Christophe Jaffrelot joins the podcast to explain the phenomenon of Hindu Nationalism and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is a professor of Indian politics and sociology and among the foremost scholars of Indian democracy. His latest book is called Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy.
The police is even acting directly against the minorities and the Delhi riots of 2020 showed that the police could be on their side in the street in their rioting activities. This is exactly the same in other BGP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh. Now you have indeed a kind of new shift, if you want. It’s not only with the blessing of the state. It’s also with the active participation of the state.
Key Highlights Include
- Description of Hindutva or Hindu Nationalism
- A brief account of the RSS
- An account of the Ayodhya Temple Controversy
- Explains how Narendra Modi came to power
- Prospects for the future of Indian democracy
Maybe you’ve heard of Narendra Modi as another populist leader kind of like Bolsonaro, Orbán, or Erdoğan. But most of us don’t know much about him. For many of us, Modi is more of a symbol of populism. Today, I hope to add context and substance to your general impressions.
India is unlike any other democracy in the world. It is large and diverse with its own distinct culture, traditions, and challenges. Narendra Modi leads a Hindu Nationalist political party known as the BJP. They have reshaped India into what Christophe Jaffrelot describes as an ethnic democracy.
Christophe Jaffrelot is among the leading scholars of Indian democracy. He is a director of research at Sciences Po and a professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s College. His latest book is Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy.
Christophe will explain Hindu Nationalism, describe Narendra Modi’s rise, and detail the reasons for concern for the future of Indian democracy. We touch on a lot, but make no mistake. Modi is the hero of today’s conversation. We’re here to discuss Modi’s India. And as every Bollywood film watcher knows, Christophe writes, “A “Dark Hero” Is still a hero.”
The topic of Indian politics and Hindu Nationalism is a broad one. So, feel free to add to the conversation with your own thoughts. A full transcript is available at democracyparadox.com where you can leave comments. You can also mention me on Twitter @DemParadox or email me at email@example.com. But for now… this is my conversation with Christophe Jaffrelot…
Christophe Jaffrelot, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you for inviting me.
Christophe, your book is entitled Modi’s India, but it’s not just about the prime minister Narendra Modi, but also about the phenomenon of Hindu nationalism. And to be honest, it’s a concept that I’m not sure everyone is entirely familiar with. In fact, Hindu nationalism, it combines two ideas many might even believe are somewhat jarring the way that it juxtaposes Hinduism and nationalism together. So, I’d like to explore this concept. You have a fascinating quote where you write, “Hindutva values, certain aspects of Hinduism at the expense of others.” So, you begin early on to question the way that Hinduism and nationalism intersect together. So, let me ask you to start off today. What aspects of Hinduism does Hindutva elevate and what aspects does it suppress?
Yes, that’s a key question, of course, and in responding to this question, we need to go back to Hinduism as a civilization. it’s more than a religion. It’s a full-fledged civilization and it is traditionally admitted that this civilization does not rely on any orthodoxy, but on a strong orthopraxy. And the orthopraxy is enshrined in the caste system, a very rigid and hierarchical social order. That’s one dimension. And the other dimension is this absence of orthodoxy that finds expression in the fact that there is no book, no dogma, no clergy in Hinduism and a great sense of religious liberty. Many different kinds of beliefs co-exist in Hinduism. Gurus were very creative and constantly invented new ways to reach God.
That’s what Hinduism was in terms of spirituality and this is something Hindutva has tried to erase. The sense of spiritual diversity has been certainly the first causality of the rise of Hindutva. One example to illustrate this. Hindus used to worship Sufis, Islamic figures, and therefore, went to pray on their tombs in large numbers. This is what I call the Dargah culture. Dargha is the name we give to these mausoleums of Sufi saints. Well, Hindu nationalists tended to consider that such cults were not recommended. So Hindu nationalists have influenced the Hindu community in different ways. They have codified the Hindu identity along Brahmanical lines mostly, and they have tended to reduce the diversity of Hinduism. So, the difference, if you want, between Hinduism and Hindutva is enshrined in these tendencies.
