Courtesy: Time

India: Cementing the building blocks of populism, authoritarianism and majoritarianism

Since the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s era, populism and its twin, authoritarianism, have found their feet in what has become the present Hindu fundamentalist dispensation.


INDIA was a successor state to the British Raj. For a post-colonial State, it had a design fault. From day one, it did little to democratise the repressive apparatus of the colonial State it inherited.

Preventive detention was retained and strengthened. Due process of law was given the heave-ho. The intelligence agencies who had served the colonial masters so well continued to do so under their Congress masters with no parliamentary accountability.

Institutional impunity for human rights violations and the calls for mandatory compensation were met with classic stonewalling.

Also read: Modi government’s projection of Nehru as a ‘failed administrator’ is as far from reality as possible

On the economic front, the new Nehru government scuppered land reform, the one major issue that would have brought a degree of equity to rural India, where most of India lived then as now.

In spite of professed claims, no real effort was made to create a welfare State on the western social democratic model. Universal healthcare and education were not priorities. Employment generation was in the realm of ether.

Since then, populism and its twin, authoritarianism, have found their feet in what has become the present Hindu fundamentalist dispensation.

Indira Gandhi: Populist authoritarian

Contrary to received wisdom, Indira Gandhi was not a socialist by any stretch of imagination. However, to build her unique brand of populism, socialist rhetoric was grist to her mill.

From day one after independence, India did little to democratise the repressive apparatus of the colonial State it inherited.

In fact, in a book by United States Senator Patrick Moynihan, A Dangerous Place, and a book on him edited by Steven Wiseman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, a charge was made that Indira Gandhi in one instance and in the second instance, the Congress party, received funds from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fight the communists in Kerala and West Bengal.

Bank nationalisation and the abolition of privy purses of the erstwhile rulers of princely India were wildly popular in an era where rural credit was marked by its absence.

Also read: Emergency: Who Benefited from it?

The vacuity of the slogan, garibi hatao (remove poverty) given by Gandhi for her election campaign in 1971 was thoroughly exposed when mass demolitions took place in Delhi and many other urban centres. Removing the poor out of sight was essential to make sure they were also out of mind.

Anthony Lukas, correspondent of the New York Times, understood in 1976, that Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime was “profoundly schizoid. The left has been given control of the rhetoric. The right has been granted most of the tangible benefits”.

During the Emergency in India between 1975 and 1977, she came into her fearsome avatar, the populist authoritarian

When she espoused radical politics in the late 1960s to upstage conservative rivals in the Congress leadership,” The Times of London correspondent, Peter Hazlehurst, described her as “slightly left of self-interest”.

The Hindutva avatar of populism its economics

Since then, populism and its twin, authoritarianism, have not only found their feet in the present Hindu fundamentalist dispensation but grown into colossal ogres, threatening every freedom Indians have. 

They have added majoritarianism to it. It was not enough to be Janus-faced. They had to be trimurti (in Hinduism the triad of three gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva collapsed into a single form with three faces).

Also read: The hollowness of the Hindutva Governance Model

One of the hallmarks of populism is that it claims that it speaks on behalf of the poor. All the propaganda notwithstanding, acche din (the good times) was a brilliant con game. The Oxfam Inequality report put out in 2022 tells the tale. 

It states, “The top 10 percent of the Indian population holds 77 percent of the total national wealth. 73 percent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest percent, while 670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1 percent increase in their wealth.

During the Emergency in India between 1975 and 1977, Indira Gandhi came into her fearsome avatar, the populist authoritarian. 

[O]rdinary Indians are not able to access the health care they need. 63 million of them are pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs every year— almost two people every second.”

While the Indian government barely taxes its wealthiest citizens, its spending on public healthcare ranks among the lowest in the world. In the place of a well-funded health service, it has promoted an increasingly powerful commercial health sector.

As a result, decent healthcare is a luxury only available to those who have the money to pay for it. While the country is a top destination for medical tourism, the poorest Indian states have infant mortality rates higher than those in sub-Saharan Africa. India accounts for 17 percent of global maternal deaths, and 21 percent of deaths among children below five years,” the report says.

