“Too much democracy”: Popular Sovereignty in Contemporary India


Worldwide, India under the rule of Narendra Modi, the BJP, and their Hindutva project since 2014 is seen as a classic case of ‘democratic backsliding’, authoritarianism and electoral autocracy, with repression of dissenters, Muslims and Dalits now commonplace. But, as the quote in the title culled from an interview with India’s Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar argues, these are symptoms not of a deficit of democracy, but an excess of it. This lecture explores this tension between deficit and excess in contemporary India.

Composing a politics on claimed contradictions and antagonisms between people/enemy and people/elite, there is wide consensus, is the essence of populism. The anti-colonial struggle, the partition of British India, and the dynamics of electoral competition, situated within a specific path of capitalism development, have given rise to varieties of populism in India. Here, I explore the forms of competitive populism in India, and then focus on the rise of authoritarian populism, which identifies Muslims as ‘enemies’ within the citizenry, but attempts to deny political and constitutional equality and rights to them, including, periodically, the right to life. These are not only, or even primarily, state practices: the powers of enforcing this duality are dispersed across society to Hindutva’s associational forms, and even to self-enrolled individuals who are not members of any organisation but are affiliated to Hindutva’s ‘community of impunity’. The composition of Hindus as ‘pure people’ and Muslims as ‘enemy’ are mutually enforcing, and violence-with-impunity, by state and non-state actors, is a key instrument in their composition. Social media plays the central function in the consolidation and reproduction of the people/enemy categories and antagonisms. It is also the primary mode of enforcing the people/elite binaries in casting political opponents as parasitical and decadent. With these characteristics, the dominant form of populism in India today centres Modi as a ‘strong leader’, who exemplifies the Hindutva idea of ‘jan nayak’, similar to Schmitt’s notion of the ‘popular sovereign’.

However, two challenges remain. One, in electoral competition, regional forms of populism compose other forms of ‘people’ in opposition to the centralised model of Hindutva populism: note current efforts to demand a caste census, and also state-level populist policies different from those coming from the centre. Two, India has recently seen many social movements of the poor, reflecting continued caste and gender violence, agrarian distress, ecological catastrophe, displacement for development, precarious employment with stagnant wages, and lack of access to food, health and education etc. This threatens the stability of the ‘people’ composed by Hindutva populism. I close with remarks on success and failure of attempts by Modi-centred populism to contain these challenges.

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