How BJP Appropriated the Idea of Equality to Create a Divided India

Right-wing populism has managed to turn the traditional progressive political practices on their head. The BJP began with a critique of poor implementation of NREGA through a discourse on corruption, but gradually resignified it into a critique of welfare itself; anger against growing economic inequalities leads to the election of more pro-corporate government. This article looks at the future of right-wing populism in India, arguing that instead of a moral rejection, we need to undersand the "moral structure" on which it builds its politics. 

Contemporary populism in India has changed the nature of public/political discourse by inaugurating new meanings and effects through an overdetermination of significations that has foregrounded the limits of what we have generally understood as “progressive” politics.

The old distinctions between left and right are being replaced by a new kind of metanarrative of “us” versus “them.” The process of creating the other is achieved not merely through physical violence, coercion and intimidation, rather, it is achieved through a sustained process of gaining consent to a moral discourse that combines old narratives, and given, or prevalent moral and normative structures with new aspirations, anxieties, and social imaginaries.

It carefully sutures the old with the new, and shifts between two ends of the spectrum, sometimes claiming what we had earlier perceived as mutually exclusive practices. It fuses the polar opposites and produces new kinds of “de-binarised” discourses. It replaces ideas of antagonism and contradiction with continuity and social harmony; it replaces the emphasis on rights and liberty with fraternity and community. It is therefore imperative to decode what is old and what is new in this discourse, what is populist and what is authoritarian, and what the social narrative is behind the more visible modes of exclusion, violence and criminalisation of politics. 

No Merit in Moral Rejection of Right-wing Populism

Chantall Mouffe (2005: 72) has argued against a moral rejection or refutation of right-wing populism. She argues that:

The response of traditional parties to the rise of right-wing populism has clearly contributed to exacerbating the problem … This is why moral condemnation and the setting up of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ have so often constituted the answer to the rise of right-wing populist movements. (Mouffe 2005: 72)

Instead, we need to analyse “its specificity and its causes.” “Moral condemnation” of the right has to be replaced by an analysis of the “moral structure” on which it builds its politics.

As Muller puts it:

Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world which places in opposition a morally pure and fully unified people against small minorities, elites in particular, who are placed outside the authentic people. (Muller 2015: 83)

This idea of a “fully unified people" in the Indian context refers to a unified Hindu society. While it excludes the minorities in the first instance, it also has to create a palpable unity within a diversified majority. The diversity, internal to the authentic majority, needs to be recast into a unity. Differences of social location, conflict of interests, and structural contradictions have to be re-imbricated in terms of social harmony, community, fraternity and continuity with change: a glorious past with an aspirational future. It aims for a change that is non-disruptive.

Much of the analysis on populism has focused on the larger narrative of “us” versus “them,” largely ignoring how right-wing populism attempts to maintain the unity of “us,” and how it produces an authentic majority which is essentially divided, in the Indian context across caste, region, language, culture and lifestyles. It is here that right-wing populism has introduced a new set of political discourses and practices, the tenability of which will inform us of the future of right-wing populism in India.

Indian Right-wing Populism: What Is Making it Thrive?

I will attempt to map these new sets of practices and how they have worked themselves in order to produce a political, rather than a moral, critique of right-wing populism in India.

Undermining institutions: Right-wing populism has managed to turn the traditional progressive political practices on their head. A critique is absorbed or resignified from its original meaning. For instance, the reason for the defeat of the Congress, as is largely argued, has been poor implementation of welfare policies such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began with a critique of poor implementation through a discourse on corruption, but gradually resignified it into a critique of welfare itself: Anger against growing economic inequalities leads to the election of more pro-corporate government.

Similarly, a critique of institutional crises, and the non-responsive character of the institutions lead to adoption of strategies that further undermine institutions. It does not lead in a progressive and linear manner to a demand for more accountability but to further insularity. For instance, a critique against a slow judiciary and a corrupt police in India leads to the legitimisation of a strategy or rather a policy of “encounters” as recently announced by Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Here, it is instructive to observe how the left-liberal critique of the class character of democratic institutions is usurped in legitimising an aggressive state that in fact makes institutions further dysfunctional to the peril of the socially and economically weak and in targeting the religious minorities.

Further, the right-wing critique of Pakistan being a dysfunctional democracybecause it targets its minorities, and is ruled by the armyis used to build exactly the same kind of governance in India. A moral critique slips into a moral justification of same set of practices.

Old with the new: The old structure of politics is stitched to a new imagery, while in essence it remains the same. The rise of right-wing populism also emerged as a critique against technocratic liberalism and governance based on experts. The reasoning behind such a critique was the dominance of a small elite who block mass participation and thereby undermine the very essence of democracy. However, the rule of technocrats is replaced by demagoguery and the strongman phenomenon, which only further undermine the democratic ethos.

