India’s upper-caste Hindu dominance risks a civil war that will outlast the Modi regime

25 January 2020

Uday Chandra received his PhD in political science from Yale University in 2013. His research lies at the intersection between critical agrarian studies, political anthropology, postcolonial theory, and South Asian history.

And if it is, indeed, a fascist regime, its foundations seem both sustainable and shaky. Sustainable due to its sheer dominance over rivals in national politics, and shaky for its inability to project its hegemony onto society at large. Uday Chandra reviews Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India.

Party flags of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena are on display during Lal Krishna Advani, NDA’s prime ministerial candidate address during an election rally in the western Indian city of Mumbai on 6 March 2008.

Populism has now far exceeded its humble rural origins in the nineteenth-century United States to become an acceptable label for a wide range of threats facing liberal democracies worldwide. It denotes a performative style of politics that pits a “people” against the representatives who govern in their name.[1] Populist parties and politicians blame elected representatives for betraying the people or the nation in favor of foreign or global interests. At the same time, a new digitally-enabled, data-driven activism promises a fresh approach to democracy after jettisoning (neo-)liberalism and its dazzling yet illusory promises of a world-is-flat global economy. Neither left- nor right-wing in ideology, the “people” constitutes itself anew to exercise the popular sovereignty that formally undergirds modern constitutions since the French Revolution.[2] More than liberty or equality, which inspired its ideological partisans over the past two centuries, it is seemingly fraternity that propels populisms in our age.[3]

An illiberal democracy

India seems an anomaly of sorts in the global populist upsurge. It is not a liberal democracy, as Thomas Blom Hansen rightly notes in his opening essay in this fascinating volume, at least not in the North Atlantic sense. Since the late colonial era, its liberal constitution has coexisted uneasily with an illiberal, hierarchical, and violent society. There is no word in use in any Indic language that accurately translates “liberalism.” With the honorable exception of Dr BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s constitution, those who take pride in calling themselves “liberal” today are well-born Western-educated aristocrats raised on Mill and Tocqueville. There are, to put it bluntly, no liberal political norms to overturn in an “illiberal democracy.”

In comparison to the rule of law, undergirded by liberalism, a populist style of politics in India dates back to the days of MK Gandhi, who replaced the “moderate” politics of his predecessors in the Congress with a highly-charged performative politics based on personal morality, popular religious symbolism, and alliances with conservative elites in rural and urban sectors. Every successful politician in India, whether in the Congress or opposed to it, has adopted a populist style to connect with and represent the “people.” Indira Gandhi as much as Bal Thackeray and Laloo Yadav may be counted as leading exemplars of populist politics in postcolonial India, albeit with divergent conceptions of the “people.” Populism has, in other words, long been mainstream in a democracy that has cared little for liberal niceties. The late Sir CA Bayly, in his magisterial study of liberal ideas held by prominent Indians under the Raj, ended his historical analysis in 1947, after which liberal ideas were no longer, in his view, relevant in Indian politics.[4] Thereafter, we may speak of a democratic age in which shards of colonial liberalism remained in the text of a postcolonial constitution that the majority neither reads nor cares for. Hansen’s contribution is thus aptly titled “Democracy against the Law.”
In claiming to speak for and to the “people,” populists across India have adapted to the quirks of each region. In each ethnolinguistic state, postcolonial populists typically hail from upwardly-mobile middle castes who have achieved socioeconomic dominance and seek political control of the state via electoral majorities. Much like modern European nationalists, they speak for entire ethno-regions, above and beyond what they see as the sectional interests of caste, class, and gender. Yet, unlike their European counterparts, liberal constraints are minimal or non-existent. A good example is Dravidianism in Tamil Nadu, which combines pride in classic Tamil literature as much as popular cinema. Overtly anti-brahminical in style, this self-conscious plebeianism is also, ironically, hostile to Dalit activism. Even ostensibly caste-driven populisms in the Gangetic valley are ethno-regionalist formations that see both upper castes and Dalits as internal threats. We may follow the editors of this volume in calling this logic “majoritarian” in the same discursive sense that populists speak of the “people,” but it is useful to remember that discursive and empirical realities seldom coincide. Majorities, as much as the “people,” must be constructed ideologically in particular times and places, and these ideological wholes can fragment into their constituent parts as swiftly as they are conjured up.

