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Authoritarian Populism in India

by Priya Chacko on April 24, 2018

In a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, I analyse the emergence of authoritarian populism in India under the Modi regime.  The article is part of a special issue that I have co-edited on the rise of the right and democratic crises in Asia that includes contributions by Vedi Hadiz on Indonesia, Eric Mobrand on South Korea, Carol Johnson on Australia and Japan and South Korea by Kanishka Jayasuriya. The analysis of democratic crises has tended to focus on the crisis of social democracy and post-war social settlements in Europe.  A key motivation for the special issue was to consider the distinctive ways in which political crises have emerged in non-European polities, in contexts where social democratic politics has been marginal and neoliberalisation has taken variegated forms. One of the themes in this special issue is that it is more analytically useful to focus on the forms of “political disincorporation” that have resulted from global processes of uneven and interconnected capitalist transformation.

My contribution to the special issue sits within this framework and challenges the idea that the rise of authoritarian forms of politics in India is simply the outcome of the election of an autocratic leader, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Instead, it traces the roots of authoritarian populism to the centrist Congress government’s pro-business and anti-inflationary economic turn in the late 1970s and 1980s that emphasised policies such as wage restraint. Economic liberalisation, market reform and cuts to public spending were introduced to these existing reform agendas in the 1990s, which moved India in a neoliberal direction.

The economic growth that resulted from these reforms has been highly unequal and uneven, with a lack of broad-based consumption-led growth and job creation. Importantly, the neoliberal turn served to decisively fracture the modes of political incorporation, such as universal welfare schemes, protectionist policies and patronage networks that were established under previous governments. Successive governments have struggled to create new forms of political incorporation, creating an ongoing crisis of legitimacy. This was exemplified in the surprise election defeat of the BJP-led government in 2004 shortly after it had launched a mass marketing campaign around the theme of ‘India Shining’, which was intended to celebrate economic reforms. Polling analysis showed that a broad cross-section of voters actually perceived a decline in their economic conditions and largely disapproved of core reform policies such as disinvestment and the liberalisation of foreign direct investment.

This legitimacy crisis has given rise to successive political projects to “crisis manage” the political effects of economic reform in favour of transnationally-oriented capitalist fractions.  The inclusive growth strategy of the former Congress Party-led, United Progressive Alliance government was a form of what Nancy Fraser has termed, “progressive neoliberalism”. Through the establishment of an innovative policy institution, the National Advisory Council, made up of government and civil society representatives, the UPA sought to mitigate the negative consequences of pro-market policies through rights-based legislation such as the National Food Security Act, the Right to Information Act, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act.  Rather than democratising policy making, however, the UPA’s tendency was towards what Nicos Poulantzas called “authoritarian statism”. Poulantzas coined this term in the 1970s to refer to the “intensified state control over every sphere of socio-economic life combined with radical decline of institutions of political democracy and draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called formal liberties” that he observed among capitalist countries in Europe and in the United States as they were increasingly beset with crisis. In India, authoritarian statism was evident in the UPA’s rights-based legislation which promoted depoliticised and technocratic forms of governance. The implementation of the associated welfare schemes also fell short of their potential due to insufficient commitment and capacity from Congress Party leaders and cadres. This reflected the unmooring of the Congress from its social base which is both a key driver and outcome of authoritarian statism.

As Poulantzas noted, authoritarian statism leads to a ‘strengthening-weakening of the state’ since it gives rise to new forms of popular struggle and becomes a site of struggle itself. In the Indian case, the UPA government’s relationship with civil society groups deteriorated after it introduced legislation to restrict their access to foreign funding. This was an attempt to stem organised civil society resistance to projects seen by the UPA as central to furthering accumulation, such as mining, nuclear energy and genetically modified food. Moreover, while the UPA initially presided over rapid economic growth, this growth generated a variety of contradictions that it found difficult to manage. For instance, the increasingly tight nexus between corporate capital and the state resulted in largescale corruption scandals and over-indebtedness in the corporate and banking sectors. Consequently, there emerged a mediatised crisis narrative that characterised the last two years of the UPA’s tenure as “policy paralysis”, and a populist anti-corruption movement that drew its core support from the upper and middle classes. The India Against Corruption movement was co-opted by the BJP, which made corruption a key theme in its 2014 election campaign, as a part of its appeal to what Stuart Hall termed ‘authoritarian populism’.

While authoritarian statism was a top-down response to state crisis, Hall’s authoritarian populism considers “the ways in which popular consent can be so constructed. . .as to harness to its support some popular discontents, neutralise the opposing forces, dis-aggregate the opposition and really incorporate some strategic elements of popular opinion into its own hegemonic project.” Though Hall’s notion of authoritarian populism was initially developed to explain the rise of Thatcherism in the 1970s and 1980s, as with Poulantzas’s analysis, it has proven prescient. The Modi regime’s appeal to authoritarian populism combines Hindu nationalist themes with populist discourses by linking the entrenched social and economic problems experienced by “the people” – defined as the (Hindu) poor, middle-class and newly urbanised ‘neo-middle’ class – to the actions of an interventionist state controlled by a liberal-left “elite” that panders to minorities and creates social disharmony through its “anti-nationalism”. This serves to shift blame for economic distress from the nature of class relations to a corrupt state and its liberal elites. In addition, authoritarian populism in India involves a moral appeal to virtuous individual sacrifice. This seeks to build an organic connection between the individual and society, mediated through the figure of Modi, while reaffirming faith in capitalism and markets to bring about a better future.

These authoritarian populist strategies have been invoked to justify the repression of civil liberties in universities, the repression of the activities of non-governmental organisations and to market the Modi government’s most significant economic policies as forms of political incorporation. The policy of demonetisation which invalidated more than 80% of the currency in circulation, for instance, was justified as serving the interests of the poor, neo-middle class and middle class by attacking “black money” and the “anti-national elements” that uphold the shadow economy. The suffering caused by demonetisation was depicted by Modi as a “historic rite of purification” and as an “ongoing ‘Yagna’ [Hindu ritual sacrifice] against corruption, terrorism & black money”.

Yet, though Modi has stamped his dominance on Indian politics by winning a broad base of support, his authoritarian populist project has done little to resolve India’s structural economic problems, like the lack of job creation, and the multi-class coalition that has underpinned the BJP’s election victories remains fragile. This means that the authoritarian populist project remains vulnerable to the “strengthening-weakening” of the state that ultimately brought down its predecessor.

Priya Chacko
Priya Chacko is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide. Her current research projects focus on the intersection of populism, neoliberalism and nationalism in India and the economics-security nexus in India, the United States and China. She is the author of Indian Foreign Policy: The politics of postcolonial identity from 1947 to 2004 and the editor of New Regional Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific, both published with Routledge.
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