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Indian Democracy and Hindu Populism: The Modi Regime

by Arvind Rajagopal, 27 February 2015

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Social Text Special issue Indian Politics under Modi - February 26th, 2015

Quid rides? Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. — Horace [1]

Introducing the Problem

Why do you laugh? Change the name, and the story is yours. So Marx warned German readers who thought the lessons of Capital were only about England, and did not apply to Germany. Similarly, one might say, popular elections with anti-people outcomes are not simply a feature of flawed polities in faraway lands. They may also reflect forces at work in the most powerful nation in the world.

This dossier compiles a series of reflections in the aftermath of the election in May 2014 of an Indian political party, coming to power on a crest of public enthusiasm. Not mirth, but fatigue may set in upon mention of one more country where neoliberalism combines with religious chauvinism, while left groups slide into further decline. The two Communist Parties, which used to be stalwarts in Parliament and had a respectable strength, are now sidelined by the new governing coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And for the first time a party winning a majority in Parliament has not a single elected Muslim representative, in what is the world’s second largest Muslim country. This new level of Hindu assertion provides interesting lessons for comparative analysis, but it is mainly area specialists who pay attention.

Hindu assertion, like other forms of contemporary political chauvinism, is deeply connected with structural transformation and new modes of social aspiration. It reflects not only a changing alignment of upwardly mobile and dominant classes. It also points to a reaction against the erstwhile paradigm of postcolonial development, a paradigm that buckled under the pressures it was subject to.

Hindu populism has been winning elections. Until recently a category such as Hindu populism was hard to imagine, so prevalent was the sense that religion belonged to the past and politics to the future. But the entity has been awhile in the making, even if the coinage is new. For the first four decades, a low rate of economic growth was important in allowing a secular leadership to retain power, while representative institutions took root. Over time, Hindu upper castes’ greater influence in cultural and social domains allowed them to capitalize on the legitimation crises that followed higher economic growth in the 1980s. The BJP used Hindu identity to co-opt lower caste mobilization, and to discredit secularism as something alien. It is in this context that developmentalism has resurfaced recently, championed by Narendra Modi, an erstwhile chauvinist from a so-called backward caste, who now only invokes Hindutva in coded terms and through his underlings. Good governance is his new credo. [2]

When a political problem is declared to be “over,” it signals an attempt to change the rules of discourse; there should otherwise be no objection to revisiting “history.” The resistance to certain words may thus indicate a change in the terrain of politics. We have seen that in the U.S., where the onset of civil rights and affirmative action sanctioned the exit of race from polite conversation. Meanwhile racism flourished. Somewhat similarly, the new-found developmentalism has been sanctioned to delegitimize the critique of Hindutva, as if Hindu majoritarianism were no longer a problem.

Interestingly, in the February 2015 elections in the Delhi assembly elections, Modi experienced his first-ever electoral defeat, by a populist party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or Common Man Party, that echoed the themes of good governance, but far more persuasively. Crowd-sourced funding and unpaid volunteers helped AAP in a landslide victory over the BJP, which behaved tactically like the establishment against its challenger. [3] The composition of candidates however, is in class and caste terms, indistinguishable across party. [4]

The BJP is still in the first of its 5-year term in power, and it has a historic majority in Parliament, while the former ruling Congress Party now has only a fraction of its previous strength. The essays in this dossier seek to provide some critical purchase on the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP. The ironies of his ascent only intensify with scrutiny. The new prime minister has been praised as the long-awaited answer to India’s problems of poor governance and weak leadership. But his initiatives resemble those of many other populists, in offering identity and rhetoric to the poor and giveaways to the rich. Meanwhile virtually all power has been concentrated in his hands. Senior bureaucrats and politicians have been kept at a distance, the Opposition is diminished, and while the publicity is unrelenting, the routines of public accountability such as a media officer or press conferences have been neglected. [5]

Instead Modi uses Twitter, where he has a few tens of millions following him. One-way communication has ruled.

Although his success is due above all to unprecedented media support, Modi changed the terms of his relationship with the media after his victory. After a yearlong flood of news events and press releases, there is a sudden drought. Business papers now focus on commercial and industrial news, much as they used to in the first decades after independence, because the Prime Minister’s Office monopolizes political information and nothing escapes from there. Bureaucrats, minor and even senior party leaders are forbidden to talk to the press; their movements are monitored by the PMO. Information is censored at source, so that the problem posed by criticism becomes negligible.

Yet this has led to no overt protest from the news industry. For example, the one hundred day period following Modi’s victory was widely referred to (in the American style that seems to be taking over Indian politics) as a “honeymoon.” But the truth is that Modi stayed away from the bedroom and the media was denied their post-election connubial encounter.

Not for 30 years has India seen the election of a strong national party with the majority of size that the BJP currently has, i.e., since Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government in 1984. Whether populism has subdued homo hierarchicus, or caste and Hindu symbolism have taken on a populist character, something new is taking shape here.