The report, Survival of the Richest: The India story, also says that between 2012 and 2021, 40 percent of the wealth created in India has gone to just 1 percent of the population and only a mere 3 percent of the wealth has gone to the bottom 50 percent, adding that the total number of billionaires in India increased from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022.

The combined wealth of India’s 100 richest has touched US $660 billion (54.12 lakh crore)— an amount that could fund the entire Indian Union budget for more than 18 months, the report stated.

Also read: What a genuine leftist response to the Hindutva challenge should look like

The country’s healthcare budget saw a 10 percent decline from revised estimates of 2020–21. There was a 6 percent cut in allocation for education,” the Oxfam report says, while “the budgetary allocation for social security schemes declined from 1.5 percent of the total Union budget to 0.6 percent.”

During the pandemic (since March 2020, through to November 30, 2021), the report says, the wealth of Indian billionaires increased from ₹23.14 lakh crore (US $313 billion) to ₹53.16 lakh crore (US $719 billion). 

More than 4.6 crore Indians, meanwhile, are estimated to have fallen into extreme poverty in 2020, nearly half of the global new poor according to the United Nations (UN).

While indirect taxes as a share of total government revenue increased, the proportion of corporate taxes declined in the past four years. Wealth tax was abolished in the country in 2016. It is open knowledge that India’s education and health are both grossly underfunded.

On the pattern of the global report, the Oxfam India report also suggested taxing the wealthy and a redistribution of wealth to reduce the sharp inequalities. It estimated that a 1 per cent tax on 98 billionaires in India could take care of the total expenditure of school education and literacy or fund the Ayushman Bharat (health insurance scheme) for seven years.

The Hindu fundamentalist dimension of populism

Narendra Damodardas Modi is not merely the archetypal right wing populist. He brings to traditional populism a strident Hindu fundamentalist worldview. A worldview called Hindutva which exalts identity politics to an art form.

This coupled with a cadre of many millions schooled in the same thought, would make other South Asian populists only look on in sheer envy at his apparent reach. 

A reach that ensures that his essential message of lies and bravado is accepted as the new machismo Hindu fundamentalist gospel. A gospel that is the received truth from a cabal of organisations that have been spawned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

One of the hallmarks of populism is that it claims that it speaks on behalf of the poor. All the propaganda notwithstanding, acche din (the good times) was a brilliant con game.

In their neo-liberal policies, there is little to choose between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both were and are dismissive of civil and political rights. The delineating difference is the BJP’s majoritarian populism.

And most importantly that Indira Gandhi, outside rogue elements in the State machinery, had only a group of street thugs enjoying the patronage of her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi to do her bidding. Modi has an army of right wing Hindu fundamentalist cadres belonging to the whole gamut of the Hindutva brood.

Führerprinzip (leader principle)

Adulation and hero worship leads a populist leader to believe that he or she is infallible. Such a situation is pregnant with danger. Norms and procedures of governance are given short shrift. Civil liberties and the right to dissent is the first casualty.

Also read: Modi and his new Parliament: A few lessons

Scapegoating the ancient regime becomes the favourite pastime. In the case of Modi, Nehru was responsible for all that is wrong in India.

The majoritarian agenda

The Hindi–Hindu–Hindustan slogan given earlier (by Pratap Narayan Mishra, a Hindi essayist and RSS pracharak [recruiter] in the British era) was just a pious hope. It now inches toward reality. The lingua franca shall be Hindi. English and the other regional languages should slowly be put into libraries or worse. 

The country is only for Hindus by birth. No territorial citizenship for people of all faiths who are in India or for refugees or migrants of Christian or Muslim faith who wish to acquire it legally.

The media: His master’s voice

All populist authoritarians seek to control the public narrative. Modi has been more successful than most.

While the media owned by the Indian State had little choice but to do the bidding of the top functionaries of various branches of the State, the privately-owned media is also happy to kowtow, knowing fully well that the government is the biggest advertiser and it could use the income tax department (ITD), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the police for sundry vexatious inquiries at the very least.

Journalists have been physically attacked and even killed, for example Gauri Lankesh. Presently, six journalists continue to be detained for their work.

Amnesty International and concerned organisations in a joint statement on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) flagged “the harassment of the domestic and foreign media, including routine raids and retaliatory income tax investigations launched into critical news outlets.” 

