Professor Jaffrelot: India under Modi Shares Similar Patterns with Israel in Their ‘Ethnic Democracies’

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot is a research director at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS and Avantha Professor of Indian Politics and Society at King's India Institute, School of Global Affairs, Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College, London. Photo: H. Naudet.

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot notes that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva has taken on a distinctly populist and more aggressive posture, marking a shift from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s previously disciplined, cadre-based approach. Modi’s populist influence has further polarized Indian society, rendering his brand of Hindu nationalism more exclusionary and assertive than ever. He also highlights the subtle yet significant similarities between India and Israel in their conceptualization and treatment of minorities. In India, minorities, particularly Muslims, experience systemic exclusion from equal opportunities in employment, housing, and other areas.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In a compelling interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Christophe Jaffrelot, a distinguished CERI-CNRS Senior Research Fellow who teaches at Sciences Po across three schools, delves into the intricate patterns of ‘ethnic democracies’ as exemplified by India and Israel. He highlights the subtle yet profound similarities between the two nations in how they conceptualize and treat their ethnic majorities and minorities. According to Professor Jaffrelot, while Israel’s ethnic democracy is de jure, India’s version manifests de facto, where minorities, particularly Muslims, experience systemic exclusion from equal opportunities in employment and housing among others.

According to Professor Jaffrelot, this discrimination is not just a passive societal residue but an active part of governmental policy and social rhetoric. Professor Jaffrelot articulates that the ideological underpinnings of this approach in India stem from a century-old ideology known as Hindutva. This ideology, largely unchanged since its formal introduction in 1923 by Savarkar in "Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?", defines the nation in terms of Hindu heritage and culture, positioning Hindus as the rightful sons of the Indian soil. This framework inherently diminishes the status of other communities, effectively making them second-class citizens unless they assimilate into the dominant Hindu culture.

The Professor points out that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva has acquired a distinctly populist and more aggressive posture, which is a departure from the earlier disciplined, cadre-based approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s populist dimension has further polarized the Indian society, making his version of Hindu nationalism more exclusionary and assertive than ever before.

The implications of such a hardened stance are far-reaching, affecting not just the internal social fabric of India but also its external diplomatic relations, especially with countries like Pakistan and Israel. The shared ideological and strategic interests between India under the BJP and Israel, particularly their common stance on Islam and Islamism, underscore a unique geopolitical alignment that transcends mere diplomacy, touching the core of national identity and cultural politics.

As the interview progresses, Professor Jaffrelot explores the consequences of this ideology on India’s secular and multicultural ethos. He argues that the populist manipulation of Hindu nationalism under Modi’s leadership does not merely challenge the pluralistic foundations of India but also poses a significant risk to the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution.

Through this in-depth discussion, Professor Jaffrelot not only provides a critical analysis of the current political climate in India but also places it within a broader global context of rising ethnic nationalism and far-right populism. His insights offer a sobering reminder of the potent mix of populism and nationalism, which is reshaping nations across the world, making this interview a crucial read for anyone interested in understanding the contemporary challenges facing democratic societies today.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Christophe Jaffrelot with minor edits.

Modi Has Changed Hindu Nationalism More Than Anybody Else

How has Hindu nationalism and Hindutva evolved, and what historical factors shaped its current form, especially in its intersection with populism in contemporary Indian politics?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: Well, this movement is now 100 years old. It was initiated in the 1920s, with the first ideological charter published in 1923 by Savarkar titled "Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?" The ideology, which remains largely unchanged to this day, defines the Indian nation on the basis of Hinduism, or more precisely, on the basis of the Hindu people. Hindus are seen as the sons of the soil, the main community, the primary people, and minorities are expected to pledge allegiance to their religion and culture or accept that they are second-class citizens. This ideology has not changed significantly. The organization evolved; in 1925, two years after Savarkar’s book, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was born. This organization embodies Hindu nationalism and is non-political.