As Mouffe (2005: 65) observes:

Liberal theorists looked for other explanations to fit their rationalist approach, insisting for instance on the role of uneducated, lower-class voters, susceptible to being attracted by demagogues. (Mouffe 2005: 65)

However, this is prevalent in other sections of the society too, including the middle class.[1] It justifies the strongman phenomenon as a response against the rule of the elites, the dynasty rule of the Congress, which will pave way for the opening up of opportunities for mass participation.

The strongman becomes a symbol against “consensus elites” and, therefore ushers in an extra-institutional mobilisation. Strongman phenomenon therefore co-exists with extra-institutional street violence. One justifies the other and one cannot continue without the other.

Demagoguery in India co-exists with street violence, mass rioting and public lynching. These later become modes of mass participation and do not run into conflict with the overbearing insularity of authoritarian rule. In such scenarios, it symbolises order, discipline and control of the old elites and religious minorities and it implies public sanction, patronage and impunity for the authentic majority. It also fuses the polar opposites authoritarian rulers and extra-institutional mobilisations together.

In doing this, the old structure of patronage politics, the rule of a few elites is re-signified without changing the essence by not opening any new avenues for democratic participation. Here, it stitches the critique built by left-liberal discourses to the new kinds of extra-institutional mobilisation. It builds on the fact that in India the discourse of formal equality has spread without commensurate change in the social and material conditions of various social groups.[2]

This inaugurates a different kind of social psychology.

Mobilising culture: Right-wing populists mobilise culture and passions, and have a grasp over the social psychology of many social groups that are aspirational about the legitimacy of equal treatment, but are engaged in a concrete struggle against routine incivility.

Further, right-wing populists also sympathise with the declining social power of dominant social groups. The outbursts by Jats, Patidars, Marathas, Kapus, Kshatriyas and other dominant castes is symptomatic of the anxieties that dominant castes experience during social transformation.

Left-liberals offer no alternative political agenda to any of these groups. Further, there are economically weak among the dominant castes. The conflicting interests between these caste groups are replaced by mobility and unity.

Reservations on the basis of an economic criterion, instead of caste, is a case in point. It allows for mobility without the stigma of caste. Right-wing populism offers alternative ideas of social harmony, fraternal feelings and community fellow-feeling that ostensibly allow mobility for the subordinate groups and also empathise with the dominant groups and their declining social power. This is yet again an instance of attempting to fuse polar opposites into continuity. It partly recognises that the economically poor among the dominant castes are also socially stigmatised.

For instance, the poor among the Brahmins are not elites in the traditional sense of the term. The right sees a possibility of forging a unity based on a social experience of poverty. Economic elites are, therefore, pitched against cultural subalterns. 

How these differences at one level are going to play out against a certain kind of commonality at another level is a continuing challenge for right-wing populism in India. They have to stitch the “hurt pride” of the dominant castes with the social stigma of the subaltern castes. The difficulty of such a mode or the socially conservative aspect of such an experiment is visible in the recent conflicts between Dalits and Marathas in Bhima-Koregaon.

At another level, this seems to be a feasible experiment with the emergence of new cultural subalterns across caste, class and region. They are marked by a common opposition to modernity, liberal institutionalism, the role of experts and technocrats, difficulty of coping with global cosmopolitanism and secular ethos, and the dominance of English and its accompanying cultural valuation, among other things. Right-wing populism is articulating this common nodal point, at times overcoming the sharp divisions between the various social groups.

David Goodhart (2017: 3) in his recent book sums this up:

The old distinctions of class and economic interest have not disappeared but are increasingly overlaid by a larger and looser one, between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere. 

Political Faultlines

The new political faultline is between "open" versus "Somewheres." The “open” are people who are “portable,” and have “achieved” identities based on educational and career success which make them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people (Goodhart 2017: 3).

Whereas the “Somewheres” are more rooted and usually have “ascribed” identities, which is why they often find rapid change more unsettling (Goodhart 2017). Finally, he observes that even an advanced capitalist country like Britain remains the "gold standard" that has introduced this dual process of generating an aspirational class alongside social groups that perceive their decilining social status.

Goodhart (2017) argues:

The helter-skelter expansion of higher education in the past twenty-five yearsand the elevation of educational success into the gold standard of social esteemhas been one of the most important, and least understood, developments in British society. It has been a liberation for many and for others a symptom of their declining status.

This partly explains the unrest among the dominant castes in India, mentioned earlier in this article, who perceive their decline and a sense of anxiety as to how castes lower down the order are moving ahead through affirmative action policies.

Marathas arguing against reservations for Dalits and wanting to move out of the agrarian sector to the formal job market is a clear point highlighting this tension. Further, the carefully choreographed controversy around the educational qualifications of Narendra Modi, who has claimed to belong to a lesser privileged class and caste status, and of Smriti Irani, a female public representative, precisely played out this tension. Any critique or suspicion around their degrees becomes symbolic of the elites’ denial of mobility to newly asserting social groups such as the lower castes and women.