While the Indian government barely taxes its wealthiest citizens, its spending on public healthcare ranks among the lowest in the world. 

The statement continues, “In February 2023, income tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai after the government censored a critical documentary on Modi by the broadcaster.” 

Foreign correspondents say they have faced increasing visa uncertainties, restricted access to several areas of the country, including Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and even threats of deportation in retaliation for critical reporting in recent times.

Also read: Draft amendment to the IT Rules 2021 smacks of censorship

Digital media restrictions, including using the Information Technology Rules, 2021 to censor critical journalism, including the BBC documentary on Modi, continue. India led the world in internet shutdowns for the fifth year in 2022, impeding press freedom and the ability of journalists to work freely.

The latest amendment to the Information Technology Rules, 2021 authorises the formulation of a Central government fact-check unit empowered to order intermediaries, including social media companies and internet service providers, to take down “fake or false or misleading content”. Intermediaries risk liability in court if they fail to remove such content.

The judiciary: Wary of the executive

Populist politics does not like institutional constraints. After the years of Prime Minister Modi being in power, the Supreme Court is timid, tentative, fragmented and vulnerable, wary of hurting the Central executive which has grown mighty in strength.

The collision course with the political wing … has left the judiciary battered and enfeebled.

In 2019, the Supreme Court passed a controversial judgment awarding the entire land on which the Babri mosque stood till 1992 for the purposes of building a Ram temple.

Also read: Everything you need to know about Babri Masjid demolition and the trial thereafter

In early January 2023, the Supreme Court passed another controversial judgment, holding that the Modi government’s chaotic move to demonetise 86 percent of the country’s cash in circulation was legal. The court’s judgment allowed Modi and the ruling party to paper over the massive pain and negligible gains caused by demonetisation. 

The Modi government has found their El Dorado moments from many of the Supreme Court’s rulings.

Many controversial laws have been upheld. In quite a few cases, the objections against the laws have never been heard at all, thus allowing the policies to continue.

Take the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 for instance. The Modi government in 2019 amended the law to make it retrospectively applicable. This weaponised the ED to go after India’s Opposition.

The combined wealth of India’s 100 richest has touched US $660 billion (54.12 lakh crore)— an amount that could fund the entire Indian Union Budget for more than 18 months, the report Survival of the Richest: The India story states.

The court also upheld the Modi government’s move to provide quotas to upper castes based on an income threshold. The Order radically changed how India’s reservations work, changing their logic from social backwardness, defined using caste, to one based on wealth.

The court gave a clean chit to the Modi government on accusations of corruption in buying Rafale fighter aircraft from France, even as former French President François Hollande, who was in power when the deal was signed, accused the Modi government of pushing an Indian industrialist’s bid to become a partner in the project. 

The November 2018 ruling to dismiss calls for a court-monitored investigation came at a critical time, allowing the BJP to go into the 2019 Lok Sabha election with a corruption free-image.

In 2018, the court also upheld Aadhaar, a biometric identity for Indians that was key to the Modi government’s creation of a surveillance State.

The Supreme Court’s inaction on a few critical issues is politically significant. The challenge to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act passed in December 2019, the Constitutionality of Section 124A (sedition law), challenge to provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, challenge to the Aadhaar Act and its passage as a money Bill.

A similar limbo exists with electoral bonds, a secretive method of campaign finance that experts feel give the ruling party a significant advantage over the Opposition.

Also read: President nominates former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi to Rajya Sabha 

Many judges have accepted post-retirement positions from the government. The case of the former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, who was responsible for a string of judgements that benefitted the BJP, including the Ram temple case, is noteworthy as he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in March 2020. 

All populist authoritarians seek to control the public narrative. Narendra Modi has been more successful than most.

For reasons of brevity, many issues have not been touched upon, like the populist Hindutva agenda for the erosion of scientific inquiry, the creation of a security State— authoritarianism, the erosion of federalism, the unitary State coming into its own, the quest for Akhand Bharat (Greater India). But that is a discussion for another day. 

Ignore Hindutva populism at your own peril, as in a heady cocktail with majoritarianism and authoritarianism it can set South Asia ablaze.