Initially, RSS didn’t seek any particular role but aimed to organize Hindus and make them more cohesive and muscular. They adopt a paramilitary style for disciplining young Hindus. This organization has remained largely the same since then, except that after independence in the 1940s, they started building additional subsidiaries such as student unions, trade unions, labor unions, peasant unions, and a political party. This political party is now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi. Modi has probably changed Hindu nationalism more than anybody else by enrolling it with a populist dimension. Until Modi, the BJP was a disciplined, cadre-based organization. With Modi, after the 2014 elections, a mass appeal emerged, making a huge difference, and as a result, the BJP has become the largest Indian party, with the majority of members of Parliament in the Lower House now belonging to it.

Ethnic Democracy Is De Jure in Israel, De Facto in India

What does Hindutva’s proliferation mean for the Indian democracy? How does Hindutva challenge the secularism, pluralism, and the multi-culturalism of the Indian state?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: As I mentioned, the Hindutva ideology considers that minorities must either pledge allegiance to Hindu culture or expect to be in a dominated situation. So, there is a rejection of multiculturalism and secularism. In India, secularism means that all groups are treated equally by the state. This principle is enshrined in the Constitution, which includes articles stating that minorities can apply for subsidies to run their own schools, among other provisions. However, Hindu nationalism has consistently opposed this idea, arguing that citizens should not be seen as equals and that Hinduism should prevail. This stance is detrimental to multiculturalism and democracy. But it’s not surprising, as populism tends to oppose pluralism. 

When you say that the people are enshrined, epitomized by the "sons of the soil," it becomes very challenging for minorities to secure the collective rights they deserve in a democratic, multicultural setup. In this way, India appears to be following a pattern seen in many other places, including Israel. In Israel, the concept of "ethnic democracy" was introduced by Sammy Smooha, a political scientist. Ethnic democracy can be de jure, as in Israel, or de facto, as in India. In the de facto scenario, minorities are second-class citizens because they lack equal access to the job market and the housing market. This discrimination is precisely what we observe today vis-a-vis the Muslims.

Hinduism and Hindutva Are Distinctly Different

Volunteers of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Vijyadashmi festival, a large gathering or annual meeting during Ramanavami a Hindu festival in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018. Photo: Pradeep Gaurs.

How would you characterize the relationship between Hindu nationalism, Hindutva and populism in the context of the BJP’s rise to power? What factors have contributed or paved the way for BJP’s and Modi’s electoral victory in 2014? How has the BJP shaped and promoted Hindu nationalism, and is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership style effective in this context?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: Hinduism and Hindutva are certainly not the same, although some claim they are. They argue that Hindutva is merely an extension of Hinduism, but this is not the case. Hinduism, unlike many religions, lacks a definitive corpus; it has no central book with a capital "B," no clergy, no church, and no singular center of gravity. Instead, its unit of analysis is the Sampradaya, or sectarian movements, which have been established by Gurus who demonstrated significant spiritual creativity. Unity in Hinduism stems from the caste system and social organization, rather than a religious framework, which is highly diverse. A fitting metaphor for Hinduism is the Banyan tree, where the trunk—or core—is elusive, and all Gurus are equally legitimate in their approaches to guiding disciples toward salvation.

Hindutva is an ideology and does not view Hinduism as a creed. It is not concerned with paths to salvation or beliefs; instead, it focuses on forging a collective identity to make a people. Hindus are not just believers; they are a people. This mirrors the difficulties in distinguishing between Zionism and the Jewish people. Hindutva has instrumentalized Hinduism for its purposes. For example, in the 1980s, proponents of Hindutva launched a movement to reclaim a sacred site in Ayodhya, in northern India. This site was the location of the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528 by the first Mughal Emperor, Babur. They claimed this mosque was erected over a demolished Hindu temple, purportedly at the birthplace of Lord Rama, an avatar of Lord Vishnu—a belief widely held among Hindus. In the 1980s, this sentiment was leveraged to mobilize Hindus against Muslims, incite riots, and eventually lead to the demolition of the mosque and the construction of a new Hindu temple, which was inaugurated in January this year. This is a prime example of how religion can be instrumentalized by ideologues. However, I must emphasize again that Hinduism and Hindutva are distinctly different.