But, of course, there is an even more obvious difference. Hindutva is an ideology. And if you want an ethnic religious ideology that will emphasize a dimension of Hinduism that was not very much referred to in the past. The Hindus as a people, as a community, as the descendants of, as they said, the Vedic fathers. This definition of the Hindus as a people has many affinities with Zionism and I would say Hindutva is to Hinduism what Zionism is to Judaism. in many ways the emphasis is on ethnic characteristics rather than belief. So, this idea that you define the citizenship, the nationality, by ethnic characterization and language, that’s a new definition of the identity in India. And that’s largely because of the impact of this ideology.
Now, some might think that the organizational embodiment of Hindu nationalism is the BJP. But especially through your work, and as I look at it from other research that I’ve done as well, it seems that the RSS probably embodies the idea of Hindu nationalism in the sense of an organization that carries out that mission. Can you give a brief history or account of the RSS? Just explain who it is, what its purpose is, because it continues to come up again and again as we talk about the idea of Modi’s India, his impact on India, and the way the BJP has begun to reshape India.
Certainly. This is key. The RSS is the mother organization. This is the crucible of the Hindu nationalist movement. So, RSS was founded in 1925 in Nagpur, the city that is right in the middle of the Indian union of today. And it was started in reaction to the sentiment shared by many Hindus at that time that Muslims were posing a threat to the majority community. Muslims appeared as very militant, very well organized, especially in the wake of a movement known as the Caliphate movement that Muslims of India developed in reaction to the abolition of the Caliphate in Constantinople after World War I.
So, it is in this context that in Nagpur in 25, Hegewar really started the RSS. Hegewar was the disciple of the chief idealogue of Hindutva and Savarkar needs to be mentioned there because he’s really the one that has written the book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? that is like the charter, the ideological charter of Hindutva. So, if you want Savarkar was the thinker and Hegewar was the organizer. And he decided to help Hindus to be more muscular, to be more organized, to be more physically fit, as well as intellectually alert by creating this organization that has a very unique modus operandi. The unit of analysis there is the shakha, the branch.
Every morning before the sun rises, every evening after it sets, young, or not so young by the way, but mostly young Hindus meet in uniform for both ideological sessions to learn your history, to learn your culture, and physical exercises. Both things go together. Some of the most motivated young members of this organization followed a specific training. The instructors training games, the officers’ training games, and they became what the RSS call pracharaks. Pracharak means full time carer of the RSS and the pracharaks will be the ones which will, from Nagpur, travel across the country for developing the shakha network in villages, in towns, in cities. They will travel and establish a huge network of shakhas. By 1947 there are 600,000 members of the RSS in thousands of shakhas across the country. The idea is really to crisscross the country, the Indian territory.
So, they are not paying attention to political power. They are not interested in seizing power. They are not fighting. They are not contesting elections. They want to help the Hindu community to be stronger at the grassroots level. That’s what they will do for at least 20 years. Things will change after independence. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by one of the RSS members. They claim he had left the organization, but he was still very close to Savarkar. This man, Nathuram Godse, by assassinating Mahatma Gandhi, will lead Jawaharial Nehru, prime minister of India, to ban the RSS and to arrest 20,000 members of the RSS who will be behind bars for months. Well, RSS then realized that there was nobody in the political arena for defending them and they will therefore shift to politics.
They will start their own political party known at that time as the Jan Sangh. And the Jan Sangh will take shape just before the first elections, 1951. And this is the ancestor of the BJP. So, the party is the tip of the iceberg everybody sees, but the iceberg is much larger and somewhat coterminous with Indian society. The list of organizations is much longer. You have another branch of this organization that is in charge of the tribals, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. You have a branch of this organization in charge of education and network of schools, very effective, Vidya Bharati. You have another branch working in the slums. That’s why you’re right. The real entity that needs to be kept in mind is RSS and Narendra Modi himself is a product of RSS.
