Modi’s ‘people’ and populism’s imagined communities

SUBIR SINHA

INDIA at 75 stands on the verge of a fundamental constitutional moment. With Hindutva replacing secularism as the state ideology, de facto and de jure, the universal ‘We the People’ of the Preamble to the Constitution stands ready to be eclipsed by a more specific people: ‘Hindus’. If the de jure transition to Hindu Rashtra happens, the idea of ‘We the People’ will become one of graded – indeed degraded – citizenship, approaching what Jaffrelot1 has called an ‘ethnocracy’, eroding political equality between Hindus and those of other religious affiliations.

As per global literature2 most democracies are reporting a weakening, as strong-leader-led populist/majoritarian/authoritarian parties have been elected to office and have acted to hollow out and preempt democracy’s more substantive and radical possibilities. Commonly, such parties have come to power identifying ‘enemies’ within and outside the nation, using them as a foil against which the ‘pure people’ have been imagined.

Contemporary populism differs from previous iterations in the way the media and social media influence the formation of collective identities and antagonisms. Another important shift is the use of democratic-populist modes of politics for majoritarian and annihilationist agendas, in
which the ‘enemies’ of the ‘pure’ people are widely seen as deserving the attenuation and cancellation of rights, including their right to life. The mainstreaming of the idea of Muslims as not just ‘different’ but as ‘enemies’, and calls for a visible reduction of their numbers, rights and public presence now form an explicit part of the discourse of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its electoral strategy.

How is popular consent mobilized for this move from the universal ‘We the People’ to Hindutva’s narrow definition of ‘the people’ as a particular kind of ‘Hindus’, and for the violence that accompanies such a cleaving of ‘a’ people from the people-as-a-whole? Populists claim to speak for ‘all of the people’ but, given social heterogeneity, in practice they only speak for a subset. Traditionally, they consolidate their core supporters as ‘the people’ behind a populist project via the overlapping binaries of people/elite and people/enemies-of-the-people. But today, with accelerated change worldwide, and institutions of political representation having substantially eroded from their previous form, populist projects have new modes and logics of creating ‘the people’, but also face durable antagonisms and challenges in maintaining them.

Populism’s master theorist Ernesto Laclau3 was right to point to the limits posed by social heterogeneity to populists’ claim of representing the people as a whole. But there is more to ‘heterogeneity’ in that it exists already (for example, class, caste, gender, religious and regional identifications, etc.) and is produced dynamically in a social field that is exploding with assertions of identities and claims to a very wide range of ‘rights’.

Many latent collectivities exist in any society, determined by economic, caste, ethnic, racial and religious categories, for example, that only loosely map on to each other. New latent collectivities emerge: for example, victims of natural disasters, fans of a new film, migrants from within and outside the nation, etc. Those who manage Modi’s project on social media – the BJP’s IT cell, ‘influencers’, self-enrolled ‘internet Hindutva warriors’ – are challenged by the ‘dynamic and insistent heterogeneity of the social’ which they attempt to convert into the ‘singularity of the people’. This involves a serial construction4 of ‘the people’ and ‘their enemies’.

In a competitive electoral field such as India, no one people/enemy identification is likely to remain stable over time: the same ‘people’ recruited and self-enrolled into this project are also being acted on, persuaded, and parsed to join other projects: for example, farmers protesting new laws, or youth campaigning for employment.

To meet the challenge of creating and maintaining a ‘Hindu’ peoplehood that accommodates some social heterogeneity, Hindutva strategists deploy ‘fingers in the wound’, ‘total politics’ and ‘cryptopolitics’, in addition to the use of violence, to maintain the boundaries between people/enemy and bring potentially unruly social elements into the Hindutva fold.

All politics makes a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But, Hindutva politics splits the universal ‘we the people’ into Hindus as ‘the pure people’ and Muslims as their ‘alien enemies’ by putting a ‘finger in the wound’,5 that is, via ‘painful proddings, irritating interventions’, by invoking wounds given by ‘enemies of the people’ that ‘afflict the body politic’ and ‘drain it of vitality’, and which thus justify, even require, retaliatory wounds as a redressal of ‘past injustices’. Social media platforms are key for the politics of ‘fingers in the wound’, consolidating Hindus as collectively afflicted by these wounds, and mobilizing on- and off-line ‘retaliatory’ campaigns and actions against Muslims, the primary ‘enemy’.

