What after Populism? Analyzing General Elections in India, 2024

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a Bharatiya Janta Party rally ahead of state legislative assembly election on February 22,2021 in Hooghly, India. Photo: Saikat Paul.

The BJP consistently built a mass movement to construct a temple for Lord Ram at his birthplace of Ayodhya. This populist narrative, which framed an imagined majority as the ‘authentic people,’ resonated widely. The temple’s construction became the central issue for the 2024 General Elections. However, soon after the temple’s inauguration in February, the expected exuberance was noticeably absent. Mobilization around the temple fell flat, failing to create the kind of hysteria that Modi expected would secure him a third term in office.

By Ajay Gudavarthy* 

Indian democracy, alongside global shifts, took a ‘populist turn’ in 2014. It had populist features since 1970s that some have referred to as ‘agrarian populism,’ which included populist welfarism for rural peasants (Ghosh, 2019). However, in 2014, India witnessed a dramatic shift to a majoritarian discourse of authentic (Hindu) people; strongman phenomenon that undermined procedural niceties, legal norms and rule of law; centrality of performance and narrative over mobilization of social identities such as caste, class and language; pre-eminence of personality cult over institutional functioning; foregrounding of culture and civilizational ethos over public discourses on redistribution and justice; penetration of anti-elitist discourse against entitled and entrenched caste/class networks and finally a shift to mobilization based on psychological imperatives, latent emotions and everyday ethics. 

Under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, populist features assumed heightened mobilizational potential that could be seen in greater street mobilization, everyday violence (such as mob lynching) and aspirational aggression combined with electoral successes. Though BJP`s (Bharatiya Janta Party) vote share was limited to 37% at the height of its popularity, there was an unprecedented spread of the BJP’s footprint to unchartered territories in the Northeast of India and South of Vindhayas. Modi became the glue cutting across the regions. He symbolized a new age religiosity, hyper-nationalism, and supremacism that came across in popular politics as resurgent Hindu identity and renewed Indic civilizational belonging. Modi managed to tap deep-seated cultural codes, harness ‘collective sub-conscious,’ and stroke a sense of historical injury in majority Hindu community. It was a decade long (2014-2024) high decibel cultural narrative that left the opposition parties struggling with the muscular nationalism and populism of Modi. BJP, at one point, began to make hyperbolic claims such as ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (India free of Congress) and that it will continue in power for the next 50 years. The Modi juggernaut looked unstoppable.

Come 2024 General elections, there is a deafening silence, and lull. It now looks like the Modi juggernaut has come to a sudden and an abrupt screeching halt. In complete contrast to the last ten years, the ongoing general elections in India are without a national narrative, excitement, hyperbole, and in fact is witnessing a steady withdrawal by the electorate. The current elections are witnessing a palpable drop in the voter turnout. According to the data released by the Election Commission, the first phase witnessed 66.14 per cent turn out as against 69.89 per cent in 2019; second phase saw 66.71 turn out as against 69.64 per cent in 2019, and the third phase 65.68 per cent as against 67.3 in 2019. India’s voter turnout is lower than in several emerging markets (Mohan, 2024).

India is considered one of the youngest nations of the world, given its demographics of the largest youth population. Modi was considered an aspirational figure for the young. However, Election commission claimed only 38% of eligible first-time voter (18 million out of 49 million) registered to vote in 2024 elections; merely 17% of youth population of Bihar (state with highest concentration of youth and considered one of the poorest) registered to vote and only 21% in the capital city of Delhi. A Recent survey titled Drivers of Destiny argued that the young do not see politics and elections as a way out of social problems (Rama, 2024). Does this suggest an initial and preliminary withdrawal from populist mobilization? If so, we could ask what after populism? Do we return to constitutional liberal democracy, or would it be a new combination of constitutionalism and populism

In fact, in the ongoing elections opposition parties are seeking support around the counter narrative of ‘save constitution, save democracy.’ Protection of the Constitution is the central plank for the opposition parties. If the INDIA bloc (opposition alliance) is to come to power in June 2024, what kind of questions should one raise in terms of the continuances of the ‘populist turn’? Could we refer to a certain combination of social democratic imagination, with nyay (justice) as its central theme, and bringing back institutional accountability as a turn to left populism? However, there is no populist leader, no strongman, there is no appeal to an authentic people and there is a return to social identities of caste and local narratives and issues. 