India’s liberal constitution has coexisted uneasily with an illiberal, hierarchical, and violent society. There are, to put it bluntly, no liberal political norms to overturn in an ‘illiberal democracy.’ As opposed to a liberal democracy, we may speak, following Christophe Jaffrelot, of an “ethnic democracy” in India. A populist style and a majoritarian logic define democracy sans liberalism in each ethno-region. Defenders of this kind of democratic polity would undoubtedly see it as democracy proper. Such democracies, taken as a whole, have no moral qualms over violence in the name of the people. Indeed if, in Hansen’s terms, spectacular violence is foundational to the exercise of popular sovereignty, everyday acts of vigilante violence regulate the workings of democratic life to put Others in their place. Ian Cook’s account of vigilantism driven by “moral policing” in the coastal city of Mangalore in southern Karnataka is revealing in this regard. Routinized acts of public violence against religious minorities or Dalits usher in a new majoritarian political order that presents itself as “moral” as opposed to subaltern politics and coalition governments, which are regarded as “immoral.” Moral policing, as Cook rightly notes, also seeks to embed markets in this new moral-political order in which the social tensions generated by neoliberal capitalism can be managed without dissipating into class conflict. Yet, it is worth pointing out that, before and after economic liberalization in India, laboring castes deemed in each ethno-region to be traditionally polluting or “untouchable” have borne the brunt of sovereign violence enacted by the demos via its legitimate representatives. There is no Indian state, not even communist-ruled West Bengal or Kerala, in which Dalits have been spared brutal violence. Although Jaffrelot does not say so, the logic of ethnic democracy in Indian states, which appear to follow linguistic divisions, may be better viewed as two-tiered ethnic polities with dominant and subordinate caste groupings. Religious minorities are effectively lumped with the latter.
At an all-India level, ethnic democracy operates in ways that are both similar to and different from the state level. Across contemporary India, particularly in the northern and western states, the protection of cows and Hindu women (“love jihad”) offer symbolic occasions for vigilantism. But the deeper aim, as Jaffrelot explains, is to deploy these symbols to create a two-tier polity in which primary citizenship is the preserve of Hindus, defined as a single ethnic group to encompass Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs rather than a loose label for diverse ways of worship; Muslims and Christians, by contrast, are marginalized as second-class citizens. This is the ideological fantasy of the Hindu rashtra or polity imagined by the Hindu nationalist icon VD Savarkar roughly a century ago. It is the political genius of Narendra Modi to bring this ideological fantasy to fruition in the arena of mass democracy. Through a new discourse of “development,” Modi has promised to bring order and stability to a democratic polity racked by growing social divisions after economic liberalization. As Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi writes, faceless crowds today see themselves in Modi, whose masks are so visible in election rallies that they create a fundamental ambiguity over who represents whom. Compared to the ubiquitous Modi mask, the skullcap is defined as distinctly Muslim, the sartorial mark of the Other, which is why Modi refuses to be ever seen wearing it in public. Jaffrelot is right to compare ethnic democracy in India today with its counterpart in Israel. Oddly enough, both majoritarian regimes draw on fascist nationalisms in interwar Europe, albeit with their own distinctive spins and twists to suit their respective social contexts. If there is a peculiarity of the Indian polity, I suggest that it lies in the tugs and pulls of ethno-regional states within a federal union, one that subordinates the calculus of caste to a logic of religious majoritarianism at a national level.

Challenging Hindu nationalist hegemony

In other words, the erection of a hegemonic polity without a meaningful opposition to threaten it electorally or in the social realm. This is the ultimate aim of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). We may justifiably ask at this point: is Hindu majoritarianism on its way to becoming hegemonic in India? Suhas Palshikar’s contribution to this volume certainly answers the question in the affirmative. In addition to a new party system dominated by a single national party, he sees the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi leading a revolution in the realm of ideas and institutions in which the market-driven economy, non-elected institutions such as courts, the election commission, and the armed forces, media outlets, universities, and civil society at large are co-implicated. This drive towards hegemony is most visible, as Tanika Sarkar shows in her essay, in the writing of school textbooks in BJP-ruled states. In these revisionist textbooks, hate-filled, Islamophobic narratives rework India’s pasts in vernacular idioms rich in local deities and mythical figures but without much attention to verifiable historical sources. More generally, the Hindu nationalist capture of state power, whether at the state level or at an all-India level, has given an unprecedented boost to the century-long project of creating a Hindu rashtra. The goal, as Pralay Kanungo articulates succinctly, is nothing short of the complete transformation of the state and society in ways that are irreversible. In other words, the erection of a hegemonic polity without a meaningful opposition to threaten it electorally or in the social realm. This is the ultimate aim of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

