How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect the hugely successful model of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that has helped him consolidate his political position? To answer this, it is important to comprehend what this model is. Prime Minister Modi, as Ashutosh Varshney describes, is a hybrid populist. He has masterfully combined right-wing populism with economic populism borrowed from the playbook of left-wing politics. Modi’s right-wing populism has two core components: Strongman politics and ethno-cultural nationalism.
Though not the first one to do so, Modi has assiduously invested in erecting an image of a larger-than-life, iconic, charismatic, strong and decisive leader who towers above all other political leaders and also the political party he belongs to. In India’s political landscape dotted by patronage, entitlement and dynasty, Modi positions himself as a rank outsider who made it big by virtue of his sheer hard work, dedication and sacrifice. He wears his humble ‘tea-seller’ background on his sleeve and employs his great oratory skills in projecting himself as a ‘fakir’ who, as Aanaya Vajpeyi explains, claims to have a moral monopoly in representing the will of the “real people” and fight on their behalf against the seditious, morally impoverish and financially corrupt “elite”. Modi, like several strongman populist leaders, believes in a one-way, direct communication with people by offering simple solutions to complex problems and by pandering to their emotional side.
This carefully cultivated ‘strongman’ persona is widely and recurrently publicised through a belligerent use of a well-oiled and structured propaganda machinery on mainstream and social media. The empirical data shows that the charismatic populism of Modi enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections hands down.
The second aspect of this right-wing populism is ethno-cultural nationalism, which identifies a nation in the uniformity of race, religion, culture and language. Thus, there is a clear attempt to mobilise all Hindus through religious imagery and popular slogans like ‘garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’ (pronounce proudly that we are Hindus). This politics of religious majoritarianism and religious identity enables the rallying of a large number of Hindus by satiating that part of their human soul that craves for dignity. This politics yielded handsome electoral results as evident from the data of the 2019 parliamentary elections. The 2019 elections saw 51 per cent of Hindus, cutting across caste and class lines, vote for the Modi-led political coalition whereas only 8 per cent of Muslim voters supported the BJP.
This ethno-cultural nationalism perceives pluralism and social diversity as a threat. It is premised on imagining ‘enemies’: religious minorities especially Muslims, political leaders of opposition parties, public intellectuals who summon their knowledge and skill to hold a mirror to the society and other liberals and journalists who question the government. This ushers in a process of ‘othering’ where these ‘enemies’ are lampooned; their religious beliefs, political convictions and dissent are equated to treachery with India; and their credibility incessantly attacked through methodical propaganda on mainstream and social media.
It is not that these developments have led to collapse or annihilation of democracy in India. Instead, what can be seen is a process of “democratic erosion”, as Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq describe in their book. Democratic erosion is defined as “a process of incremental, but ultimately till substantial, decay in three basic predicates of democracy—competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law”. Thus, ethno-cultural nationalism laced by strongman politics chip away at democracy through small, innocuous-looking and even lawful incremental steps. This piecemeal hollowing out of democracy largely goes unnoticed because it is packaged and sold as necessary for India’s security and progress.
Welfarism or economic populism
As several scholars like Cas Mudde describe, populism is a thin-centred ideology that can be easily combined with nativism and nationalism of the political right and with economic redistribution of the political left. An important facet of Modi’s hybrid populism is that he has taken a leaf out of the book of left-wing politics by combining his charismatic populism with leftist populism. Right from his early days in office, Modi has put his entire political weight behind several economically populist and fiscally expansive schemes such as providing toilets to the poor (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan); providing cooking gas connections to women below poverty line (Ujjwala Yojana); crop insurance scheme for farmers (Fasal Bima Yojana); providing pension to workers in the unorganised sector (Atal Pension Yojana); health insurance scheme for the poor (Ayushman Bharat); providing houses to the poor (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana); opening bank accounts for the poor (Jan Dhan Yojana); and providing direct cash transfers to select farmers (Kisan Samman Nidhi).
While several of these schemes existed before Modi assumed office, he infused new life in these schemes making them central to his governance and personality. These schemes became the new idiom of ‘development’; were projected as game changers for the poor; and repeatedly touted and amplified as examples of the prime minister’s personal compassion for the poor. While at the macro level, the economy wasn’t doing well with falling consumption, dwindling investment and high unemployment; at the micro level, one or the other populist scheme touched the lives of the poor. These schemes epitomised what is described as aspirational populism and kept the voters interested in the ‘development’ rhetoric. As the data shows, these schemes resonated in 115 poor districts of India bringing high electoral dividends to the National Democratic Alliance in the 2019 elections.
The success of this ‘strongman, ethno-cultural nationalism, welfarism’ model requires overall stability and certainty and a decent economic growth because only a growing economy can provide resources to fund economic populism. While the Indian economy has been tottering for a while now especially post demonetisation and a badly designed goods and service tax regime, it still managed to grow at a rate that could cough up enough resources to build toilets and provide health insurance to the poor so as to win them over.
But, the COVID-19 pandemic is set to change all this. The pandemic has severely rocked the economy by majorly disrupting consumption, production and investment. It has caused huge insecurity, domestically and internationally, regarding the future. With Moody’s estimating that India’s economy in 2020-21 will grow by 0 per cent and with a fiscal deficit expected to rise to a whopping 5.5 per cent of the GDP, it will knock the bottom out of the government’s tax collection. The Rs 20 lakh crore economic package announced by the prime minister to arrest economic deprivation caused due to COVID-19 will force the government to take a hard relook on its expenditure and axe it appropriately. Or else, its account book will go haywire, risking a downgrade of India’s sovereign ratings by international agencies. Consequently, the kind of economic populism that we saw in Modi’s first term might be very difficult to sustain now. This runs the risk of alienating the poor from the BJP. Moreover, such a mega shock to the economy will also hit the middle classes who will see their fortunes going south.
Another COVID spoiler is that it has forced the government, at least temporarily, to put its pet political projects such as having a national register of citizens (NRC) on the backburner. With most political, official and bureaucratic energy sapped in fighting the pandemic and its economic fallout, and given that this is going to be a long haul battle, the formal bandwidth available to pursue ethno-cultural political projects shall be limited.
India’s poor have suffered incalculably due to a stringent and unplanned lockdown. Past several weeks have witnessed one of the biggest internal migrations of the poor in independent India. The heart-wrenching images of countless impoverished souls walking hundreds of kilometres, hungry and devastated, to reach their homes, has dented Modi’s pro-poor and strongman image. The poor suffered during demonetisation as well, but they were won over through emotive communication urging them to make ‘sacrifices’ for the nation. The poor were convinced that they had to suffer for a corruption-free India, although demonetisation did precious little in combating black money. The same plot is at work this time around as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has surely thrown a spanner in the works by disrupting the smoothly running ‘strongman, ethno-cultural nationalism, welfarism’ project. In the coming days, the propaganda machinery will be reinvigorated to distract attention from the sufferings of the poor and the weak economy. One can expect a doubling down of efforts on pursuing ethno-cultural nationalism and sharpening the attack on ‘enemies’. New slogans like ‘self-reliance’ (old wine in new bottle) would be thrown at people. But for how long will populist/emotive appeal and issues of ethno-cultural identity trump the part of the human soul that motivates an individual to be a “rational utility maximizer” giving primacy to bread and butter issues?
Prabhash Ranjan is a senior assistant professor at the faculty of legal studies, South Asian University.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.