On November 19, 2021, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced the repeal of the contentious farm laws. This legal assemblage had been rushed through just over a year before in September 2020. As is the wont of New India, the bills had been passed into law in Parliament followed by the Presidential assent without democratic consultation or deliberation by his very government under cover of a raging pandemic. The passage of the laws had, in turn, spawned one of the largest protests in the world, with farmers deploying a range of innovative methods to register protest.
The figure of the kisan, somewhat eclipsed from popular imagination till then, came to occupy centre stage in the Indian media and consciousness for almost one year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. On the day the repeal was announced by Modi, celebrations erupted throughout the protest sites – and not only the farmers celebrated but so did many other people who had rallied to the cause. The moment of victory had arrived, and that too with little to no prior notice.
How do we understand these three moves: the farm laws with their flagrantly pro-big capital orientation that were passed in haste; the mass protests that ensued; and the repeal by a remarkably recalcitrant prime minister? In this book, we situate them within the realm of what we discuss as New Indian Politics. We deploy the phrase “New Indian Politics” – deliberately capitalised in its entirety in order to stress not just the newness but also the Politics of it – to interrogate the manner in which Indian politics is widely analysed, described, and understood. We deploy politics in a dual sense then.
In the first, how do we understand the political landscape of contemporary India? And, second, what are the politics of knowledge production around this new India and how may we be able to intervene in this always animated space by offering an alternative conceptualisation? In so doing we hope to not emulate the grandiose pomposity that remains imprinted within the New India of Hindu majoritarianism and its relationship with big capital, but rather wish to offer a humbler, more historically and ethnographically centred understanding of the dizzying peoples, practices and things that make up Naya Bharat.
To be sure, the expression New India itself is not new. It draws upon old, forgotten, ever-shifting lineages that long predate the Modi regime’s bid to brand #NewIndia. The prefix new was first appended to India in the mid-19th century to indicate its formal absorption into the British Empire. It signalled a transition from the East India Company rule to a form of colonial modernity as India was incorporated into the British free-trade imperialism. By the turn of the 20th century, the expression “New India” stood for the dream of freedom, a dream realised at the stroke of midnight in 1947, when India ceased to be an imperial possession and became an independent sovereign republic.
A New India was hailed once more in the early 1990s when it moved to economic liberalisation, to conjoin political freedoms with market freedoms. The claim of the newness of India, in other words, is a recurring event. But, as we show in this book, the novelty in the India of the late 2010s and 2020s is not fully captured by its earlier iterations. This “new” New India might not even correspond with the brand that was established in the early 2000s. The function of the adjective “new” is to suggest a temporal condition of transition, a moment when something is in the course of shifting its form and being. This book is about the political form of newness, or specifically, the people who forge and inhabit the still-unfolding new in New India.
A core feature of the New Indian Politics is how the will of the people is articulated as much via street politics as the formal political party system. These popular protest movements have arisen in the face of a strong centralised state, characteristically in the absence of an effective opposition that would articulate grievances. What sets these protests apart is also how they brought new political figures to the centre stage, and mobilised religious minorities and marginalised people in new coalitions.
Equally noteworthy is how the media, forever in search of a single charismatic leader, often described the protests as “leaderless”, thereby overlooking the work of collective leadership in running protests. It is on this uncertain turf between the street and the political parties and between the modes of exclusion and inclusion that a diverse people of New India have emerged. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let us return to the farm laws and their repeal to further consider New Indian Politics.
That the repeal signaled an unsettling political terrain in Indian politics was evident from the social media trends that gained instant popular traction. If the trend #farmlawsrepealed signaled a plain fact, often a joyous one, then #disappointed captured the state of disenchantment of Modi supporters (dubbed bhakt) as well as the business policy elite who had long made a case for market-friendly “deep reforms” in the farm sector. The passionate response #disappointed was not just about the failure to implement market reforms by a leader who had crafted his image as someone who ‘means business’ in more ways than one.
It was also a public expression of disillusionment, the breaking of a spell that had bound the followers to a strongman leader who held out the promise of capitalist growth and the attendant civilisational glory. Some tried to repair the broken spell by recuperating the repeal as a political #masterstroke, a kind of cunning move (Chanakya Niti) whose true intent and effect had not yet been revealed. Others rued the “street veto” that had cast a shadow on Indian democracy. This anxiety was especially evident in the primetime television debates where the anchors pitted street protests as a challenge to the “might of the ballot”, one that threatened to undermine the power of the parliament.
It indeed isn’t easy to make sense of this strange turn of events. After all, the repeal was a dramatic about-turn the followers of Modi had least expected, and that too a reversal staged in the full glare of global publicity. It seemed to have upset all that had come to be regarded as politics-as- usual in a post-2014 New India. Some speculated that the repeal was a calculated move made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it was sensing a loss of ground in states such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, which were coming up for state elections.
While this electoral arithmetic has to be taken seriously, especially given the cynical politics of the BJP and its government, which is forever and only in “election-mode”, it would be simplistic to believe that this calculation was the sole guiding factor. This moment of rupture not only disclosed the highly charged affective fault lines in the political landscape but also laid bare new fields of conflict and cracks in the visage of power that had hitherto been deemed invincible. Most of all, it made visible the diverse people who inhabit this landscape of politics, the many agents of politics forged in the new antagonisms of post-liberalisation India. As the farmers’ protests refused to dwindle and, instead, new outposts of it popped up in different parts of India, we heard many ask: “But who are these people?” This question was not altogether new.
