You have been studying nationalism in India for decades. How would you articulate the broad context of the rise of Hindu nationalism and tensions with Muslim minorities, on the one hand, and the rise of populist parties such as the BJP, on the other?
The two things go together. This is why I use the term national-populism when analyzing Narendra Modi’s regime. The “national-populism” formula was coined by Gino Germani in the 1970s to describe a version of populism where the part that claims to be the whole is comprised solely of the sons of the soil. Like any populist leader, Modi relates directly, emotionally, to “his” people, but while he claims to represent 1.3 billion Indians, he is in fact the spokesperson of an ideology—Hindu nationalism—that considers that the majority community epitomizes the Indian nation. Muslims and Christians may practice their religion privately, but in the public sphere they have to pay allegiance to Hindu symbols of identity, including Lord Rama, a Hindu god that is projected as the country’s tutelary figure. If populism is not an ideology but a style of politics, national-populism certainly is one.
This “ism” injects ideology into the populist repertoire and vice versa, populism packages – in terms of political communication – Hindu nationalism, an ideology that used to be elitist – and therefore marginal. In India, the populist leader mobilizes the Hindu majority not only against minorities, but also against those who support them from abroad (including Pakistan) and those who allegedly support them domestically, including Congress, which is presented as anti-national because of its “pseudo” (allegedly pro-Muslim and Christian) secularism as well as its elitist image. Whereas Nehru and the Gandhis are depicted as a political dynasty, the embodiment of the establishment, Modi seeks to present himself as a new man coming from the plebs. While BJP used to be associated with upper castes and Congress with the bottom of the pyramid, there is a certain reversal of roles at work today. Modi’s populist repertoire relies on the usual manipulation of the usual emotions: fear and anger. In order to polarize society along religious lines, Hindus “have to” feel vulnerable vis-à-vis Muslims and Pakistan; in order to angrily reject Congress, they have to “understand” that this party has compromised the country’s security by protecting Muslims and being complacent about Pakistan. Thanks to friendly TV channels and social media, the Hindu nationalist forces have saturated the public sphere using the various kinds of disinformation techniques that are typical of modern populism.
In studying the case of Narendra Modi and the BJP party, you noticed the central role played in their success by socio-economic concerns, in particular social elites’ fear of déclassement and the rise of lower classes. Can you tell us more?
The socio-economic subtext of BJP’s rise to power is very interesting indeed. One, social elites—which largely supported Congress—have shifted toward Hindu nationalism in greater numbers in reaction against the rise of lower castes, which accelerated in the 1990s in the context of positive discrimination policies. Two, the promise of new quotas for jobs in the public sector helped groups of lower casts known as “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) to mobilize politically and, after they got those jobs in 1992, to rise socio-economically. Caste-based politics and policies enabled these OBCs, who represent more than 50% of society, to democratize India in what I have called a “silent revolution.” The rise to power of Modi’s BJP is a counter-revolution initiated by the upper castes, which have found in Hindu nationalism an antidote to caste politics: instead of defining themselves as OBCs, plebeians were asked to look at themselves primarily as Hindus facing a threat from minorities and Pakistan. Besides, Modi belongs to an OBC caste himself and comes from a rather poor family. He could be seen by the OBCs as one of them.
The BJP strategy worked very well: while the upper castes were affected by a steady erosion of their position in power centers like the central and the state governments, they have staged a comeback and, now fully in command again, have diluted the positive discrimination system. One of their policies has been to let the public sector shrink by privatizing parts of it and downsizing state-owned enterprises.
Would you say that Indian public opinion generally has been shifting toward more conservative/illiberal/nationalist principles? Or is this phenomenon mostly visible among elites?
