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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 16 New Delhi April 6, 2019

Populism and the Future of Democracy in India

Sunday 7 April 2019


by Muzamil Yaqoob

India After Modi Populism and the Right by Ajay Gudavarthy; Delhi: Bloomsbury India; 2019; pages: xxx+236; Rs 599.

“Even nationalism demands a dialogue, Love for the nation has to be nurtured, not shoved down throats. Diversity has to be acknowledged, not merely by recognising various social identities, but the ideas that come with them.”

At a time when the domestic politics of many well-established democracies is reeling under Right-wing populism throughout the globe, predictability of any future course of politics seems shrouded by oblivion and uncertainty. However, the knowledge production has never ceased to develop insights to make an understanding of political churnings and provide an alternative mode of politics to work for a better society.

In this similar direction the book under review draws the vagaries of authoritarian Right-wing populism and touches varied aspects of changing political discourses in India. The book deals with the aspects ranging from institutional breakdown, the attacks on higher education, changing nature of caste and state politics, and growing crises in Indian democracy. Lack of alternative discourses to counter Right-wing populism in India has been highlighted throughout the book. It is premised on the argument that ‘India after Modi is distinct from what it was before’.

The book, while dealing with these numerous issues, provides an alternative understanding of contemporary politics. Thus, it not only contributes to the existing scholarships but provides a stable warf and woof, where certain possible predictions can be made regarding what the current Right-wing populism holds for Indian democracy.

This book is divided into four sections wherein the author attempts to build some under-standing on how the current Right-wing populism emerged by analysing the examples starting from the phenomenon of award wapsi and the onslaught on the autonomy of the institutions of higher education, like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), to demonetisation and mass violence against the Muslims and Dalits. While analysing the worldwide wave of Right-wing populism, the author has argued that these conditions also hold true to the Indian conditions. The future of Indian democracy thus depends on how it responds to these challenges.

Comprehending Populism: The Indian Experience

The first section is an attempt to theorise Right-wing authoritarian populism and how it manipulated the existing spaces and materialised them for its own benefit. The author argues that “populism across the globe has certain common features, including the ability to create a people, projecting a strongman, polarising between ‘us’ and ‘them’, moralisation of power and exclusion, mobilising emotions and passions, bringing the private to the public, and replacing the institutional mode of pursuing politics and governance with street mobilisations, among others”. (p. xi)

One of the significant arguments from this section is when the author demonstrates the inclusivity of the current Right-wing populism in India. Taking help from Carl Schmidt, the author argues that populism ‘is nothing but the celebration of the irreducibility of multiplicity’. (p. 8)This means that the current populism has bestowed a sense of being included in the political dynamics from one’s own social location rather than asking for any change in the existing liberal-constitutional frameworks.

The author understands that the current Right-wing populism is characterised by the convergence of three features which have impacted democracy and democratic processes in India and elsewhere. There is a neo-liberal turn in economy, a populist turn in democracy, and a certain kind of enculturalisation, mediatisation in the social and cultural realm. (pp. 7, 12)

The exclusionary character of liberal institutions with respect to the subaltern and migrant class, whom the author calls a ‘new social constituency’, has been well-materialised by the Right-wing government through the explosion of a ‘symbolic social space’. ‘The symbolic ordering of the populist regime makes one feel more inclusive.’ The author argues that the Right-wing populism has made us to move ‘from empirical accuracy to normative ordering, and we can all do that from our own social experience’. (p. 10)

The credit for the rise of this inclusive symbolism can be given to the growth of insecurity across classes. The impact of growing insecurity as a ‘pervasive phenomenon’ does not even stop there. The growing insecurities and anxieties have been credited to the fact that ‘although we started the century with the commitment towards ‘secularisation of social life, however what we witnessed is the contractualisation of social life; thus all social commitments today have become ad hoc’. (pp. 11, 203)

 The prioritised notions of security and securitisation have relegated the issues of equality into non-issues. The issues of equality have thus been replaced by what the author terms as ideas of relative mobility—the notion that we are better off than the position where we were previously. The current wave of populism has also been helped by its character of being more “pragmatic and real”. The effective barriers of public and private divide have withered in the Right-wing authoritarian populism. The state has become what the author calls an ‘emotional being’, where populism allows the subjective emotions to play out in public without any questioning and stiff opposition.

