracy created new patron-client relations based on transactional order. Let us not forget that Prime Minister Modi presented himself and the BJP as a “party with a difference” in terms of governability – the ability to distribute public resources and battle transactional corruption. The mammoth electoral victory of BJP in 2019 has been partly attributed to the “New welfarism” of the BJP in rural areas. For these sections of the population, the Indian State is an essential instrument for the preservation of interests. They do not enjoy the same proximity or visibility as the middle class in India.

It is imperative to understand the “New Middle Class” and democracy in India under the BJP regime. The middle class, particularly in post-neoliberal India, has articulated differing concerns about the role of the State as “public-political” and “private”. The New Middle class and the political subjectivities surrounding them are defined by an appeal towards the private sector yet acts as a client of the State, metropolitan yet provincial, efficiency and meritocracy over distributive justice and substantive equality, The Middle Class forms a major source of political power in India today. Prime Minister Modi exhibited himself as a technocratic reformist with his mantra “minimum government and maximum governance”. The transactional relationship between the middle class and the State entailed undisturbed access to privileges.

Part II

The Second Wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India was marked by a near collapse of healthcare facilities, exacerbated mortality due to the overwhelmed health care system and lack of access, continued job losses, particularly among the affluent white-collar educated population.

COVID-19 pandemic in essence exacerbated the prolonged period of crisis of neoliberal capitalism world over: India, in particular, was undergoing a period of jobless growth, widening income and wealth inequality and in terms of social criticism, neoliberal capitalism and the retreat of the State from economic activities meant new relations of power between caste as a traditional category and class as a modern category. While the populist wave predominantly in the western world accentuated the prolonged crisis of neoliberalism, the COVID-19 pandemic exaggerated the crisis – rapid intensification of inequalities particularly in the Indian context, a public health crisis marked by a near-complete absence of access to healthcare facilities particularly among the socially and economically deprived sections of the population etc. On a minor yet significant note, the roots of the COVID-19 pandemic are agro-ecological. Global financial capitalism has been unable to prevent macroeconomic crises among various nations. The imageries of the destitute attacking medical professionals, or the bloody migration of labourers while several states have suspended crucial wage laws which were to provide for economic security for the underprivileged, the images of dead bodied lined up and burnt in the cemeteries are likened to “social murder” by Nissim Mannathukkaren invoking Engels.