Populism Results in Authoritarianism

India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi visits Gurdwara Rakabganj Sahib to pay tribute to Guru Teg Bahadur, in New Delhi on December 20, 2020. Photo: Shutterstuck.

How would you describe Narendra Modi’s populism and how does it differ from other populisms in particular populist parties in Europe?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: There are many similarities. The concept of populism, in my view, primarily involves a direct connection between the leader and the populace, bypassing traditional intermediaries. Narendra Modi, for instance, did not heavily rely on his party or the RSS, despite being a product of the RSS. As an RSS volunteer since the age of seven, he certainly embodies the organization’s ethos. However, upon becoming the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he opted to establish his own parallel power structure, which focused more on promoting his personal image rather than the party or organization. He pioneered the use of social media, holograms, and even a TV channel named after him to communicate directly with the public. This strategy of direct engagement is a quintessential element of his approach.

The second characteristic of populism is that the leader is perceived as "one of the people," yet also possesses a unique charisma. Modi exemplifies this as he comes from a humble, low-caste background, making it easy for him to appear as one of the people, one of the plebeians, one of the common folk. He often speaks in a manner that resonates with the general populace, frequently discussing his impoverished childhood and his closeness to the poor. Despite this, Modi is also viewed as a charismatic and exceptional figure. Notably, he took bold actions, such as the military strike on Pakistan in 2019, which was unprecedented since 1971. Additionally, his tenure as Chief Minister is marked by controversial events like the anti-Muslim pogroms, underscoring his extraordinary and divisive role in politics. Thus, the second criterion of populism is being "a man of the people," but one who is distinctly apart from them in capability and action.

This insight is crucial for grasping Narendra Modi’s populist style, a trait he shares with other populist leaders globally. Similar patterns can be observed in figures like Erdogan, Duterte, and Trump, who position themselves as antagonists of the elite, often claiming victimization by them. Modi frequently portrays himself as a victim of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the liberal elite, English-speaking elite, emphasizing his vernacular identity by predominantly speaking in Indian languages rather than English.

Now there are two other very important criteria of populism that Narendra Modi fulfills, and they have to do with ideology. He is a national populist. He speaks in the name of the majority, not in the name of all citizens. Thus, he continues to polarize. In the ongoing election campaign, he has been very critical of Muslims, openly denigrating them in a mean manner. His style is also very vulgar because he wants to mobilize Hindu voters, not all voters. So, he is a national populist. Similarly, Netanyahu, when conversing, does not try to get the Muslim vote. He does not care for the Muslim vote. On the contrary, he tries to polarize by attacking Muslims, Palestinians in the colonies. The similarity there is also striking.

The fourth, but very important, dimension that I want to bring into the picture is that, like many other populists, he is authoritarian. Populism leads to authoritarianism almost automatically because the moment you can say, “I am the people,” there is no place for diversity, dissent, or opposition. If you are opposing the man who represents the people, you are deemed international. Therefore, you’re illegitimate. He has kept disqualifying the opposition leaders and has even sent many of them behind bars. Today, for the first time in the history of India, a chief minister, the chief minister of Delhi, is in prison, and that’s just one example among political prisoners. Secondly, the Congress party, the number one opposition party, has seen several of its bank accounts frozen because, again, they are seen as threats, which are considered illegitimate. 

The media is also captured by the ruling party, most of the time. News channels, including NDTV, the last independent channel, have been bought by oligarchs, friends of the ruling party. So, that’s another very important criterion of populism: populism results in authoritarianism, and this authoritarianism is conducive to fighting against opposition and transforming the election competition into a non-level playing field. It’s a non-level playing field because of the media coverage of the election campaigns and also because of money. The kind of financial resources the BJP has is nothing compared to what the opposition possesses. The opposition is, of course, at the receiving end of so many rules and regulations, making it very difficult for them to finance the election campaign. So, it’s still not a level playing field.