‘Fingers in the wound’, shaped from ‘latent feelings’, the products of past mobilizations and polarizations, form a sediment of ‘common sense’. They are activated and given ‘potential’ via provocations and irritations of speeches, writings, images, and electronic ephemera produced for circulation. Previous campaigns for the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and casting Muslims as ‘enemies of the nation’ by tying them to acts of terror in Kashmir and elsewhere (and, since 9/11 with ‘global jihad’), and the wide influence of Hindutva on education, media, film, and popular culture has success-fully ‘othered’ the Muslims. Slogans from that ‘movement’, such as ‘Hindustan me rahna hai to Hindu ban kar rahna hoga’, ‘jo Hindu hit ki baat karega, vohi Hindustan par raaj karega’, ‘Musalmanon ka ek hi sthaan, Pakistan yaa kabristaan’, and ‘tel lagao Daabar ka, naam mitao Babar ka’, still resonate.

Modi himself functions as a ‘finger in the wound’ for many Muslims. Prior to his arrival in Delhi as PM, in addition to his participation in the Ram Temple movement, Modi’s speeches on the destruction of the Somnath temple were reminders of an ancient wound, whose mention authorized, as redressal of that wound, a politics of exclusion and containment of Muslims maintained by the state and extra-legal vigilante violence and its threat. Acts of commission and omission in the large-scale violence in Gujarat in 2002, in which the overwhelming numbers of those killed or damaged were Muslims, made him a symbol of one who would heal deep wounds through retaliation, who ‘taught the Muslims a lesson’, who denied them justice, who ‘got away with it’, and who pre-figured, in Gujarat, the Hindu rashtra to come.

These identifications were strengthened with numerous high-profile ‘encounter killings’ of young Muslims on suspicion of ‘terror link’. While now he talks of unity and utters only the rare anti-Muslim remark in his recent public speeches, in Gujarat, his speeches referred to Muslims as ‘Abduls who fix bicycle punctures’, having uncontrolled sexual urges result in them marrying multiple women and procreating without limits (‘hum paanch hamare pachees’). When asked about inadequate rehabilitation of Muslims after the 2002 violence, Modi had remarked that he did not want ‘baccha-factories’.

Fingers-in-the-wound, while invoked during elections, are not limited to them. In the Hindutva narrative, ‘true’ India was that which existed before the arrival of Islam and the rule of Muslim kings, which resulted in a cruel subjugation of Hindus. The meme of a ‘Hindu holocaust’ circulating on social media, and claims of destructions of ‘millions’ of temples by Muslim rulers, is the primary wound, inflicted by those presented as the ancestors of contemporary Indian Muslims. Constitutional secularism and  deserving citizenship do not heal this wound, which can only heal with the restoration of the visible primacy of the ‘pre-contractual community’6 of ‘Hindus’ in a Hindu rashtra.

Social media campaigns now demand reclaiming a growing number of mosques for demolition and the erection of temples on those sites: one BJP leader has claimed 36,000 such sites. Violence is argued to be noble and necessary in the service of such restoration. These campaigns are amplified in social media. With mobile phone ownership in India now at 750 million, recording and circulating clips of incidents of violence and desceration of mosques, mazaars and graveyards, and of assaults of Muslims across the country, frequently ‘go viral’. The participatory voyeurism of watching these clips and the self-enrolled agency of ‘liking’ and ‘forwarding’ them across social media platforms constructs political affiliation and collective subjectivity around the infliction of such ‘retaliatory wounds’.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic affected the entire Indian population, but Hindutva media and social media campaigns utilized it to maintain and sharpen the people/enemy Hindu-Muslim schism. In the Tablighi Jamaat case, an international conference of this group in Delhi became identified as a first ‘super-spreader’ event, even though political rallies, cricket matches and Hindu festivals had drawn massive crowds just prior to it. To dehumanize them, Hindutva cartoonists presented grotesque images of Muslims infecting the body politic with deadly disease, and thus deserved retaliation. Destruction of their shops, barring their entry into neighbourhoods, random beatings, and calls for an economic boycott followed.

The pandemic and the lock-down caused the well documented migrant labour crisis, which coincided with Ramzan. Muslims distributing food and water to them were physically prevented from doing so. Again, doctored images of Muslims ‘spitting in the food’ being prepared for charity distribution achieved virality on WhatsApp and other platforms. The assertion of monopoly of over ‘seva’ by Hindutva groups went hand-in-hand with the denial of humanitarian impulses to Muslims. (More recently, the ‘spitting’ meme was extended to falsely claim that Shahrukh Khan ‘spat’ on the corpse of Lata Mangeshkar.)

