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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 3 January 20, 2024

India after Modi: Right-Wing Populism and National Hegemony | Dilip Kumar

Friday 19 January 2024



The rise of Narendra Modi to power in Delhi in 2014 and the concomitant rise of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) to power in more states than ever have inaugurated a new phase in national politics. This phase is best conceptualized as right-wing populism. There has also been an unprecedented and open use of the incumbent government’s power to attack all kinds of opposition, not just political. Modi’s government has tactically used its position to mold institutions in its favor or in favor of its ideology of Hindutva. Modi has succeeded in sidelining the entire apparatus of party politics, vote banks, electoral processes, parliamentary democracy and representative government to offer himself, the singular protagonist Narendra Modi, as the voice, the will and the image of the Indian people.

Keywords: Modi, Populism, Empty Signifier, Hindutva, National Hegemony.


There are few concepts that have been contested as that of populism. Populism, for John Judis, is difficult to pin down conceptually. Populism, he asserts, can be of a left-wing or right-wing variety, so that its ideological label is not a dependable factor in constructing a singular stable definition that would cover all empirical data. [1] This conceptual dilemma has led some scholars to describe populism as an ideology or a movement [2] whereas others have viewed it as a particular style or ’repertoire’ of [3] There is, however, another way of seeing populism. It is considered, to use the language of Laclau, as an emancipatory force, a remedy to cure the ills associated with anti-imperialism and late twentieth-century neo-liberalism [4]; or it is regarded as a binary doctrine that rests on the distinction between two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ’the pure people’ and the ’corrupt elite’, where politics should be an expression of the ’general will’ of the people. [5]

What we are noticing is, therefore, interesting. For those who follow Laclau tend to present populism as an important ingredient of a radical democratic programme, whereas those who have a negative view of populism point to its divisive potential, its inclination to turn a blind eye to the rights of those who are not taken into consideration to be part of ’the people’, in particular, minorities. Thus by dividing society into two antagonistic camps, populist discourses, in the long run, construct ‘a people’ as ‘something less than the totality of the members of the community’, while at the same time aspiring ‘to be conceived as the only legitimate totality’. [6] Ignazi brings to the surface five features that appear to correspond with current populist politics in India, as well as in many other places: nationalism and nativism, racism, xenophobia, new forms of democratic governance, and appeals for a strong state—and leader. [7]

Building on Laclau’s proposition that populism is not defined by any particular political or ideological content: rather, it structures in particular ways the representation of whatever political content it articulates, it may be suggested that in India a form of competitive electoral populism is at play. It is indeed true that democracy is characterized by the expression of numerous demands by various groups. The heterogeneity of those demands has increased considerably in the twenty-first century due to administrative policies, a number of which can be linked to neoliberal economic doctrines that are designed to interrupt large consolidations such as trade unions and mass political parties. Governmental policies now seek to target specific population groups with specific demands that distinguish them from other groups. Laclau calls this the strategy of responding to differential demands through the logic of difference. [8]

The fact, however, is that all democratic demands cannot be satisfied, and when large numbers of such demands remain unsatisfied, they may create a negative scenario. Despite the fact that the diverse demands are qualitatively different, they may be rhetorically related by way of chains of equivalence as the unsatisfied demands of the people. Thus as Partha Chatterjee notes, an internal frontier is created by populist politics separating the people from those who deny them their demands. [9] Society becomes divided between an oppressed people and the ’corrupt elite’. Populist movements and parties create chains of equivalence through rhetorical, visual, performative, and other modes of illustration of grievances. Thus an empty signifier a concept or name ("nationalism", "India First") embodied in a "leader" who poses "the people" is filled by a wide array of grievances, all signifying equivalent, unfulfilled, popular demands denied by the ’corrupt elite’ that constitutes the enemy of the people. Due to the fact that the demands are so varied, the signifier tends to be vague, missing in specific policy content. Laclau argues that this is not always a weakness of populist politics but rather a condition of its political efficacy. [10]

