In an exclusive interview, Professor Arjun Appadurai analyzed the inauguration of the Ayodhya Temple by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday. He expressed concerns about the potential rise of Hindu majoritarianism and its impact on India’s significant Muslim population. Appadurai emphasized that the monumental structure, replacing the Babri Masjid, symbolizes a shift towards the marginalization of India’s Muslims, potentially relegating them to a second-class status. Alongside many analysts, Appadurai predicts that Modi is poised to maintain a formidable grip on power in the forthcoming Indian elections in April, unless unexpected shifts in the political landscape occur.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Arjun Appadurai (Emeritus Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University) underscores his concerns that the opening of the Ayodhya Temple under Prime Minister Narendra Modi raises the risks of Hindu majoritarianism on India’s sizable Muslim population, estimated at around 250 million.
Appadurai highlights the historical challenges faced by this minority, with intensified tensions following the recent construction of the Mega Ram Temple in Ayodhya. This monumental structure, replacing the Babri Masjid, symbolizes a shift towards the marginalization of India’s Muslims, transforming them into a second-class population. Appadurai points to domestic policies that foster insecurity among Muslims and explores the paradox of Modi’s alliances with Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
According to Professor Appadurai, the inauguration of the Ram Temple consolidates Modi’s image as a righteous Hindu king, departing from historical dominance of Muslim monuments in North India. Appadurai also considers the national dimension, questioning the association of a temple with national identity and challenging conventional perceptions.
Professor Appadurai also delves into the intricate web of demagoguery, propaganda, and the socio-psychological factors that shape political landscapes. Appadurai challenges the conventional narrative by questioning the broad categorization of leaders as demagogic, emphasizing the ubiquitous nature of demagoguery in various forms. Central to the discussion is the exploration of "democracy fatigue," a concept introduced by Appadurai, shedding light on how demagogues tap into disillusionment with liberal democracy.
The conversation expands to the comparison of the political climates in Trump’s America and Modi’s India, unveiling surprising parallels in their success narratives driven by dissatisfaction with the state and societal shifts. Appadurai further unveils the nuanced dynamics in India, where Modi’s leadership seemingly catalyzes Western-style individualism within a traditionally hierarchical society, challenging standard liberal social theories. The interview provides a thought-provoking analysis of the emotional resonance, historical contexts, and unique factors contributing to the success of demagogic figures in diverse democratic settings.
Professor Appadurai underscores the shifting dynamics between the success of the right and the failure of the left, urging a departure from the conventional hydraulic theory. Appadurai emphasizes the transformation of the concept of "the people" by the right, evolving into a pre-political, quasi-biological entity. This conceptual shift, operating on an emotional rather than analytical level, challenges traditional categorizations and contributes to the erosion of democratic institutions.
The interview also explores the concept of polymorphous populism, linking it to the digitalization of society. Appadurai highlights the significance of social media in facilitating the rapid formation of movements, creating a volatile environment with a lack of enduring entities. He draws attention to the emotional bonding fostered by social media, providing a platform for right-wing leaders like Donald Trump and Modi to strategically bolster their power.
Our interview concludes with Professor Appadurai’s prediction for the upcoming Indian elections in April, expressing a prevailing sentiment that Modi is likely to maintain a strong hold on power unless unforeseen shifts occur.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Arjun Appadurai with some edits.
Populist Demagogues Exploits ‘Democracy Fatigue’
In your article, you discuss demagoguery as a socio-psychological phenomenon that taps into the emotions of ordinary people. Could you elaborate on which demagogic claims find emotional resonance among ordinary audiences in the contexts of Donald Trump’s America and Narendra Modi’s India?
Arjun Appadurai: The terms demagoguery and propaganda are frequently used when referring to non-democratic, anti-democratic, autocratic, and authoritarian leaders, often interchangeably. In all these cases, some explanation usually involves their demagogic capacities, rhetoric, and propagandistic skills. However, accepting this entirely has been challenging for me because everyone tends to be somewhat demagogic, and the use of some form of propaganda is widespread. So, the question arises: when do these strategies find fertile ground? When do they resonate? There are numerous answers to this, ranging from broad factors such as the global economy and job loss, which then leads to the projection of job loss onto outsiders. These explanations have been familiar for almost 20 or 30 years.
