As many observers have noticed, the way Narendra Modi’s BJP swept the polls in Uttar Pradesh calls to mind the establishment of the Congress’s hegemony under Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s. But the comparison goes beyond common features which are usually emphasised: Both leaders have been responsible for the rise of their parties because their styles are very similar — they epitomise two variants of populism.

First, they attempt to equate themselves with the Indian nation. There has been political genius in inventing new ways to relate to voters and saturate the public space with new slogans. Mrs Gandhi’s supporters claimed, “India is Indira and Indira is India”, whereas Modi’s slogans evoke the notion, “I am new India”. This is typical of populist rhetoric which relies on empty signifiers, as one theoretician of populism, Ernesto Laclau, has shown.


Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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This discourse has allowed both leaders to relate directly to the people. This un-mediated connection was made possible by mass meetings and the radio. Indira’s broadcast in December 1970, while she announced the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, needs to be revisited: “Millions who demand food, shelter and jobs are pressing for action. Power in a democracy resides in the people. That is why we have decided to go to the people and seek a fresh mandate.” Modi still uses the radio today— via his monthly programme “Mann Ki Baat” — but such means of communication are supplemented by TV, social media and holograms.

Both leaders relate to the people in the name of high ideals. While Indira Gandhi wanted to eradicate poverty, Narendra Modi resorted to demonetisation to eradicate corruption. This decision could strike a moral chord among voters because of the extent to which they suffer from the curse of corruption. Its emotional impact was all the more significant as PM Modi congratulated Indian citizens for their national sacrifice, while they were suffering from his efforts to “clean” the country.

Nationalism is, of course, the sentiment populists instrumentalise the most: Since they embody the people’s will, they are equated with the nation too. Indira cashed in on her 1971 victory against Pakistan; Hindu nationalism is the core ideology of Modi. The nationalist rhetoric goes with a rejection of pluralism and alternative power centres — since the populist is the nation, any opposition is necessarily illegitimate. The judiciary is seen as an obstacle to the expression of the people’s will. Students, academics, NGOs who protest in the street — like in Bihar and Gujarat in 1973 or JNU and DU today — can be disqualified as “anti national”. Similarly, some opposition parties are not only adversaries, but enemies who divide the nation. Hence, Indira’s de-legitimisation of the 1971 “reactionary” Grand Alliance, and the BJP’s objective of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”.

But to reform their party along the lines they have enunciated is quite a task for these leaders. Indira could not transform the Congress from a party of notables into a cadre-based party to use for social transformation. As early as 1972, she had to turn to Congress (O) politicians who had no interest in social reform, but whom she needed to contest state elections. Similarly, in spite of his anti-corruption speeches, Modi has not been able to clean the BJP (has he tried?). According to the Association for Democratic Reform, among the 312 BJP MLAs who have been returned in UP, 83 declared criminal cases against them. These 27 per cent do not compare favourably to the figures Milan Vaishnav presented in his recent masterpiece When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics — 24 per cent of BJP candidates to the Lok Sabha from 2004 to 2014 declared pending criminal cases, more than in any other party. Like Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s, Narendra Modi has selected the president and the chief ministers of his party since 2014, including Yogi Adityanath, the first religious title-holding figure heading a state government in the history of India. In most of the newly BJP-ruled states, the party has fought elections without projecting any candidate for chief minister. The main campaigner has been the PM himself.

But in spite of clear affinities, there are important differences between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. First, her Congress (R) had representatives from every religious community. In contrast, the BJP did not nominate a single Muslim candidate in UP and has appointed a notoriously anti-minority Hindutva leader as CM. Secondly, under Indira Gandhi, the over-representation of upper castes among MPs and MLAs continued to erode, whereas their percentage has tended to rise in states the BJP has won since 2014. In UP, this development has taken a dramatic turn: According to information compiled by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, the new assembly has 44 per cent upper caste MLAs, 12 per cent more than in 2012, and the highest share since 1980.

This data suggest that India’s new populism is the vehicle of a section of the elite’s revenge (after years of the plebeianisation of public life) and relies on an ethno-religious definition of the nation. The BJP is indeed taking the country on the path of an “ethnic democracy” model. This model was formulated by Israeli social scientist Sammy Smooha on the basis of his country’s trajectory: While the regime remains in tune with its democratic Constitution (elections remain rather fair, the judiciary retains some independence, etc.), in practice, minorities are marginalised.

The comparison between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi suggests that the populist repertoire prevailing in India today is not entirely unprecedented; it also shows that populism being a political style rather than an ideology, it can be on the left or on the right.

There are two things that we cannot fully compare yet. First, the performances of the leaders in terms of public policies. Usually, populists speak a lot but do not act much. In contrast to the achievements of Nehru, who built the institutions of India’s democracy, Indira did not implement many reforms in the early 1970s, although she abolished the princes’ privileges and nationalised banks. Narendra Modi has not initiated massive reforms either — but he may yet do so.

Last, with the transition from Congress (R) to Congress (I), the personalisation of power resulted in the centralisation of decision-making and the suspension of internal democracy — which emptied the party’s governing bodies: Indira’s authoritarianism resulted in the promotion of yes-men in the Congress. Paradoxically, the Indira era of Congress hegemony made the party more vulnerable after. It is too early to say whether the BJP, which is more a cadre-based party with a strong RSS architecture, will follow the same trajectory.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.