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Authoritarian populism and popular struggles in Modi’s India

In the pattern of authoritarianism taking over Indian politics since 2014, social movements, activists, and dissidents find themselves at the receiving end of increasingly brazen forms of repression.

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lead Nahrendra Modi. Copyleft. Some rights reserved.During the summer months of 2018, the term “urban Naxals” began circulating in the Indian public sphere. Coined by third-rate film-maker and Hindu nationalist hatemonger Vivek Agnihotri in his extraordinarily cringeworthy book Urban Naxals: The Making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam, the neologism is intended to designate city-based supporters of the Maoist rebels that have been waging a stubborn guerilla war against the Indian state since the late 1960s.

The story that goes along with the term is that India’s big cities are infested with leftist and left-liberal intellectuals and activists who provide the Maoist insurgents in the so-called Red Corridor with a treasonous infrastructure of ideological and practical support. As such, they are enemies of the state, and should be rooted out in the name of the security and prosperity of the Indian nation. “Urban Naxals stay in cities and have luxurious lives, their children are well-educated,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in a speech recently, “but they remote control the lives of Adivasi (tribal) children and destroy their lives.” “Urban Naxals stay in cities and have luxurious lives, their children are well-educated,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in a speech recently, “but they remote control the lives of Adivasi (tribal) children and destroy their lives.”

It is easy enough to pick apart the term and the story that goes along with it – indeed, its substantive content is based on little more than a wafer-thin combination of fanciful delusions and malign conjecture. However, the fact that a term like this circulates widely in India’s public sphere and is used and thereby authorized by the premier of the republic is ripe with consequence.

This became amply clear in late August this year, when, in a nationwide sweep, the Pune Police raided the homs of several human rights activists and arrested five of them – Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves. All were accused of nurturing links to Maoist rebels, and the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that they were involved in gunrunning, aiding the insurgents, and plotting to kill the Prime Minister.

Crucially, these arrests and the way which they were justified by the powers that be fits into a more pronounced pattern of authoritarianism in Indian politics since Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014, in which social movements, activists, and dissidents find themselves at the receiving end of increasingly brazen forms of repression. To understand how this perilous conjuncture has come about, we have to consider the wider logic of Modi’s political project.

Authoritarian populism and the enemy within

Writing in 1980s Britain, cultural theorist Stuart Hall coined the term 'authoritarian populism' to refer to a particular kind of conservative politics. Authoritarian populism, he argued, was characterised by the construction of a contradiction between the common people and elites, which is then used to justify the imposition of repressive measures by the state.

According to Hall, such a contradiction was constructed in part by depicting specific groups as an ominous enemy within – that is, as a threat to and an enemy of the interests of the putative people. This enemy – typically political dissidents and minority groups – is in turn made the target of repression and punitive discipline, all in the name of a supposed common national interest. In this process, conservative forces tighten their grip on society and the body politic, to the detriment, obviously, of democratic life.

As I have argued elsewhere, 1980s Britain and contemporary India are of course very different contexts, but Hall’s insights are nevertheless useful in terms of understanding the BJP’s current agenda and the toll it is taking on Indian democracy. Modi and the BJP are part of a Hindu nationalist movement with roots stretching back to the 1920s. This movement consists of a wide spectrum of organizations that operates with the goal of making India a Hindu nation. Until recently, its support base was comprised largely of India’s upper castes and middle classes, who sought to defend their interests against political assertion by Dalits and lower caste groups. However, these groups are not numerically significant enough in Indian society to underpin dominance in the electoral arena. This is why Modi and the BJP opted for unseating the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2014 general elections on the basis of a national cross-class and cross-caste consensus.

This consensus was constructed on the back of a campaign that portrayed Modi as a man of action who would bring development to the common people. In peddling this message, Modi and the BJP were tapping into the frustrated ambitions of many ordinary Indians who had failed to reap the benefits of economic growth under the UPA regime. It was also a message suffused with a specific kind of anti-elitism: as someone who had risen from humble beginnings, Modi was depicted as being quintessentially different from the scions of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress dynasty – he knew the realities on the ground, and could therefore bring achhe din (good days) to the average Indian man and woman. Modi was pictured as being quintessentially different from the scions of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress dynasty – he knew the realities on the ground, and could therefore bring achhe din (good days) to the average Indian man and woman.

The Modi narrative, however, was never only about achhe din aane waale hain (good days are coming) – it was also about drawing a line between true Indians and their enemies, and rallying popular support for a crackdown on those enemies. It is here, in particular, that the BJP regime creates the enemy within that it needs in order for the current incarnation of Hindutva to thrive. That enemy, of course, is the political dissident – the activist, the public intellectual, the student, the lawyer and the journalist who dares to question and challenge a government that is acting in the interest of the people. The enemy within is accused of being “anti-national” and subjected to harassment, silencing and – as evidenced most recently by the attempt on student activist Umar Khalid’s life, and before that by the killings of scholar-activists M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and journalist Gauri Lankesh – murderous violence.