What is it about populism that captures the popular will in a way that regular democracy does not seem to? Ananya Vajpeyi that what sets it apart is the mirror-like persona of the leader. A senate, a parliament or any other type of legislature, an elected body of legislators cannot act as a mirror in the same way as an individual can. A populist leader acts as a singular or unitary mirror for the multiplicity of wills and aspirations which are expressed in a democracy. Unlike a dictator, autocrat, despot or tyrant, the populist does not (appear to) bring his own agenda to the table and impose his will on the people – rather, the opposite. [11]

Populist leaders consolidate disparate ideological positions or political demands into a shared antagonism to prevailing forms of political power and authority by dividing and simplifying the social field into two distinct camps, championing the people over a corrupt elite. The much noted poverty, simplicity, and shallowness of symbols and slogans deployed by aspiring great leaders are efficacious precisely because they help reduce the heterogeneous particularistic content of social identity in the project of creating a homogeneous people. Heterogeneous elements of society are unified and stabilized by the emergence of an “empty signifier” [12] or pure reflective surfaces – traditional, electronic and social media all seem to be acting as mirrors of the popular will, permitting extensive numbers of Hindu voters to see, hear, feel and think what they want to, all of which seems to emanate from the authoritative figure of the country’s prime minister. Modi is the unitary human embodiment of popular desires. The reciprocity of legitimation between Modi and his electorate is nothing but the mirror effect at work. The one leader stands before the one people. Their eyes are locked together. There is no place for “others” in this gaze of mutual fascination. [13]

Populism in India

Indira Gandhi was brought into power in 1966 by a group of Congress Party leaders who were entrenched party bosses in various states. She consolidated her power after 1969 by way of splitting the party, reaching out directly for popular support through slogans aimed at the poor, and reducing the strongmen to a minority wing of the Congress. Her populist stance combined such apparently socialistic packages as the nationalization of banks and mines and the abolition of the compensation paid to former rulers of the princely states with an agrarian strategy of "green revolution" based on providing state support to large landowners. At the same time, she also launched schemes of poverty removal focused on specific groups, such as scheduled castes and tribes, minorities, workers, and women, to be delivered by bureaucratic functionaries as gifts from the benevolent leader, bypassing the powerful local elites who were described as oppressors who had so long denied those benefits from reaching the poor.

Indira Gandhi’s populism produced a highly centralized structure of power focused on herself as the ultimate leader and based largely on a politicized bureaucracy for its functioning, abolishing the erstwhile federal character of the Congress Party run through strong chief ministers in the states. The developmental approach of the era of Jawaharlal Nehru, with huge public undertakings within the capital items and infrastructure sectors and private capitalists in the consumer items zone, was repackaged through the employment of a new idiom of state socialism, with the central executive structures of government playing the leading role. [14]

These tendencies took the extraordinary shape of the state of emergency in 1975-1977, when, in the context of a growing opposition movement through which the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan was trying to bring together all opposition parties, an adverse court judgment raised the possibility of Indira Gandhi being removed from office. She suspended the typical working of electoral democracy and the rights of assembly and speech, placed large numbers of opposition leaders and activists in prison, imposed censorship on the press, and announced a twenty-point program that included liquidation of rural indebtedness; abolition of bonded labor; socialization of urban land; and special benefits to agricultural workers, weavers, students, and "weaker sections." In actual fact, the emergency gave unbridled control to officials and Congress politicians, who utilised it in a self-assertive and frequently violent way. [15]

Indira Gandhi’s populism of the 1970s set a few trends. First, it established a form of state populism in which power was centralized in a single leader, no alternative leadership was allowed to emerge within the ruling party, and benefit schemes were implemented through a politicized bureaucracy. Second, the personality of the leader was projected through the state and party media as a benevolent protector of the poor and the underprivileged. In this Indira Gandhi was frequently characterized by commentators as a Bonapartist leader, standing above partisan, factional, and regional interests. [16] Third, regardless of the apparently socialist-sounding rhetoric, actual policies did no longer always conform to any particular economic ideology since large corporate houses, big landowning farmers, and the urban middle classes largely dependent on the state sector all had to be kept within the ruling-class coalition. Fourth, the fact that Indira Gandhi called for elections after a year and a half of emergency rule confirmed that populist politics requires a periodic validation by the electorate in order to maintain its credibility as a legitimate modality of government.