Equally perplexing is the sudden change in the contours of Hindu identity. Much of BJP`s mobilization in the last ten years was centered around the construction of an authentic Hindu identity that needs to avenge the historical injury caused by external invaders (read Muslims). It consistently built a mass movement for building a temple for Lord Ram at his birthplace of Ayodhya. This populist narrative around an imagined majority as the ‘authentic people’ found a great deal of resonance. In fact, construction of the temple was the central issue for the General elections, 2024. However, soon after the temple was inaugurated (referred in religious parlance as ‘Pran Prathistha’) in February 2024, it was followed by absence of exuberance. Mobilization around temple fell flat and it failed to create the kind of hysteria that Modi expected will grant him his third term in the office. However, another decision of the Modi government of abrogation of Article 370 that granted autonomy to Kashmir, continued to remain popular. 

What does this variance between religious mobilization and nationalist mobilization suggest? Does it mean nationalism with regard to Kashmir has a better appeal owing to the sense of belonging it offers, as against the communalism centered on religious identity? Could we then meaningfully argue that populist assemblage could crack into smaller parts that do not find an easy equivalence? Does this lead to decline of populism or into the emergence of different shades of populism?

Finally, there is a return of the region and the local, as against the national. The ongoing general elections are witnessing a distinct voting pattern between the Hindi-speaking Northern states and the non-Hindi speaking Southern states. Modi’s populist mobilization based on nationalism and religiosity managed to partially obscure these boundaries. More than voting, the North-South divide foreground significant issues for our understanding of the interface between the social/cultural and the political domains that is at the heart of the ‘populist turn.’ 

Populism indicated certain kind of culturalization of politics and economy. While, North had, for instance, politicization of caste through the emergence of caste-based political parties, it had very little impact on the socio-economic indicators in terms of the mobility of marginalized castes. In contrast, in South of India, anti-caste movements took to social mobilization, independent of political parties, and electoral politics. It witnessed significant change in the socio-economic mobility of the marginalized castes. 

Along these lines, independent social activists and organizations for the first time took part in the electoral process by campaigning against the BJP. It had significant impact in the electoral outcomes in Karnataka and Telangana, two developed states of the South. Karnataka forged, Eddelu Karnataka (wake up Karnataka) and in Telangana it was called Jago Telangana (Wake up Telangana). The understanding was, while Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) mobilized around socio-cultural issues for the BJP, it was the social activists working for the opposition bloc. 

North of India had no independent social activists or movements that coincided with the unprecedented rise of right-wing populist-authoritarianism. This tells us something about the workings of populism after the ‘neoliberal consensus.’ If there is independent and social mobilization, it seems to work as a check on hyperbolic political mobilization. However, to check populist authoritarianism, independent social activists were ‘compelled’ to take part in electoral campaigns. There seems to be a need to recalibrate the interface between the social/cultural and political domains. In fact, the changing equation between these domains in modern, complex and socially differentiated societies is what decides the future of populism.


(*) Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor at the New Delhi Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. His recently published book is titled as Politics, Ethics, Emotions in ‘New India,’ (Routledge, India, 2023).


References

Ghosh, Atig. (2019). “Rearticulating ‘Agrarian Populism’ in Postcolonial India: Considerations around D.N. Dhanagare’s Populism and Power: Farmers’ Movement in Western India: 1980-2014 and Beyond.” Delivered as Lecture entitled as part of the Friday Lecture Series of Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group on July 18, 2019. http://www.mcrg.ac.in/Friday_Lecture/Abstract/Atig_Populisum.pdf

Mohan, Archis (2024). (92 Of 102 Seats in First Phase Saw Voter Turnout Drop.” Rediff. May 1, 2024. https://www.rediff.com/news/report/india-votes-2024-92-of-102-seats-in-first-phase-saw-voter-turnout-drop/20240501.htm (accessed on May 16, 2024).

Rama, Bijapurkar. (2024). “Does Young India Care About Elections 2024?” Rediff. May 4, 2024. https://www.rediff.com/news/column/india-votes-2024-does-young-india-care-about-elections-2024/20240504.htm(accessed on May 16, 2024).

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