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India: ’Decisionism’ and the Cult of Narendra Modi - A Note’ | M S S Pandian and Satyaki Roy

18 June 2014

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The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLIX No. 25, June 21, 2014


by M S S Pandian and Satyaki Roy

The Indian electorate’s endorsement of Narendra Modi is influenced by the ideology of "Decisionism" similar to that mobilised by the German intelligentsia in the 1930s to defend the Third Reich. Where could the expectations and the possible failure of the promises of Decisionism lead us to?

The German political idea of “Decisionism” (and its contemporary avatars in present-day India) may be germane to understanding the enchantment of the middle classes and the subalterns with Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of the Indian Union. Decisionism is an outcome of a deep craving for firm decisions by the political authority in a situation where things are perceived to be adrift. It was one of the ideological resources mobilised by the German intelligentsia to defend the Third Reich in the 1930s. While the Weimar Republic based on multiparty coalition was condemned for its inability to take decisions, the Nazis were lauded for their ability to take “bold” decisions.

The Decisionist desire is no doubt informed by structures of expectations and promises. Yet in its pure ideological moment, as argued by the well-known legal theorist and unrepentant critic of liberalism, Carl Schmitt, what matters in Decisionism is the very act of deciding in itself, irrespective of the content and consequences of such decisions. Thus, decisions do not draw their validity from their content but their form – what matters is that they are taken by the right kind of political authority. One well- known such decision was the 12-year-long suspension of the Weimar Constitution by Adolf Hitler in 1933, under emergency provisions.

India’s Decisionist Moment

The cult of Narendra Modi thrives on an Indian variant of Decisionism. The Bharatiya Janata Party, sections of the Indian intelligentsia and big corporate interests have repeatedly claimed during the 2014 election campaign that the United Progressive Alliance-II government was marked by “policy paralysis” or indecision with deleterious consequences for the economy and the people. The rhetoric that Modi would set everything right was the bedrock of the new Decisionist hope of the Indian electorate. A newspaper commentary soon after the elections (Amrith Lal, “The Power of One”, TheTimes of India, 18 May 2014) notes, “Two decades of coalition politics and self-effacing leaders seen as men without real mandate seem to have triggered nostalgia for strong leaders. Modi, Jaya[lalithaa], Mamata (Banerjee) and Naveen (Patnaik) exploited this to the hilt...” The “spiritual guru” Shri Shri Ravi Shankar’s demand to bar regional parties from “national” polls and the euphoria about the lean cabinet of Modi (described as based on “quality, not quota”) are all signs of the current Decisionist desire in Indian politics.

The Decisionist promise works only when it assures changes on a considerable and visible scale. How does Modi qualify for the Decisionist mantle? The self-assured hubris among an influential section of economists about the Gujarat model of development and its putative replicability on the national scale was propagated as a panacea for the future. Equally, if not more, important is Modi’s handling of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 in which Muslims were “taught a lesson” by means of state-endorsed, large-scale violence by sections of the Hindus. The significance of the Gujarat pogrom lies in the fact that decisions, as Carl Schmitt would remind us, which are extralegal are decisions at their best.

Every time Modi insists that the events of 2002 be forgotten, he brings them back to life and reinforces them. The unstated message is, “We can do it”. The memories of 2002, emptied of gory details, projects him as the Decisionist par excellence. At the same time, the command to forget the actual events of 2002 is a move to create the Decisionist vacuum, from which the action (and hence order) of the future would arise.

Great Little Man’

By an unconventional (some may call it, even perverse) extension, Decisionism can be aligned with another feature of authoritarianism, i e, the idea of the “great little man”: “ of the basic devices of personalised fascist propaganda is the concept of the ‘great little man’, a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks, a plain, red-blooded American, untainted by material or spiritual wealth.” The Decisionist dream of the subalterns is that the leader is one like us, yet could decide/do what we cannot. Theodor Adorno has shown that such perception leads the common people to identify with the idealised leader as the compensation for the lack in their lives.

The invocation of chaiwala in the election campaign and its widespread acceptance among the ordinary people is instructive here. Even before Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress disparaged Modi for his past as a tea vendor, Modi summoned his modest beginnings on the railway platform of Vadnagarand sought subaltern identification with him. Aiyar’s acerbic elitism which prompted him to promise a place for Modi to distribute tea at the Congress’s Talkatora session made such identification extensive. Modi used it to the hilt and taunted the Congress, “I only sold tea and not the country”. He made Kiran Mahida, a chaiwala from Vadodara, as a proposer for his Lok Sabha candidature and invited him to attend his swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

But subalternity of the leader is inadequate to any project of Decisionism. The Decisionist needs to decide and hence be different and wield unquestioned authority. Niktin Contractor, who runs a community college in Satyajigunj, decided to celebrate Modi’s swearing-in with a newly inaugurated tea stall, appropriately named after Mani Shankar Aiyar, and distribute free tea and falafel. Free tea makes instant sense. Why falafel? Contractor reasoned, “Modi made a great gesture by talking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and seeking deep ties with Israel. We’ve decided to distribute falafel to mark the beginning of warm ties between India and Israel. We hope both countries will work together for a better future.”

The seduction of Decisionism for the subaltern is that a former tea vendor, a guy like us, could talk to the prime minister of Israel, i e, a vicarious realisation of one’s aspirations in the leader. Modi once again succeeded in mobilising sections of the subalterns within the framework of Decisionism.

One-Way Street

However, Decisionism could turn out to be a one-way street. It works as long as good days are promised. The central plank of Decisionist messianism has always been hope, a wild and utopian desperation. What is important is the construction of suspense, a tantalising vision of the future as an exercise in itself. Modi and his backers have achieved this with remarkable skill. Modi could declare, “Good days are coming.” Then, paradoxically, undelivered visions as much as delivered visions can diminish the efficacy of Decisionism. If promises are not delivered, the enchantment with Decisionism will wear thin. If the promised good days are already here, the Decisionist frenzy would subside and the cult of Modi will flounder. Either way, the solution might be authoritarian.

Authoritarian violence is increasingly seductive for sections of the middle classes and the subalterns at this Decisionist moment. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 is a case in point. For the middle classes, it is “merely” an elephant in the room; and for the subalterns, the poor Hindus including the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and dalits who indulged in anti-Muslim violence, it is an act of finding their voice. Yet, the inevitable crisis of Decisionist hope and promise could open up other possibilities. It can politically recover indecision as an enabling ethic of waiting, listening, accommodating and co-living.

M S S Pandian (mathiaspandian57 at teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Satyaki Roy (roysatyaki at is pursuing his postgraduation at the same centre.


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