Yet Indira Gandhi’s populism also brought to the surface a major problem in establishing an effective chain of equivalence to tie together the people at the national level. Except in 1971, when the Bangladesh Liberation struggle raised the specter of a national enemy in Pakistan backed by China and the United States, the idea of the people’s enemy so vital to populist reason could only be actualized as Indira Gandhi’s enemies. However, these tended to shift over time. In the beginning, her enemies were the old Congress bosses who were said to be conservative and resistant to the progressive policies she was seeking to introduce to benefit the people. Then the enemies became Jayaprakash Narayan and the group of Gandhians, socialists, and Bharatiya Jana Sangh party leaders who were said to be conspiring to topple her by means of spreading disorder in the country. When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, her main enemies were identified as Khalistani agitators engaged in armed insurrection and terrorism with backing from foreign sources. In Laclau’s phrases [17], the enemy of the people was a floating signifier that was required to take on distinct meanings over time.

As a result the different elements representing Indira Gandhi’s enemies had to have a metonymical relationship so that any one of them could be seen as "the enemy". But it also reflected the lack of a stable positive identifier that would offer imaginative and emotional coherence to the unity of the people; the only such signifier was the person of the leader herself. Even as governmental policies aimed at satisfying the demands of target populations representing potential constituencies of electoral support have proliferated after Indira Gandhi, there has been no populist regime in power in New Delhi until the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

Dimension of Populism in India

The above description of India Gandhi’s populism is especially valuable in understanding the governmental and ideological dimensions of populism. The first refers to specific governmental policies aimed at distributing benefits to target population groups in order to eliciting support for the regime. At the level of technique, there is pressure for such policies to comply to a certain administrative rationality of legality, budgetary feasibility, and bureaucratic accountability. As such, these policies fall within Laclau’s definition of the logic of difference [18] and may be analyzed in terms of the administrative rationality of liberal or neoliberal governmentality. However, they might become part of populist politics if the regime is able to show these arrangements as generous acts for which the recipients ought to feel obliged to continue their support. This is the characteristics of mass clientelism for which populism has often been criticized, because it allegedly has a tendency to keep electoral support groups in a perpetual condition of dependence on the regime.

The second dimension of populism is the ideological one. This refers to the set of representations that makes it feasible for a populist party to efficiently portray the disparate unfulfilled needs of a variety of groups as essentially the result of oppression at the hands of the same oppressor. Needless to say, this dimension of populism operates in keeping with Laclau’s logic of equivalence. These representations, rhetorically produced through speech, visuals, and performance, make palpable in cultural and emotional terms the internal frontier between the people and their enemy. Just as the unity of the people, oppressed collectively, must be experienced and felt, so must the evil ways of the enemy invoke indignation and the will to resist. The rhetorical representation of the people and their enemy ought to construct on present solidarities such as ethnic, linguistic, or religious identity. But new solidarities will also be invented, such as distinctions between the rich few and the exploited many, or domiciles and immigrants, or a party long entrenched in power and those excluded. This is the characteristic of populism that draws criticism from liberals who claim that it necessarily has a tendency to majoritarianism and anti-pluralism. [19]

Two points may be reiterated. First, the governmental and ideological dimensions of populism do no longer necessarily indicate any particular content of policies or representations. The Indian examples provide evidence of a wide variety of populist policies, in addition to rhetorical invocations of the people. Secondly, it may be pointed out that the governmental aspect of populism inaugurated under Indira Gandhi has been ramified and expanded in numerous ways by subsequent political dispensation at the central level.

Modi’s Populism and National Hegemony

When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he received lavish support and massive campaign funding from big business houses. His slogan Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas appeared to be premised on steering decisively away from the remaining traces of state planning and regulation, ushering in pro-business reform of the tax regime and labor laws, and promoting speedy economic growth. Part of this was a promise to corporate commercial inter prise interests and the upper middle class; the other part was to recognize the aspirations of the upwardly mobile and the more youthful generation, who yearned for access to the glittering world of consumption. It soon became clear, however, that neither global nor national economic conditions were favorable for rapid growth. Over the last 9 years, the agenda of economic reform has proceeded in fits and starts. What has expanded at far greater pace is the reach of a dense network of data gathering, commercial penetration, and state surveillance through mobile phone services, electronic bank transfers, and mandatory biometric identification of all inhabitants of the country. On the other hand, specific demands from huge electoral segments have become vociferous. The Modi government was pressured to resort, even if reluctantly, to time-tested technique of governmental populism to quell the anger of disaffected dominant caste groups—though so far with little success. [20] Major electoral reverses in three northern Indian states in 2018 only increased the urgency of populist spending before the parliamentary elections of 2019.

