It is tempting to dismiss Christophe Jaffrelot’s book as yet another liberal indictment of India during the reign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi because at first glance his account appears to be. But a close reading shows that while drawing the predictable liberal conclusions, Jaffrelot reveals the underlying basis of right-wing politics that became dominant in India even before the distinctive victory of the Bharatiya Janata party in 2014 under Modi. And it is these underlying facts that should worry Indian liberals. Jaffrelot continues his argument with careful definitions of then political scientists like Ernesto Laclau and Sammy Smooha from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
He claims that Indian democracy “framed by the 1950 Constitution” was conservative “despite the socialist rhetoric of its leaders, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. And the conclusion he draws from it is as follows: “The democratization of Indian democracy did not take place until the end of the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was defeated by a coalition of many opposition parties. similar respects to that which had triumphed over his mother in 1977. These two heterogeneous assemblages of forces had in common one essential characteristic: they were determined to abolish the hegemony exercised by the upper castes… ”
While Narendra Modi’s political style has been identified as populist, there were characteristics specific to the electoral victory in 2014. Besides the 10-year fatigue factor of the Manmohan Singh government, there was a change in the voting pattern. : “… The percentage of BJP and the number of voters among the CBOs (the most numerous category, demographically) rose from 22 to 34 percent, while the proportion of SCs that supported the party doubled. And he asks the relevant question: “What factors made Narendra Modi so attractive to these plebeian voters?” He finds that there are no opinion polls to gauge his popularity and falls back on the testimonies collected by journalists Snigdha Poonam and Sheela Bhatt and draws the plausible conclusion: “Their respondents say they were attracted by Modi not only because he too came from humble origins and fought against the establishment but also because he was a victim.
Modi’s pro-poor, anti-establishment populism hasn’t really translated into pro-poor policies or helped the poor improve their lot. The pro-poor stance was rhetorical. Jaffrelot convincingly argues that the upper castes, and he includes the dominant castes in this category, have made a comeback and now dominate the Modi regime. It also shows the anti-minority aggression of the government and the BJP against them. It shows that during Modi’s first term, the state was not directly involved in discriminatory policies and actions, the state became a participant after the electoral victory of 2019. Jaffrelot meticulously lists a number of words and acts. intolerance, aggression and even violence. This part may be a little too familiar to the Indian reader, but it was necessary to put it all together. The pro-regime media servility is part of the show.
The author is tempted to slip into broad generalizations of the Modi government’s majoritarianism, and it is this majority tendency that he describes as “ethnic democracy” according to the formulation of the Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha from 1998 in his “Ethnic Democracy: Israel as an Archetype ”:“ Ethnic democracy is located somewhere in the democratic section of the democracy-non-democracy continuum. Ethnic democracy is a system that combines the extension of civil and political rights to individuals and certain collective rights to minorities, with the institutionalization of majority control over the state. Smooha’s formulation has been criticized in the context of the “bi-ethnic” nature of the Israeli state. It cannot be applied to India without changing the dominance of the BJP over Indian society and state. And given the lack of sophistication of Hindu law to any degree, the space given to minorities is moving into negative territory. Jafrrelot’s conclusions require both elaboration and debate. But the essential thesis is solid. Modi has ridden on anti-elitist sentiment, but he is busy establishing upper caste / upper class domination in terms of monopolies and oligopolies in the economy and in society. The question is whether the new equilibrium can last.