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Modi - India's prime minister and populist

Rodion Ebbighausen
December 13, 2017

The ascent of populism is a problem not just in the West, but also in Asian nations like India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been whipping up populist sentiment for electoral gains.

Indian PM Narendra Modi
Image: Reuters/A. Dave

Indian PM Modi's home state of Gujarat is currently holding elections, which are seen as a test of the prime minister's popularity amid growing criticism of the government’s economic and social policies. Gujarat served as the political springboard for Modi, who governed the western state for over a decade before leading his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in the national elections in 2014.

The BJP, which has been in power in Gujarat for over 20 years now, is facing a tight contest in the current polls. It is confronting the opposition Congress party, which recently elevated Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the country's most fabled political dynasty, as its president.

The Gujarat elections also test Rahul Gandhi's ability to galvanize his party and demonstrate effective leadership. The outcome will be crucial to strengthen the beleaguered Congress party and improve its chances in the 2019 general election.

Given the high stakes involved, the Indian premier has been actively participating in his party's campaigning in the state. Modi has even dragged Pakistan into the campaign rhetoric, accusing Islamabad of interfering in the elections and insinuating that his predecessor Manmohan Singh had colluded with Pakistan for BJP's defeat at the polls.

As proof of his claims, Modi referred to a meeting attended in New Delhi by Singh as well as several top former Indian diplomats and officials, including former Vice President Hamid Ansari and ex-Army Chief Deepak Kapoor, former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and Pakistan High Commissioner to India Sohail Mahmood. Independent observers, the Congress party as well as Pakistani officials reject the accusation as baseless. 

Profiting from social media

This example gives a clear insight into how Modi pursues politics, especially during elections. He addresses the people directly via social media. He makes vague allegations and cleverly exploits the enmity between India and Pakistan, generating strong emotional reactions. This is a textbook example of populism.

Johannes Plagemann and Andreas Ufen from the GIGA Institute in Hamburg have recently published a study on populism in Asia. They define populism as follows: "Populists speak in the name of a single 'true' people, oppose a supposedly corrupt, depraved elite, and tend to despise intermediaries such as courts, parliaments, and media."

Read more: India's Dalits outraged at increase in caste-motivated attacks

Instead, populists use direct communication channels, for instance via social media, to speak directly to the people and not to be filtered by the party or the media. Indian PM Modi has about 37.8 million followers on Twitter, the second-highest number of followers for any politician worldwide. US President Donald Trump ranks first on this front.

A small coterie

According to Plagemann and Ufen, two other elements are characteristic of populism: the first is "anti-pluralism," which aims to concentrate political and social influence in the hands of a particular group. Modi's preferred group is the Hindus who strictly adhere to religious rules and strive for a religiously-driven nation and politics (this preference underpins the terms "Hindu nationalism" and "Hindutva"). The second populist element is the tendency toward personalization of the politics. Both these elements can be observed in India, underlined Ufen and Plagemann.

Demonetization in India in hindsight

In New Delhi, Modi casts himself as an "outsider," the son of a tea seller who had to work hard to rise to the top. He is not part of the largely corrupt and elitist establishment under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which had dominated the country for decades after independence. Modi, who is childless and lives alone, presents himself as an ascetic whose life is dedicated to the service of his people and the nation.

All major political and governmental decisions are taken by a small coterie of advisers and officials close to the prime minister. Modi's decision last year to abruptly pull high-value currency notes from circulation, in what has since been termed as "demonetization," is a good example of this. "Modi took this decision after just consulting his finance minister and a few other confidantes," Plagemann told DW.

Politics with national history

In addition, the BJP is renowned for pursuing Hindu nationalist policies. "The problem arises with the BJP equating Hinduism with Indian national identity," say Plagemann and Ufen. This conception leads to exclusion of the more than 170 million Muslims and millions of other religious minorities in the world's second most populous nation. "This course results in communal polarization."

The BJP's conception of history also poses problems, the researchers said. Hindu nationalists, for instance, recently attempted to discredit the country's best-known monument, the Taj Mahal, which was commissioned by a Muslim ruler.

Read more: Demolition of India's Babri mosque - the 'Hindutva project' 25 years on

The time of the Muslim Mogul Empire (1526-1858) is now often represented as a kind of first colonial era. "They seek to eradicate the Muslim influence. In doing so, they set about destroying the character and spirit of India," said Plagemann. The spirit of a pluralistic democracy goes back to the time of independent India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The idea of "unity in diversity" was strongly cultivated under the Congress party during this time.

The BJP's political conception stands in stark contrast to this ideal. It was clear when India celebrated this year's Independence Day on August 15, when little to no reference was made to Nehru or the founding principles. "In this way, the BJP erodes important integrative and democracy-promoting ideas," stressed Plagemann.

Despite these developments, "Indian democracy is not yet endangered," the expert noted, arguing that the federalist structure of government in India does not permit even a leader as strong as Modi to easily subvert democratic institutions. "Federalism ensures pluralism in public debates," said Plagemann. Still, the expert warns that in the long run, populism has the potential to severely harm India's democracy.

Demonetization in India in hindsight