We know by now that authoritarian populists have handled the Covid-19 pandemic badly. Both Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro presided over spiraling death rates, fueled by a disregard for medical science and neglect of public health imperatives.
But India’s Narendra Modi appeared to buck this trend. After the first wave of the pandemic dissipated in September 2020, both national and international media echoed the government narrative that India, with Modi at its helm, had vanquished the coronavirus.
This public image, however, was revealed to be a mirage when a deadly second wave ripped through the country from late March to early June 2021. Millions of lives were lost. And it was a direct consequence of the failure of Modi and his party—the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—to expand medical infrastructure and roll out vaccinations effectively.
The BJP government, in short, chose to privilege Modi’s appearance as a strongman and heroic protector of the nation. Ultimately, this stands as testimony to the morbid workings of authoritarian populism, which has become a global political force since the mid-2010s.
This is why current developments in India, as well as their ideological lineage, should command attention far beyond the country’s borders. If we want to understand these developments, we need to appreciate that there is something that sets Narendra Modi and the BJP apart from the wider populist coterie.
The unparalleled hegemonic power of the Modi regime is an expression of something more than simply a mandate gained through electoral victories. For sure, Modi and the BJP won overwhelming majorities in the general elections of 2014 and 2019. But the regime draws sustenance from a much deeper process of Hindu nationalist organizing and mobilizing in Indian society. This movement building has been ongoing for close to one hundred years and constitutes the bedrock of Modi’s power today, as well as of his regime’s ability to forge an ethnic democracy in India.
Most authoritarian populists in power across the world are politicians and at the helm of political parties that have won elections. Modi is more than that: he is also part of the mobilizing and organizing carried out by a reactionary social movement for close to a century. This puts him and his party in a much stronger position than a Trump or a Bolsonaro.
In 1992, Hindu nationalist cadres demolished the 15th-century Babri mosque in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The mosque had allegedly been built on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Rama. The demolition, which was closely orchestrated by leaders of the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP—the party of Modi—as well as of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; National Volunteer Organization) and its affiliates, reclaimed this site for India’s Hindu majority. More than two thousand people, most of them Muslims, died in the communal riots that ensued.
This spectacular act of collective violence inaugurated a decade in which the BJP competed with political parties representing lower-caste groups and Dalits. The latter mobilized around demands for caste-based affirmative action.1 The BJP countered with calls for Hindu unity across divisions of caste and class, against the Muslim Other.
By the end of the decade, the BJP was in charge of a coalition government in Delhi. The party reined in some of the more radical ideological tenets of Hindu nationalism, in part to appease its coalition partners. This, however, would change drastically after the BJP suffered consecutive electoral defeats in 2004 and 2009 and Narendra Modi ascended to pole position in the party.
Under Modi’s leadership, authoritarian populism has come to be the core of the BJP’s political project. Party ideology draws a line between true Indians—in short, the Hindu majority—and their antinational enemies within: corrupt elites, dissenters, and, above all, India’s Muslim minority. The BJP’s authoritarian populism hinges, in large part, on Modi’s unique persona. Having emerged from humble social origins, the muscular helmsman is seen to be a genuine man of the people—far more so than previous generations of BJP leaders.
The Modi regime is therefore more than an electoral mandate. It is the manifestation of a sociopolitical movement that has worked patiently and persistently over a century-long period to change Indian society. As a result, it is far more embedded in India’s social and political fabric than other authoritarian populists are in their respective countries, whether in the global South or the global North.
This movement has burrowed its way through India’s civil society and, under Modi’s premiership, seized hold of the state. It is currently using its accumulated power to redefine the grammar of Indian democracy in majoritarian and authoritarian ways. And there is no better resource for understanding this perilous moment than Christophe Jaffrelot’s new book, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (2021).
The modi regime draws sustenance from a deep process of Hindu nationalist organizing and mobilizing in Indian society.
When I say that the Modi regime is a movement, not a mandate, I do so in a literal sense. The BJP is best understood as one particular node in the network of organizations that makes up the Hindu nationalist movement. This reactionary sociopolitical movement was founded in the 1920s to advance what Jaffrelot conceives of as a distinctively Indian form of ethnic nationalism. An organized Hindu nationalism, in other words, predated the party.