Theoretically this has raised the question of a preference among two paths of the passive revolution of the bourgeoisie in an integral state as opposed to the tactically extended state. Ever since the termination of the dominance of the Congress in the 1980s, no national political party had held power in New Delhi without the support of an amalgam of regional parties, whose mode of rule was very well bound up with the tactical extension of the state through negotiations with various mobilized groups in regional and local political society. Several of these regional parties are also organized around strong populist leaders. Corporate business houses are often courted by these regional leaders with offers of cheap land and tax advantages for setting up industries in their states, yet the mounting costs of populist expenditure for the exchequer at both the central and state levels, as well as the arbitrariness and uncertainty produced by populist agitations and their periodically negotiated political resolutions, have been matters of serious concern for the Indian bourgeoisie. Modi’s assertion of a developmental agenda appeared to signal both the capacity and readiness to forsake the selective and as Partha Chatterjee argues, often random tactical extensions into political society and instead push for a hegemonic bid akin to that of the integral state. [21] This announcement was eagerly grasped by big business and the upper middle class at the time of Modi’s election in 2014.

Ideological Project of Hindutva

However, the BJP also has an alternative ideological agenda of Hindutva. Unlike populism, this carries with it a distinct and assertively revisionist pedagogical mission. The ideological agenda of Hindutva is unconnected with the governmental agenda and may continue quite independently with its pedagogical mission through schools, universities, publishing projects, cinema, television, and social media.

Leaving apart governmental populism, which is a feature that is common to all electoral parties in India, it is important to stress the significance of the quite different political possibilities contained in the Hindutva agenda on the one hand, and the electoral mobilization carried out by the regional populist parties on the other. The latter builds on the affective sentiments that bind "the people" of a regional language community and draws an internal border that sets it against other ethnic groups regarded as exploiters or hostile intruders, or it pits the region against a distant and unsympathetic central power. Each language community is in itself a people-nation and yet is part of a larger nation-state. However, given the constraints of constitutional relations between the states and the centre and the existing structure of class power in the national economy, none of the regional populist parties can achieve anything beyond tactical electoral victories. [22]

However, project of Hindutva is a hegemonic struggle to achieve a convergence between the ’nation-state’ as inherited through the transfer of power from British rule and a ’people-nation’ that is unitary, homogeneous, and transcends the various regions within India. It is often not realized that this hegemonic project is by no means a new brand launched by the BJP but goes back to at least the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a project wherein intellectuals writing in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi and belonging to the mainstream Congress nationalist formation enthusiastically participated. In this hegemonic construction, the upper-caste Hindu male speaking a northern Indian language is the normative, unmarked, Indian. [23] State, nation, and people are made to converge around this normative identity. Not surprisingly, every other identity must occupy a place at some distance from the norm; the gap is expected to be closed through a process of cultural pedagogy and the deviant assimilated into the unitary people-nation. The Muslim emerges as the most deviant of all, representing several centuries of political domination and the vivisection of the country at the moment of independence.