So, I think as we kind of draw in the RSS, we draw in the idea of Hindu nationalism into something that becomes explicitly political. I think the best avenue to draw it in is through the example of the Ayodhya movement. And this is an example where it begins as something that’s very cultural, but quickly becomes something that’s very political. And it involves a lot of the concepts that are really at the heart of your book. It talks about concepts of Hindu nationalism. It highlights persecution of the Muslim minority. Can you help explain what this movement is – what the controversy is – and put it in context of what we’ve been talking about so far?
So Ayodhya was a very sensitive and powerful symbol. In the Ramayana this is the Capitol of Lord Ram, one of the avatars of Vishnu, the most popular avatar of Vishnu. But, of course, for Hindu nationalists, an historical figure, a king, a king who had a birth place and it was supposed to be born exactly where a mosque had been built in 1528 by the Mogul invaders and therefore, they launched a big movement for mobilizing Hindus. Well, they did it exactly before the elections because they wanted to polarize the voters to mobilize Hindus on this issue in 1984. But 1984 is the year when Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. So, the issue at the time of election could not be Hindus versus Muslims. The agenda was set by this trauma that was Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination.
So, they had to wait for 1989 and they relaunched the same movement five years later, on the occasion of the next elections. And then it started to work well because they have such a huge network. By that time there were something like 50,000 shakhas across the country. So, they took bricks with the name of Lord Ram on them to hundreds of thousands of villages asking for some donation and asking for a vote. If you vote for us, we’ll build this temple.
And that is the beginning of the rise of BJP. Because in 84, they got two seats out of 544. In 89, they got 88 seats. The next elections resulted in an even larger number of seats and more importantly, they could conquer the state of the Indian union, where Ayodhya is located, Uttar Pradesh. In 91, they were in a position to rule Uttar Pradesh. In 92 they seized the mosque by storm and activists razed the mosque to the ground in one day, 6th of December, 1992. That was one way to impose themselves, their views, on the Muslim minority. Another way was, of course, communal violence. The eighties and the nineties have seen the largest number of Hindu-Muslim riots and these riots peaked during the election campaigns, because polarizing the voters to trigger riots was quite effective.
And it was almost always the same modus operandi. A procession of Hindu nationalists pass by the neighborhood of Muslims in a city, preferably at the time of prayer, shouting provocative slogans. The Muslims reacted by pelting stones. The procession is armed with, acid bombs and other weapons. And then you have to wait for the police and sometimes the army to be deployed for the riots to stop. So, it’s not only that the mosque was destroyed. It’s also that the movement resulted in many places of communal violence.
So, I want to draw in Narendra Modi into the conversation because he plays such a just dominant role within Indian politics. So, both the RSS and the BJP have traditionally been seen as high caste organizations, particularly the BJP is viewed as the political party of upper castes. And we haven’t talked at all about caste to be honest, and caste plays an enormous role within Indian politics. Narendra Modi is such a fascinating figure because he comes from the OBCs, the other backward castes. He’s not a natural fit as the leader of the BJP yet at the same time we can’t imagine the BJP without Modi any longer. So, I’d like to know what drew Narendra Modi to the BJP and the RSS even before that and maybe also what drew the BJP to embrace Modi as its leader?
For decades RSS remained an upper caste organization. Brahmins sure, but also Vaishyas, merchants, traders, and also, the warrior caste, the Kshatriyas. These three upper castes dominated the organization for decades. And that was one of the reasons why BJP could not become a mass party for so long because they were confined to an elite, a tiny elite. You know, if you bring together these three caste groups, you don’t have more than 15% of Indian society. And this polarization became particularly damaging in the nineties when OBCs started to gain momentum in the context of positive discrimination. That is something that the upper castes resented a lot, but they had to negotiate. They had to find a way to make OBCs rally around their own agenda. And this is where Narendra Modi was so useful.