Dravidianism in Tamil Nadu, which combines pride in classic Tamil literature as much as popular cinema, while overtly anti-brahminical in style is also, ironically, hostile to Dalit activism. There is no Indian state in which Dalits have been spared brutal violence. The logic of ethnic democracy in Indian states, which appear to follow linguistic divisions, may be better viewed as two-tiered ethnic polities with dominant and subordinate caste groupings. Religious minorities are effectively lumped with the latter.

Put this way, it is possible to see the dangers inherent in such a polity. It is, undoubtedly, a perversion of democracy as a regime, defined famously by Robert Dahl as “polyarchy”[5] with multiple centers of power embedded in society. The BJP’s resounding win in the 2019 national elections has made the dangers of Hindu nationalist hegemony apparent. Muslims are now being rendered second-class citizens with plans to strip many of their citizenship altogether via a nation-wide registration drive. Kashmiri Muslims, in particular, have been pummeled into silence by brute force, serving as a symbol for Pakistan in the minds of the majority as much as a warning to Muslims in mainland India. Mob lynchings online and offline, the latter usually with lethal consequences, are meant to cement the hegemony of the new majoritarian polity. Those accused of communal violence in rioting or lynching cases invariably escape punishment under the law; some are even rewarded with election tickets and ministerial berths.
Yet some challenges to creating this hegemony are also becoming clear, especially after the publication of this volume. First, Modi and Co. simply lack the expertise to manage the levers of the macro-economy. Promises of development and media-fueled hypes and hoaxes may work electorally in the short run, as Pranab Bardhan writes, but the passage of time reveals a bumbling ineptness on the part of Hindu nationalists in power. Modi and his lieutenants resemble regional politicians from dominant agrarian castes who dominate state governments, particularly in the Hindi-speaking heartland, for whom “development” is a buzzword that means something vaguely akin to social empowerment. This is, contrary to the essay by AK Bhattacharya and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, certainly not what the cheerleaders of neoliberal capital in metropolitan India had in mind when they endorsed Modi as the supreme leader. As a quid pro quo for election campaign funds, they had hoped for a crony capitalism that would extend beyond a clutch of favored industrialists from Modi’s home state of Gujarat. However, with the twin blunders of currency demonetization and the hasty introduction of a new goods and services tax (GST), macroeconomic growth in India has virtually come to a standstill. Violent ethnic majoritarianism may be successful in democratic politics, but that does not mean it is good economics. For Hindu nationalism to be hegemonic, its leaders know that they must ultimately deliver on their extravagant promises of development.
Second, vanquishing opposition parties, especially the Congress, has been less of a challenge than tackling parties that dominate India’s ethno-regions. It may be worth pausing to consider here that, unlike in the US or UK, a two-party system is not likely to prevail in a society marked by as many ethnic divisions as India. Herein lies a crucial difference from ethnic democracies such as Israel, which are marked by a singular axis of difference, namely, ethno-religious nationalism. India’s major ethno-regions, as I discussed earlier, exhibit their own characteristics of ethnic democracy in ways that do not easily dovetail with an all-India majoritarianism. The tensions between the state and central governments became apparent in dramatic fashion recently when a longstanding BJP ally, the Shiv Sena, split off and allied with other opposition parties to form a new coalition government in India’s richest state, Maharashtra. Oddly enough, the Shiv Sena is perhaps the party with which the BJP shares the closest ideological kinship. Yet it chose to define itself principally as a regional party in alliance with other anti-BJP parties in the state. In a similar vein, beef-eating in Kerala and Hindu refugees in Assam have become bones of contention between central and state governments with Hindu nationalism failing to provide a glue to bind disparate ethnolinguistic regions committed to crafting their own hegemonic subnationalisms. Hegemony for Hindu nationalism would imply an all-India coherence across all socio-political realms, but a fissiparous polity is harder to unite than many, including Palshikar, may have imagined. This is why James Manor warns that concerted attempts to craft a Hindu nationalist hegemony must not be conflated with the existence of such a hegemony in contemporary Indian politics. The victory of the Modi-led BJP may well turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, in retrospect, if the dangers of a Hindu nationalist hegemony become apparent to swing votes not ideologically committed to this goal.