I conclude that in a populist regime like this one, the leader must take the risk of an election. It’s not North Korea; it’s not China. Populists need the popular mandate. They need legitimacy derived from the vote, from the electorate, to be in a position to say, “I can prevail because I am the people.” Of course, when you take the risk of the vote, of the election, you also risk losing. That’s why it’s an authoritarian regime, but not a fascist regime. It’s a different category.

Muslims in India Are Getting Ghettoized

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP – a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

What role do the BJP and Modi play in promoting exclusionary practices against Muslim minorities in India? How does the nexus of Hindu nationalism and populism impact social cohesion, diversity, and India’s democratic ideals?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: This time, Modi has been explicitly communal, using words vis-à-vis Muslims that he had never publicly used before, because he is on the defensive. He needs to mobilize his support base as much as possible. However, until recently, he was not explicitly anti-Muslim. Thus, the dirty job was done by others. There was a very clear division of labor: the government and the party tried to remain clean. By contrast, underground, there were groups we call ‘vigilantes’. These vigilantes indulged in cultural policing, patrolling university campuses to check whether Muslim boys were talking to Hindu girls, to prevent them from interacting with Hindu girls because of the fear of them seducing and converting Hindu women. It sounds banal, but in practice, it could be very ugly and result in violence. Violence is the order of the day when they patrol highways to check whether truck drivers are transporting bovines to the slaughterhouse, with the cow being the sacred animal, par excellence, in India. This movement, known as cow protection, is clearly a way to discipline and harass Muslims, and there have been many cases of lynchings. Similarly, the same groups make it very difficult for Hindus to sell their flats or houses to Muslims in mixed neighborhoods, to ensure that there is no interaction and that ghettoization remains the order of the day. Muslims are getting ghettoized for that reason among others, including socioeconomic decline. Of course, all these practices go together with discrimination in the job market, and Muslims are suffering socioeconomically.

These are the daily routines for Muslims, who live in fear, especially when they are in small minorities. However, what is new is the passing of laws that not only de facto but also de jure make them second-class citizens. For instance, a significant law passed in 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act, states that only non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be eligible for Indian nationality and citizenship. Many other laws have been enacted at the state level, making interreligious marriages very difficult, severely restricting conversion out of Hinduism, and complicating the sale of houses to someone from a different community. 

So, while BJP and Modi at the center appear to remain clean, underground vigilantes do the dirty work. But lately, we also see governments at both the state and national levels indulging in overtly communal practices. This is a notable change. In India, we use the term ‘communal’ because it was the word used, especially under Nehru in the 1950s and 1960s, to indicate a departure from nationalism. Communalism can be Hindu, Muslim, Sikh; nationalism is Indian. People were encouraged to feel like Indians and not indulge in communalism. I find this distinction still very useful.

You often refer to ‘the banalization of Islamophobia.’ How has this banalization evolved as BJP took root in Indian politics?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: The center of gravity in public discourse has shifted. For me, banalization is evident in the acceptance of words that would never have been deemed legitimate in the public sphere 15-20, or 25 years ago. Saying that Muslims have many wives and engage in polygamy, or that Muslims have many children precisely because they have many wives, or that they pledge allegiance to Mecca and the Middle East—none of these assertions would have been possible 15-20, or 25 years ago. They would have faced sanctions and been considered outside the bounds of legitimate discourse. Now, the situation is entirely different. There is a banalization of prejudice, making it very commonplace. This isn’t only in India; it’s something you find elsewhere. But it has emerged prominently in India, with the type of words and stigmatization that have become so routinized. It’s truly astonishing. This shift also manifests in physical violence, including lynching, which was not at all part of the public life scenario 10-15, or 20 years ago, again.