When you ask, why did RSS turn to Narendra Modi? Well, for one good reason, he had the right pedigree. Not only the right pedigree, the right caste, but also the right attitude. Because he joined RSS at a very young age, when he was seven, in Vadnagar, a small town of Mehsana district in Gujarat. He was married before his majority, something that happens often in Gujarat and elsewhere. But he fled. He fled to Belur Math and he settled down. Afterwards when he came back to Gujarat in the RSS head office leaving his family for good and all his career will be done in the framework of RSS after that. RSS became his family, literally.
So, he became a pracharak at a very young age. He was 22. Then he was dispatched to the student union of RSS, the ABVP, and he became a student himself. He passed his BA as an external student and he was in this capacity when the emergency I was referring to was declared in 75. He played a very important role underground. And he was promoted immediately afterwards in 78, as what we call a vibhag pracharak, he was a pracharak in charge of more than a district, a division of the state of Gujarat. And in 81, he became prant pracharak. He was the RSS chief for the rule of Gujarat.
So, he was an organizer and he was such a good organizer that the president of BJP at that time Advani, when he launched a huge movement in 1990 known as the Yatra. Rath Yatra is a long procession leaving from Gujarat and going to a Ayodhya. The idea was to build a temple and it was supposed to take the crowd to Ayodhya for this. Well, in this context for the Gujarat leg of this procession Modi was the organizer. He was in charge. And then he became so powerful that when in 1997 for the first time BJP won the elections in Gujarat, he was known as the super chief minister.
He was de facto ruling the state, but he was never elected and became a politician only in 2001 when Advani again and prime minister Vajpayee really parachuted him in as chief minister of Gujarat with one mission – to win the 2003 elections. There were supposed to be elections two years later, but in between, as you may know, a huge pogrom occurred in 2002 in February, March when he was chief minister. And that’s, of course, if you want the launch pad of his career, because something like two dozen Muslims died. I mean, two dozen people, according to the NGOs were killed and for a majority of the Hindus of Gujarat that was the moment when he was recognized as the Hindu Hriday Samrat, the Emperor of the Hindu’s heart.
That’s the moment when he becomes someone exceptional. He was the one who made that happen. Let that happen. Hindus could take revenge on Muslims who were accused of being responsible for the killing of 57 Hindus who came back from Ayodhya in a train and two coaches of this train were burned. And these people died in this context. The pogrom was a way to respond to this crime, and this is the beginning of his career.
Has Modi changed the BJP, both because of his background and because of his personality?
Definitely. The BJP of the 2000s of Vajpayee and Advani was very different. First of all, because of these two personalities. They alternated in power since the late sixties. For almost 50 years these two leaders were in tandem and it’s quite exceptional. You know, you have very few parties in the world with the same two leaders at the top. It reflected a sense of collegiality, a sense of brotherhood. Brotherhood is, by the way, a word RSS likes a lot because the idea is that they form a fraternity. That they are equals. There is nobody to dictate the terms to these people. Well, that changed completely after Narendra Modi won the 2014 elections, because immediately he decided to have his righthand man, Amit Shah, as party chief.
So, you can say it was still a tandem, but a very different tandem. Not of equals. No, he was supreme. He was the Supreme Chief. And secondly, these two leaders instead of letting the party continue to rely on regional chiefs. Appointed from the top, the chief ministers in the BGP ruled states, the people they selected themselves as party chiefs at the state level, at the provincial level. You know, this transformation of BJP is very similar to the transformation of Congress under Indira Gandhi, whereas Jawaharial Nehru had a very collegial way to negotiate with state satraps if you want, party bosses at the state level. Indira Gandhi was very insecure, preferred to appoint from the top her own people.
And BJP is following the same trajectory. It is losing the vitality. It is losing the capacity to relate to the local societies at the state level. But, of course, this is somewhat compensated by the fact that RSS has the social roots that Congress could never regain again.
