Interview: 'Concentration of Power in Just a Few Hands Has Always Met with Resistance'

Christophe Jaffrelot, professor of political science at Sciences Po, speaks to The Wire's Sidharth Bhatia about the rise of Hindu nationalism and populism.

Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in France, has been keenly studying India, and especially the rise of Hindu nationalism, for over 30 years. Jaffrelot, who has also taught at King’s College London, Columbia University and Yale, has written several books on Indian nationalism, caste politics and Indian nationalism. His latest work is India’s First Dictatorship, about the Emergency imposed between 1975-77, written with Pratinav Anil and published by Harper Collins, which was released earlier this month.

This is the second part of Jaffrelot’s interview to The Wire about the rise of the right-wing in India, the Emergency and more. You can read the first part here

Narendra Modi’s rise corresponded with the emergence of populist and somewhat authoritarian figures, perhaps even in many ways anti-democratic, in different parts of the world. The US, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and of course Trump [in the US]. History sometimes follows rhythms and patterns, but is it that, or is there some giant kind of scheme, or is it just an amazing coincidence?

Now again, I think we have both. We have somewhat manmade factors and also structural factors. Yes, manmade factors because these people benefit from professional communication. We have PR companies working on marketing the strongman across the globe. There is one company that worked for Narendra Modi, Apco Worldwide, that has many customers across the globe. They can sell the kit for getting the right words at the right time for the right people. So that’s one.

Another manmade factor is these leaders. You could add Netanyahu by the way. They are also very close to each other and help each other. You know, when Donald Trump invites Modi in Houston, Modi invites Trump in Ahmedabad, and this kind of international exposure helps – “Wow, my leader is an international leader, recognised worldwide”. Yes, recognised by his peers. That’s where it is manmade. You know this is a kind of construction.

But yes, you’re right, it’s also something you can consider as a structural change. There are waves, there is a zeitgeist, as we say in German, and it’s interesting to see that the first populist moment in the 70s had not only Indira Gandhi but also Mrs Bandaranaike but also Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but also Juan Perón, being back in ’73 in Argentina. No, this is the moment, you can call it the leftist-populist moment of the 70s. And then it recedes. And then we have a wave of neoliberalism and democracy. This is what we’ve seen in the third wave of democratisation in the 90s. And since the 90s, democracy is receding and populism or authoritarianism is on the rise.

There is a cycle, there are cycles in political history. So probably this one will also end one day, the defeat of Donald Trump in that sense, retrospectively may be seen by historians as the turning point, but it’s too early to say.

In India words like ‘fascism’, ‘authoritarianism’ are freely used. Populist is of course a description of what people do, but it does not fully explain what it is also in theoretical terms. Should we be more careful in describing what is happening? After all, in many ways we are still a functioning democracy, there are voices being raised. The South is not fully charmed yet, we don’t know what’s going to happen in West Bengal. Are there new words to be coined, or some of those words are applicable, or is it just a particular Indian or local type of authoritarianism? America, Brazilian, Russian and now in India which is the Hindu kind of authoritarianism?

Well as political scientists, we try always to be more precise, I mean, social scientists at large have to be very careful with the words they use. And it’s certainly difficult to apply words out of their context. Fascism is something that has crystallised in the inter-war period in Europe and that has certainly been repeated elsewhere but always with variations. And populism similarly needs to be adapted.

In the particular case of India today, I prefer the word ‘national populism’. Because ‘national populism’ captures the fact that the style is populist. The leader projects himself as the defender of the people against the establishment, as the voice of the people, he keeps mentioning the poor all the time, and at the same time the policies which are implemented are pro-rich, and at least neutral in terms of social distribution. The populist is not a socialist, never. The style is there but the ideology is also there and it is nationalism. It’s an ethno-religious brand of nationalism. It explains why national populism has so many affinities with rightist ideologies. And it’s very important to keep these two words together because many political scientists will consider that populism is only a style, and it can be on the left or on the right. Nationalism is an ideology, and when it is for defending the majority of the sons of the soil only, it’s ethnic nationalism.

Also read: Hindi-Hindu Nationalism and Secular Retreat in the Heartland

For me, this is what captures more clearly the present moment in India. But that said, this has affinities with authoritarianism. First of all, the concentration of power in the hands of the populist leader makes him almost naturally authoritarian when he conquers power. He has been elected as the hero of the political game. The MPs have been elected because of him. When you have power after this kind of election campaign, inevitably you can concentrate power even more than your predecessor. And similarly, when you are a national populist, you transform democracy into an ethnic democracy. The minorities are bound to become second-class citizens because you have been elected not by them but by the sons of the soil. The kind of political regime that you get after a national populist election has some affinities with authoritarianism.