However, I am attempting to delve deeper into two directions, topics that we can explore further with additional questions. One is what I have termed "democracy fatigue," the title of an essay I contributed to a collection edited by a German editor and published by German publisher. This essay has been translated into 10 languages, including French and English. Despite its early publication in 2017, at a time when people were just beginning to contemplate this question, it didn’t receive much attention. The central argument in "Democracy Fatigue" is that demagogues and propagandists who succeed are those able to tap into the fatigue with democracy, a sentiment prevalent in many countries, albeit with different historical contexts, leading people to be, colloquially speaking, increasingly disillusioned with liberal democracy.
On the other hand, not unrelated to why some demagogue claims succeed while others may not, is their ability to find a path into the emotional world of listeners, followers, citizens, and ordinary people. This contrasts with more abstract, theoretical, and intellectually grounded arguments that may not resonate as effectively. These are the initial considerations regarding when it works and when it does not.
In your article you argue that US and India are very different but equally propitious terrains for the capture of the anti-democratic psyche. What common factors contributed to the success of Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the US?
Arjun Appadurai: The comparison is intriguing because India has long been acknowledged as the world’s largest democracy, while the United States is hailed as the world’s oldest democracy. Beyond this association, what makes it more compelling is that both nations have a unique and historical commitment to democracy. In India’s case, it has been over 70 years, a substantial period even when compared to the United States, making it not a young democracy anymore. However, in both cases, albeit for different reasons, there exists a sense of disappointment with what democracy has delivered, either at the state level, according to some leaders, or in the emotional lives of ordinary people.
In the United States, this dissatisfaction is reflected in a feeling of downward mobility, a sentiment that "we are not as powerful in the world anymore" at the state level. On the citizen level, particularly among white, lower-middle-class, and working-class individuals, there is a perception that their once elevated status has now diminished. This is central to the concept of "Make America Great Again" (MAGA), where the notion of America being great essentially means that a certain white class was great in America. The sentiment is rooted in a feeling that this specific group was accustomed to being in charge, and now, with the influx of others, there is a sense of decline both nationally and for particular ethnic and class groups.
In India, the narrative is somewhat reversed. It is characterized by aspirational sentiments, as the country is perceived to be gaining more power and prominence, serving as a counterbalance to China, among other factors in the level of state and realpolitik. Modi, along with other factors, has elevated India’s standing significantly on the global stage. This upward trajectory is mirrored in the aspirations of many, despite economic inequalities that have deepened in some respects. Overall wealth has increased, and a considerable number of ordinary and less affluent individuals see themselves progressing. However, frustrations arise when they perceive obstacles impeding their upward mobility, creating a sense of discontent from below driven by aspirations for advancement rather than concerns about decline.
In essence, both scenarios lead to a common destination (both roads end up in Rome), embodying an ambition tempered by the perceived sluggishness of liberal democracy. Therefore, anyone advocating for a strong, authoritative approach, promising immediate results, is likely to find favor. Currently, Modi seems poised to secure his third term in the 2024 elections, and Trump appears to be not only a formidable contender but also potentially victorious.
Your analysis suggests a revolutionized terrain of affect in India, where Modi has allowed the emergence of Western-style individualism within the steeply stratified social order. How does this form of individualism coexist with, and even support, traditional hierarchies? How does Modi use Hindu majoritarianism to challenge social norms and reconcile individualism and hierarchy, deviating from standard liberal social theory?
Arjun Appadurai: The best way to approach this, which is got some counter intuitive qualities. Because if we think of India as a society organized around family caste and kinship, particularly caste, none of them emphasizes the individual. So how can this be reconciled with what I’m saying. I am saying the individual has emerged in India but mainly as a carrier of aspirations to mobility not to revolutionary. This is not a Marxist individual who sees himself as part of working-class struggle and class solidarity. This is people who want to climb up higher than the next one, higher than the next family, one cast above the next. It’s highly competitive individuals.