Similar rhetorical questions had been posed of the myriad protesters who came out against the evil trinity of the CAA-NPR-NRC over 2019, before the toxic mix of the authoritarian state, a pogrom in Delhi and the pandemic shut down these protests. Similar questions had been asked then too: “Who are these people?”
Tellingly, Modi had dubbed them andolanjeevis or those who live – parasitically it was assumed – off protest movements. The subtext was apparent: those who protested against the government were subverting the national interest, even tarnishing the image of the government and the nation on the world stage.
In this scheme of things, the government and the nation were inseparable, and any opposition to the government was taken as an opposition to the nation. Andolanjeevis was the 2021 edition of the category of “anti-nationals”, a scornful term popularised by Modi government supporters to accuse dissenters of treachery. It’s a theme that appears to be inexhaustible, reappearing in ever new forms. The most recent iteration was the identification of activists and the civil society as the ‘new frontier of war’, the enemy within the nation – a war that required techniques of “fourth-generation warfare” to be deployed against those citizens who oppose the government.
What we witness here is an unsettling, and unsettled, terrain of the new Indian politics and the many people who forge it. Three key features of these new antagonisms can be identified. First, the politics of protest has become the staging ground for conflicts between the state and a diverse range of peoples, and this especially when the opposition parties are weakened and faced with a dominant government at the centre and hyper-nationalist majoritarian politics. Second, the push towards centralised governance – the ubiquitous “one” model: one nation, one market, one tax, for example – and an authoritarian style has created a strong state as well as frictions within the federal structure of the Indian union.
The signature style of Modi’s strongman politics is to conjure spectacles: sudden big-bang policy decisions, often announced on live television broadcasts. If the element of surprise keeps the public enthralled – or petrified, as the case maybe – and ensures undivided media coverage, it simultaneously upstages political opponents. This hegemonic control of the media is crucial in shaping the field of politics within, and against, which the popular protests have emerged Third, connected to this are the ideological moves to reset the nation as an enclosure of global capital aligned with Hindu nationalist culture.
This ongoing capitalist-cultural shift is evident in a number of signature laws passed in the past two years – from the revocation of the special status of Kashmir and CAA/NRC to the farm laws and the labour code – that seek to open up new markets within the national territory even as the nation itself is rearranged in the framework of Hindu nationalism. The shift was accelerated during the pandemic, a deployment of crisis-as-opportunity approach to draw investors looking for alternatives to China.
The appearance of the people on the streets is more than an expression of dissatisfaction. It is taking matters in one’s own hands or what was dubbed “street veto”, a political action akin to showing a red card when the rules of the game are broken or remade without due agreement. The term “street veto”, invoked following the repeal of the farm laws, was used to convey disapproval of both an unceasing out-of-control protest as well as the abject about-turn of the Modi government. If at all, the criticism of street politics opened up an inherent paradox in mass democratic politics: the raw potentiality of crowds is at the heart of mass democratisation, and yet it is only by imposing discipline and control that political energy can be harnessed. The democratic politics is renewed by subjects who are simultaneously active but also disciplined. It is this kind of constant tension upon which many people, the figures of politics, emerge.
Much like “New India”, the term “People of India” too has a long genealogy going back to the creation of anthropological-colonial knowledge of India in the 19th century. Successive books were written by white anthropologists and, after Independence, the Anthropological Society of India (ASI) that tried valiantly to list, document, name and categorise, the various castes and tribes of India. The people of India in this framework were conceived as ethnographic subjects of the imperial vision, possessed and arranged, or rather put in place, in the visual imagination of the colonisers. In this volume, we return to the old idea of “the people of India”, albeit as a mode of recovery: of the democratic energy, the unrealised possibilities inherent in the collective figure of “the people”. In doing so, we seek to turn upside down the power relations that have catalogued and governed the people of India. Indian politics in the 21st century continues to invoke the will of the people of India that desires something – the people have “spoken” in democracy, the people are desirous and demanding; the people speak and express themselves.
This collective work is about the people at the heart of democratic politics in New India. We begin by asking not so much who are the people of New India but “How do a people (of New India) assume form and presence?” The question opens a contentious field of politics within which the “new” in New India is formed. What kind of political agents have shaped, and are still reshaping, the field of New Indian politics? Or for that matter, how are people “staged” in the “people’s theatre” where several people appear but can never be reduced to one category or another. More so, when the rhetoric of “the enemy”, against which the “the people” are constituted, itself is unstable and ever shifting. Thus, who precisely counts as a people always remains contentious and inherently paradoxical.
The familiar claim of “we, the people”, then, at once is an act of solidarity and emancipation as well as of exclusion of those seen as external or internal enemies. It is also an assertion of popular will and authentic belonging, a claim often weaponised in times of majoritarian populism to disenfranchise marginal groups and withhold political representation. Far from being stable, then, the idea of the people is always in the making, one that continues to be redefined time and again to promote, expel or accommodate a variety of interests and groups within its domain. Analyses of politics has to come to terms with this constant churning, even as it has to find new modes to capture that which is most fascinating and perplexing about India and new-old-new politics.
Excerpted with permission from The People of India: New Indian Politics in the 21st Century, edited by Ravinder Kaur and Nayanika Mathur, Penguin Books.