India’s left-liberals fume in indignation against right-wing populism, of which the most consummate practitioner is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, their righteous fury has not enabled them to craft a credible narrative against the Right. Their failing is largely because they are not even listening to what the Right is saying and are unable, therefore, to fathom its attraction.

This is an observation made by political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy in India After Modi: Populism and the Right. The Jawaharlal Nehru University associate professor’s book, published in November, is arguably the first theoretical study of right-wing populism in India from within the left-liberal intellectual tradition.

The Right’s rise is reflected in the dramatic changes in India’s political discourse since its economy was liberalised and fastened, as never before, to the global economy. For one, the idea of equality has given way to that of relative mobility, a term describing improvement in the economic position of social groups. This shift has decreased the salience of class struggle in the political discourse.

For the other, the distinction between the Right and Left has been replaced by that between “us” and “them”. This is a feature common to both India and the United States, which are witnessing the triumphant march of populism.

Who constitutes “us” has been best described by American political scientist Jan-Werner Muller, author of What Is Populism? He writes:

“Populism… is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world which places in opposition a morally pure and fully unified people against small minorities, elites in particular, who are placed outside the authentic people.”

Us versus them

Muller’s definition is applicable to India as well, except that a unified people here implies uniting Hindus across caste and linguistic divides. Muslims and Christians cannot constitute the core of authentic people as they are culturally apart from Hindus. This has always been the quintessential Hindutva brew for the creation of the Hindu Rashtra.

Under Modi, though, the old Hindutva brew has acquired a new headiness because he has added a dash of populism to it. His regime has, to quote Gudavarthy, “appropriated the language of the subaltern and projected itself as essentially an anti-elitist political force”. The project of unifying Hindus has acquired a zip as it has also acquired the goal of displacing or reforming powerful elites.

Gudavarthy lists some of those whom Hindutva considers elites: the urban middle classes, English-speaking professionals, including left-liberals, those with a pedigree, and those who are corrupt due to the social network they have built. It is them the morally pure, unified Hindus must root out to cleanse and strengthen the nation. The left-liberal may think the conflict is illustrative of false consciousness, but it is in fact a manifestation, Gudavarthy says, of India passing through a unique historical moment.

On the one hand, the ideas of equality, dignity, recognition and representation have seeped deep into society. On the other, there is an explosion of aspirations because of neoliberal policies, which has also speeded up the process of individuation and loosened community bonds. Insecurity has gripped Indians because jobs have become insecure, and the phenomenon of jobless growth has made the future seem perilous.

The social schizophrenia has produced Hindus who “feel like subalterns and think like elites”. They comprise what Gudavarthy calls mezzanine elites or those who belong to castes such as Patidar, Maratha, Jat and Kapu as well as the poor among the upper castes. Their declining economic power is not in consonance with their traditional high social status. They are dismayed that the lower castes have taken advantage of reservation to catch up to them.

The Patidars (in picture), like the Marathas, Jats, Kapus and the poor among the upper castes, are the Hindus who 'feel like subalterns and think like elites'. (Credit: PTI)
The Patidars (in picture), like the Marathas, Jats, Kapus and the poor among the upper castes, are the Hindus who 'feel like subalterns and think like elites'. (Credit: PTI)

It is to their hurt pride the Bharatiya Janata Party appeals to bring them into the Hindutva fold. Promises of granting them reservation have been made – and attempted. Their anger and anxiety have been channelised into street mobilisation and violence. Gudavarthy asks, “What is the political agenda for the dominant castes in decline by the left-progressives, except to dismiss these anxieties as signs of backwardness and symbols of feudal remnants?”

Even more tellingly, the Sangh has fragmented the Other Backward Classes and Dalits and glued the fragments to Hindutva. These are social fragments who have not gained representation from parties anchored in the Other Backward Classes and Dalits. The Hindu Right has fielded them in elections and provided them a share in power.

“Fragmentation provided them representation, while fraternity [as part of the unified Hindu community] has provided them recognition,” writes Gudavarthy. “One is a Dalit to gain representation but a Hindu to gain recognition.”