On the other side, liberal social theory doesn’t state this always or continuously. There’s a background assumption that what the revolutions in France, England, and the USA, what the great revolutions of the end of eighteenth century, did was to connect a new form of individualism with ideas of equality, justice, education, universalism, etc. What I’m saying is in India you have some kind of individual emerging, but don’t think, therefore, all the other virtues of democracy will come at the same time. That generally explains for me how to see that something new is happening in India. But we should not make the mistake of assuming it comes with all the other entailments.
The second is that it also accounts for the appeal of Hindu majoritarianism because they’re too a justification. There is a collective justification for this individual mobility because the Hindu majoritarianism doesn’t disturb the ‘cast’. The casts are there in elections, everybody plays to cast candidates, cast electorates, cast interests, and so on. So, in a way this Hindu umbrella is a very successful way of creating a majority in which India historically never existed. So, one of my old scholarly mentors used to say, “India is a land only of minorities.” So, the question is, how do we suddenly get this idea that there’s a majority in a country of thousands of minorities? How did idea of Hindu majority emerged in a country where everybody is thinking about his family and 20 other families and his cast and his region. Suddenly, how do we get this national level formation? Quite an interesting mystery.
Modi Plays the Role of ‘Righteous Hindu King’
On Monday, Mr. Modi has opened Ayodhya Temple in India. So, the next question is how does Modi instrumentalize the Muslim minority to reinforce his populist rule, and what role do you foresee for Muslims in India and the consolidation of Hindutva, especially in light of opening of the Ayodhya temple?
Arjun Appadurai: The question surrounding Modi’s brand of Hindu majoritarianism raises concerns about its implications for the sizable Muslim population in India, estimated at around 250 million, a figure comparable to the total populations of many European countries. This substantial minority has faced significant legal, political, and physical pressures, leading to heightened risks, fears, dangers, and instances of violence. The challenges have been persistent over a considerable period, with a notable escalation following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in the early nineties.
The recent developments, particularly the construction of the Mega Ram Temple in Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid once stood, have further intensified tensions. The destruction of the mosque was justified on the grounds that it was built by Muslims on the foundation of a Ram temple. In the present scenario, a vast Ram Temple has been erected, while a small piece of land located miles away has been allocated to the Muslim community for the potential construction of a modest mosque. However, this concession pales in comparison to the grand scale of the Ram Temple.
Now, there is a noticeable shift as the marginalization of India’s Muslims transforms them into a second-class population. This shift is evident in endeavors to bring Kashmir entirely under Indian control and enact various legal changes calculated to foster a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims, particularly as citizens of India. Paradoxically, despite these domestic policies, Modi has cultivated strong alliances with leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries deeply committed to their version of Islam. This raises questions about the diplomatic dynamics, especially when considering the autocratic nature of these regimes. A noteworthy example is the recent visit of Smriti Zubin Irani, a prominent female leader and the education minister, to Mecca, the Holy of Holies. While this has sparked anger among some Hindus, it also presents a perplexing scenario for observers, as a key figure in a Hindu-majority regime is welcomed into the sacred space of Mecca.
These developments signal a departure from the traditional narrative, reminiscent of Israel’s approach, where a nation can exert significant violence against your own Muslim population and still foster friendly relations based on considerations like arms trade, oil, and energy with leaders from the Middle East.
The inauguration of the colossal Ram Temple this month is a momentous event in Indian politics and society, raising questions about the invited elite attendees, those who have accepted, and those who have declined. However, boycotting this event is exceptionally challenging due to its grandeur. This grand spectacle consolidates one of Modi’s numerous personas—the image of the righteous Hindu king or monarch. This persona is emphasized through his association with major temples, a concept that was not historically significant in North India. Traditionally, this association was more prevalent in South India. However, it has been transposed to Ayodhya, reflecting a departure from the historical dominance of Muslim monuments, including mosques, in North India. The South, in contrast, is abundant with temples. The adoption of this kingship model is particularly noteworthy in Northern India, specifically Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindi-speaking population and figures like Modi, who is of Gujarati descent, have embraced this South Indian-inspired concept.