The inability of Hindu nationalism to become hegemonic across Indian society does not obscure the fact that its preeminence today arguably matches that of the Congress in the early postcolonial decades. It is helpful here to turn to the historian Ranajit Guha, who characterized British India as a paradoxical case of “dominance without hegemony,”[6] a label that can be extended to the polities dominated by the Nehruvian Congress and the Modi-led BJP. This dominance is most obvious in the apparent ease with which the margins of the polity have been incorporated into Hindu majoritarianism. The essays by Nandini Sundar and Arkotong Longkumer, for instance, show how tribal populations in central and northeastern India have been brought into the fold of Hindu nationalism in and outside the electoral arena. Similarly, Flavia Agnes shows how the longstanding opposition by Muslim women activists to triple talaq, as a means of husbands divorcing their wives, came to be manipulated and co-opted successfully by the Modi government. Jammu & Kashmir, too, came to be ruled by the BJP with a regional coalition partner, as Mridu Rai explains, until New Delhi could rid itself of this partner to establish direct rule; more recently, the BJP has gone further to end special provisions mandated by the state’s treaty of accession to India and to remake the Kashmir valley as a vast open-air prison for both its leaders and subject-citizens.

Yet the “dominance without hegemony” thesis makes sense when one considers the inability of Hindu nationalists to be seen as legitimate across wide swathes of the country. Consider northeastern India, for example. Here, the BJP drew on strong anti-Congress sentiments to ally with regional parties, including in troubled border states such as Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. In Assam and Tripura, it eased to power as a fresh alternative to longstanding political arrangements. But the convergence between ethnic politics in these northeastern states and Hindu nationalism is weak at best. The failure of the Indo-Naga peace talks and the eruption of mass protests against Bengali-speaking Hindu refugees in Assam and Tripura have demonstrated beyond doubt that these ethno-regions are not under the sway of Hindu nationalist hegemony. As in Maharashtra, the ethno-regions in northeastern India take precedence over the Hindu rashtra-in-the-making.

Hindu nationalists have portrayed Muslim men as sexually aggressive and hyper-masculine in contrast to a stereotype of upper-caste Hindu men as benign and protective of women’s rights. Unsurprisingly, no one has fallen for these ideological tropes, including, of course, Modi-loving Hindu men lusting after fair-skinned Kashmiri women and issuing rape threats to women across religions.

Among Indian Muslims, dominance without hegemony seems even more apt. As Ratna Kapur argues in this volume, despite violence and threats of violence against Muslims, Hindu nationalists have claimed the mantle of secularism to do away with any kind of positive discrimination or “appeasement” in favor of religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Accordingly, Hindu nationalism has proclaimed itself to be a truly secular project of creating national unity committed to the equality of all under the law. To further this project, Hindu nationalists have sought to construct an ideological divide between Muslim women and men, portraying the latter as sexually aggressive and hyper-masculine in contrast to a stereotype of upper-caste Hindu men as benign and protective of women’s rights. Unsurprisingly, no one has fallen for these ideological tropes, including, of course, Modi-loving Hindu men lusting after fair-skinned Kashmiri women and issuing rape threats to women across religions. Indeed, one might argue that the stereotype of the Muslim man is a projection of Hindu masculinity and its repressed desires in the Modi era. Nowhere is this truer than in Kashmir, where Modi’s empty promises of “development” as well as the dominance of the armed forces have been met with fierce resistance from stone-pelting and internet-savvy Muslim youth. The recent abrogation of constitutional provisions binding Kashmir to the Indian mainland has only further reinforced the popular Kashmiri Muslim view of India as an illegitimate invader.