Amit Shah, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi has sought to centralize the party organization as well as the government in his own office. Photo Credit: AFP. Source: /

Why Few Saw It Coming

The Cold War’s end, as we know, signaled the defeat of communism. Religion began to become much more influential directly thereafter in many parts of the world. However, U.S. governments had historically tended to regard religion as an ally against “godless communism.” [6] It was also seen as a stabilizer in the unending “transition” to modernity. [7] No surprise then that influential studies of the core Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Organization) by U.S.-based scholars regarded it benignly, as an ascetic form of socialism, as Gandhian volunteerism, or as Hindu revivalism. Never mind that the organization had been banned on the suspicion that it had participated in Gandhi’s assassination. [8] Their stoking violence as a means of organizing Hindus was thus ignored, and the martial character of the organization was seen as ornamental to essentially pietist tendencies. [9]

The warning signs were ignored because they pertained to local issues, while the optic these scholars brought was shaped by U.S. concerns during this time. Hindu nationalists idealized not communism but fascism. This may have been reassuring if only because there seemed little chance that India’s Anglophone elite would allow a fascist government to arise. [10]

Beneath this assumption was a deeper one. The post-Enlightenment ban on religion from providing a politically viable identity turned into a presumption that religion could not be politically viable. Although it says much about how the category was treated in foreign policy, this was largely true of Islam too; we know the U.S. used jihad as a weapon against the USSR in Afghanistan.

The historian Isaac Deutscher once remarked that a nation’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic concerns and not a separate entity. Domestically, the Christian churches were by and large, a potent cultural and political resource inoculating Americans against alien ideologies, notably Communism. It is symptomatic that immigrant religions including Islam were by and large welcomed as a sign of civic belonging and a portent of assimilation into the U.S. melting pot. U.S. foreign policy on religion was subject to geopolitical considerations and could not be unvarying; both Egypt and Israel were U.S. allies, for example. But the default assumption was that religion did not present a political problem, and as such, did not qualify as a serious intellectual concern either. Meanwhile religious expression in the west had itself been subject to a centuries-long transformation so that it inhered in a variety of artifacts, institutions and practices without necessarily defining itself explicitly as a product of the Church or as a sign of faith.

Hindus historically did not all share what was supposed to constitute a religion, such as creed, deity, ritual, or text. Those that wished to promote Hindu identity consequently had a problem that appears as the reverse of Christianity’s in the secular age. [11] They had to assert the existence of a common religion and give it an overarching status when, for more than a millennium, there was little that linked the various sects and faiths in the subcontinent. Except for two things, however, whose importance has varied over time. One was the invisible thread that united “caste Hindus” against so-called untouchable castes. [12]

And the other was the idea of an external enemy, such as Christians, “secularists,” and above all Muslims.

Here the May 2014 elections in India provide an intriguing twist. A Hindu nationalist party now rules with an absolute majority in Parliament. Although Modi is accused of treating the mass murder and rape of Muslims in Gujarat, when he was chief minister there in 2002, as a political platform rather than as a law and order issue, this electoral victory has generally been defined as a vote for good governance and for market reforms. [13]

Meanwhile development is proclaimed to have replaced Hindu nationalism, albeit by means of public-private partnerships rather than through the state as such. The change has all the signs of a PR makeover. And with a parliamentary majority, the emperor has new clothes, even if they have lately been a bit muddied.

In a tradition where reality is beyond words and the truth has no essence, almost anything can be said about it; there is in fact no religious doctrine as such to challenge. Hinduism as conjured for the political process today surpasses dialectical materialism; it is the most expansive philosophical system conceivable, if it can be called one. In such a context, the category of religion presents an opportunity rather than a problem: to be “Hindu” is an artifact of publicity rather than an expression of ancient mores. It is no surprise that a senior party leader has stated that Hindu nationalism is an opportunistic issue for the BJP, a “talking point” rather than a core ideology. [14]

In fact, the electoral process has sanctioned a new language of political theology for the BJP. In his Madison Square Garden speech in New York in September 2014, Narendra Modi referred to the people as sovereign and their verdict as divine. He declared, “Janata Jan Janardhan,” suggesting that the will of the people prevails over the world. But Janardhan is not a secular term for “ruler;” it refers to the Hindu god Lord Krishna. Electoral success provides the supreme redemption in this understanding, negating merely juridical verdicts. It implies divine will at work, or is actually the manifestation of divine power in the figure of the elected ruler, who is like the king but sanctified by a formal democratic process.

Western security experts understand Islamism as a case of “blowback” in the Middle East and elsewhere, but Hindu assertion usually does not appear on their radar. Rhetorically deft and procedurally scrupulous, senior leaders deny Hindu identity while relying on its use in their campaigns. Western political analysts typically assume a confessional model of the political party but most parties, and certainly those in India, center around leaders, a history and an identity; the ideology is flexible. Worldly power, not martyrdom, is the goal.