Certainly, Modi embodies various personas, but one of the prominent ones is that of the righteous Hindu king, aligning himself with the traditional role of Hindu kings. This role is particularly highlighted in the context of the temple narrative. While much attention is directed towards the temple, my colleague, Revati Laul, has astutely drawn attention to a crucial aspect in an article for an Indian web magazine. She raises the question of the national dimension, asking where the idea of a national temple fits into the narrative. Laul provocatively problematizes the term "nationalist" associated with a temple, highlighting the unconventional association of a temple with national identity—a concept that challenges conventional perceptions. But now we have a national temple.
Failure of the Left and the Success of the Right Should Be Analyzed Separately
Why do you think we need to move away from the ‘hydraulic theory’ to understand the success of the right and the failure of the left? You argue that the Right has replaced the idea of Democracy with the People as a pre-political, quasi-biological entity. How does this shift in framing the People contribute to the erosion of democratic institutions, and what are the implications for governance and civic engagement in the context of polymorphous populism?
Arjun Appadurai: This is likely the most recent concept at least for me in the essay on polymorphous populism, where I grapple with the notion that even amid democracy fatigue, the concept of "the people" retains its compelling allure. "The people" is a uniquely complex idea, exceedingly amorphous, and indeed polymorphous. It operates on an affective, limbic level, engaging with emotions and the body rather than analytical thinking. It defies easy categorization as just citizens, a democratic population, a class, or an interest group. It encompasses all of these, but in a preanalytical manner. This is why, despite shifts in political landscapes, leaders across the globe—be it Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Trump in the United States, or Xi Jinping and Putin—persistently invoke the term "the people." However, this term is highly polymorphous, resisting confinement to legal frameworks, governance structures, or electoral processes. It introduces a blurring effect necessitating an understanding of how this idea evolves, moving beyond the hydraulic theory. The hydraulic theory posits that when the left fails in certain areas, a vacuum is created, allowing the right to fill it. Conversely, if the right fails, the historical left seizes opportunities at specific points in history. This zero-sum or hydraulic concept oversimplifies the intricate dynamics at play.
I’m trying to say that we need to analyze the failure of the left and the success of the right separately, at least initially, before attempting to establish connections between them. In the short run, let’s not treat them as two sides of the same coin. When explaining the failure of the left or the success of the right, there’s often a tendency to stop there and consider the matter resolved. However, in this argument, I contend that the left has placed excessive emphasis on concepts, theories, and ideas, which, while potentially valid and well-founded, have inherent limitations. I conclude by noting that the right, on the other hand, also possesses historical arguments and ideas but excels in operating at a different, more pragmatic level.
I’m trying to say we have to understand the failure of the left and the success of the right somewhat separately. Maybe eventually we can connect them, but in the short run don’t treat them as two sides of the same coin. The moment you explain the failure of the left, you cannot assume you have accounted for the success of the right. Or if you explain the success of the right, you have to say no more. But I do in the end at least in this argument, saying that the left has continued to put
too much weight on concepts, theories, and ideas which may be really true, which may be well-based, but they have a certain limitation. And I say that the right, of course, has certain arguments about history, the role of the right and national independence. They also have ideas, but they never forget that they have to work at another level.
While on the left, the instances are relatively few, historical figures such as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh exemplify an understanding of the socialist or communist vision. Nevertheless, these figures inevitably draw on a portion of the Marxist legacy, making it challenging to disassociate entirely from Marx without rejecting him outright. It is essential to remember that Marx, initially a thinker whose early work focused on Democritus, was not a participant in direct revolutionary actions. His evolution from a scholar to a discontented academic unfolded gradually. He remained a man of words, a characteristic that persists within the left.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it does mean you leave your flanks open to people who play on some other field.
Digital Realm Fosters Emotional Bonding at a Superficial Level
In your article, you discuss the concept of "polymorphous populism" and its connection to the digitalization of society. Why do you attach so much importance to the social media when explaining polymorphous populism? How do social media and the digital landscape enhance the network of emotions in the context of polymorphous populism, and how has this contributed to the success of right-wing leaders like Trump and Modi?
Arjun Appadurai: There are likely multiple factors contributing to the widespread integration of digital technology in many societies, not limited to the US and Europe but also extending to various regions, such as Turkey and India. In places like India, for instance, mobile phones surpass laptops or computers as the predominant digital instrument, yet the essence remains the same—a swift exchange of information and messages. The pivotal aspect lies in the fact that this digital landscape provides an open platform for anyone to emerge as an influential player and initiate a movement. With just one individual and their message, a movement begins to take shape, and as more people join, it rapidly transforms into a significant force.