Now, again, you’ve got a quote in your book that I think helps us encapsulate the shift that Narendra Modi has produced, not just in the BJP, but more so within India itself. You write, “Modi projected himself as a unifier against others, including the politicians who were part of the ruling establishment.” And as we dig deeper, we find a sense that India is shifting towards what many would describe as an illiberal democracy, not just ethnic democracy. I think the most direct way that we see this sense of illiberalism is in how they treat other ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims. Can you help explain how this illiberalism has taken root? How has India formally marginalized Muslims within its country?
Again, the people the BJP represents is made of the Hindu majority and, that’s why I consider that India has become an ethnic democracy. A democracy where you have second-class citizens de facto, not de jure. Because de jure, there have been few reforms, few laws. There are only two or three laws which have made some difference. The first one is, of course, at the state level. The law resulting in beef ban. Another one is what they call the anti-love jihad law. This is a law again at the state level in different states of India, BJP ruled states, which makes very difficult inter-religious marriages. The idea being that Muslim men try to seduce Hindu women to convert them.
And the third law, of course, is more than a law. It’s an amendment to the citizenship act that says non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are welcome and can become citizens, are eligible to citizenship with a fast-track procedure that takes only six years. Muslims are not. Because they come from Muslim countries and Muslims cannot be persecuted in Muslim countries, which is, of course, for the first time, introducing two degrees in terms of access to citizenship. So, these are the laws which have changed under the Modi regime. But the laws are less a problem than the practices. And what we’ve seen immediately after 2014 is a series of campaigns against the minorities, Muslims, but also Christians, with vigilante groups related to the Sangh Parivar, sometimes very loosely.
They harass Muslims. For instance, cow protectors, the Gau Rakshas are patrolling the highways to check whether the trucks of Muslims are taking cows to the slaughterhouse. And there have been many cases of lynchings of Muslim truck drivers with cows in their trucks, several cases. Another campaign was anti-conversion. So, reconversion was another movement that vigilante groups articulated and then you have this anti-love jihad movement, which resulted in the harassment of Hindu girls meeting Muslim men. Sometimes they made weddings stop because they came and stormed the place where the wedding was supposed to be celebrated. That’s the kind of de facto ethnic democracy that they have created by intimidating the Muslims and Christians.
That has also resulted in another dimension that is very important and that is ghettoization. So, mixed neighborhoods have become very rare, more and more exceptional. And sometimes some laws have been passed. You know, in Gujarat, for instance, it’s now impossible to sell your house or to rent a house to someone from a different community. Sometimes even the azan, the call for prayer, is a source of controversy. Separation is the order of the day. You don’t intermarry. You don’t live in mixed areas. You create a second class of citizens. That’s one of the expressions that this ethnic democracy has taken and that this illiberal democracy.
It’s interesting how the formal rules exist, but you also have many avenues for informal forms of repression within the country. You write, “These vigilante groups could not have blossomed and flourished without the tacit consent of the state and, in particular, its armed wing: the police.” And I think that really drives the point home that even when it’s an informal form of repression, it’s not simply something that is not political. It’s not simply just a few bad actors. We’re talking about something that is embraced by the state embraced by the police, by different aspects of the state, and becomes a de facto part of their public policy. It’s a big part of the reason why Freedom House has reduced the classification of India from being free to partly free within the past year.
And they have in their report, again, another quote that I think is important to be able to kind of just kind of drive home the point of how India has changed so much. They write, “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader. Elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all.” Which again, gets back to another point, which is that this is really a shift within India. These feelings, the sentiments have always existed, but it’s a shift in the way that they permit a lot of this behavior. Even when it’s non-state actors, it’s a permissibility by the state to embrace and to empower these people to misbehave.