Insults to the Prophet and the Quran, the ubiquitous use of the word ‘peacefuls’ as an ironic reference to Muslims, fake news about the sex lives of articulate Muslim women, some involved in the anti-CAA struggle, are instances of causing collective hurt. The role of social media in inflicting these wounds is exemplified in the Sulli-deal and Bulli-bai cases on Twitter, and the ‘Liberal Doge’ channel on YouTube, in which such activists were described in obscene language and ‘auctioned’ by ‘trads’, a term borrowed from the American alt-right for those who express racial and male superiority via memes humiliating women and racial and religious others. Posts of ‘holy men’ connected to Hindutva giving threats of extreme sexual violence, and degrading Muslim women, have gone viral frequently.

Examples of rubbing fingers-in-the-wound go beyond social media: note the glee over the bulldozing, without trial, of homes and shops of Muslims accused of destruction of public property, the current round of selective demolition of ‘unauthorized colonies’, the enthusiasm for ‘encounter killings’ involving criminals who are Muslims, the refusal by the police to file FIRs after attacks by Hindutva groups, the filing of FIRs on the complainants, slapping draconian charges on activists, and the serial denial of bail to them. Recall Kafeel Khan, who saved lives in the Gorakhpur children’s hospital tragedy, whose arrest was aimed at reinforcing the idea that ‘Muslims cannot do good’.

Threats of rape, violence and genocide emanating from Dharam Sansads and in the ‘pravachans’ on religious channels perform the same functions. In maintaining the people/enemy divide, justice not only must be denied, it must also be seen and felt to be denied. This is central to creating a degraded sense of citizenship based on inequality before the law.

Latent communities exist in society (signalled, for example, by the Angry Hanuman car art, or the ‘Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput’ hashtag), which need agency and technological mediations to acquire political potentialities. Could the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid have been possible without the transmission of Ramayana on Doordarshan?7 Or without the ‘cassette culture’ that made possible the circulation of religious songs and political propaganda beyond the local confines of community?8 The expansion of the means of replication of images and sounds via the widespread ownership of video and audio cassette machines enabled the proliferation of messages. A similar function is performed by genocidal techno music played by DJs at Hindu festivals and jagrans today, and their serial dissemination via smartphones.

Hindutva strategists use the totality of everyday life to create and maintain a pure people/profane enemy distinction on social media apps. In a 21st century version of ‘total politics’ (a term coined by the Russian fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin), they dissolve the boundaries between the political and the apolitical, use means that are legal and extra-legal, violent and non-violent, and making references to imagined Vedic pasts as much as the latest video games. This now constitutes a pool of meanings
in which affect – collective emotion leading to action – can be activated, allowing for modulating the temperature of the body politic: for example, stories of ‘love jihad’, scenes of humiliation of young Muslims students in hijab, of alleged drug-taking by Muslim celebrities (or their sons), and so on, before elections, or to hide bad economic news.

Social media apps and platforms on which such sharply polarizing information circulates operate as terrains of ‘crytopolitics’, involving the production and circulation of fake news, morphed images and videos, and ‘suppressed history’: ephemera of dubious origin and authenticity that appear on influential accounts, and achieve virality through circulation by ordinary app users. Some of these accounts are overtly affiliated with Hindutva, but importantly, others are less so: celebrities, sportspersons, comedians and the like.

Disgust over food habits, a key aspect of total politics, is another way to separate ‘Hindus’ as the pure people from ‘Muslims’ as ‘contaminants’. Modi, in 2013-14, in accusing the Congress of being soft on terror, often used the term ‘Kasab ko biryani khila rahe the’, but, given the wide popularity of ‘biryani’ across the country in the past two decades, the theory that biryani was an Indian dish called ‘man-sodan’ and was first made by a Tamil Brahman king, was floated by alt-right provocateur Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, achieved virality.

The timing of these messages as well as their secret provenance is crucial. Days before Phase 3 of voting in the recent UP elections, social media was flooded with messages claiming mass rapes of Hindu women by Muslims. Likewise, days before the Telangana assembly elections, messages claimed the Congress plans to provide exclusive benefits to mosques, madrasas, and Muslim clergy. Rahul Gandhi’s pictures of ‘eating beef in the UAE’, and messages that Hindus were unable to fly kites during Makar Sankranti in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods, also circulated.