Political authority is the end towards which this new kind of religious identity is created, applicable across caste groupings that not long ago were excluded, prominently the former Untouchable castes that constitute about a quarter of the population. There is no exact historical parallel for this event. Other major religious identities in contemporary times either pre-exist or have coexisted with their political manifestation. [15]

No previous party has come to power by excluding Muslims so completely. Meanwhile the situation of Muslims has steadily worsened over the last 30 years. During this time, they have replaced the Dalit (or former Untouchable castes) as the most deprived community in India. [16]

A tentative hypothesis we can offer for the changes taking place is that Indian society is democratizing, but in a “Hindu” way. If as B.R. Ambedkar has argued, Hindu unity is constituted by caste Hindus’ shared aversion towards “Untouchable” castes, electoral democracy has introduced a new dynamic into this process. [17] The exclusion of Muslims from political visibility is accompanied by the increasing political visibility of Dalits. The new basis for Hindu unification is the exclusion of Muslims, alongside the formal subsumption of Dalits. The register of exclusion shifts in the process, from untouchability to invisibility. Media expansion enables more coordinated and extensive forms of exclusion than were previously imaginable; political dynamics have both anticipated this development and furthered it.

Children in Varanasi wearing Modi masks (April 24, 2014). Source: The Nation /

The Essays

Partha Chatterjee’s essay opens this collection of essays with his analysis of the election whose outcome is frequently described as a decisive ascendancy of national over regional parties. In fact, he points out, regional parties have gained slightly in the overall balance, while the shift has largely occurred due to supporters of the erstwhile ruling Congress Party having crossed over to the BJP. Meanwhile an American mode of electioneering has become prevalent he notes, one that characterizes the upstart Aam Aadmi Party as well as the BJP.

Louise Tillin deepens Chatterjee’s analysis in showing how the regional parties that contribute to the ruling alliance at the Center have increased in number but decreased in size, often having barely a handful of seats. The national has in the process acquired a density and force not explained simply by reference to the victorious party’s vote share; something more is at work. [18]

As Nalin Mehta explains, there were political strategies, party tactics, organizational gambits and industry logics at work here, all combined in the reference to the word “media.” No one had regarded Modi as charismatic: he had been a party apparatchik until the 2002 riots showed him an opportunity to seize the limelight. He managed to handle the violence in such a way that his image began to sell papers regardless of the content. Modi succeeded in turning the most negative publicity any post-independence leader has ever had into the most positive image within hardly a decade. Few comparable feats of promotional alchemy exist. Critical to understanding this development, Mehta explains, is the form and character of media growth over the last decade and a half, whereby business and political forces have converged in such a blaze of light that their individual identities have merged into something new, which Modi has exploited with great skill.

Shruti Kapila imaginatively opens up this terrain with her argument that the Indian social is irrevocably altered by B.R. Ambedkar’s initiative for constitutional protection of former Untouchable castes. Homo equalis is thereby posed alongside homo hierarchicus, thereby limiting the ways in which the social can be mediated and mobilized. This introduces a contingent element into the politics of Hindu nationalism, she suggests. Although a statutory political majority appears to have been proven for Hindutva in the latest elections, she argues, it is in the social terrain that this claim is likely to unravel.

Gopal Guru poses a paradox of democracy as seen from the viewpoint of the Dalit, whose form of inclusion within a Hindu democracy could hardly be without contradiction. Guru points out that despite more than six decades of electoral democracy, Dalits are elected only through constituencies reserved for them, while none are elected from general constituencies. Their social marginality finds its reflection in a form of political representation that is itself cordoned off from the general process of representation by a quota system that makes Dalits into a token, not of their intrinsic merits, but of upper caste magnanimity. The political challenge represented by Dalits to upper caste hegemony appears to be neutralized. Indirect visual confirmation can be found, Guru argues, in the fact that Dalit spokespersons avoid eye contact with the camera when speaking to the news media; they signal either their subjection to the parties whom they ostensibly speak for, or their refusal to be incorporated into the new, mediated Hindu populism taking shape in India.

Aakar Patel, a Mumbai-based columnist, closes the Periscope with a reflection on the current landscape of Indian politics in the wake of Modi’s election.

Arvind Rajagopal is Professor of Media Studies at NYU, and is an affiliated faculty in the Departments of Sociology, and Social and Cultural Analysis. In the year 2010-11, he is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His books include Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India (Cambridge, 2001), which won the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Prize from the Association of Asian Studies and the Daniel Griffiths Prize at NYU, both in 2003, and The Indian Public Sphere: Structure and Transformation (Oxford, 2009). He has won awards from the MacArthur and Rockefeller Foundations, and has been a Member in the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. In addition to his scholarly writing, he has also published in forums such the SSRC’s Immanent Frame and, and in newspapers and periodicals.


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