And it can result in what I mentioned already, Sultanism. The Sultanist movement or moment is when not only power but economic power are also concentrated in the hands of one man or one group of persons. And in fact, Sultanism according to Juan Linz has also one feature that needs to be mentioned. Privatisation of violence. The use of vigilante groups for disciplining the opposition and the minorities. That’s one feature that goes very well with the authoritarian moment that we are seeing today.

Shredded social cohesion is the first symptom of fragility. Credit: PTI

Hindutva groups. Representative image. Photo: PTI

One of the interesting things, Christophe, is that while the BJP has won the Centre twice, and the second time you saw they had a better majority, better percentages, but it does very poorly in the states. It has won only two states in recent years on its own. The rest are with coalition partners, and in one or two cases, the coalition partners had actually more numbers, this is a contradiction. I understand that, you know, local elections are fought on local issues, but still, it should be more or less in congruence – in some places not so easy but some, Maharashtra is a very good example. 

That’s precisely a reflection of the transformation of BJP. During the Vajpayee-Advani years, not only the party was more collegial but it was open to coalitions, it was in fact pro-coalition politics. And under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah clearly the idea was to cash in on the image and popularity of Narendra Modi at the expense of the party apparatus. Now in many states, the BJP does not even project a chief minister in waiting. That was just inconceivable ten years ago. And when they conquer new states they make a point to parachute weak chief ministers. Which, by the way, is exactly what Mrs Gandhi did in the 60s and 70s.

I would say the result of this strategy is precisely what you describe. The party relies on the popularity of one man who wins elections at the Centre because he is the candidate at the Centre, but the party has lost its dynamism at the state level, partly because it has lost its leaders at the state level.

Also read: As Cracks in NDA Widen, Is BJP’s Ideology Incompatible With Regional Identities?

And this disconnect will certainly be complicated for two reasons. One, how federal can the country be if most of the energy is in the Centre? You know there is a centralisation effect, and so many BJP chief ministers keep referring to Delhi, keep reporting to Delhi, before deciding anything, you know. This is not the kind of federalism we used to have when Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was chief minister of Rajasthan, when Kalyan Singh was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, that was very different. Secondly, of course the other question is what about the way the Centre will deal with the non-BJP states? Because the crisis of federalism is on both sides. Either centralisation when the BJP-ruled states keep referring to the Centre and there is deep opposition between non-BJP states and the Centre.

Recently the Maharashtra chief minister said, you know India could explode or implode the way USSR imploded. Who could have said that only 10 years ago? This is a reflection of animosity, a degree of animosity that you could find only when you look at what India was and did under Mrs Gandhi, when you had this kind of antagonism. But this is not cooperative federalism or federalism at all. This is one of the big challenges for the Indian Union, to make sure that the states and the Centre work together and maintain a very constructive agenda which is even more necessary given the economic crisis that is devastating society at the moment.

Apart from this, the centralisation of power in Delhi and within that the centralisation of power between two people, who are pushing together their agenda, though of course, they are meeting resistance in a few places – CAA was one, the farm protests are another. Apart from that, do you not think that there are inherently weak spots in the Hindutva idea, which make it very, very difficult for it to stay the course?

They keep getting stronger and they have managed to capture, what one would call the ‘otherwise undecided option’, but now they can’t seem to have answers for the economic problems. And yes the Congress is weak, but people are losing jobs, salaries are being cut, companies are you know, did very, very poorly in the last two-three years, and now the farmers – so hasn’t that got some inherent weaknesses, where you say that I’m going to drive Hindutva to the cost of anything else. My point is a Hindutva-oriented party or a one-mission-oriented party, Hindu rashtra party, which also does badly or is inefficient at managing the country. So isn’t that a solid weakness?

No, it is. It is, definitely. The agenda is so heavily loaded in terms of ideology that it is at the expense of the management of the economy and at the expense of pragmatism to some extent. Because pragmatic ruler would for instance defuse tensions with farmers instead of being so adamant. This is certainly a weakness. Another one that is equally important is the way such a regime lets inequalities increase and even sometimes exploit inequalities and therefore let them grow. That’s definitely self-defeating. And inequalities in India are increasing.

