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

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

This book is the significant contribution by the author because it has been written at the time when Right-wing Populism is rising across the globe. Author has tried to analyze critically this emerging phenomenon which is affecting domestic politics of the democratic countries.  This is the sharp and critical account on the current state of politics in India. Author didn’t spare any political parties and has adequately exposed fallibility of Left/ Liberal forces. Author has tried to outline the reasons of ascendance of Right-Wing populism in India and predicted about its future in Indian politics. Further, the book has been written to the basis of the orientation that how India was different before the rise of BJP in power

The book under review touches the changing dynamics of the Indian politics and predicts the future landscape of the same. The book has been divided under four parts. First chapter of the book, entitled “Populism and Authoritarianism” opens up with a debate that how populism works in the democracies and how it affects the electoral politics of the country. In this chapter author has argued that populism is maintained around the ‘strongman’; it is personality centric and it undermines the party, political institutions and processes. Besides, author also argues that Populism is associated with symbolism; it has capacity to create narratives that holds true to the public perception without having much evidence. Author goes ahead and argues that 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. Author cites second major controversy as an example of ascendency of Right-Wing authoritarianism in India that is 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). Author argues that these institutes of higher learning were targeted because they were expressing progressive Left/Liberal views which were antithetical to Hindu nationalism. Thirdly, author also cites the example of demonetization which the current regime claimed that it would break the back of terror networks by targeting their safe heavens of stacking cash. Demonetization was combined with the slogan ‘war on terror’ against the Islamic groups, and thereby it continued as an agenda of ‘othering’ Muslims community, and symbolically equating them with the corruption, terror, and black-money.

Contours of Indian Populism

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

For better understanding of populism author refers 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 cut across caste, religion, identity, and region.

One of the significant arguments of this section which 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, the current Right-Wing populism is responding to these insecurities astutely by invoking vague symbolic structure.

In this section, author has also made the argument that why Yogi has been installed as chief minister of Utter Pradesh (UP). Author 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 revitalizing it with valor. Yogi himself believes that sannyasis are necessary for politics to cleanse it”. (p. 18). This was the planned shift to make Modi as social and political symbol of Hindutva and Yogi as decisive religious symbol of Hindutva.

In this section, author has discussed wide array of issues which emerged during current regime from ‘award wapsi’ to ‘Demonetization and war on terror’. Author summed up ‘demonetization’ beautifully in the sub-section namely ‘Criminalizing Intention’. Author writes “what is being assumed 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 cant investigate who amongst us are corrupt, black marketers, and a money hoarder, the state is justified in assuming that the money we hold could have been earned through corrupt means.” (pp. 45). Further author argues in the proceeding section that “war on terror was more of a security and a legal battle that the state was fighting on the behalf of its citizens; demonetization is the social and economic corollary of that battle. It is the crux; therefore, demonetization 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 author discusses about the three- pronged strategies of ‘Sangh Parivar’ which are in consonance with monolithic/majoritarian ‘Hindu Rashta’. Although these three strategies are different but are inter-related to each other. At the first place author reveal the strategy which has potent to flare up a ‘hurt pride’. This strategy provokes higher castes to reclaim their glorious past which they believe got vanished with the rise of lower castes. Second strategy has been entitled as ‘De-Brahmanised Hinduisation’. This type of strategy incentivizes 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, BJP-RSS supports the reservation for the lower castes and various government incentives. Author has summed up third   strategy with the title ‘Extra-Institutional Violence’. Author cites the example of violence from Muzaffarnagar riots to attack on Dalits in Uno and disappearance of Najeeb in JNU to false accusations against Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. Author argues that “The overall strategy appears to be that of high-intensity growth combined with the low- intensity communalism, accommodation, and double speak combined with more blatant attacks against the Muslims and Dalits. Each of these strategies is being deployed in tune with other (p. 53)

