VIEWPOINT: Authoritarian Populism and Parliamentary Democracy in India

VIEWPOINT: Authoritarian Populism and Parliamentary Democracy in India

Dilip Menon

Contemporary populism is usually located in a crisis of parliamentary democracy in which the question of popular sovereignty begins to trump the routines of popular representation. I shall argue here that the particular form of authoritarian populism that India is witnessing under the present Hindu nationalist regime arises from the very form of parliamentary democracy in postcolonial India. This crisis assumes a particular dimension in former colonies like India, where nationalist mobilization was premised not only on the involvement of the people but also on an exercise of discipline over them.

As Ranajit Guha (1998) has argued, the ideas of mobilization and disciplining constituted the dyad that made Gandhian nationalist politics possible. Implicit in the practice of disciplining was the idea of self-discipline or the desire for truth and non-violence on the part of the satyagrahi. The satyagrahi could lead because s/he was in control of herself. However, there was a limit to the seeming democratisation of the idea of leadership. It could be said of the satyagrahi that many were called but few were chosen. Gandhi in many instances was clear that the repertoire of the satyagrahi was of his coinage and could not be counterfeited. Aishwary Kumar (2015) has called this a politics of exemplarity, where Gandhi fasted before an admiring audience of acolytes, beneficiaries and imitators. Implicit in this was his undoubted charisma. However, implicit too was his authority. Gandhian populism was less like a cult than a church; it was in the end premised on authoritarianism: the beginning, conduct and end of movements were by decree.

Nationalism and populism were joined at the hip. Both were premised on the presentation of a virtuous, homogeneous populace as against a ruling elite that sought to deprive them of voice, rights and identity. It was precisely this that led Tagore to formulate his distemper with nationalism as early as 1917 where he warned against demagoguery, chauvinism and a blindness to social injustice within. Authoritarianism was part of this politics. If Gandhi embodied a form of authoritarian nationalist populism – combining appeals to the people with an emphasis on their being led – structurally, too, the authoritarianism of the Indian National Congress was entrenched as it fought to portray itself as the sole spokesperson for all Indians. The stories of those side-lined by nationalist politics is legion, whether Subhas Chandra Bose or Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Structurally, in the transition to independence, it is not without significance that the Government of India Act of 1935, with its emphasis on central control (and the powers of emergency appropriation of political control over the regional units) was preserved in the Constitution of free India promulgated in 1950. Authoritarian populism is perhaps encoded in the very forms of nationalist ideology, leadership and mobilization. Arguably, it has been a continuous presence in India whether in actual politics or the imagination of political alternatives.

If the story of the Partition was one narrative forgotten in the triumphal narrative of freedom at midnight, the other was the decimation of the revolutionary left between 1946 and 1948. The communist parties moved towards participation in parliamentary politics in 1951 and were the major party in opposition in the first parliament. In 1957, the southern state of Kerala became the first region anywhere in the world to elect a communist government to power. K Damodaran, communist theoretician, saw in this a capitulation to “parliamentary cretinism”, but disaffection with this tendency inaugurated a series of schisms. These splinter parties were premised either on the unfinished business of revolution or the refusal to subordinate the question of revolutionary violence to the rhythms of the elections and they came to be regionalised and localized.

The Congress with the sheen of victory over colonialism intact, embarked under Nehru on what may be termed a developmental populism premised on slogans that emphasised the future over the present: dams, science, nuclear power, steel mills. Equality, entitlement and access for all lay just over the horizon. The populist rhetoric of development was knitted with the idea of the charismatic leader. Nehru, and then his daughter, Indira Gandhi, inherited the Gandhian mantle, an authoritarian form of leadership, deployed in this case through the idea of kinship rather than of moral authority: Nehru as Chacha Nehru (shades of Uncle Joe!) and Indira as mother. By the time the preamble to the Constitution was amended in 1976 by the Congress to declare India as sovereign, socialist and secular, the thunder had been stolen from the left. Indira Gandhi was forgiven her brief foray into authoritarian rule and the imposition of an internal Emergency in 1975 (consistent with the Government of India Act of 1935) and developmental populism received a new slogan in the idea of garibi hatao or remove poverty.

