Christophe Jaffrelot, author of Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy
You have done work on Narendra Modi in the past also, starting with his tenure in Gujarat. What kindled your interest in him and what has sustained it?
I am not interested in Narendra Modi as a person, but as an exemplar of national populism, an ideology that is prospering across the globe today. I am particularly interested in the dialectic between this form of majoritarianism and caste identity. In the book, I show that Moditva (the combination of Hindu nationalism and populism) is a response to Mandal. This is why its main supporters, originally, came from upper castes and dominant castes which saw in this movement—that Modi epitomised in Gujarat first —, an antidote to caste politics. With Moditva, the elite groups supporting BJP could tell OBCs and Dalits, ‘forget about your caste, your enemy is not within Hinduism, but the Muslim Other’. This strategy of polarisation worked to some extent.
I’m glad you mention Gujarat because this is the place where I started to study Modi’s politics. I visited the state in 2001 for the first time and returned to Ahmedabad every year till 2020. I have done extensive fieldwork on this laboratory which has helped me to understand all the mainstays of today’s Indian politics: majoritarianism, social polarisation (at the expense of lower castes and the peasantry), crony capitalism (an entry point into Modi’s business friendly rather than market friendly political economy) and of course the saturation of the public space by one man, as well as hero worship. All the ingredients of what was to become the dominant agenda of Indian politics were there in Gujarat for more than a decade.
Given your sustained engagement with Modi and his brand of politics, were there any discoveries that you made while working on Modi’s India?
I did not discover anything I did not know before while writing the book. I discovered something about Modi while I was writing, with my co-author, Pratinav Anil, the book that followed the French edition of Modi’s India: India’s First Dictatorship. The Emergency 1975-77. Then I discovered that Modi and Indira Gandhi had fascinating affinities. She was a populist of the left, but still a populist, equally eager to relate directly and systematically to the people via the radio as well as mass meetings (like Modi—think about Maan ki Baat).
She also invented a very effective body-language (she was very particular about the way she dressed too) and she knew how to connect with regional identities when she was canvassing. More importantly, she projected herself as the protector of the people against the establishment and presented herself as a victim of these forces—just like Modi does, in spite of being as close to the establishment as she was. And last but not least, both leaders are very solitary, power hungry and authoritarian characters: neither their ministers nor their party matter—and parliament even less.
They claim that their demotic legitimacy allows them to prevail over the judiciary and they have always been very suspicious of the media. This parallel was a discovery. But this parallel does not mean that there were not huge differences between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. She had no long-term plan when she declared the Emergency to save her skin, he wants to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra—this is one of the major differences between the two.
You have used the term ‘vishwas politics’, whereby all policy disasters of the executive are excused by the people as they believe that Modi can do no wrong. Is this blind trust of the people unique to Modi and present-day India or are their other similar examples in the world? How has Modi managed to build this relationship with the people, which far from being equal, smack of a steep hierarchy with him being regarded as saint-saviour-king all rolled in one?
There are other similar characters in today’s world: Erdogan, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Netanyahu and others have retained blind followers in spite of mismanagement of the economy and weak governance—simply because these national populists were equally good at exploiting emotions (like fear and anger) and polarising society, but the personality cult Modi is benefiting from in India is rather unique. Not only because he remains very popular and was able to be re-elected—Trump failed to be re-elected and Bolsonaro may fail too—but also because each national populist repertoire is overdetermined by the culture of the local society. In India, Modi’s register cashes in on very specific values: the prestige of renunciation (where else could a Prime Minister say ‘I am a fakir’ and draw some popularity from this phrase?), the guru-shishya parampara (at its best in Mann ki Baat), the prestige of the strong man—a figure that seems to be needed because of India’s divisions; despite the fact that a ‘weak’ Prime Minister like Manmohan Singh was much better to keep the country together.
You point out that India has always been an ethnic democracy. In that case, how is Modi’s India any different from his predecessors’, with the exception of ‘legitimisation’ of violence against the minorities, especially the Muslims, Christians and Dalits?
I do not say that India has always been an ethnic democracy. Certainly, Muslims have never been well represented in elite groups, but they were not insecure and even, in some respect, second class citizens like today. Here the violence you refer to cannot be seen separately as an ‘exception’: India is becoming an ethnic democracy largely because of this violence imposed upon minorities by vigilante groups. You do not find similar examples of state-sponsored cultural policing in pre-Modi India. Certainly, in BJP-ruled states there were cases of lynchings, anti-love Jihad mobilisations, instances of reconversions to Hinduism, violent attempts at ghettoizing Muslims… but nothing as systematic as today.
Besides, since 2019, India is more and more a de jure (and not only a de facto) majoritarian state because of laws making inter religious difficult, conversions almost impossible and religious mixity in some cities (like Ahmedabad) legally complicated. The symbol of this official stigmatisation of Muslims is of course the CAA: the moment religion becomes the criterion of access to citizenship, you transition from liberal democracy to an ethnic regime—which cannot be called democratic any more.
Given that all political parties in India have practiced some degree of majoritarian politics, is it then fair to say that majoritarianism or Hinduisation is part of the Indian society itself and not limited to the BJP alone? To borrow a phrase from the Chinese, ‘democracy with Indian characteristics?’