To what extent has Hindu nationalism influenced foreign policy decisions under the Modi government?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It’s not so easy to establish a clear correlation between these two. Certainly, vis-à-vis Pakistan, but even there, this assertion must be qualified. Narendra Modi invited Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014 and made a stopover in Lahore to wish Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday in 2015. He wanted to normalize relations with Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif was seen as the right partner for this endeavor. This effort halted after terrorist attacks in India, likely perpetrated by Jihadi groups who were opposed to this normalization. These groups have consistently sabotaged the normalization process between India and Pakistan. After these incidents, Modi became probably more aggressive than any of his predecessors, except perhaps Indira Gandhi, vis-à-vis Pakistan, influenced by his ideological stance. It can be argued that his position as a Hindu nationalist leader played a role, but this became evident only after 2015-16. Regarding other international relations, there are affinities with Israel that can be understood only through ideological proximity and a shared opposition to Muslims or, at least, Islamists. The fact that the Modi government has not been critical of Netanyahu lately is very revealing.

There Are Affinities between Zionism and Hindutva

Photo: Shutterstock.

This is the next question, Professor, let me ask it. Why does Israel present itself as an ideal polity for BJP?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It is because there are affinities between Zionism and Hindutva, as I’ve mentioned previously. These two ideologies perceive their people not merely as believers of a religion but as descendants of the original inhabitants of a sacred land. Very few religions in the world can claim that their practitioners have in their veins the blood of the original inhabitants of the land where their most sacred sites are located. Thus, you have two sides of the same coin: the identity of the people, a kind of ethnic unity, and the location, a sacred land. These commonalities are significant. Additionally, there are very few countries with these characteristics, and atop that, they can claim to have been there for 3,000 years or 4,000 years—and they are often generous with these estimates. This represents their common ground.

Of course, they share one more thing in common: the fear of Islam and Islamism. This fear is certainly exaggerated, and both sides play the victimization card very effectively. However, this fear is not entirely imagined; there have been Islamist attacks. The Jihadi attacks on India in the 2000s had a significant impact. These attacks targeted, of course, Kashmir, but also, as you may remember, Mumbai in 2008 and Delhi in 2001. This common enemy, so to speak, has brought them closer, even before the BJP took over. As early as the 2000s, the Congress-led government considered that fostering closer ties with Israel for security reasons made sense. This is why they also collaborate in military terms.

After EP Elections We Will See A Different Europe

Lastly, Professor, do you think the electoral victory of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom opens a new chapter in European politics signaling the normalization of far-right parties? How concerned are you about a possible surge of far-right parties in the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections in June?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It’s certainly a trend we see all across the board. Most European countries will witness the rise of far-right parties. Interestingly, they are not all aligned in their approaches, which is something we sometimes overlook. Some parties are striving to appear more moderate; Marine Le Pen, for example, is desperately trying to present a more moderate image, and it’s working. Conversely, in Germany, we see a radicalization of the extreme right. So, the trajectories are not the same.

Moreover, their views on Russia differ significantly. Many national populist parties in Eastern Europe, including Poland’s PiS, identify Russia as the main threat, whereas other parties, including Orban’s Fidesz, still regard Putin as a role model. Putin is also a role model for others, including Salvini’s Lega and Le Pen’s National Rally.

This divergence creates another point of contention. For instance, forming a unified group in the European Parliament won’t be straightforward; the risk of this happening is, in fact, minimal for all these reasons. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t impact the European Parliament. My concern is that they will consistently join forces on issues like immigration and the Green Deal, making it very difficult to continue many policies in the spirit they were initiated.

Yes, the risk is very real that we will see a different Europe. They don’t want to leave the EU; rather, they aim to transform it from within. Brexit is not a model they wish to emulate, especially given the high cost Britain has paid. Instead, they will try to transform the EU from the inside, and the European Parliament will be the laboratory for this transformation.

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