Yeah, definitely. These vigilante groups with the blessing of the state, including the police, in some cases, the police is even acting directly against the minorities and the Delhi riots of 2020 showed that the police could be on their side in the street in their rioting activities. This is exactly the same in other BGP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh. Now you have indeed a kind of new shift, if you want. It’s not only with the blessing of the state it’s also with the active participation of the state. Institutions that are the police or other institutions like the paramilitary forces.
Now, Christophe, it’s easy to demonize the BJP because they’re doing a lot of terrible things. But what I do want to ask about is what voters, what political actors that believe in liberal values are supposed to do. Because the natural assumption is, well, if I’m not voting for the BJP, there’s obviously another political party that I should support. And the natural assumption would be that it’s the Indian National Congress. But I think that there’s a lot of doubt. A lot of hesitation among Indians and even beyond India about what the Congress Party really stands for.
Around the time that the BJP took power there was an article from Sumit Ganguly. He wrote an article called, “India and its Neighbors,” in April, 2014 in the Journal of Democracy. And he had a fascinating quote where he said, “Almost no party harbors any real ideological commitments. Most party leaders care for little other than winning office and its vast benefits. The two dominant parties, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though seemingly representing differing political agendas, have much more in common than first meets the eye.” Now, I think, today in hindsight we would say the BJP has a clear ideological agenda, but I’m not sure that it’s as clear that the Indian National Congress has a clear agenda. What does the INC stand for today?
Well, it’s a very good question. And the responses will vary according to who you look at. The top leadership, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, are faithful to the original ideology of Jawaharial Nehru in terms of secularism, in terms of also of respect of federalism and decentralization. That is something that we saw at work during the previous government when Congress was leading a coalition with Manmohan Singh as prime minister and they observed this too articles of faith: secularism, federalism, plus what I would call social democracy. You know this idea of free distribution that was epitomized by a very interesting, very important program. The NREG, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, that gave 100 days of salary, minimum salary to rural families affected by unemployment.
These too place in the framework of all other liberal decisions. Right to Information Act. The Right to Information Act was a major piece of legislation that has been constantly under attack since 2014. Completely diluted today. Right to education, right to food these are the mainstays of the top leadership of Congress. It was what they did when they were in office between 2004 and 2014. It is still what they believe in, but below the top leaders, below these handful of people, you have opportunists. You have people who realized that the order of the day was Hindutva, Hindu Nationalism was the dominant ideom and therefore they were prepared to fall in line and they are prepared to leave the party. And that’s what they’ve done. Defections have been really a disease on the Congress side. But defections are also orchestrated.
BJP can put pressure on the party in a big way. It can attract defectors with big money and also IT raids, income tax raids. By the way, this is exactly what Indira Gandhi did during the emergency. They are just recycling the techniques of intimidation Mrs. Gandhi had initiated in the seventies. So, you have to somewhat factor in lack of commitment to the principles and pressures, which are also part of the story. But if you go beyond the Congress and look at regional parties, you realize that the situation is very similar and most of, well some of, the important laws that have been passed in parliament and for which that BGP had no majority, so it needed the support of opposition parties. That has been possible because of the support of some of these parties.
For instance, abolition of article 370 of the constitution that gave some autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. This law was possible, it could become a law because of the support of some of the state parties. And same with the Citizenship Amendment Act we were mentioning a while ago. So, you have parties like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, like the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh. State parties, important rural parties, which have no inhibition in betraying their secular commitments in a kind of give-and-take negotiation with the center. Plus, also again, pressures.
So, if you want some criminal case to be lifted on X or Y politicians of the opposition, you vote the right way and you’re not under pressure anymore. If you want to avoid some income tax raid, you do the same. Again, it’s a combination of lack of commitment to secularism and external pressures under which every politician in opposition is today.