Another narrative which often goes by the name of Nehruvian secularism that held its sway in the period of congress dominance was largely constructed in the aftermath of partition as an inclusive ideology that sought to guard the place of religious and ethnic ’Minorities’ within the definition of citizenship. This became, however, in large part a state-centered discourse. It did not challenge the civilizational narrative of the unitary people-nation; all it did was stress the cultural diversity that had been supposedly unified by the sovereign nation-state. With the weakening of the Congress Party at the center, the BJP ideology of Hindutva, building on the prevailing vernacular sense of the civilizational centrality of Hindu India, has been capable of boost up its project of merging the nation-state with the Hindu people-nation. [24]

The BJP thrust has been successfully opposed by regional populist parties in several states. Yet this opposition is confined to electoral strategies. There is no significant counter narrative yet which can establish the regional forces as credible claimants to power in the central structures of the nation-state. Such a sort of counter hegemonic narrative, if it is to build upon the populist mobilizations in the regions, must project the idea of the Indian nation-state as one founded not by a unitary people-nation but by a number of federating peoples who came together to form a sovereign state. A federated "peoples-nation" might permit for not only the equal presence within it of many languages, religions, and ethnicities but also of numerous civilizational narratives, consisting of the minority religions, the Dravidian languages, the Dalit castes, and the tribal peoples of central and northeastern India. [25] The regional populist movements have been unable to formulate a transformative hegemonic strategy of this kind.

Since 2014, with the BJP at the center of government, the ideological pursuit of Hindutva has been carried out, with varying range of enthusiasm and persistence, in different parts of the country. On the one hand, this has involved tenacious work with the aid of dedicated Hindutva volunteers in local initiatives to provide educational services, health care, and other social services, especially to lower-caste and tribal communities in order to enable them to claim a respectable place within the Hindu fold. [26] On the other hand, there has also been a grand upward thrust on those allegedly holding "anti-national" or "anti-Hindu" views, carried out by vigilante groups that appear to operate with impunity in BJP-ruled states. One part of this campaign seeks to educate and include while the other terrorizes and excludes.

Here at this stage of analysis it needs to be kept in view that there are two sides to the Hindu nationalist construction of ’the people’: external and internal. The former requires highlighting the differences between Hindus and Muslims, India’s largest minority (and, secondarily, Hindu differences with the other minorities), and the latter calls for ignoring, or de-emphasizing, caste divisions within Hindu society.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Modi’s view of ’the people’ has been his attitude towards vigilantism. Fifteen months after his rise to power, lynching of beef eaters and cattle traders started coming to national attention. Muslims and Dalits were the targets of vigilante violence. Modi spoke vehemently against the lynchings of Dalits, but remained either silent on the lynching of Muslims, or his statements were perfunctory, compared to his vigorous critique of Dalit lynchings, or he blamed the governments of states where the lynchings took place, rarely denouncing the vigilante groups engaged in such violence. [27]

Modi’s relative silence on some other vigilante projects is also striking. Soon after he came to power, Hindu nationalist organizations launched a ghar waapsi (home return) campaign, aiming at forcible reconversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, on the grounds that they were originally Hindus and had been converted to Islam and Christianity by force in the past. The campaign has been dropped, but it is not clear it will not resurface. Another campaign, named Love Jehad, remains unrelinquished. It seeks and end to Muslim men marrying Hindu women, even if such marriages (or romantic relationships) are voluntary.

To summarize, even if Modi has not explicitly said so, India’s Hindu community, the nation’s religious majority, appears to constitute ’the people’ for him. In effect, if not in law, the non-Hindu minorities thus become secondary citizens. Conceptually speaking, there is no surprise here: the notion of popular sovereignty has often militated against the idea of minority rights in many parts of the world. [28] While such rights remain legally protected, BJP’s rise to national power resulted in an ecosystem, where Muslim marginality could potentially be pursued as a political project. [29]

The BJP’s electoral campaign in 2019 Lok Sabha election was centered almost entirely on the personality of Narendra Modi. All the resources of publicity were mobilized to cultivate the image of a strong leader who can protect the country against its enemies, fight foreign-sponsored terrorism, and promote economic growth that will benefit all. In a tactic reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s populism, the nation’s external enemy-Pakistan-is metonymically connected to the opposition parties and leaders in order to constitute the floating signifier called "the enemy of the people": those who oppose Modi are the nation’s enemies, and hence the people’s enemies. The early promise of a hegemonic push toward an integral state seems to have been given up-at least for now. What is under way is an electoral battle between Modi’s populist leadership and a tactical combination of several regional populisms. The bourgeoisie, it appears, has to settle for dominance, not hegemony, and accept the inevitability of populist uncertainty and excess.


