by Arvind Rajagopal
Whatever your political views, the spectacle of a populist upsurge confirms the vitality of Indian democracy, whether that upsurge is for the Aam Aadmi Party, or for Narendra Modi and the BJP. But populism is not democracy.
From the context of comparatively stable political loyalties and predictable electoral results, we now have elections where a relatively small number of non-committed voters can swing outcomes decisively and reward parties with disproportionate victories. Victorious parties may thus claim a mandate for their programs based on seat majorities as if these represented popular majorities, though they seldom do. Similarly, party ideology may be modified to appear more widely acceptable. For example, Hindutva, the ideology of the Sangh Parivar, is changing into Hindu populist politics. There is a new relation between publicity and politics here, one that makes older political distinctions inadequate.
Criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as being anti-Muslim has been muted of late because the BJP is supposed to have moved beyond its Hindu ideology, by adopting a more inclusive and developmentalist stance. In fact, the BJP’s transformation of its Hindu nationalist ideology into Hindu populism has allowed the party to further some of its old aims in a new and relatively uncontroversial way. At the heart of this success is Hindu populism’s claim to be the product of democratic procedure, and to express the will of the majority. But a ruling party without a single Muslim Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, in the second largest Muslim country in the world, is choosing to interpret its majority in a partisan way.
Hindu Populism in international context
The term populism refers to a kind of political reasoning where popular mobilisation serves as its own justification. As such, populism can support liberal, revolutionary or even authoritarian forms of government. The political theorist Ernesto Laclau has argued that populism can emerge with a democratic fervour and end up installing dictatorships, as has happened across Latin America. In the U.K., Margaret Thatcher remade the Tories as an authoritarian populist force, winning over Labour Party supporters and refashioning Conservative ideology to have mass appeal. Somewhat similarly, in India, the BJP redefined Hindu identity as both aspirational and nationalist in the face of new challenges from caste democratic forces. As late as the 1980s, many experts used to dismiss the chances of the BJP based on its tiny vote share at the time, and its more upper caste leadership, but the party has clearly changed.
The party’s populist transformation has been assisted by the explosive growth of the media. The mediated spectacle of the crowd affirms and reinforces the motives for participation, whether in a demonstration or a political rally. For the media industry, today’s spectators will be tomorrow’s consumers; investment in populism seems to make good business sense. Mass gatherings used to raise law and order concerns; today such events present opportunities for astute political strategists.
Until recently a category such as Hindu populism was hard to imagine. But Hindu nationalism has reinvented itself, combining pro-business policies with the rhetoric of lower caste empowerment. Today nationalists can claim that capitalism and democracy are thriving in India.
While this is an important achievement, it is also in part, the result of a Cold War era strategy of the U.S., which saw India as a frontline state in the battle against the Communist threat. The Cold War’s end, as we know, signalled 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.” It was also seen as a stabiliser in the transition to modernity. No surprise then that influential studies conducted regarding the RSS by U.S.-based scholars regarded it benignly, as an ascetic form of socialism, as Gandhian volunteerism, or as Hindu revivalism. Their stoking violence as a means of organising Hindus was thus ignored, and the martial character of the organisation was seen as ornamental to essentially pietist tendencies. Violence was ignored because it pertained to local issues, while the optic these scholars brought was shaped by U.S. concerns during this time. Further, Hindu nationalists were reassuringly anti-Communist. They did not appear to pose any threat to U.S. interests.
Beneath this perception was a long-standing assumption that religion could not be politically viable. The post-Enlightenment separation of church from state had led to the belief that religion did not have a place in modern politics.But religion in India has had a different history, and that has unavoidably influenced the shape and direction of modern politics.
Those wishing to promote Hindu identity had a problem that was the reverse of Enlightenment-era Christianity. They first had to assert the existence of a common religion and create the sense of a shared identity that was, at best, weak. For example, Hindus historically did not all share what was supposed to constitute a religion, such as creed, deity, ritual, or text. During the colonial period, however, Hinduism gradually became codified and subject to juridical intervention. It also became a means whereby lower castes claimed public rights they previously did not have.
The limits of Hindu populism
After a long hiatus, amid the political crises of the late 1980s, Hindu identity began to be used openly again, and yielded electoral dividends in electoral campaigns. It helped win the small but decisive “non-committed vote,” as L.K. Advani called it, boosting the BJP’s share of seats exponentially. Political Hinduism has grown since then, aided by the Congress’s decline. Then how is Hindu politics different from any other religious politics?
In the Hindu tradition, reality is beyond words and the truth has no essence. 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. In such a context, the category of religion presents an opportunity rather than a problem: to be “Hindu” is an artefact of publicity rather than an expression of ancient mores. It is no surprise that Arun Jaitley has stated that Hindu nationalism is an opportunistic issue for the BJP, a “talking point” rather than a core ideology.
The electoral process has sanctioned a new language of political theology for the BJP. In his Madison Square Garden speech in New York, Narendra Modi referred to the people as sovereign and their verdict as divine. He declared: “Janata Jan Janardhan.” But Janardhan is not a secular term for “ruler;” it refers to Lord Krishna. Electoral success provides the supreme redemption in this understanding, negating merely juridical verdicts. It implies divine power in the figure of the elected ruler, who is like the king but sanctified by a formal democratic process.
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. 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.
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. If Hindu populism is to deepen its democratic character, these are issues for it to reckon with.