Left-liberal ideas

By contrast, the left-liberals believe in sharpening class and caste antagonisms to usher in social change. That such a strategy does not universally appeal to subalterns was underscored by Gudavarthy in a survey he conducted among Dalits of right-wing student bodies in Osmania University, Hyderabad, and Telangana University, Nizamabad. The Dalit students said they felt empowered at not being recognised by their caste and being included in the larger Hindu community.

They also complained that left-wing and Dalit student bodies demand that they must always wear their “caste on their sleeves”. That even though there exists caste antagonism in villages, Dalits face the compulsion of living together with others. Pragmatism has them opt for a non-disruptive change.

Gudavarthy writes, “The [Left’s] idea that differences need to be positively politicised… is a legitimate method, but it should also be recognised that undermining differences in the name of a larger collective, community, and fraternity also holds its own promise.” In other words, the left-liberals need to put as much emphasis on fraternity as they do on liberty and equality.

The JNU experience

Right-wing politics has bruised universities, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The Sangh’s undeniable goal is to control production of knowledge and stifle independent thinking and dissent. Yet, its tactics have an echo among cultural subalterns, a term Gudavarthy has coined to describe those who are distanced from modernity and do not inhabit institutions that require proficiency in English.

It is to secure the consent of cultural subalterns to, in turn, control Jawaharlal Nehru University that the Sangh has projected it as a hub of elites, whose privileges have them adopt a libertine lifestyle and subscribe to anti-nationalist ideas. In this sense, the university becomes the symbolic battlefield for “us” and “them” to slug it out.

Gudavarthy, therefore, advises, “The progressives on and outside the campus need to think about how to reach out and include those at the margins of the educational system, who have remained mediocre, inferior, and therefore anxious to control the system and make it an assemblage of disciplinarian methods.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has become the symbolic battlefield for “us” and “them” to slug it out. (Credit: IANS)
The Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has become the symbolic battlefield for “us” and “them” to slug it out. (Credit: IANS)

In this regard, Gudavarthy refers to the ongoing controversy over the Jawaharlal Nehru University administration’s decision that students must have 75% attendance before they can sit for examinations. The fiat reflects the Right’s idea of education, characterised by discipline, standardisation and a pedagogy that focuses on supplying information without encouraging students to question it.

But a pushback against the imposition of mediocrity cannot also blind the left-liberals to the plummeting standards of universities. Gudavarthy cites his own experience of Jawaharlal Nehru University – a sharp decline in the quality of dissertations of PhD students, theses that are often deemed unfit for publication, inspiration for research proposals that stems from prime-time news. Worse, the university’s enviable reputation has made its students pretentious.

Compulsory attendance is not likely to arrest the university’s academic decline. The administration has not chosen to thrash out the issue with protesting students. Why would it? After all, as Gudavarthy says, “much of the larger society would also fail to make sense of this protest as being anything other than a protest to preserve a privileged unaccountable lifestyle. Even most parents of the students might view it as a self-goal…”

Enter the strongman

The Right’s attempt to subvert universities is part of the larger story of inaccessible, increasingly dysfunctional institutions. This phenomenon has spawned the desire for a strongman who is decisive, resolute and honest. These are precisely the traits Modi has been projected to posses. The strongman is viewed to have the capacity to reform institutions by making the elites manning them accountable to people.

This social psychology legitimises the recourse to extra-institutional methods, which has been India’s story for over four years. It justifies the curbs on media freedom and independence of the judiciary, encounter killings, the violence of cow protectionists, and tax raids on political rivals. The leader’s intolerance is accepted because he is intolerant of the depraved elites who are the bane of the authentic people.

The left-liberals justifiably howl at the erosion of autonomy of institutions. This produces it own irony. Gudavarthy writes, “The left-liberals get cornered into further justifying the same institutions that are dysfunctional – institutions that they were themselves critical of not being responsive and decaying internally.”

It is possible the Right might be vanquished in the Assembly elections in five states, results for which will be out on December 11, or in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But this ought not to be taken as incontrovertible proof of right-wing populism’s sheen dimming. This is because populism succeeds as a result of a nation’s social psychology, which the left-liberal rarely takes into account, preferring instead to regurgitate old ideas to build a counter-narrative to the Right.