In other words, this was never the way in which social or political movements were formed. Historically, movements required public speeches, physical meeting places, offices, and stadiums. Contrastingly, today, a laptop alone can establish a vast network. This shift bears similarities to the concept of flash mobs, where individuals can quickly gather people, even if temporarily, providing the illusion of being part of a substantial movement, regardless of its actual size. This trend contributes to fragmentation, observable in various movements, including the radicalized right, such as ISIS. With minimal resources, anyone can announce the creation of a new group, leading to frequent formations and reshufflings. This dynamic nature, while fostering rapid assembly, also results in volatility, with few enduring entities. Examples include short-lived movements, like those opposing Wall Street, which lacked sustained leadership, structure, or organization, ultimately fading away.
Even more complex examples, like the Arab Spring, illustrate the potential drawbacks of digital movements. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these phenomena, they can create an illusion of permanence, structure, and shared interests that a minor external force can easily dismantle. The digital realm fosters emotional bonding at a superficial level, as it doesn’t require extensive intellectual output. Unlike the need for treatises, Communist Manifestos, or published works like Mein Kampf, a simple message that resonates with a few individuals can quickly give rise to a sense of historic importance, even if fleeting.
The volatility arises from the connection between social media and the emotional landscape. Unlike written and spoken arguments, which demand substance and endurance, a social media rant can attract followers swiftly, providing momentary significance. Some individuals have mastered the art of making these digital expressions more permanent. Notably, figures like Trump and Modi exemplify this approach. Trump’s success lies in his adept use of Twitter, bypassing traditional press conferences and avoiding face-to-face questioning. Similarly, Modi constantly utilizes Twitter as a one-way communication channel, keeping his followers engaged without facing direct accountability. For these figures, social media serves not just as a temporary means but as a permanent strategy to bolster their power.
You mention Louis Dumont’s comparison between the West and India, which points to individualism as the governing ideology of the former and hierarchy as the encompassing ideology of the latter. And you beautifully explain how masterfully Modi and Trump have been able to instrumentalize the ideological context in their respective countries. Against this background, do you think theories originating from the West are explanatory enough to explain the success of populism in Eastern countries?
Arjun Appadurai: I view Dumont as being intuitively correct. Over the years, like many others, I have criticized him for placing excessive emphasis on caste, and within the study of caste, for overemphasizing hierarchy, and within hierarchy, for overemphasizing religion. This criticism has been ongoing for almost 50 years, dating back to around 1970.
However, despite these critiques, I find something intriguing in Dumont’s original vision, specifically the contrast between individualism and hierarchy at the level of a Weberian ideal type. This is not about empirical description; rather, it’s a kind of ideal typic contrast, acknowledging its inherent limitations as with all ideal typic concepts. Nevertheless, it possesses some virtues.
One noteworthy aspect of Dumont’s perspective is his emphasis on the distinction between hierarchy and status/stratification. Contrary to popular understanding, he stressed that hierarchy should not be conflated with class. While people often mistakenly associate hierarchy with inequality based on material possessions, Dumont argued against such assumptions. For him, hierarchy had a specialized meaning, focusing on the relationship of parts to the whole. It wasn’t primarily about determining who is higher or lower in a social order, but rather understanding the interconnectedness where each part’s significance derives from its relation to the whole. In this way, Dumont proposed a unique and specialized understanding of how hierarchy served as the underlying social principle in India.
On the Western front, I would assert that his narrative of individualism is somewhat more recognizable. It traces the development of the individual from the seventeenth century through the lens of figures like Marx, presenting a relatively straightforward account of the emerging actor in the Western context. This clarity is attributed, in part, to the early influences of market forces and industrial capitalism, shaping a distinct idea of the actor or agent. He employs the term "homo-economicus" to characterize this mode of individual, reflecting the influence of economic considerations on the Western conceptualization of agency.