I have never said that the whole of India was Hindu majoritarian. After all, only 37 per cent of the voters supported the NDA in 2019. The title of my book refers to what Modi wants to do with India—and is doing to the country. But this caveat needs to be qualified, though, because even among the opposition parties which claim that they support secularism, the defenders of the minorities and multiculturalism are remarkably low key—to such an extent that laws like the CAA and the one abolishing Article 370 could be passed in Parliament with the support of all kinds of secular parties including AAP, BJD, JD(U) etc (the full list is in my book).
Secondly, on the judiciary side, the lawyers who defended democracy have adopted an equally low profile: how can the Aadhaar bill be treated as a money bill and the Election bonds not seen as affecting the political playing field? Among the media, many journalists also succumbed to pressures or were converted to the new normal. In other words, Hindu majoritarianism is not supported by a majority of Indians but among those who do not vote for the BJP—the other 63 per cent—, few people dare to resist openly.
By the way, this is something we also noticed when we were working on the Emergency with Pratinav. This state of thing can be explained by fear, by the quest for safety, by the preservation of one’s ‘kursi’ (or the promise of some portfolio), by the shallowness of the commitment to democratic values or by an ideological conversion. There may be very different reason for falling in line. What I find very disturbing is the decline of the argumentative tradition of Indian intellectuals and self-censorship among the intelligentsia. Think-tanks are a case in point: few think-tanks think critically today about the India-China relations, the state of the economy, environmental issues etc.
Taking this argument further, does it mean that no future political dispensation in India will be able to arrest, let alone reverse, this process of rendering minorities second class citizens as the Sangh Parivar is deeply entrenched in the Indian society?
In politics, it takes a long time before reaching a point of no return—but to get back to the status quo ante is also difficult. In the case of India’s politics, there is clearly a competition between two repertoires, as mentioned above: one based on caste, the other one based on religion. Interestingly, references to class have not been used for a long time in Indian politics. Modi’s attempt to capitalise on the making of a neo-middle class was short-lived, for instance (may be because this class was still-born).
Today, for me, the question is: is the use of religion on the verge of exhaustion and is a new caste-oriented cycle beginning? There are some indications that this is the case, including the demand for a caste census (that crosses over parties) and the recent reshuffles of the BJP governments in Delhi and UP. The UP elections, precisely, may mark some turning point. But another antidote to Hindutva may also emerge from the crystallisation of a ‘kisan (farmer) vote’ if class and caste-based divisions among the peasantry are surmounted. It may now be possible because of the widening gap between urban India and rural Bharat. Anyway, all these societal dynamics may not result in any political change if the opposition parties continue to fight each other. It took 15 years for the opponents to Erdogan and Netanyahu to join hands…
Your conclusion presents a very frightening picture of the future. A large number of Indians, surveyed by Pew, actually favour an autocrat over democratic leaders with checks and balances. In your assessment, how much of this public opinion (Pew Survey) is shaped by the present persona of Modi and may change if there is another leader?
If you look at the CSDS surveys, you realise that scepticism about democracy was on the rise before—along with the craze for a strong man. In a way, Modi is a product of this trend. Here again, there are cycles: after Manmohan Singh, there was a demand for a strong leader, like in 1980, when Indira Gandhi could stage a comeback in spite of the stigma of the Emergency because of the Janata Party fiasco.
In the Indian political culture, there’s always been a tension between the promotion of diversity and pluralism as valuable assets and the idea that the country needed a strong state precisely for containing diversity, seen as conducive to centrifugal forces (ironically, the more a strong (wo)man centralised power, the more (s)he exacerbated separatisms). This tension was well illustrated by the Constituent Assembly Debates. That said, the personality of the leader makes a huge difference as you suggest. The same way people asked ‘After Nehru Who?’ in the 1960s, today one may ask ‘After Modi Who?’. And the fatigue with both—an authoritarian state and hero worship—may be conducive to some alternation of power.
However, national populist forces never say die and if they lose power, they may make the life of the rulers very complicated in the street. Across the globe, white supremacists à la Trump, Islamo-nationalists à la Erdogan and their equivalent in Israel have had long lasting debilitating effects on democracy because of their strategy of polarisation and de-institutionalisation of the checks and balances.
You write that outside pressure can enforce checks and balances on ethnic democracies, but in India’s case that possibility appears bleaks for two reasons. One, the West wants India as a counter-balance to China and two, India buys defence equipment from the West, hence has purchasing power that West can’t resist. Don’t you at all see a role of the civil society in enforcing these checks on the government?
Certainly! This is why I referred to the farmers movement, a clear example of the power of the civil society. But other movements have not been so successful—the anti-CAA movement has not made a similar impact, for instance. And, secondly, for change to take place, political interpreters of social movements are needed: what political translation will the farmers’ movement find in the coming elections? Not as much as they could if the opposition parties in the fray do not endorse the farmers’ demands or if they are too divided.
This transition of social movements to politics is difficult for many parties today because their network of grass roots activists is weak (as evident from the situation of Congress—which used to be a movement more than a party many years ago). The strength of BJP comes precisely to a large extent from the Sangh Parivar, an organisation that is so discrete that you have not asked any question about it. But this organisation, which is one hundred years old, will continue to build the Hindu Rashtra even if BJP loses power. That was the last sentence of my first book in 1996—but few people paid attention, then, to what was happening on the ground.