Risking permanent civil war

Another illustration of Hindu majoritarianism’s dominance without hegemony may be seen from the perspective of Dalit politics. Under Modi, the BJP has eagerly embraced Ambedkar as a national icon and to embrace ex-untouchable castes across north India for overt electoral gain. But, as Tanika Sarkar explains, the contradictions between these symbolic gestures and everyday realities are hard to bridge. We see this in the regime’s ambivalence over caste-based reservations, a longstanding matter of concern for Hindu nationalists who see reservations as hindrances to national unity. Wittingly or not, an upper-caste prejudice permeates the Hindu majoritarian project at the very moment it claims to be inclusive of all castes. Discrimination and atrocities against Dalits have risen manifold under the Modi regime. Dalit commercial enterprises have languished. University students from Dalit backgrounds have been bullied, humiliated, and in the tragic case of Rohith Vemula, driven to suicide. In his essay in this volume, Sukhadeo Thorat rightly terms the current situation the “relegitimisation of caste” in modern India. This term reveals latent contradictions between the dominant ideology of Hindu nationalism and the messiness of social realities. As regional political parties committed to Dalit political assertion have declined, a divide has emerged between those who support the BJP in the short run and those who seek solutions outside electoral politics. With the passage of time, however, the obvious question for Dalits to ask is: if the Hindu rashtrais an upper-caste fantasy, why should they support it? In the long run, upper-caste Hindu dominance without hegemony risks turning Indian society into a permanent civil war that will outlast the Modi regime.

No amount of yoga or bear hugs can compensate for the cold hard reality of a rudderless economy that happens to be the fifth-largest in the world. Finally, in international politics, Modi’s India has sought to project a new image as a major world power respected in the West and East alike. For C Rajamohan, the “Modi doctrine” in foreign policy is a confident projection of his popularity at home and among overseas diasporas to a global stage. It relies on India’s soft power abroad, for instance, with the aid of Bollywood films and stars, and deft maneuvering between the US, EU, Russia, China, Israel and others in a multipolar world. Just as he emphasized “development” at home, Modi has presented himself to the international community as a neoliberal rags-to-riches icon. At the same time, as Jyoti Puri explains, he has sought to rebrand India in two ways: by proclaiming loudly a deep love for his country and its cultural values, say, by promoting yoga, and by showing a willingness to break old tropes of pacifism with military strikes against Pakistan. To pursue the latter, the Modi government has drawn on a common stock of Islamophobia worldwide even as it has conjoined India’s present and future with those of Pakistan. Opposition leaders in India are now castigated publicly as Pakistani agents, and the fortunes of religious minorities in Pakistan now feature prominently in domestic policy. Ironically, India’s position in world politics is no better than it was in 2014: it is locked in a trade war with the US, and security tensions with its neighbors, including China. Even friendly neighbors such as Nepal and Bangladesh have grown wary of India’s great power aspirations. As the Indian economy enters freefall, the willingness of global investors to risk their money seems rather limited after ratings agencies such as Moody’s downgraded its future outlook for the country to “negative.” No amount of yoga or bear hugs can compensate for the cold hard reality of a rudderless economy that happens to be the fifth-largest in the world.
In conclusion, the remaking of India as a Hindu majoritarian state is a century-long project that has taken concrete form in the electoral arena since the 1980s with a fresh impetus since Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014. The volume under review contains an excellent range of essays that shed light on diverse aspects of the new Indian polity with a deep awareness of the wider historical arc traced by Modi and his ideological ancestors in modern India. What makes Hindu majoritarianism possible today is a conjuncture between ethnic democracy and a populist style of politics long entrenched in Indian politics in opposition to the rule of law. Yet the new polity is also threatened by the possibility that the synergies between ethnic democracy and populist politics can rupture. Such ruptures are visible already in a number of state elections in the past year. All in all, I have suggested Hindu majoritarianism, much like its colonial and postcolonial predecessors, may be seen as a case of dominance without hegemony. Angana Chatterjee’s essay at the end of the volume raises an intriguing possibility that we are speaking effectively about a neo-fascist regime built on majoritarian principles of inclusion and exclusion. We will need a full-length study of the Modi regime to explore this possibility fully. If it is, indeed, a fascist regime, its foundations seem both sustainable and shaky. It is sustainable for the foreseeable future due to its sheer dominance over its main rivals in national politics, but shaky on account of its inability to project its hegemony using the organs of the state onto society at large. This is hardly cause for celebration, especially for the regime’s many victims, but it is worth recognizing that the majoritarian state in contemporary India is forced to reckon with the myriad forms of resistance that confront it.


[1] Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[2] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).

[3] Frederico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).

[4] C.A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[5] Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

[6] Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

The above essay
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