Gandhi, Nehru and Indira managed to be both representative of a popular politics as well as standing above it. When a sycophantic Congress leader said that India was Indira and Indira was India, he was not far wrong in his evaluation of the national imagination. If populism is about the invocation of the idea of the people, authoritarian populism is about the leader embodying the idea of the people. It is not without significance that the era of Indira Gandhi post Emergency was paralleled by the dominance of Amitabh Bachchan in Hindi cinema. He played the anti-hero who spoke in the name of the people against power and the figure of the illegitimate patriarch, yet he was the last resort as well: the vigilante who dealt justice.

Bachchan’s characters stood alongside, yet above, his constituency. They stood without, yet within the system: what characterised them was the refusal to belong; they were unaccountable to both the system as well as those for whom the system was meant to work. The Amitabh phenomenon shares a lot with the Gandhian performance of politics in this respect. And in this sense, at least, Gandhi invented a new form of politics for modern India. It was not merely about the big man, about hierarchy or feudal devotion to power. It was about a radical unaccountability to people while performing an exemplary politics of the people. The appeal to a popular sovereignty over and above institutional forms allows the leader to be both the outsider as well as authoritarian.

There are myriad reasons through which the rise of populism in contemporary India can be explained. A ruling party, too long in power and too short on probity; corruption in public life and politics of a high order; and a disaffection with the choices before the electorate in a parliamentary democracy. Two forms of populism have emerged. The first is premised on a popular regional movement against established parties that has resulted in the formation and spectacular success in a very short time of the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man’s Party) in the capital city of Delhi. The other is the revival of the right wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its national success premised on an appeal to the people for development and making India a proud nation.

Both phenomena are premised on charismatic leaders- Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi- who stand above their parties as their sole spokesmen. Both in their own way put forward a technocratic vision: of economic development and rational administration. They project themselves as clearing the Augean stables of previous regimes and starting afresh. There is an impatience with structures, procedures and rules, in the desire for immediate and perceived action. Politics as in the time of the nationalist movement has come to be premised on the charisma of the leader and an ideology of exemplarity.

Gandhian nationalism sometimes broke its banks and resulted in popular violence – whether at Chauri Chaura or on a grander scale during the Quit India movement. During the Emergency and immediately after Indira Gandhi’s death, there were forms of violence that sought authority from a higher ideology. Similarly, in Delhi there have been attacks on African nationals suspected of crime and collusion with the police by AAP supporters. Nationally, there has been violence towards Muslims suspected of eating beef; rationalists critical of Hindu religion; and vigilantism against those not willing to raise slogans in support of Bharat Mata.

Populism creates its own dynamic that exceeds the logic of parliamentary democracy and the idea of representation and presents popular sovereignty in the form of direct action by the people. There is a dialectic between the moral high ground of the authoritarian leader (who stands within yet above the institutions of democracy) and the vigilantism of the people. There is a fundamental break here from the inheritance of Gandhian nationalism and the postcolonial politics of the Nehru dynasty. Neither of the new authoritarian populist regimes seeks to control the masses that act in their name. Their legitimacy is premised on the assumption that they have enabled the expression of the popular will.

But there is an important continuity as well. Nationalist and postcolonial politics preferred charisma over routine; and populism over institutional forms of democracy. In that authoritarian populism may be seen as the form of parliamentary politics in our part of the world.

Guha, Ranajit 1998. Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Harvard University Press.
Kumar, Aishwary 2015. Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Equality. Stanford University Press.


Dilip Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand. This article is intended as a provocation – any relation between the views expressed here and the author’s political convictions is coincidental

Image: Abu Abraham

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