Something that you’ve touched on throughout the conversation is about how Indian institutions have been under attack as Modi has taken power, as Modi’s tried to centralize power. And we see this within the judiciary. We see this within parliament even, where despite the fact that Modi has a majority with the BJP. He even summons them very rarely to make decisions. There are so many ways that we could talk about this and the way that we have vigilante violence, the way that that has occurred. Again, we’re undermining the institutions necessary for the rule of law. We’re permitting these kind of behaviors. At the end of the day, has Modi done irreversible damage to Indian democracy? Can Indian democracy just turn about and reject Modi at some point and recover on its own?
No, it’s very important to ask ourselves, is Modi so powerful because of the way he rules or because of the way people want him to rule? And to respond to your question, we have to look at the situation in this light, is he where is because this is what the Hindu voters want. And when you look at opinion polls, surveys, you realize that the Hindu society has probably changed so much that in fact, if Modi did not exist, they would need to invent him. He is filling in a demand, expectations. One is need for security. That the sense of insecurity, the sense of being under threat is so pervasive. And that’s largely the result of the series of bomb blasts, Islamist attacks, which took place in the previous decades. Mumbai 2008, a trauma, but many others, many other attacks had similar effect.
Then need for recognition. International recognition, pride in what we are is the most pervasive sentiment you would find in surveys. Telling you, ‘Well, we are insecure, but we are worth respect.’ And then that goes together. These are the two faces of nationalism. Nationalism is so, so important. In the middle-class, especially, but beyond the middle class. And third, he is also very effective in recomforting the poor. You know, the big question I dealt with recently is why do poor people vote for Modi in spite of the fact that they have nothing to win in voting for Modi? it’s true with Modi. It’s true with many other populists. What do the poor have to win by voting for Trump, by voting for Bolsonaro by voting for all these populists when they are in office do not do anything in material terms for them, but in nonmaterial terms?
They do something that is based on rhetoric, sense of recognition, sense of pride again. So, Modi did something for the poor that nobody had done before. He speaks to them every month on the radio. And he claims that he is listening to what they are to tell him. So, this Mann Ki Baat program, the words from the heart, is the name of this radio program. And it’s a radio program because the poor have radios, not TV sets. It’s very well thought about. Not only did he give them this, but he gave them a sense of respect by developing latrines. Modi has built thousands of latrines, hundreds of thousands of latrines, for making India open defecation free.
So, he’s not doing what Manmohan Singh did. He is not giving them money. He is giving them respect, because money he thinks would be wasted if you give money to the poor. He doesn’t want to assist them. He Is really on the right from that sense, but he is giving them something concrete, something they value a lot: respect and trying in some concrete material delivery. So, the way the society is responding to him makes the question for us very difficult because in some sense, the need for security at the expense of liberty may very well continue beyond Modi. The sense of national pride, of recognition, may also continue beyond it. At the same time, we know that leaders make huge differences, always.
So, a different kind of leadership may show that no. That’s not irreversible. We can return to a different type of regime. And, especially, in a country like India where leaders are not only political leaders, but you can say conscience leaders. They are like he is today, a guru kind of personality. So, they guide the people and not only rule the state. They are seen as margdarshak. Margdarshak means the one who shows the way and therefore another kind of leadership, another cycle, a post-nationalist populist cycle may show a different route. That’s what we saw in the U.S. You realize that a different leader may show a different direction and what seemed to be completely impossible only a couple of years ago become normal and we are back to a different trajectory.
So, I’m not losing hope in that sense. I don’t think it’s irreversible, but I also want to depersonalize my analysis by saying, look, it’s not only because of him. It’s also because of the expectations of society and therefore they will have to be reassured for a new regime to succeed to that one.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I feel like Narendra Modi comes up in a lot of conversations, but sometimes he can almost become a caricature of himself when we bring him up without understanding the full context of what’s really going on within Indian politics. So thanks for giving us the time to make sense of the larger context involved in this country. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Justin. Thank you for the invitation.
Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy by Christophe Jaffrelot
“Toward a Hindu State” by Christophe Jaffrelot in the Journal of Democracy
Follow Christophe on Twitter @jaffrelotc
Email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org
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