These messages disappear after a few days but by that time they will have been inserted into encrypted social media networks. Fact-checkers showed them to be false, but their function, to affect electoral choices at the margin, will have been served. Such false messaging serves the time-lag process of crypto-politics: between the circulation of fake news and its de-bunking as fake, its work is already done.

Hindutva’s total politics and cryptopolitics are also directed at the political opposition. In carefully crafting an anti-Congressism and inserting it into popular culture, BJP’s social media strategists circulated fake news, fake history, and morphed images and videos to show Nehru leering at Broadway cabaret dancers and suggested that he had a destructive love for sexual excess directed towards ‘white women’. Fake quotes were released claiming that Nehru was embarrassed to be a Hindu and proud to have western liberal and Islamic influences, that, indeed, his ‘actual name’ was Jalaluddin Mohammed Nehru. Social media messages directly implicated him in a plot to assassinate Subhas Bose and colluding with Stalin to keep the matter secret.

The Gandhi family is a prime target of cryptopolitics. The prominent BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, in a widely shared video, referred to Sonia Gandhi as a ‘veshya’ or prostitute, and as ‘Tadaka’, the mythical demon killed by Lord Ram. She is routinely called a ‘bar girl’, and a ‘cabaret dancer’ on social media. Pictures of Ursula Andress in swimwear went viral as that of Sonia Gandhi. In numerous speeches, Modi has mocked her (undisclosed) illness, and social media influencers have wished her an early death.

Fake news on Rahul Gandhi’s implication in a rape case, being arrested for drugs, eating beef, and ‘going to Thailand’ perform the function of asking provocative questions: did the Nehru-Gandhis ‘deserve’ to rule India? Were they ‘truly’ Indian? ‘Truly’ Hindu? Did they belong to the pre-contractual affinities of ‘peoplehood’, or were they inauthentic, alien presences? Should not a ‘true’ account be written to correct those written by alleged sycophants?

Because ‘official history’ off-ends, there has been a mushrooming of ‘rebel’ history accounts that produce morphed images and purport to write ‘suppressed histories’, ‘suppressed’, that is, by Marxists, Nehruvian socialists, and ‘western scholars’. Fake history handles like the now-banned True Indology account were immensely popular. In a show of Islamophobic cosmopolitanism, David Frawley, Koenraad Elst and Francois Gautier are quoted approvingly. Content from Breitbart, Tommy Robinson, Imam Tawhidi, and figures of the global alt-right, whose view of international order threatened by Islam resonates with Hindutva’s victimology, also are marshalled to provide heft to Hindutva claims.

The agility of Hindutva strategists in stretching the people/enemy schism to random contexts is striking. Recall the fake news campaign on the elephant killed by an explosive placed by a farmer on the borders of his field in Mallapuram in Kerala. The connection with Ganesh was invoked on one side in contrast with the ‘innate cruelty’ of Muslims. Or the campaign to boycott Ayurvedic medicine made by Himalaya Drugs because its owner is Muslim and it is halal-certified. In this way, total politics and cryptopolitics fuel Hindutva’s perpetual polarizing machine. The mixture of facts, half-facts, and non-facts creates a postcolonial hyper-reality in which recipients of messages find it hard to distinguish between ‘facts’ and their simulation.

Strategies to construct the ‘pure’ people and their ‘enemies’ include the use of landscape and space, with evidence of both total politics and cryptopolitics. In Hindutva discourse, Muslims cannot be a part of the pre-contractual community from which they defected via their conversion to Islam: their holy lands lie outside of India, they hold their ummah as more important than the nation, and so their loyalties to the nation would always be suspect. The removal of ‘Muslim’ names for cities and roads across India and naming them after Hindu gods and kings are ways to redress the wounds left by ‘invader kings’ and the corrupt secular elite that celebrates them.

Hindutva strategists assert ‘Muslim neighbourhoods’ are no-go areas where criminals reside, which harbour terrorists, which are ‘dirty’, where illegal beef business is carried out, that are ‘mini-Pakistans’. There is evidence from across North and West India of Muslims finding it hard to rent or buy housing space. Vigilante and police violence has resulted in the clearing of spaces of Muslim protest, as in Shaheen Baghs in Delhi and other cities.