One day we’ll get the official statistics, but we know that the last NSS, National Sample Survey results were showing that mass poverty was increasing again, which is really – that was before the COVID-19 crisis. It’s another limitation. The concentration of power and economic power in few hands at the expense of the masses, everywhere in the world, has resulted in resistance. Now it doesn’t mean that the leader can lose power that easily. First of all, because he controls the means of communication, he controls the narrative, he somewhat controls the opposition to some extent. And he has the image, as I said, of the saviour, beyond accountability. So that can go on.

Also read: Why Project Hindu Rashtra Is Likely to Fail

This is precisely the problem. That can go on for such a long time that you reach a point of no return. It’s very difficult to recover. If it lasts 10, 15, 20 years, we’ve seen other countries going in this direction and then either they become client states, they are bailed out by a big country that can use them against another country. That could very well happen the way it happened to Pakistan. Pakistan was bailed out by the US and became the main ally in South Asia for containing USSR in Afghanistan and then of course Islamism in Afghanistan again. So that’s the fate of client states. They may be nuclear, they may be big countries, but they can’t run their own business by themselves because they’ve reached that point that is the point of no return.

Or you have the alternative which is social movements. Politicians can’t do the job, no institution can do the job, nobody resists. So the people have to do it by themselves. And that’s why civil society organisations are also targeted, but they may be at the end of the day the only modus operandi for containing power. In between these two scenarios, there are many others, and it’s very difficult to anticipate what is the course of history in such circumstances.

A woman at a protest against the CAA. Photo: Reuters/Sivaram V./Files

Yeah, but just to wind up, speaking of social movements, the CAA was certainly one, though it was targeted at one particular subject, but it caught the imagination of a lot of people who wouldn’t have been affected by the Act. And it was easy to demonise, but despite which, despite the provocation, it did not falter, till COVID-19 came along and the lockdown.

This particular one looks like it is for a particular, very, very specific farm laws, and it is a specific reason and a specific group of people, farmers, but essentially, I see it as a fight for identity. Because suddenly in Punjab and UP, the attachment to the land, the village is across the board to whether somebody is in Canada or somebody is a chief executive. I think that that attachment to the land also cuts across the rest of the country, and it could be that.

We should not get too hopeful or too optimistic on that front or get carried away by seeing too much in it, but stranger things have happened. And, so I personally feel that it’s a very dynamic situation, by no means one can say, I mean I want to know as a concluding remark, whether you see it as still a dynamic situation or that the matter has been settled?

No, it is indeed a dynamic situation for the reasons you’ve just mentioned. This is civil society that is every year and a one form or the other acting, reacting, never forget the students who were also very active originally. So things indeed may happen.

One variable for me remains very difficult to interpret is what will the rest of the world say? Because you know there is a limit to repression when you’re watched. And how watchful are international organisations and foreign governments. The Western countries so far, and that was largely because of Trump, considered that India had to be the balancing power vis-a-vis China. And for that reason, no interference in internal affairs were allowed. That will remain and the Indo-Pacific narrative is nothing else but the way to look at powers, local powers, regional powers for containing China, that’s largely the subtext of Indo-Pacific.

Also read: Is Narendra Modi’s Demagoguery Finally Losing Its Bite?

But to what extent can this result in no interference with India’s domestic affairs? For me, this is the big question mark vis-a-vis the Biden administration. And we’ll see very soon how far he will go in speaking, and with Kamala Harris as Vice President, speaking for or against or neutrally to Indian leaders. Because if there is a sense of loss of international credibility and image because of repression, because of the way the regime is behaving vis-a-vis protests, civil society-based protest, then that may change the whole equation. And that’s why we have to, yeah, scrutinise the words that Joe Biden will be using in the coming weeks and months. There will be many occasions for interactions.

Certainly we saw a little bit about the shutdown of the internet, which was a specific, non-governmental statements by pop stars etc. Some politicians have also said it because they chose a subject that has nothing to do with so-called ‘internal matters’ because there’s no such thing as an internal matter anymore. But they chose something that touches every youngster in the world and those people are get really involved and they go on Google and check – what is this internet shutdown?

True, true, true, true

Thank you so much, Professor Jaffrelot, and you’ve put a lot of things into perspective. It’s of course as we said an unending subject for all of us, and well we look forward to what else you have to say and write about. Thank you so much for joining us.  

Thank you.

Transcribed by Ashira Shirali.