Right-wing populism beyond the West
This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In the next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with the processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the author(s) in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.
Compared to the other statesmen in this series, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is a relative newcomer to national politics. The former chief minister of Gujarat secured an absolute majority in India’s 2014 general election and has since solidified his premiership with a landslide election win in 2019 (The Guardian, May 16, 2014; BBC News, May 23, 2019). Despite this democratic show of force, Modi – like Erdogan and Netanyahu – built a resonant brand of right-wing populism that severely imperils the world’s largest democracy. I argue that this political strategy resembles Erdogan’s populist playbook in a number of important respects. Let us distinguish between three constitutive parts: Neoliberal economic policy, religious polarisation and media-capture.
India’s economy successfully opened to the world in 1991, under the auspices of the social-democratic Congress Party. Despite the Congress Party’s liberal record, Modi used his own reputation for reforms in Gujarat to undermine the Congress Party and to present himself as India’s ‘development man’. His Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) positioned itself as the country’s ‘most reform-minded party’.[i] In line with Erdogan’s neoliberal playbook, Modi weakened labour unions[ii] and endorsed public-private-partnerships[iii]. Following the mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, the BJP substituted formal welfare services with new insurance schemes and digitally-enabled cash transfers that play into the development narrative. Modi frames poor, newly urbanized and middle-class Hindus as the pure, deserving “people”, threatened by a secular, anti-national elite. This liberal elite is deemed corrupt for monopolising power and preventing development while pandering to minority groups.[iv] The promise of development of the “people” also allows Modi to challenge institutional and civil society initiatives that oppose his deregulatory agenda.
In addition to Modi’s neoliberal development vision, the BJP embodies Hindutva, a belief system that deems Hinduism superior to the culture and beliefs of India’s minority groups. Hindutva manifests in animosity towards Muslims[v] and was used by Modi’s supporters to justify attacks on Muslim places of worship, delegitimize inter-faith marriages and endorse campaigns to convert Muslim and Christian families “back” to Hinduism”.[vi]
Deep divisions between Muslims and Hindus trace back to India and Pakistan’s partition in 1947 and continue to manifest – amongst other things – in struggles over the slaughter of cows[vii] (a holy animal in Hinduism) and control over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. In light of such deep social divisions, the ethnoreligious homogeneity propagated by Modi threatens to undermine the delicate accommodation between casts, ethnicities and religious groups that sits at the heart of India’s democratic compromise culture. When Modi demands that opposition politicians “stop writing ‘love letters to Pakistan’”[viii], these assertions nurture a majoritarian conception of the “people”. Funding cuts for minority development programs further alienate religious minority groups[ix]. Similarly, a civil society campaign titled “Love Jihad” – tacitly endorsed by BJP grandees – manufactured a resonant imagination of ‘sexually rapacious Muslim youth converting Hindu women to Islam’.[x]
At this stage, it is worth clarifying that the blanket securitization of Indian Muslims and Modi’s tacit endorsement of vigilante violence against them is more sweeping than Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents and political opponents. For Erdogan, religious rhetoric is primarily a source of legitimation through the definition of an AKP-supporting “people”. The “enemy of the people” is defined in socio-political, not explicitly religious terms. Modi, in turn, deems both Muslim minorities and their elite backers external to the “people”.[xi] Confrontations between the government and India’s minority populations reached new heights in 2019, when Modi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, detained thousands of Muslim Kashmiris and imposed a strict curfew (The Telegraph, October 31, 2019). In a region already prone to sectarian violence, Modi’s inclusion of vulnerable religious minorities within the “enemies of the people” imperils both liberal democracy and human wellbeing.
Modi’s populist infusion of patriotism and nationalism with religion offers his supporters a meta-morality and a source of identity, from which the “enemies of the people” can be distinguished based on their minority status and their willingness to accommodate religious minorities.[xii] A similar unwillingness to tolerate difference or criticism emerges from Modi’s relationship with the fourth estate.
At first sight, Modi’s relationship with the Indian media landscape diverges from Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists and online media. In ham-fisted attempts to control the information flow, Erdogan sought to remove internet and cellular access for Gezi protesters in 2013, cut access to Twitter and YouTube in 2014 – after corruption allegations surfaced against him – and blocked Wikipedia following charges of voter fraud in Turkey’s 2017 referendum. In stark contrast to this censorship spree, Modi’s 2014 election campaign was marked by an unprecedented level of digital competence: Modi’s campaign included a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, profiles on Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram, a mobile phone app as well as 3D holograms that appeared simultaneously across different locations.[xiii] This digital strategy culminated in Modi becoming the ‘world’s most-followed leader on social media’ in 2017.
Beyond these differences in digital competence, Modi shares Erdogan’s scorn for impartial media outlets, as fora for democratic mediation and accountability. Following criticism of Modi for ‘inaction, complicity, and even giving direction to’ large-scale violence and the killing of over 3000 Muslims in Gujarat, Modi began attacking elite media figures and traditional media outlets as corrupt ‘paid news’, one BJP minister denouncing these English-language media outlets as ‘presstitutes’.[xiv] In manner characteristic for populist leaders across the globe, the BJP asserted that the “people” would recognise their own truths against those of the secular elite.[xv] Adding deeds to discourse, Modi implemented a 24-hour blackout of NDTV – a news channel that had frequently criticised his administration – in 2016.[xvi] Journalists now face growing intimidation, repression and arrest for reporting in Kashmir or on the spread of Covid-19 in India (The Wire, June 16, 2020; Al Jazeera, March 18, 2020; Democracy Now! , October 1, 2020).
Despite being in power for only a fraction of Erdogan’s tenure, Modi’s attack on accountability institutions is catching up to Erdogan’s monopolisation of political power in Turkey. The combination of neoliberal developmentalism, religious sectarianism and media capture allowed Modi to pair-back central pillars of India’s democracy – including its accommodation between ethnicities and religions and the fourth estate. By contrasting a pure Hindu “people” with a “corrupt elite” and its unpatriotic Muslim allies,[xvii] Modi created an uneven political playing field that severely disadvantages political opponents: Within a single five-year term, his BJP undermined state institutions including the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Electoral Commission.[xviii] In his current, second term Modi continues to entrench his position as a national “saviour”.[xix] If Hindutva and Modi-like developmentalism remain hegemonic, India risks becoming an authoritarian one-party state.
Rererences[i] Kaur, Ravinder. “Good Times, Brought to You by Brand Modi.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 323–330. doi:10.1177/1527476415575492.
[v] Palshikar, Suhas. “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4 (2015): 719–735. doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089460.
[vi] Ibid., 728-729.
[xi] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220.
[xv] Ohm, Britta. “Organizing Popular Discourse with and Against the Media: Notes on the Making of Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Leaders-without-Alternative.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 370–377. doi:10.1177/1527476415575906.
[xvi] Govil, Nitin , and Anirban KapilBaishya . “The Bully in the Pulpit: Autocracy, Digital Social Media, and Right-Wing Populist Technoculture.” Communication, Culture and Critique. 11, no. 1 (2018): 67–84. doi:10.1093/ccc/tcx001.
[xviii] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220.