What Are the Political Implications of Narendra Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar Campaign?

Ankit Kawade (ankitkawade@hotmail.com) is at the Centre of Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
15 May 2019

This article highlights the incongruity involved in the Prime Minister of a nation proclaiming himself to be a “chowkidar.” But who will watch the watchmen?

The #MainBhiChowkidar Twitter campaign started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves a comment for several reasons. Firstly, the genesis of this campaign is clearly the ruling party’s need and desire to regain the reins of the master narrative of Indian politics. There are recognisable limits to the extent to which media outlets on television are able to bolster such a narrative of politics that can secure public compliance on the side of the ruling party. The aftermath of the Rafale deal and especially the political narrative set off by Rahul Gandhi centring on the slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (the watchman is a thief) seems to have put the Prime Minister on the backfoot. 

The #MainBhiChowkidar campaign is thus, first and foremost, wholly reactive. It is already an admission of the popularity of the adversary’s negative charge in attempting to positively resignify the content of the charge itself. Secondly, this slogan is fundamentally different from the earlier slogan used by Prime Minister Modi centring around the image of the chaiwala. While both the chaiwala and the chowkidar are metaphors used by Modi to emphasise his proximity with the working masses of the country, the former was crucially used to mark a departure from his humble origins. The chaiwala metaphor carried an aspirational thrust with it because it emphasised one’s humble origin but not one’s destination. The metaphor of chowkidar, however, is ambiguous in this regard. It appears that the Prime Minister is marketing this image as his legitimate point of arrival, because of which it is devoid of any aspirational content. Thirdly, this metaphor is intended as a subject of universal availability. The first two words of the slogan emphasise the element of individual identifiability potentially by anyone. Many ministers, functionaries, and sympathisers of the ruling party have prefixed their names on Twitter with this label, and this is what the ruling party deems as being the acceptable public response to Rahul Gandhi’s charge against Narendra Modi.  

What are the political implications involved in the avowal of the term chowkidar in Indian politics, especially by the Prime Minister of India?  

The Gatekeeper as the Sovereign

If Franz Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” teaches us anything, it is that the gatekeeper to the institution is as important a locus of power as the institution itself (Kafka 2007). In the parable, the protagonist confronts only the gatekeeper every time he tries to secure an entry into the institution of law. The one confronted by the protagonist is the “most lowly gatekeeper,” and above him stands a veritable hierarchy of gatekeepers who control the decisive matter of access to the law. The “most lowly gatekeeper,” both in status and privilege, is vastly below the sovereign established by law, but he is nonetheless decisive in matters of access to the law. The hierarchy of gatekeepers operates because of the peculiar distribution of sovereignty as enabled by the sovereign himself. Sovereignty, which we assume is wrested in a central authority and is indissoluble, manifests in the parable as distributed in every instance in each gatekeeper who happens to be confronted by the man seeking access to the institution of law in question.

Narendra Modi’s campaign turns on a very similar principle. The campaign slogan, in fact, expresses the secret of his peculiar style of (non)governance during this tenure. The instances of gau rakshaks rampantly violating the rule of law in Una and Alwar are cases in point. The violation of law is expected to invite punishment from the sovereign. In these cases, however, this has not been the case reflecting perhaps the complicity of the sovereign. Each gau rakshak is thus a gatekeeper, who, in every instance, becomes an executioner of a law which does not exist. This is how sovereignty operates under Modi’s regime: in the unpredictable usurpation of the right of punishment by anyone against anyone.

It should be pointed out that the description of the gatekeeper as the sovereign does not resemble at all the condition of actual gatekeepers in our country. As T K Arun (2019) points out, “[t]he Prime Minister has latched on to the metaphor of the chowkidar at a time when the real-world chowkidar is an underpaid, overworked, sleep-deprived migrant bullied by his contractor employer.” 

The above analysis is an attempt to articulate the political significance of the metaphor of “chowkidar’ as used by the sovereign of a nation state. Prime Minister Modi’s “interaction” (actually a monologue) with 25 lakh chowkidars should only be seen as a gloss to demonstrate his mass acceptability to undercut the charge made by Gandhi’s slogan. The real chowkidars are hardly the subjects of the metaphor of the chowkidar as used by the Prime Minister. Similarly, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (2019) has correctly identified the amorphous nature of this campaign which seeks to potentially endow every citizen with the duty of security and more importantly, the right of punishment. He writes, “I do not want to be a chowkidar as it does not allow any scope for human dignity and self-respect. It is a job that needs to be abolished, as it is spiritually, socially, morally and economically antithetical to humane employment” (Shepherd 2018). This refusal of being a chowkidar should be understood as a refusal to participate in the punitive violence of distributive sovereignty that the current regime seeks to make available for its citizens, who are thus free to wield it against their fellow citizens.  

‘The Watchman Is Watching You!’

The slogan #MainBhiChowkidar is further intended as a signal of reassurance that the Prime Minister is literally “incorruptible.” This is a reaction to the charges of corruption as part of the Rafale deal. One of the reasons why Gandhi’s slogan gained some popularity was because it targeted the image of the Prime Minister as being personally incorruptible, even if others in the ruling party may seem potentially corruptible. 

The crucial issue of accountability and responsibility that accompanies authority needs to be emphasised here. The perverse genius in the slogan resides in the fact that in making oneself the purveyor of chowkidari among one’s supporters, Modi seeks to allow everybody the same gestures of unchecked power that have characterised his tenure so far. The institutions responsible for checking the power of the government, most crucially the judiciary, the media, as well as universities, have been systematically deprived of their critical power by way of instituting formal mechanisms that restrict their autonomy. If the functionaries of the media, judiciary, and universities begin to echo the slogan of #MainBhiChowkidar, would they be considered as checking and questioning the practices of the ruling government or would they be seen as conformist participants in the government’s (quite literally) symbolic economy? This is a crucial question, for if everyone is made into a watchman by the watchman-in-charge, the sovereign, then who is to watch that watchman himself?

There have been laudable attempts at delegitimising the narrative of chowkidari. Fatima Nafees highlighted the failure of the Modi government in providing a life of security to her son Najeeb Ahmed in Jawaharlal Nehru University (India Today 2019). Hardik Patel, on the other hand, added the prefix “Berojgar” (unemployed) to his name on Twitter to highlight the failure of the Modi government in providing credible employment to the youth (Indian Express 2019). The credibility of critique and opposition that should emerge from multiple institutional locations within both the civil society and the state in any democracy has been eroded by the machinations of the ruling government in its tenure. While the resilience of individual personalities should give us a reason for some hope, the despairing condition of institutions that are supposed to hold the government (and television media) accountable should be a major cause for concern. 

What can be glimpsed in the questioning of this campaign from many social locations is that there is value in critiquing the sovereign’s all-pervasive eye, for this questioning itself emerges from the blind spots of the supposedly inclusive “vision.” It is against the potential of such questioning that one must locate the Prime Minister’s attempts to frequently invent new symbolic images for himself as well as others.  

Ankit Kawade (ankitkawade@hotmail.com) is at the Centre of Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
15 May 2019