The four ‘isms’ that make Modi ‘neo-Sultan’ of a majoritarian state

Majoritarian State
How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India
Book Excerpt 

This book is about the contemporary ascendance of Hindu nationalist dominance to establish a majoritarian state in India. The 2014 elections witnessed the culmination of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) longstanding efforts to rule India. This second ascent of the BJP to power in New Delhi was markedly different from its first under the prime ministership of A.B. Vajpayee (1998–2004). The triumph of the BJP in 2014 brought about two unprecedented events: never had the Hindu nationalist movement won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and never had this movement, known for its hostility to the personalisation of power and for its collegial governance, been so influenced by one politician, Narendra Modi.

The new dispensation combined four features that have also emerged in other countries in recent years, including in Donald J. Trump’s America: populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and majoritarianism. The majoritarian dispensation in India combines two further elements: the implementation of a more unvarnished pro-corporate and pro-upper caste compound of policies than ever before, paired with the normalisation of anti-minority rhetoric, routine assertions of the imminent danger posed by internal as well as external enemies to the nation, and a systematic deployment of false claims and partisan facts. The vision of a Hindu majoritarian polity held by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP combines cultural nationalism and political strategies aiming at flagrant social dominance by the upper castes, rapid economic development, cultural conservatism, intensified misogyny, and a firm grip on the instruments of state power. Modi’s rhetoric, his authoritarian style of governance and his electoral support from the elite and the urban middle class suggest many parallels with other populist strongmen across the globe. However, the circumstances and processes that made the BJP’s victory possible and sustains its power are historically complex and in large measure unique to India, as we sketch below. This volume is an attempt at assessing the diverse aspects of the policies and politics that shape the Modi government in the present, with particular focus on to how its Hindu nationalist, majoritarian ideology functions and modifies institutions and social relations. As the title of the volume suggests, we are interested in mapping and exploring if, and how, the political and social dominance of the BJP and the plethora of Hindu nationalist organisations are shifting the relationship between the Indian state and its diverse peoples and communities.

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Modi’s neo-sultanism

The four ‘isms’ noted above—populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and majoritarianism—resonate with the notion of ‘sultanism’, that Max Weber introduced a century ago to describe situations when power ‘operates primarily on the basis of discretion’ under the aegis of a strong man. Analysing ‘sultans’ of the twentieth century, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have complexified this model to define it as a regime in which ‘all individuals, groups and institutions are permanently subject to the unpredictable and despotic intervention of the sultan, and thus all pluralism is precarious’. This suggests that sultanism has affinities with our four ‘isms’, including populism, a concept that to this day remains analytically ‘elusive’, according to Gellner and Ionescu. Populist leaders are primarily characterised by the way they claim to speak in the name of the people against the elite. Populists project themselves as new men against old political establishments, despite the fact that they often are seasoned public figures, but typically not centre stage. In 2014, Modi, in spite of being chief minister of Gujarat for thirteen years, presented himself as an alternative for and of the people because he came from a plebeian background, had never had any major role in Delhi, and could stand in stark contrast to the Gandhi family because of his modest origins. While he had not very often referred to this pedigree in Gujarat, he successfully projected himself as an ordinary man from humble origins during the 2014 election campaign. Castigating Rahul Gandhi as shahzada (Mughal princeling), Modi highlighted his low social background (in belonging to an OBC caste) and that he had to work in his father’s tea shop on the railway platform when he was a child.

The second major trait of a populist leader pertains to his communication techniques. He relates directly to ‘his’ people, short-circuiting his own political party to some extent, touring the country and using diverse media. In 2014, Modi saturated the public sphere, taking the country by storm, behaving like a muscular rock star on stage (endowed with a ‘56-inch chest’), and resorting to TV, social media, holograms, etc. His image was everywhere. In terms of content, his campaign promised everything to everyone, but more importantly he repeated ad nauseam catchy and vague slogans that emerged as powerful, though ‘empty signifiers’, the trademark of populists according to Ernesto Laclau. One of these formulas, ‘Acche din anewalle hein!’ can be translated as a vaguely hopeful, ‘Good days are coming!’, a slogan that became representative of many forms of aspiration across the country.

Nationalism is the bedrock of most populists and Modi is no exception. A member of the RSS since his childhood, and later a full time pracharak (preacher or propagator), he has been deeply influenced by Hindutva ideology. Since its codification by Savarkar in 1923, this ideology looks at Hindus not primarily as practitioners of a diverse faith tradition, but as a people descending from ancestral sons of the soil, the ‘Vedic fathers.’ In the ideological repertoire of Hindutva, the people are not defined only as the victims of the elite but in cultural terms as the true autochthons and owners of the land. This politics gives rise to what Gino Germani named national populism, which is a distinct repertoire of the right. The populism of the left (that Indira Gandhi epitomised in the 1970s for instance) does not rely on ethnic or religious exclusion, even as Gandhi’s policies contributed to the systemic marginalisation of religious and ethnic groups, for example, Sikhs in Punjab, Muslims in Kashmir, and Mizos in the Northeast. These policies and practices of marginalisation, ironically, impacted the projection of the BJP into national politics.

Modi is a product of the RSS and has clearly shown his deep commitment to the Hindutva doctrine, but he did not emphasise this aspect of his personal convictions during the 2014 campaign. He hardly needed to. The organized mass violence of 2002 in Gujarat, which had resulted in a pogrom against Muslims when he was chief minister, had already earned him with the status of a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ (Emperor of the Hindu Heart). His commitment to Hindu nationalism was also evident from the fact that the BJP nominated a very small number of candidates from the minorities (especially from the Muslim community) in order to signal that the party intended to represent a Hindu(ised) people. Following the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, Hindu majoritarianism was further consolidated across various states; through orchestrated attacks on minorities in Orissa in 2007 and 2008 and in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

The legitimacy of such Hindu domination harked back to their autochthony, while also augmenting their numbers. Hence, the third ‘ism’ on our list, majoritarianism, which is inherent to Modi’s populism because the people he claims to represent are made up of Hindus only. This is evident from the fact that in 2014, the BJP nominated only a handful of Muslim candidates, and that, consequently, for the first time in India’s history, the winning party in the general elections had no Muslim in its parliamentary group in the Lok Sabha. The main goal of the BJP is to ‘defend’ the interests of Hindus first and foremost, at the expense of the rights of the Othered/minorities in the country.

Majoritarian national-populists are authoritarian by definition, since they claim that they embody the people and as the people can only be one/singular, there is no room for pluralism. This explains their tendency to disqualify their adversaries as ‘anti-national’ or even traitors, and even reject the multiparty system of democracy. The BJP has made it clear that no other party should compete with it, or is even needed, as indicative from its slogan of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (a Congress-free India). This formula reflects its views of competitors not as adversaries, but as enemies. The BJP routinely (and falsely) claims that Congress relies on the vote of ‘anti-national’ elements (such as members of the minorities) and that the party is ‘soft on Pakistan’—a country that figured prominently as an existential threat in every election campaign of Narendra Modi and the BJP, both at the national level and state level.

While Modi exemplifies the authoritarian, majoritarian, national-populists of today, his regime is not merely sultanistic as those described by Linz and Stepan. India continues to organise reasonably free and fair elections; its government interferes with the appointment of judges but cannot prevent the most independently-minded lawyers from attempting to do their jobs; the government and the BJP influence and curtail the media but indirectly, not via official censorship. If anything, Modi is a ‘neo-sultan’ who observes some facets of democracy while pushing India further towards an illiberal ethnic democracy.

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