Indian Populist Leaders: From Indira Gandhi to Modi

Navika Mehta

Why populism works in Indian politics as a political tool used by leaders to gain popular support.

In 2016, 2000 articles in the Guardian mentioned populism as compared to 300 articles in 1998. In 2017, “populism” was declared the word of the year by the Cambridge Dictionary. In the last 20 years, there is a significant increase in populist support worldwide and populist vote share has more than tripled in Europe. Although populism is not a new occurrence, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee influx in Europe have been commonly cited by academics as propellers of this “anti-establishment” rhetoric

“populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a ‘new’ kind of party that is different from all others.”

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, has defined populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté (general will) of the people”. He explains that populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a “new” kind of party that is different from all others. He differentiates populists from early socialists because populists claim to speak for the “oppressed people” while unwilling to change “their values or their ‘way of life’”. For example, speaking for farmers’ rights while charging high-interest rates on loans. 

Indian politics is not a stranger to populist politics. Right from the movement for Indian independence from the British Empire, to the current BJP government, populism has been key to gaining votes. Prior to Independence, the nationalist movement which enabled the country-wide resistance against the British Raj brought about a sense of togetherness in the collective struggles against the oppressor. This movement succeeded largely by gathering the outpouring of popular support as the nation as a whole came together to bring an end to British rule. 

“After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase ‘gareebi hatao’, which means, end poverty.”

After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase “gareebi hatao”, which means, end poverty. And so, further enforcing redistribution through economic policies like nationalisation of banks and abolition of the privy purse (a sum paid to the former rulers of princely states of India who agreed to integrate with the union). Thus, creating a them vs. us narrative – the colonial past vs. modern egalitarian India – and – rich elite vs. poor. These redistributive anti-elite policies along with her emphasising a strong feminine character, being referred to as “Ma Durga”, Goddess of Power, challenged the political masculinities of Indian politics and enabled her to get the popular vote. 

“Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support.”

Populism can be inclusive or exclusive. For example, populism in Europe is exclusive and that in Latin America is inclusive. This means that while European populism has a socio-cultural dimension to exclude immigrants or refugees, the Latin American populism has an economic dimension of including and helping the poor and underrepresented. Indian history has witnessed both kinds. The independence movement was inclusive, it was a fight against colonial oppressors and freedom for all Indians. Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support. Identity here can be religious, caste-based, gendered or along any other social category. Due to this, a new political cleavage with a cultural dimension has now emerged.

“Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus remains on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign ‘chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)’ perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity.”

Populism in India today has taken a similar approach using this new dimension. With identity-based politics at the forefront, right-wing populism has slowly grown and has now taken a stronghold with the re-election of the BJP for a second term. Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus is on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign “chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)” perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity. The party has successfully created a them vs. us narrative through religion – majority vs. minority and also through nationalists vs. anti-nationals (those who speak against the government). While Gandhi herself belonged to the ruling class she channeled her image as the anti-elite rebel, similarly, Modi has emphasised his humble beginnings as the “chai wala” (tea seller). 

Both types of populism focus on pro-poor agendas, their solutions are oversimplified and inadequate in bringing about real economic equality. For example, demonetisation and privy purse, both claimed to be for the benefit of the poor, anti-elite, but neither had a significant impact in bringing real economic and social change for the masses. 

The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that prohibits illegal migrants from becoming citizens of India with exceptions for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities was defended by supporters of the government and mainstreamed a huge populist anti-immigrant sentiment. Suddenly, elite, upper middle-class and majority religious groups who may have never before concerned themselves with the rights of the Indian working class, expressed deep concern about Muslim immigrant workers from Bangladesh taking jobs of the Hindu working class. The focus of the political sphere thus shifted from the real causes of unemployment to the them vs. us narrative of Muslim immigrants taking the jobs of natives. This has been highlighted as the “scapegoating phenomena” by Colantone and Stanig who explain that anti-immigrant sentiments tend to be higher in areas with greater unemployment and in the presence of a right-wing populist party. They explain that unemployment and lack of opportunities trigger this belief that the labour market is a “zero-sum game”, wherein, in order to get a job the individual needs to take it from another person thus making immigrants a perceived threat for natives. 

“nativism means that ‘states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.’ He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been ‘whitewashed’ by using the term populism.”

Mudde argues that this anti-immigrant ideology used by populist parties is actually “nativism” couched in a less explicit racist term as “populism”. He explains that nativism means that “states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.” He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been “whitewashed” by using the term populism. In India, the CAA along with the NRC (National Register of Citizens) is not only a threat for migrants and refugees but also against people who don’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship, with the CAA  specifically excluding Muslims who entered India on or before December 2014. Thus, further reinforcing the exclusive populist narrative of India in the 21st century. 

“The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs.” 

The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs. Post-Independence, in the backdrop of partition, the Indian government laid emphasis on ideas of pluralism, secularism and diversity, with the phrase “unity in diversity” coined by Nehru. These ideas were deeply ingrained in education, government policies and cultural references. In the present day, until the issues of “nativism”, economic inequalities and political propaganda of right-wing populists who pretend that they care about the working class are effectively tackled, populism will continue to thrive, and fake news and positive media coverage will enable it to do so.

Navika is the Editor of Bol Magazine and created this platform to inspire conversations and action.

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