From the outset, Hindu nationalism had to work against the grain of the intense differentiation of Hinduism as a religion, which is characterized by a multiplicity of currents and the absence of a core religious doctrine. Hindutva (Hinduness) was defined in ethnic and territorial terms: the Hindus were a unified race of people, and India should be a Hindu Rashtra—a Hindu nation. Hindu nationalism, as Anustup Basu has put it, is a modern political monotheism.2
In this ideological universe, Muslims are a menacing Other—an external threat to the civilizational and cultural unity of the Hindu nation. As Jaffrelot notes, the overriding concern of the founders of the Hindu nationalist movement was “to organize the vulnerable majority that was the Hindus, against the Muslims.”
From its early beginnings to the present day, this movement has developed as a “matrix of a homogenous Hindu nation.” The key vehicle for this organizing and mobilizing has been the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which now consists of some 50,000 branches and five to six million members across the country.
The RSS is the hub for a sprawling network of specialized affiliates that organize particular groups and sectors in Indian society—for instance, farmers and workers, Dalits and Adivasis, and youth, women, and students. As political scientist Tariq Thachil has shown, many of these affiliate groups also provide crucial welfare services to poor and disadvantaged communities, who are often grossly neglected by public authorities.3 This infrastructure refers to itself as the Sangh Parivar—the Family of Organizations.
The main achievement of the Sangh Parivar is its success in “covering the social space,” creating a coherent sense of identity across caste and class lines. This achievement, in turn, has enabled the Hindu nationalist movement, which initially emerged among narrow, upper-caste groups, to build a hegemonic position in India’s civil society.
It is in understanding how the Hindu nationalist movement has extended its sway from civil society to the state that Modi’s India proves particularly useful. Jaffrelot offers an almost encyclopedic account of the BJP’s trajectory to political hegemony.
The Sangh Parivar made its first foray into party politics in the early 1950s. However, it was only in the 1990s—starting, that is, with the destruction of the Babri mosque—that the BJP, its parliamentary front organization, became a political force to be reckoned with.
Jaffrelot details how this project emanated from the western Indian state of Gujarat, which Modi, a lifelong RSS member and activist, governed as chief minister from 2001 to 2014. He presided over a massive anti-Muslim pogrom in the state in 2002 and pushed a political message that polarized religious groups and sidelined caste stratification. In so doing, Modi established himself as “Hindu Hriday Samrat”—a king of Hindu hearts.
Coupled with Modi’s image as a business-friendly man of development, this formula transcended the narrow social base of the BJP’s electorate, which had consisted mostly of upper-caste and urban middle-class groups. In a poor country like India, this demographic cannot yield electoral majorities. Modi’s achievement in Gujarat, Jaffrelot shows, was to win over the lower castes and lower social classes to the BJP.
Jaffrelot’s book excels in laying bare how Modi’s rise to power involved extending this strategy to the national level. The BJP’s messaging in the campaign for the elections in 2014 coupled promises of market-driven development and social mobility with religious polarization. Propelled by massive corporate funding, the party’s bid for national power fused high-tech communication strategies and new volunteers who served as vote mobilizers with the Sangh Parivar’s organizational capacity to reach out to the electorate.
The result was a landslide victory. With 31 percent of the votes and 282 seats in India’s parliament, the BJP won an absolute majority. The playing field in the subsequent general election in 2019, Jaffrelot argues, was so skewed in favor of the governing party that it “marks a transition in India toward electoral authoritarianism.” A campaign fueled by Hindu nationalism and Modi’s image as protector of the nation clearly appealed to the electorate. The BJP won more than 37 percent of the vote and 303 parliamentary seats.
Will there be a reckoning for a leader, a party, and a movement that are, in fact, presiding over deepening immiseration?
With this powerful mandate, Modi’s BJP has proceeded to reshape India’s secular political order into an authoritarian ethnic democracy. “In this new political system,” Jaffrelot writes, “the majoritarian community is assumed to be one and the same as the nation, thereby relegating minorities to second-class citizens.”
During Modi’s first term, this was most evident in how a wide array of vigilante groups with various affiliations to the Sangh Parivar enforced Hindu nationalist dictates through moral policing and violent attacks on dissenters and Muslims. Often working in tandem with police and benefiting from state protection, these groups created what Jaffrelot calls a “de facto Hindu Rashtra.”