This is a difficult question, partly because there are few surveys available and partly because it is difficult to define conservatism and illiberalism. Civil society organizations remain very attached to individual and collective rights: peasants demonstrate against pro-agribusiness laws; students and Muslims have protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that made only non-Muslim refugees eligible for citizenship; NGOs and RTI (Right to Information) activists are fighting and pay a heavy price for that…
But at the same time, Hindutva (Hindu-ness) tends to become hegemonic, the only legitimate register. Certainly, this trend is due to fear, to vigilantes’ cultural policing and to Modi’s charisma—a word I use in the sense of Max Weber, for whom it had no evaluative quality: charismatic leaders are exceptional personalities, for better or for worse. But a large segment of Indian society supports the Hindu nationalist discourse. First, ethno-religious nationalism, xenophobia, and pride in anything Indian has become more pervasive. Second, and relatedly, traditions have been somewhat sacralized, at the expense of the socio-religious movements that had been strong since the 19th century and had helped to emancipate women and low-caste individuals. It is difficult to say whether social conservatism is spontaneous or the result of constraints imposed by the state (through laws) and vigilantes. Both things are probably true.
A key issue for populist leaders is the gap between what they promise during election campaigns and how they behave when in power. How has Modi’s “us versus them” rhetoric been transformed since he acceded to power?
It has been transformed just like in other populist regimes. First, if Narendra Modi fought his election campaigns in the name of the poor, the rich have been the primary beneficiaries. Under Modi, the rich have become richer and inequality has increased. Oxfam reports reveal that the richest 10% of Indians account for an increasing percentage of the nation’s wealth each year (almost 80% in 2019 compared to 73% in 2017). Today, about 60% of national wealth is in the hands of India’s “one percent” (higher than the global average of 50%). This reflects, in part, the intensification of crony capitalism, symbolized by Mukesh Ambani (the fourth-richest man in the world) and Gautam Adani, whose meteoric rise has made him the second-richest man in India today. This is due in part to a pro-rich taxation policy that has found expression in a constant shift toward indirect taxes (on petroleum products in particular) under Modi.
But like other populists, Modi retains his pro-poor image because of what I call his “politics of dignity,” that some observers have called “right New Welfarism.” Instead of increasing the financial resources of the poor the way the Manmohan Singh government did—via, for instance, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)—the Modi government gave the poor tangible things like toilets, bank accounts, and gas cylinders. These gifts are not as costly as the NREGA; they align with the dominant ideology, which opposes assistance and favors entrepreneurship; and they allow Modi to position himself as the benefactor of the poor, something he emphasizes every month during his radio program, Mann ki Baat (“Words from the Heart”). Here, in contrast to the aggressive tone he takes when he canvasses and fights the opposition, he is compassionate and gives people a new sense of self-esteem and self-respect. He shows that he cares for them—he is like a father or a guru. In fact, he speaks like a guru and he looks increasingly like a guru since growing a beard.
You have been theorizing nationalism and populism for years. Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. Do you consider the term illiberalism to have heuristic value or do you prefer other terms—such as populism or national-populism—and if so, why?
I find “illiberalism” more euphemistic than heuristic. I prefer the word “authoritarian,” used as Juan Linz does, to describe any limitation on pluralism. There are degrees of authoritarianism, just as there are “democracies with adjectives.” Certainly, “illiberalism” reflects a very important idea: we need to admit that regimes exist on a continuum from more to less liberal. But why should this continuum refer to liberalism?
To say that there are shades of authoritarianism—that regimes are more or less authoritarian—would do the job even more effectively. I like the formula “electoral authoritarianism” for that reason. It implies some degree of competition, but in contrast to the situation that prevails in a democracy, the playing field is so uneven that alternation in power is almost impossible—and between elections, opponents, journalists, intellectuals, NGOs, any dissenters, including farmers in India today etc., are bound to be targeted. Last but not least, by presenting authoritarian regimes as “illiberal democracies,” we help them to retain some legitimacy and even a rather acceptable image: after all, populists claim that they are in politics not to fight against democracy but to rejuvenate a democracy that has been captured by elites – that’s why they are so attached to the word democracy.
Christophe Jaffrelot works at the Centre for Studies in International Relations (CERI)-Sciences Po and served as its Director from 2000 to 2008. He is currently a senior research fellow at CNRS and a professor at Sciences Po. He is also a visiting professor at the India Institute, King’s College London, and has taught at Columbia University, Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, the Université de Montréal, and as a Global Scholar at Princeton University. Since 2008, he has been a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His last book, co-authored with Pratinav Anil, is India’s First Disctatorship. The Emergency, 1975-77, London, Hurst, 2020 and his forthcoming book is Modi’s India. Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2021.