There is little doubt that, irrespective of 2024 Lok Sabha election results, the pedagogy of Hindutva will retain to assert that a strong and unified nation-state must rest on the support of a unitary and homogeneous people-nation. So long as there is no alternative narrative that can bind the regional popular mobilizations into a credible historical bloc at the level of the centre, the BJP can only be challenged through tactical electoral alliances. Politics will remain confined to competitive populism seeking to assuage the demand of various sections of political society.

Last but not least, it needs to be emphasized that for two reasons, Modi’s populism cannot become hegemonic. First, the crises to which populism is a response are continuous, and newer dimensions of it are revealed daily. In Modi’s case, the crises of growth, jobs, and agricultural productivity have deepened due to his own policies. That the leader who promised to resolve the crisis, and to compose a people around such a promise, is unable to fulfill his promise is testing Modi’s capacity to maintain his hold over the people and prevent their disintegration into alternate compositions. Second, social media provides a platform for continuous interrogation of the claims of leaders and their supporters, allowing for attempts to undermine the ruling leader–people configuration. Rather than produce anything as stable as hegemony, social media in India is a vehicle for a politics of continuous contention between varieties of populism and a contested terrain.

(Author: Dr. Dilip Kumar, Assistant Professor, University Department of Political Science,, B.R.Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur-842001)

[1Judies, John. B (2016), The Populist Explosion (Columbia Global Reports), p. 15

[2Mude, Cas (2007), The Populist radical right in Europe (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press)

[3Wodak, Ruth (2015) The politics of fear: what right-wing populist discourses mean (London: Sage).

[4Laclau, Ernesto (2005), On Populist Reason (London: Verso), p. 80.

[5Kriesi, Hanspeter and Pappas, Takis (2015) European populism in the shadow of the great recession (London: ECPR Press).

[6Laclau, Ernesto (2005), op.cit., p. 81.

[7Ignazi, Piero (2003) Extreme right parties in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[8Laclau, Ernesto, (2005), op.cit.

[9Chaterjee, Partha (2020), I am The People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (New Delhi: Permanent Black), p. 83.

[10Laclau, Ernesto (2005), op.cit

[11Vajpayee, A. (2020), "Minorities and Populism in Modi’s India: The Mirror Effect" in Kaul, V and Vajpayee, A.(eds) Minorities and Populism-Critical Perspectives from South Asia and Europe, (Springer International Publishing).

[12Kinnvall, Catarina (2019), "Populism, Ontological insecurity and Hindustva: Modi and the masculinization of India Politics", Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 32, No.3, p. 286.

[13Vajpayee, A. (2020), p. 24.

[14Chaterjee, Partha (2020), op.cit. p. 90.

[15Prakash, Gyan (2018), Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point (Princeton : N.J. Princeton University Press).

[16Kaviraj, Sudipta (1988), "A Critique of the Passive Revolution" Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 23, Nos. 45-47, pp. 2429-2444.

[17Laclau, op.cit.

[18Chaterjee, Partha (2020), op.cit. p. 92.

[19Ibid, p. 93.

[20Basu, Amrita (2018), "Narendra Modi and India’s Populist Democracy", Indian Politics and Policy.

[21Chaterjee, Partha (2020), op.cit. p. 106.

[22Ibid, 107.

[23Pandey, Gyanendra (ed.) (1993), Hindus and Others: The Question of Identity in India Today, (New York: Viking).

[24Chaterjee, Partha (2020), op.cit. p. 109.

[25Chatterjee, Partha (2019), "A relativist view of the Indian Nation" in S. Anandhi (ed.), Rethinking Social Justice: Essay in the Honour of M.S.S. Pandian (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan).

[26Gudavarthy, Ajay (2018), India After Modi: Populism and the Right (New Delhi: Bloomsbury).

[27Varshney, Ashutosh (2019), "The Emergence of Right Wing Populism in India" in Niraja Gopal Jayal (ed.), Reforming India: The Nation Today (Penguin : New Delhi), pp. 340-341.

[28Kelly, Duncan (2017), ’Populism and the History of Popular Sovereignty’, in Kaltwasser et. al., The Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford University Press).

[29Varshney, Ashutosh (2019), op.cit, p. 141.

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