With Modi’s second term, the making of an ethnic democracy has only advanced further. Hindu nationalist dictates are now being codified into law. This began with the abrogation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status—a longstanding aim of the Hindu nationalist movement—in August 2019 and continued with the country’s Supreme Court allocating to Hindu groups the land where the Babri mosque stood. Later the same year, the Modi government introduced anti-Muslim citizenship legislation. More recently, BJP-governed states have passed legislation against interfaith marriages in a bid to curb so-called love jihad—an imaginary Islamophobic construct in which Muslim men allegedly marry Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
This Hindu nationalist statecraft is progressively pushing India from a de facto to a de jure Hindu Rashtra, or, as Jaffrelot puts it, “official Hindu Raj.”
If there is one factor that has enabled the Hindu nationalist movement to extend its hegemony from civil society to the state, it’s undoubtedly the consolidation of the Hindu vote across caste and class lines. In 2019, 44 percent of all Hindu voters supported Modi, up from 36 percent in 2014 and 22 and 25 percent in the 2009 and 2004 elections, respectively.
To be clear, the BJP’s core constituency is still made up of India’s upper castes—61 percent of whom voted for Modi in 2019—and the upper middle classes and the rich—44 percent of whom cast their ballot for the BJP the same year. But the party’s massive parliamentary majority was made possible by an expansion of support among “plebeian voters”—lower-caste groups, Dalits, and the poor.
Among lower-caste groups, the BJP increased its vote from 23 and 22 percent in 2004 and 2009 to 34 and 44 percent in 2019. The party’s share of the Dalit vote increased from 13 and 12 percent in 2004 and 2009 to 24 and 34 percent in 2014 and 2019. Whereas the party has increased its vote share across all classes, the largest increase has been among poor Indians—from 16 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2014, and finally 36 percent in 2019.
Real political power, however, is concentrated in the hands of upper-caste groups, who are overrepresented in Modi’s government, among BJP members of parliament, in BJP governments at the state level, and in the party apparatus itself. Jaffrelot reads this development as “the revenge of the upper-caste elite”—a revenge that has deflected the challenge from lower-caste and Dalit parties and their agendas of recognition through affirmative action. The unification of the Hindu vote, Jaffrelot argues, has enabled this elite to regain political power. Notably, this has happened in a context where 10 percent of the country’s population—a proportion that is overwhelmingly upper caste—holds 77 percent of all wealth and 55 percent of all income.
In this context, what is it exactly that Modi’s BJP has offered subaltern castes and India’s poor to gain their allegiance? Jaffrelot suggests that, on the one hand, Modi’s promises of development appeal to aspirations of social mobility. On the other hand, inclusion in a purportedly unified Hindu majority community under Modi’s leadership offers a sense of dignity often denied to those on the lower rungs of India’s caste system.
What Jaffrelot’s analysis touches on here are the deeply complex dynamics of India’s political economy as a middle-income country and emerging power in the global South. In material terms, the growth process that has propelled India to this status has obviously been uneven and unequal. And material inequality seems to be deeply intertwined with a “structure of feeling”4—an emerging pattern of emotions in society—where aspirations and anxieties interlock in politically consequential ways.
Another way of thinking about this is that Modi’s authoritarian populism ultimately rests on what W. E. B. Du Bois referred to as “a public and psychological wage” in his masterpiece Black Reconstruction in America.5 Du Bois, of course, was trying to explain why poor white workers in the US South aligned with white elites, rather than in a united struggle against exploitation alongside poor Black workers. His answer was that whiteness offered the experience of a higher social status than what Black people were afforded. This, Du Bois argued, worked as compensation for material poverty.
In India today, the authoritarian populism of Modi’s BJP and the wider Hindu nationalist movement is arguably sustained by similar majoritarian psychological wages—what we might call the wages of Hinduness. The big question, of course, is whether this will hold up against the absence of actual prosperity for those on the margins of India’s growth process. Will there be a reckoning for a leader, a party, and a movement that are, in fact, presiding over deepening immiseration?
Whatever the answer to that question may be, it is quite evident that it will take much more than a simple BJP defeat at the polls to reverse the tide of Hindu nationalism. Progressive political forces have a long road ahead to counter the ethnic democracy that is currently being put in place in Modi’s India.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- See Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India (Columbia University Press, 2003). ↩
- Anustup Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism (Duke University Press, 2020). ↩
- Tariq Thachil, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India (Cambridge University Press, 2014). ↩
- Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977). ↩
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860—1880 (Oxford University Press, 2007). ↩