It is also crucial to acknowledge that this coercive dynamic does not only take the form of repression against social movements, activists and dissidents. As has become increasingly clear after the 2014 elections, it also takes aim at vulnerable groups and minorities, such as Muslims and Dalits, through the majoritarian cultural politics that has crystallized around issues such as cow-protection, inter-religious love and religious reconversion. As with the policing of activism and dissent, the making of a cultural and religious Other is a profoundly violent affair: in fact, more than 96% of all vigilante attacks on Muslims and Dalits over the past eight years have taken place since Modi came to power. In other words, political coercion and cultural nationalism are joined at the hip in BJP’s authoritarian populism.

Counterhegemony and counternarratives

In the spring of 2019 – most likely in late April or early May – India will go to the polls again, and there is a real chance that Modi and the BJP will secure a second term in office. Such an outcome would no doubt provide the party with an opportunity to continue the slow-motion suffocation of the world’s largest democracy that it set in train in 2014. It is therefore imperative that progressive oppositional forces challenge the narrative that Modi and his followers have been touting, in which movements, activists, and dissidents are stigmatized as anti-national enemies within. Counterhegemony, in short, needs a counternarrative about the forms of activism that are currently in the crosshairs of the Modi regime.

Adivasi protest in India. Alf Nilsen. All rights reserved,Such a counternarrative, I believe, should be grounded in the adamant insistence that there is nothing anti-national about dissent, activism, and popular struggle. On the contrary, the counterhegemonic narrative should run, oppositional collective action has always been at the heart of the making and remaking of the modern Indian nation, and to the extent that Indian democracy has substantive meaning and real implications for poor and oppressed groups, this is directly related to activism which has challenged ruling elites – both past and present.       

This dynamic has played itself out both at the level of the national polity as a whole, and at the level of local communities. India, of course, won its freedom through popular struggle, and crucially, that struggle was not animated by a singular and uniform idea of what the postcolonial state should look like. On the contrary, the three decades from 1920 to the late 1940s witnessed fierce struggles between the interests and visions of Indian elites and the claims and aspirations of exploited and excluded groups, such as landless workers and the urban poor.

In other words, dissent and opposition played an integral part in making the democracy which is currently under siege by the authoritarian populism of the BJP. And to the extent that the compass of this democracy has been widened during the seven decades that have passed since independence, this is similarly a result of the collective action of movements from below – for example, Dalit struggles and the women’s movement. In short, counterhegemony must, first and foremost, assert the legitimacy of contention against the attempt by authoritarian forces to legitimize coercion.

At the local level, my own research has revealed how Indian democracy is often made real precisely because of social movements and despite the workings of the state. For example, in my recent book Adivasis and the State, I show how poor Adivasi (tribal/indigenous) groups in rural western India have been brutally oppressed by local state personnel, who would use the powers vested in them in relation to law enforcement and their role in dispensing crucial public services, to impose illicit demands for bribes. This everyday tyranny has been enforced with violence, threats and coercion and prevented the collective articulation of rights-based claims and demands on the state. As I detail in my book, it was organizing and mobilizing from below by local social movements that changed these equations. These movements aggregated Adivasi grievances into rights-based claims and demands. In pursuing these claims they carved out a space in which democratic transactions could take place, and fostered the emergence of insurgent forms of citizenship.

In short, counterhegemony must, first and foremost, assert the legitimacy of contention against the attempt by authoritarian forces to legitimize coercion.

Deepening democracy beyond 2019

But counterhegemony must be about more than just counternarratives in defense of constitutional democracy. The refusal to align with majoritarian coercion has to be coupled with an agenda that can drive further processes of democratic deepening. And such an agenda must work to widen the cracks and fissures that have begun to appear in Modi’s attempt to construct a Hindu nationalist hegemony.

Dalit women protesting in front of Ambedkar's statue.Copyleft. Some rights reserved.These cracks and fissures are evident in a series of setbacks in the electoral arena – for example, in the Karnataka State elections and in several important by-elections, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Moreover, multiple challenges have arisen outside the parliamentary sphere, in the form of new popular movements that contest Modi’s legitimacy. Key among these are the new forms of Dalit radicalism that have erupted in Gujarat and other parts of the Hindi heartland, as well as the recent agitations by small and marginal farmers, landless labourers and Adivasis in response to the deepening of the crisis in India’s countryside. In the face of such fragilities, the need of the hour is to consolidate scattered forms of resistance and multiple social forces around radical claims for redistribution and recognition. In the face of such fragilities, the need of the hour is to consolidate scattered forms of resistance and multiple social forces around radical claims for redistribution and recognition.

It is precisely through such claims that opposition to Modi and the BJP becomes more than a defensive rallying around civil and political rights – it is through such claims that a genuinely counterhegemonic offensive, capable of deepening democracy, can be moulded.

About the author

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development and Planning at the University of Agder. His research focuses on social movements in the global South. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India (2010) and Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Resistance in India's Bhil Heartland (2018). He has also co-authored (with Laurence Cox) We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (2014). 

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