Faked and Felt: The Indian Case of Emotions during COVID-19 Pandemic

by Mercy Dutta

July 01, 2020
Terracotta plaque depicting a “sad girl” probably belonging to the Gupta era. Picture taken by the author at the National Museum, New Delhi.

22nd March 2020 saw the execution of a 12-hour national shutdown in India to express gratitude to the “frontline warriors” fighting against Corona Virus in the country. The catch being, our pradhansewak (chief-servant, our Prime Minister prefers to be addressed thus) urged the people to come out to their ‘balconies and terraces’ at 5.00 p.m. and bang pots and pans for five minutes. The directions were few and arbitrary. The response was varied and amusing. In numerous cities people marched out onto the streets, singing songs and carrying out processions. This immediately triggered social humour, as some came out in support of the initiative while others criticised it. What prevailed however, was the sentiment of denial that a fatal pandemic was staring us all in the eye. It was quickly followed by a surge in sentiments of ‘love for the nation’, an idea routinely capitalised by emergent right-wing forces in the country to justify government policies and actions. Sentiments of national pride overrode hard realities of the threat posed by the pandemic by emphasising that the citizens will fight and overcome the disease as one. When those waves were over, feelings took the shape of fear and suspicion which has since then fostered emotional dissonance and a denial of sympathy and compassion.

Denial, emotional manipulation and the making of a populist leader

On March 25th, 2020, the Indian Prime Minister declared a nationwide lockdown that was initially supposed to last for twenty one days. While the number of infected persons was low in the country in March and April, emotions were definitely running high. Messages were doing rounds on social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook, stating that, unlike other countries, India would not suffer because with the onset of the brutal South-Asian summers, rising temperatures would destroy the virus. There were other theories which suggested that the Indian body has a highly developed immune system, thanks to being faced with poor living conditions, high levels of pollution and other kinds of stress. The circulation of these kinds of news strengthened feelings of false hope and confidence among the people.

On the political level, the pandemic has been crucial in boosting this image of a populist leader in India. It may be pointed out that one of the central features of populism is the role of a charismatic demagogue who has a direct access to the masses and to a large extent their feelings. On 3rdApril the Prime Minister addressed the nation at 10 a.m. He urged people to ‘Light a Lamp’ for nine minutes at 9.00 p.m. on the 5thApril. He spoke of hope in the midst of despair and reminded us that we are in this together. And the response was overwhelming. One man could single-handedly generate in the minds of a vast majority of population in a country of approximately 1.4 billion a feeling of hope and unity. Realisation dawned that his ability to instruct people about what feelings are to be given a prominence and how, is a blatant display of his power over the peoples psyche. The people readily follow his lead.

The ‘Address to the Nation’ helps create the image of a leader with high emotional appeal. But emphasising hope and happiness glosses over emotions of anxiety, fear and grief that are the equally existent. Activities of singing, dancing and lighting lamps in these distraught times have taken the place of actual means which would tackle the problems at hand. In the face of a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits, a failing healthcare system, a flagging economy, the current migrant crisis, the politics of emotions are being strategically used to deviate attention from the problems by appealing to the people and their emotions. We are being taught to feel on cue, so to speak.

W. R. Scott has pointed out that ‘felt emotions provide a “powerful inducement to compliance” with existing institutions’ (see Giuseppe Delmestri and Elizabeth Goodrick, ‘Looking Away: Denial and Emotions in Institutional Stability’, p. 236, 2017). Strong emotional commitments make people forget that their needs are not being met. In the Indian case, urging the people to perform feel-good tasks to generate feel-good emotions absolves the PM from being held accountable for the inability to contain the virus infection. We are urged to contribute to the PM CARES (Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in emergency Situations) Fund but cannot demand transparency regarding its allocation.

We know that the propaganda of sentiment is not a novel concept. The history of autocracy teaches us that many world leaders have utilised periods of crisis to build their popular image particularly through a well thought-out strategy of emotional directions.

Understanding the problem of emotional dissonance emerging in times of distress

Emotions can be capitalised by governments in times of distress. But the strategy of emotional manipulation often creates spaces for conflicts arising out of the inability to reach a uniform negotiation among myriad felt realities. When asked to bang pots and pans for instance, many do so heartily. Neighbours and relatives are dragged out of their homes to participate in the act, shamed and shunned if they do not comply and worse, branded ‘anti-nationals’ and threatened to be harmed. The entire edifice of ‘national versus anti-national’ debate in India comes to rest on politics of emotions.

But once the rush of the ‘feel-good sentiments’ recede, a surge of negative emotions like fear and suspicion of the other often sets in. The momentary high is followed by an emotional dissonance. A student returning home is now viewed apprehensively as a potential carrier of the disease. ‘Migrant workers’  (a term used for informal labourers staying away from their original places of residence but having a larger social meaning that strips them of basic human rights and vilifies them by shifting the blame of irresponsibility and lawlessness onto them) walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes are made to sit huddled together by a highway and sprayed with chemical disinfectants usually present in detergents as a sanitation measure before they cross inter-state borders. Enthusiastic hope is often accompanied by fear and apathy and feelings of helplessness pervade all domains. Fear gives rise to racial attacks and at times even lynching. Hundreds of ‘migrant workers’ dropping dead in trains and highways turn into mere numbers. However, it is the feelings of the privileged which find their way into the news coverage, while the feelings of the marginalised go largely unnoticed. Caste and class distinctions find their way into the realm of sentiments.

Closing Remarks

Diseases don’t simply affect the physical body, but leave a deep seated impact on the feeling body as well. It is times like pandemics and wars that remind us that people are not merely entities of flesh and blood with distinct class and caste identities. At the end of the day, we are feeling beings and our responses to instances of crisis also emerge from that. To say the least, the last few months have brought home the idea that emotions are central to pandemics. Personal emotions and those generated by the state to control and direct the masses fail to come to a negotiation as we have seen the case of India. I believe that this is a historic moment. May be this is the time to recognise fellow humans as feelings entities and cultivate feelings like compassion. May be it is now that the emotional turn is truly being set into motion, moving out of the domain of text books into the real world.

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