Today, I revisit this contrast, acknowledging the numerous limitations in suggesting that Modi has discovered a way to liberate or extract a particular kind of individual from the Dumontian hierarchy. In Dumont’s framework, the part gains significance only in relation to the whole, as observed in the context of Dalits who are significant only within the caste system. However, a notable shift has occurred, where individuals, particularly Dalits, are now experiencing a separation from this interconnectedness. They aspire for mobility, harbor individual aspirations, and seek to rise above others. This departure from the traditional part-and-whole dynamic is something Dumont might have viewed as challenging.
On the Indian front, one could argue that Modi has catalyzed this transformation, breaking away from Dumont’s conception. However, it’s crucial to recognize that Modi is not acting in isolation; he is influenced by broader historical forces such as globalization, capitalism, and a specific form of democracy tainted by corruption. While Modi plays a central role, various factors contribute to this societal evolution, making it a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.
On the US front, a significant challenge for any form of socialist politics lies in the widespread aversion among Americans to any socialist vision. There is a prevalent fear that embracing socialism might corrupt their cherished sense of individualism. However, from the political right, we witness the emergence of a collective sentiment embodied in the slogan "Make America Great Again." The white majority supporting Trump expresses a strong collective identity, portraying a sense of displacement, “we” who have been pushed aside.
In contrast to the traditional American emphasis on individualism—where one might strive to improve individually relative to others—this collective identification signals a departure. It goes beyond the rhetoric of "Help me make me better than the next guy." Instead, it articulates a shared experience of displacement, a collective "we" feeling. This shift towards collective identification would have been unthinkable in the past. Unfortunately, it doesn’t align with proletarian class or liberatory, emancipatory socialist ideals; rather, it takes a different direction. Despite this, it is noteworthy that it is a collective sentiment, challenging the notion of "each man for himself" and a rejection of participating in any movement.
This nuanced understanding of collective identity, in contrast to individualism, contributes to a deeper comprehension of the differences between Trump and Modi. Despite their apparent dissimilarities, there is an underlying structural similarity—they both break away from established principles in their respective locations.
Modi’s Victory in April Might Signal the End of Genuine Electoral Processes
The elections in India will be held in April. What is your prediction about the performance of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
Arjun Appadurai: Unfortunately, the current outlook suggests that, although unpredictable shifts can occur in politics, many anticipate that Modi maintains a firm grip on power. This conviction, shared by individuals across the political spectrum, is based on various arguments, including those I have presented, and others put forth by different voices. The recent State-level elections, which occurred about six weeks ago, delivered surprises to the opposition. Modi’s triumphs, even in scenarios where his party, the BJP, was expected to face defeat, have spurred extensive postmortems.
Analysts and experts are engaged in a deep examination of the election results, attempting to decipher what went wrong. Questions arise: Is it due to the lack of personal charisma in Rahul Gandhi? Does the dominance of the Nehru family, as a small and longstanding clique, within the Congress and the broader opposition hinder the rise of regional leaders and the infusion of youthful energy? Countless analyses circulate, exploring various facets of the political landscape. However, nearly unanimously, pundits and commentators believe that the 2024 election is Modi’s to lose. This is fine. It is a common way to say that his victory is almost guaranteed. The prevailing sentiment is that unless he takes an unexpected turn or an alliance emerges from the aftermath of the State elections, uniting his numerous opponents, the outcome seems firmly within Modi’s control.
The Indian electoral system operates under its own set of rules and intricacies. In State elections, instances have occurred, such as in Gujarat or Maharashtra, where the total number of votes went against the BJP at the state level, yet the total number of parliamentary seats won by the BJP was in their favor. This phenomenon arises from a somewhat mysterious counting mechanism; it’s not corruption, but a technical nuance akin to the Electoral College system in the US, leading to unconventional outcomes where a party may secure more popular votes but still lose seats.
To address your question directly, despite the hopes of many for a miracle or a shift in a different direction, it currently appears that Modi has a firm grasp on the levers of power. A concern among some is that if he secures victory for a third time, there are fears that it might signal the end of genuine electoral processes. While this assertion might be viewed as extreme, continued electoral success could potentially empower him to establish his influence across various institutions, including the courts and media. He may not even require subsequent victories, as he could solidify his apparatus, leaving a lasting "Modi stamp" on the political landscape.