The section also deals with a wide array of issues ensued in Indian politics under the current regime which started with the pheno-menon of award wapsi to the RSS’ projection of the JNU as a hub of anti-national activities. Here the argument is ‘what we witnessed with regard to the JNU is not an exclusive creation of the BJP and the RSS. Instead, the BJP is only consolidating what is perhaps a more general sense of public morality in India.’ (p. 32)The contradictions of Right-wing politics have been well summed up under the sub-section entitled ‘corporate capitalism, hurt pride, and Hindutva’. At the first place the author unravels a tension between Modern Capitalism and Communitarian Hindutva. Under these conditions the Sangh Parivar’s attempt to conform to a monolithic Hindu Rashtra is being strategised through the ‘flare-up of a hurt pride’ to make the so-called upper castes feel their insecurities with the rise of lower castes under various government incentives. The ‘Congress-style accommodation’ can be the second strategy of the RSS. The open support for the reservation of lower castes to accommodate them in its united Hindu fold—the process author refers to as ‘de-Brahmanised Hinduisation’. The emanating tensions of these Right-wing strategies is further controlled by the dependence on fear and extra- institutional violence. The author argues that ‘the overall strategy appears to be that of high-intensity growth combined with low-intensity communalism, accommodation, and double-speak combined with more blatant attacks against the Muslims and Dalits’. (p. 53)

The project of populism is ushered in with the othering of Muslims, who fill the space of ‘vanquished adversaries’ in India and replacement of the old ‘Left-Right’ distinctions with the new meta narratives of ‘us vs them’ which is then helped by the violence, intimidation and replacing the ideas of antagonism and contradiction with continuity and social harmony. (p. 74)

The Reorientations of Regional Politics

The second section of the book makes an attempt to look at the major shifts in electoral politics in various States under the current regime, which made the elections a reflection of ‘muscular governance’. The significance and changing dynamics of each election has been explained in some detail. The federal character of the Indian state, new era of social engineering, the fragmentation yet unification of caste politics have been explicated while taking clues from the political shifts seen in the States like Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Kashmir.

The author argues that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi failed in venturing into the ‘Conformist Optimism’ when in 2015 the electorate stretched the expectations and the BJP failed to provide any substantial discourse apart from its tried techniques of communal polarisation, which didn’t work because of one and the other reasons in a State like Delhi. It has been argued that the rhetorics around the ‘Modi wave’ and ‘Gujarat model’ waned soon after the parliamentary elections of 2014. The context of electoral politics in Bihar was significant for the reason that the elections were held ‘in the context of a transition into a post-Mandal and post-liberalised Indian polity’. (p. 94)

The social engineering and caste calculations in the shape of new emerging categories like the Economically Backward Castes, Most Backward Castes, the Mahadalits, and the Pasmanda Muslims has been explained at some length. The author argues that ‘the elections in Bihar will hold important clues for future elections in India as to how these fragments will play out and what they mean for the future of national parties such as the Congress and the BJP.’ (p. 95)

Under the conditions of fragmentation and integration, the BJP’s strategy regarding the Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections also holds a significant place in the book. In UP the BJP played identity politics with the creation of a very different political language for many of the divisions like ‘through demonetisation it created a poor versus rich kind of binary, and by not offering tickets to Muslims, it created the old Hindu versus Muslim type of polarisation’. (p. 103)The ‘flexibili-sation of caste politics’, replicated by the BJP from Nitish Kumar’s Bihar strategy, was closely linked to the project of ‘subalternisation of the political representation’ where the subaltern groups could align with any party offering them represen-tation.

The formation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh has been linked to the question of ‘internal colonisation’ which, the author argues, is still an issue in Telangana. The State, which emerged taking the issues like agrarian crises, growing unemployment and cultural denigration, has not got any immediate relief and ‘the major issues remain the same as in any other State, including the issue of farmers’ suicides, jobless growth, and growing economic inequality between social groups and regions’. (p. 111)

Finally, different aspects of Kashmir politics have been considered throughout the book. Under this section, the author has dealt with the approach of the current regime towards Kashmir and the PDP-BJP alliance in the State. The author further argues thatKashmir is ‘one issue that holds a pan-India appeal’ which the BJP can materialise anytime for electoral gains. Kashmir is an emotive issue and the Kashmiri Pandits always combine Indian nationalism with communalism. The internal fissures between the Muslims and Pandits in general and also within the Pandit community in particular have been reasoned out very well.