Design of populism demands ‘othering’ of Muslims who fills that space what author calls ‘vanquished adversaries’. Author argues that “The fluidity of identities and modernity ushers in brings with it an anxiety of loss of identity, and the symbolic representation of Muslims as the solid and unified entity allow the majority to curve out a more unified self for itself.” (p. 64). The current Right-wing regime created Muslims as fictitious enemy which further consolidated their vote bank. Author concludes this section by comparing current mode of populism with old one. Author 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. Demonetization is a clear instance of this”. (p. 81)

Contextualization of Post-2014 Regional Politics

Second section opens up with the arguments that what were the issues that were pivotal in electoral campaigns and electoral strategies of BJP? Why did the BJP win many elections and lose many? What did the losses tell us?  In this section author also argues that those states where BJP government was in power had good relations with the Centre and vice versa where BJP was not in power.

New Social fragmentation and castes arithmetic play important role in electoral mobilization. Author justifies this argument and writes that “Bihar had a range of issues, including the contest between ‘Bahari versus ‘Bihari’, need for growth versus social welfare, autonomy of state versus the need to align with the centre to get more funds, and finally impending social fragmentation to gain new grounds versus conjuring up the majority. What did the results in Bihar tell us? Can the rise of populism under Narendra Modi forge a new kind of equivalence between disparate and contesting issues? (p. 97)

The most significant part of the BJP’s electoral campaign is that it created a new type of political language replacing old type of constituency-based identity politics. Author argues that “Through demonetization, it created a poor versus rich binary, and by not offering tickets to Muslims, it created the old Hindu versus Muslims type of polarization. Further, with its rhetoric against the congress, it created the past versus future kind of separation, with Narendra Modi projected as decisive leader”.(p. 103)

This section also makes deliberations about the Telangana state at wider length. Author links it with the case of ‘Internal Colonization’. This state was formed after the prolong protest and agitation against the agrarian crisis. Agrarian crisis was the single reason why the demand of Telangana state erupted. Although, after the long span of time; the agrarian crisis are yet to be resolved. The major issues like, jobless growth, farmer suicides, growing economic inequality between the social groups and regions, still pushing back the small state Telangana from the track of development.

In this section, author argues that Kashmir too is the case of ‘Internal Colonization’. After the emergence of BJP in power, Kashmir has been in the turmoil.  Kashmir remains central to the agenda of Hindutva in the rest of India. Author has touched the different aspects of Kashmir politics. Kashmir is the most emotive issue that sidelines the all issues including the issue of development, employment, Gross Development Product (GDP), and inflation. Author argues that  “ The media and the response from the government has gradually built a common sentiments that while India is tolerant and willing for a dialogue and also develop Kashmir, it is kashmiris who are unreasonable, unrelenting, and intolerant, because the demand grows from a growing Islamic sentiments; rising stone pelting, growing militancy across the border, a palpable support to it and early signs of rising Wahhabism and Salafism replacing the more tolerant Sufi-Kashmiriyat stand testimony for this. (p. 115). This section also deals with rehabilitation of ‘Kashmiri Pandits’. Kashmiris Pandits are considered integral to the Kashmiriyat but BJP’s latest proposal to create a separate zone for Pandits might trigger a point of no-return for the community.  Settlement of Kashmiri Pandits to the separate zones is the continuation of deep-rooted populist strategy of current regime.

The Reorientation of Subaltern Politics

Third section start with the argument that “BSP began with the core Dalits issues, spread to ‘Bahujan’, to include OBC and Muslims, and finally end up with the slogan of Sarvajan that ironically gave a significant place to Brahmins amongst whom it began its initial political mobilization. In due course party lost its ability to look as radical and maintain its mass appeal. The materiality of symbolism of converting a vertical caste order into a horizontal one gives way to ‘empty symbolism’. It blurs the difference between the vertical and horizontal caste orders to end up with circular arguments as how symbolism is the new radicalism. (p. 145).

This section also argues that the unity between the Muslims and Dalits has been the contentious issue under the current regime. Left remained the critical to the identitarian politics of Dalits that gives leverage to cultural valorization and neglected the redistributive issues. Left politics has just restricted to the electoral-centric over the last few years. Even Left has got equally failed in sensitization of changing political discourse and pressing demands of Dalits-Bahujan students.