The use of public spaces by Muslims for Friday Namaaz has been made contentious in and around Delhi: both in Gurgaon and in Noida they were stopped by Hindutva vigilantes, and water was poured on the ground to prevent Muslims from kneeling in prayer. This Eid, they blasted Hanuman Chalisa on powerful speakers in Muslims neighbourhoods and outside of mosques to drown out the aazaan.

Apart from violence inflicted on suspected beef eaters and biryani sellers, the smell and sight of meat has also emerged as a key contention in the ways in which Muslims can use public space. Hindutva outfits have demanded a ban on displays of kababs and tandoori chickens outside of shops as this ‘offends Hindu sensibilities’ and have called for the closure of shops during Hindu and Jain festivals. The spaces where a ‘jagrit’ Hindu can feel offended extend to Prayer Rooms at airports: recently the Delhi IGI airport, on complaint from an outraged Hindu traveller, removed the marker for Qibla, indicating the direction in which Muslim travellers could orient them-selves offering prayers.

 

 

Muslims and the Congress, while being the main the targets of the total politics and cryptopolitics of ‘fingers-in-the-wound’, do not the exhaust the target population of such politics: Dalits are targets too – as episodes of destroying Ambedkar statues, violence and murder of Dalit men sporting moustache, riding horses or motorcycles, or entering inter-caste and inter-religion marriages demonstrates. Violent suppression of Dalit protests and intimidation of families of raped and murdered Dalit women remains too common, as well as the impunity for perpetrators. Likewise, Christians have witnessed attacks on churches and widespread abuse as ‘rice-bag converts’.

These incidents do bear similarity to ‘fingers-in-the-wound’, but the total politics, crytopolitics, and the use of social media campaigns are not of the same order as in the case of Muslims. This is because Muslims must be excluded from the ‘people’, while these categories must be retained within it.

Arditi9 calls contemporary populism ‘the spectre of democracy’, but it is more apt to think of it as a sort of ‘zombie democracy’, in which the past haunts the morbid landscape of the national terrain that becomes a zone for the play of terror directed at those nominated as ‘impure’, a terror that at the same time claims the mantle of ‘virtue’. The politics of composing the ‘pure’ people and their enemies in the age of social media exceeds the capacity of the categories of formal political analysis. The central tension in contemporary Indian politics is arguably between the universal and constitutional idea of ‘We the People’, and a truncated ‘people’ subtracted from it, minus those posited as alien infections.

Partha Chatterje10 suggests that the engagement of ‘popular classes’ with democracy acts against the modernist horizon of the universal citizen, and he points to the paradox that such ‘entries into the demos’ may have negative outcomes for the principle of political equality often seen as the very fundament of democracy. But the annihilationist logic behind the violent composition of ‘the people’ I have described above, and the means of doing so, are not foreshadowed in this formulation.

Populism is not just about the people: it is about a people composed as victims, as those who have been wronged. And this emotion centring on hurt rejects modernity, which is the time of nationalism, to a time before history, before the contaminating presence of others: that is the true time of the pre-contractual affinities of peoplehood. It is in this time before history that the ‘irrationality’ of cow worship and claims to ancient space travel and plastic surgery ‘make sense’: in this context, the very questioning of these beliefs on grounds of ‘rationality’ and ‘scientific reason’ marks one out as external to the pre-contractual affinities of peoplehood. It is to return to this time before history, as the philosopher of Russian fascism Ivan Ilyin11 wrote, that the ‘redemptive excess of patriotic arbitrariness’ is aimed.

 

Footnotes:

* I would like to thank Ajaz Ashraf and Vidya Venkat for their comments on a previous draft.

1. Christophe Jaffrelot, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2021.

2. For example, ‘Global State of Democracy’, IDEA, 2021. https://www.idea.int/gsod/global-report

3. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason. Verso, London, 2005.

4. Etienne Balibar, ‘The Nation Form: History and Ideology’, in E. Balibar and I. Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Verso, London, 1991.

5. Diane Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999.

6. Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. Verso, London, 2013.

7. Arvind Rajgopal, Politics After Television. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

8. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993.

9. Benjamin Arditi, Politics on the Edges of Liberalism: Difference, Populism, Agitation, Revolution. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007.

10. Partha Chatterjee, ‘On Civil and Political Society in Postcolonial Democracies’, in S. Kaviraj and S. Khilnani (eds.), Civil Society: History and Possibilities. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

11. In Timothy Snyder, ‘Ivan Ilyin, Putin’s Philosopher of Russian Fascism’, New York Review of Books, 16 March 2018.