Conceiving the Future of Democratic Politics in India

The third section of the book deals with the Dalit-Bahujan politics and the emerging recent permutations within it. The need to counter the Right-wing majoritarian populism has been argued in the lines that “if secular-associational politics are to stall the creation of a majoritarian polity, then solidarity between various social groups, including the Dalits and Muslims, becomes an imperative”. (p. 137) The Dalit-Muslim unity, which emerged after the Rohith Vamula episode in the context of compulsive pragmatism, has been explained in detail. Ambedkar’s notion of fraternity has been derived by the author to argue that “there is a need to draw a new equivalence between fraternity, justice, identity, and mobility in opposition to Right-wing populism, Hindutva, and neo-liberalism”. (p. 157)Further, the assertion of populism on authenti-cated past, the status of caste in such an authentication, and the problems of retrieval have also been discussed at length.

The last section of the book, entitled “the future of Politics”, opens up a wider debate on how the current political dynamism will impact the political journey of Indian democracy. The possibilities have been shaped either with ‘undermining the democratic institutions’ or the emergence of a ‘vernacularised democracy’. The spectacular role which the “Mezzanine elites”—caste positions which are dominant at one site and subaltern under another axis—can play has been put by the author in these words: “The future of democracy in India will depend on how we reconcile these unevenly located social groups vis-a-vis each other.” There is also an attempt to trace the roots of current Right-wing populism in the Nehruvian consensus and the centrism it produced to guide politics in the initial decades after India’s independence.

The dismantling of the welfare state and the undoing of the secular ethos have been explained to argue that “Indian secularism has promoted ‘secular sectarianism’ of the minorities that have for long stopped imagining of collectives beyond themselves making it easy for Right-wing politics to represent them as insular, closed, and inward-looking”. (p. 189)

The rise of identarian politics and the shifts from recognition to representation only has been presented as an inadequacy of Dalit politics where the issues of social distribution are relegated to the background. The focus on the issues of representation was well materialised by the Right-wing BJP Government offering them political representation thus encroaching the only space left for the Dalit-Bahujan politics in India. Further, the author presses for the importance which women as a political consti-tuency can gain in times to come and the diversions in political discourses if class politics emerges along the lines of ‘Anomie, and time poverty’.

The shortcomings of Left politics have been explained at detail in many of the sections throughout the book. The author seems engaged with pursuing an alternate politics to counter the authoritarianism of Right-wing populism in India. One such alternative has been providing a united opposition against the BJP under Mayawati, inclusion of OBCs, the unity between the Left and Dalits, and the fraternity between the Dalits and Muslims as important for the survival of democracy in India and the fight against the Right-wing majoritarian populism.

At the end of the book the author argues that there “is no visible ‘Islamophobia’ in India that resembles the kind of fear psychosis visible in the US or Europe”. The author justifies the argument by explaining that “there might be more of cultural subjugation but not a collapse of a common-sense view of an everyday Muslim visible at the marketplace”. (p. 211)

However, the argument does not go well with the conditions prevailing on the ground. The author seems to ignore the fact that the Indian Muslims, apart from being marginalised from the state institutions and invisibilised from the public sphere, today feel that a psychological and physical warfare has been initiated against them. The new normal of public lynchings and state impunity to the perpetrators is helped by the impassivity and morality of the Indian public towards the minority Muslims.

Throughout, the motif of the book is to check where and how the current Right-wing populism emerged. How did it change the dynamics of politics in India? How can this populist wave change the course of democracy in India? And how can it be challenged and sent back to the graveyard of history where its abortive compadres are reclining under the detritus of their flunked ventures. The book serves as an insightful understanding of varied issues in Indian politics primarily after 2014 when the Right-wing populist regime came to power. While highlighting the inadequate political discourses of the so-called progressive forces, the book is a good read for anyone interested in the democratic politics of contemporary India.

Muzamil Yaqoob (muzamilyaqoob5[at] is a Masters student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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