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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 35 August 17, 2019

Post-2014 Right-wing Populism and Future of Democracy in India

Monday 19 August 2019


by Zulafqar Ahmed

India after Modi: Populism and the Right by Ajay Gudavarthy; Delhi: Bloomsbury India; 2019; page 236; Rs 599.

This book gives a comprehensive and insightful understanding about the contemporary politics of India. It is bereft of jargons, lucidly written, and the author has attempted to help understand even the difficult terminologies. This is the first honest and comprehensive account about the rise of populism and Hindutva post-2014 in India.

This book is timely and important because at a period when Right-wing populism is rising throughout the globe, the author has tried to analyse critically this emerging phenomenon which is affecting the democratic countries’ domestic politics. This is a sharp and critical account of the current state of politics in India. The author didn’t spare any political party and has adequately exposed the fallibility of the Left/liberal for forces. He has tried to outline the reasons for the ascendance of Right-wing authori-tarianism in India and sought to outline its future in Indian politics. Further, the book has been written on the basis of the argument on how India was different before the rise of the BJP in power.

The book under review touches upon the changing dynamics of Indian politics and predicts its future landscape. The book has been divided into four parts. The first chapter of the book, entitled “Populism and Authoritarianism”, opens up with a debate on how populism works in the democracies and how it affects the electoral politics of the country concerned. In this chapter the author has argued that populism is maintained around the ‘strong man’, it is personality-centric and it undermines the party, political institutions and processes. Besides, the author also explains that populism is associated with symbolism; it has the capacity to create narratives that hold true to the public perception without having much evidence. The author goes on to argue how Right-wing populism emerged in India by citing the examples of ‘award wapsi’ as a protest against growing intolerance, lynching, assassination of public intellectuals and rationalists, and onslaught on the freedom of expression.

The author cites the second major controversy as an example of ascendency of Right-wing authoritarianism in India, that is, the crisis in the institutions of higher education, including the University of Hyderabad, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Gudavarthy elucidates as to why these institutes of higher learning were targeted: because they were expressing progressive Left/liberal views which were antithetical to Hindu nationalism. Thirdly, the author also cites the example of demonetisation which the current regime had claimed would break the back of terror networks by targeting their safe havens of stacking cash. It was combined with the slogan ‘war on terror’ against the Islamic groups, and thereby it continued as an agenda of ‘othering’ the Muslim community, and symbolically equating them with corruption, terror, and black-money. (pp. 3, 5)

Contours of Indian Populism

In this section the author analyses the emergence of Right-wing populism in India. He argues that convergence is taking place amongst the three dynamics and that seems to be happening simultaneously. “First, there is a neo-liberal turn in the economy. Second, a populist turn in democracy. Third, a certain kind of enculturalisation mediatisation in the social and cultural realm.” (pp. 7)The author believes that what is happening today is because of this shift, and the media plays a significant role in this shift from data, evidence, and empirical accuracy to symbolic power. The other big shift that is taking place is that the everyday and the political got changed with the ascendance of Right-wing populism. Every day practices, socio-cultural are determining the politics in a much broader way.

For a better understanding of populism the author refers to Carl Schmidt’s famous term ‘irreducibility of multiplicity’. (pp. 8) According to this term the current populism gives a sense of being included in the political dynamics to everyone rather than asking you to change the social location and existing liberal-constitutional frameworks. There is a sense of inclusiveness in the populism which cuts across caste, religion, identity, and region.

One of the valuable arguments of this section which the author makes is that “Right-wing populism is successful today because it is able to bank on, be inclusive, and respond to these basic insecurities in social, cultural, and economic life


”(pp. 12) Actually, current populism is responding to these insecurities astutely by invoking vague symbolic structures

In this section the author has also sought to unveil the mystery behind Yogi’s installation as the Chief Minister of UP. He writes: “The BJP-RSS perhaps believe that this carefully crafted image of Yogi becoming the head of the State will revive the age-old Hindu tradition of sannyasi taking up political power to cleanse the system of its inertia and revitalising it with valour. Yogi himself believes that sannyasis are necessary for politics to cleanse it.” (pp. 18) This was the planned shift to make Modi as the social and political symbol of Hindutva and Yogi as the decisive religious symbol of Hindutva.

In this section the author discusses a wide array of issues which emerged during the current regime from ‘award wapsi’ to ‘demonetisation’ and ‘war on terror’. He sums up ‘demonetisation’ beautifully in the sub-section ‘Criminalising Intention’. He writes: “What is being assumed is that unless we prove ourselves innocent by depositing clean cash in the banks, we are all guilty of holding an intention that is corrupt. Since the state can’t find the evidence and can’t investigate who amongst us are corrupt, black marketeers, and money hoarders, the state is justified in assuming that the money we hold could have been earned through corrupt means.” (pp. 45) Further the author argues in the proceeding section that the “war on terror was more of a security and a legal battle that the state was fighting on behalf of its citizens; demonetisation is the social and economic corollary of that battle. It is the crux; therefore, demonetisation is the populist version of translating the war on terror into everyday ‘direct democracy’ that India was collectively dreaming about.” (pp. 47) In the same section the author discusses the three-pronged strategies of the ‘Sangh Parivar’ which are in consonance with monolithic/majoritarian ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Although these three strategies are different but they are also inter-related to each other. At the first place he reveals the strategy which has the ability to flare up a ‘hurt pride’. This strategy provokes higher castes to reclaim their glorious past which they believe got submerged with the rise of lower castes. The second strategy has been entitled as “De-Brahmanised Hinduisation”. This type of strategy incentivises the RSS to move from its conventional type of overt discrimination along the lines of Manusmriti to ‘Congress-style accommodation’ which encourages more covert and accommodative form of inclusion. Here the BJP-RSS supports reservation for the lower castes and various government incentives.

The author has explained the third strategy with the title ‘Extra-Institutional Violence’. He cites the example of violence from Muzaffarnagar riots to attack on Dalits in Unnao and disappearance of Najeeb in JNU to false accusations against Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. According to him, “The overall strategy appears to be that of high-intensity growth combined with the low-intensity communalism, accommodation, and doublespeak combined with more blatant attacks against the Muslims and Dalits. Each of these strategies is being deployed in tune with other.” (p. 53)

The design of populism demands ‘othering’ of Muslims who fill that space with what the author calls “vanquished adversaries”. He further argues that “The fluidity of identities and modernity it ushers in with it an anxiety of loss of identity, and the symbolic representation of Muslims as the solid and unified entity allows the majority to carve out a more unified self for itself.” (p. 64) The current Right-wing regime created Muslims as the fictitious enemy which justifies their claim of demonisation.

The author concludes this section by comparing the current mode of populism with the old one. He writes that “What is distinct about the current mode of populism is that it is not restricted merely for electoral purposes but has also begun to dictate the policy-frame. Demonetisation is a clear instance of this”. (p. 81)

Zulafqar Ahmed is a Doctorate Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University. His e-mail is: ahmedzulafqar78[at]

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