Similarly, the crisis in various institutions of higher education, including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), University of Hyderabad (UoH), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), among others is representative of breaking the hold of the social elite and their hegemony over public institutions. The controversy surrounding JNU, under the current political regime, again represents a palpable critique against the privileged spaces occupied by an elite and marked by the life of the mind and the aspiration to question everything instead of expressing solidarity and loyalty. This is then linked to the discourse of nationalism.

Nationalism, in other words, is a political mode of representing those left out of this process, those suffering anxiety due to the spread of higher education. JNU, in spite of having a progressive admission policy, becomes an elite space, while the current regime's mode of changing the policy frame of admission, in spite of excluding the majority, becomes a step that is against divisive politics and symbolic of nationalist assertions.

Narratives and Counter-narratives

In all of this, subaltern castes remain torn between a cultural identification against elite/open spaces, where they perceive a commonality with the nationalist discourse, and the need for more inclusive policy frame.

Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC) politics, in its back and forth movement between identifying with the right and also generating a counter-narrative, has been a visible trend under the current populist regime.

While the dominant castes suffer from the anxiety of decline, subaltern castes suffer the insecurity of losing hard-earned benefits; both need different modes of coping with the situation that cannot be strictly realistic but needs a gloss of self-valourisation.

The slogans of “New India” or “acche din” are more of what one desires than what is real. 

De Sousa and Morton (2002) explain:

My approach to accuracy goes via an account of what makes a story accurate. Stories can be accurate but not true, and emotions can be accurate whether or not they are true. The capacity for emotional accuracy, for emotions that fit a person's situation, is an aspect of emotional intelligence, which is as important an aspect of rational human agency as the intelligent formation of beliefs and desires. (De Sousa and Morton 2002)

Instincts, gut feelings and perceptions allow for an articulation of what may not be otherwise considered legitimate in a hierarchal context such as that of India.

The emergence of the new cultural subalterns has in effect recast the old “Bharat versus India” conundrum, with the old kind of class orientation around issues of economic inequality being refashioned around a conflict between economic elites and cultural subalterns. This undoubtedly tunes into the fact that caste groups are unevenly placed across economic, political and social indicators. While the rhetoric against the high-end and invisible economic elites creates one kind of commonality, common social stigma creates another kind of possibility.

The drama around demonetisation pitched it against economic elites, while the combination of nationalism and a mounting crisis in institutions of higher education strives for a commonality of cultural subalterns.[3] This allows for a discourse that is pro-corporate but anti-modernity; it helps to push for high-end capitalist growth marked by bullet trains and urbanisation and also address the community anxieties that capitalist modernity introduces; it allows to claim a legacy of a pure past to be enjoined with claims for a radically altered future; it sympathises with preserving of community identities, including control of their women and property, yet it can lay a claim to a politics that is beyond caste and religious considerations. It is in such combinatory postulations that right-wing populism strikes and mobilises a new kind of a common sense.

The current round of populism has emerged in India since 2014. Indian democracy had a populist turn from the days of Indira Gandhi with her garibi hatao slogan. However, what is distinct about the current mode of populism is that it is not restricted merely to electoral purposes, but has also begun to dictate the policy frame. Demonetisation is a clear instance of this.

Indian democracy has moved beyond the “Congress system” and is entering a post-Bahujan phase where large categories such as Dalit and OBCs are giving way to smaller sub-categories articulating and claiming independent identities and moving between various political parties. This has allowed the BJP to strategise by drawing up a new coalition between the dominant castes at one end and Dalits and OBCs on the other. They are fragmenting the polity on the one hand and conjoining them with a unified Hindutva narrative on the other. In doing this a populist narrative works as a glue in creating a new kind of discourse of us and them, in some instance, vis-à-vis the economic elites, while in others it could be the Muslims.

As Prashant Jha (2017: 178) notes in his study of the BJP’s electoral strategy:

It was meant to make the Hindu bitter at what he was not getting; it was meant to make him feel resentful of the Muslim for being pampered; it was meant to bracket all other parties as pandering to specific interests based on religion. In the name of a common citizenry and an unbiased state, it was meant to divide communities. 

Populism has foregrounded what Carl Schmidt refers to as the “irreducibility of multiplicity.” While in the immediate context it seems to have undermined institutions and democratic ethos, it also carries with it the possibility of further democratising the polity by highlighting the multiple voices that inhabit it. This, however, remains one possibility, while the continued assertion of the populist mode may also permanently alter the contours of democracy providing a new justifications to extra-institutional discourses. The events in the run-up to 2019 elections are significant in this respect. 

This article was presented at various seminars and workshops, including at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, MANUU, Hyderabad, and Eckert Institute, Berlin. I am thankful to the organisers and those who raised pertinent questions in the course of the discussion on the paper.

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