It’s also argued that once the Dalit students get leadership in the Left group they are no longer considered as’ Dalits’ because they don’t talk the identitarian language; one fine example of this is BAPSA student’s association in JNU.  In the same section author argues that “The Dalit-Bahujan groups must realize that the identity of being a Dalit at the end of the day is an imposed identity and part of Brahaminical system they are struggling against. The more they reduce the Left students and faculty to their castes, the more they reduced to being only ‘Dalits’.”(p. 161) Dalit-Bahujan must recognize the contribution of Left politics which provided them new space in the campus politics, built their confidence, and articulated an alternative discourse.

Implications of Right-Wing Populism for Indian Democracy

Last section opens up with the wider debate on how the future of Indian democracy going to be? How the current Right-Wing populism will affect the future of Indian politics?  These are the arguments which deal with this section.  Right-Wing populism has already undermined the legitimacy of democratic institutions and constitution. It believes that existing pattern of Indian democracy is western in nature. Therefore, it endorses the idea of vernacularization of democracy which would be more inclusive in everyday life.

Current Modi led BJP government has provided assertive language against the elites and under the same strategy they have been criticizing Nehru and Gandhi family as ‘naamdaar’. This government has appropriated the language of subalterns and projected themselves as anti-elitists. Although, the current regime could not provide any alternative way for resolving the social and economic inequalities.

In this section, author makes an argument that “The Indian society is not constituted only by subalterns and elites but mostly by social groups that are neither exclusively subalterns nor predominantly elites; he refers it as ‘Mezzanine elites’. Castes that are recognized as subaltern under certain axis are dominant in another.”(p. 171). For the defense of Indian democracy, it is the prime need to reconcile these unevenly located social groups vis-a-viz each other. The future of Indian democracy relies upon the fact that how current regime set up the narratives which will surely going to affect the journey of Indian democracy.

An attempt has been made to trace another route which would play detrimental role in setting up the future of Indian politics.  It has also been argued that the future of Indian democracy would heavily depend upon the space which women would get for themselves. Author makes an argument that ‘de-gendering’ of social relations and role of the youth is going to play a crucial role in Indian politics.

Among the other well devised strategies of Right under the current regime, one of the key strategies was ‘Congress –Mukt Bharat’. They have invoked this strategy almost in every election campaign to disdain the Congress and its top leadership. Vilification of Nehru comes through the same strategy. Author argues that “Political scientist always trace Nehru in two dominant senses: first, the developmental state— and it has been a general trend to believe that by the 1990s, there was the death of the development state; second, the legacy that is often drawn on—that of secularism and which is, most of the time, a contested debate in India.” (p. 176)

Nehruvian secularism has been widely discussed in the book. Attempt has been made to describe the Nehruvian secularism in details. In this direction, an argument has been made that if secularism is a Social Philosophy then it should not only be confined to limited role of how religious groups are treated by the state. In the essence, what its role should be, to forge the positive and proactive solidarities not only with the religious groups but also with caste, class, region, and linguistic groups.

Aspects of identarian politics has been discussed very well throughout the book.  Shortcomings of the Left politics have been explained in detail in different sections of the book. Author has also suggested alternatives to counter the Right-wing populism in India. One such alternative is to forge the unity between the Left and Dalits, fraternity between the Muslims, Dalits, and OBCs, under the leadership of BSP’s chief Mayawati which would help the opposition to safeguard the democracy in India.

This is one of the best books which have been written for the understanding of contemporary politics. Various arguments have been raised throughout the book like, how the current Right-Wing populism emerged? How it would affect the future of Indian democracy? What are the possible alternatives to counter the current Right-Wing populism? The book provides the comprehensive understanding about the contemporary Indian politics. This book has covered almost every event which happened in India after 2014 and has also touched almost every issue which affected the dynamics of Indian politics. This book is a good read for in-depth understanding of contemporary Indian politics.

Zulafqar Ahmed is Doctorate fellow at the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University. E-mail, ahmedzulafqar78@gmail.com


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