Opinion – Rise of Right Wing Populism in India

There has been a surge towards right-wing authoritarianism around the globe. This is seen in the increasing electoral validation of the far-right across Europe, razor fences running through Eastern European borders reflecting a growing xenophobic sentiment, Shinzo Abe’s campaign for ‘national revival’ in Japan, and the militaristic tactics of Duterte in the Philippines. There are myriad reasons for the populist surge: stagnant working and middle class incomes, the feelings of being ‘left out’ among those just managing to get by, the disruption of communities as a result of shifting economic factors, as well as resistance to the seemingly relentless forces of globalisation – trade and immigration. I examine the Indian case to make sense of the specific conditions that led to the 2014 election of the Hindu majoritarian BJP party and its populist leader, Narendra Modi. Primarily I argue that an understanding of the specific socio-political historical context is necessary specifically as it relates to disputes over the term secularism in both the constitution, as well as the public sphere.

 “Secularism is the dominant ideology constituting the premise of state-society relations in postcolonial India” (Duschinsky, 2007). In contrast to its western incarnation of separation of church and state, secularism in India refers to the state’s non-preferential treatment of religious communities. Though the constitution did not formally label the state as “secular”[1], a number of constitutional provisions gave shape to the conception of the secular state, these include articles 25, 26, and 14. In this form of secularism, the state was at an “equidistance” (Varshney, 2002, p.80) from all religions, maintaining a public stance that would not favour any one religion over another. However, the danger of aspect of equidistance is that it can also be interpreted as equi-proximity. That is to mean, that if the state is to be alleged as favouring one religion – then to minimise the proximity, it can also move towards other religions. These “equalising steps” may be justified on the basis that they are “soothing the religious communities”[2], however in practice it just means that the state is becoming more and more embroiled in religion and religious conflict (Varshney, 2002, p.80).

Since the Hindu majoritarian movement began to gain prominence in the mid 1980’s, secularism has become increasingly embroiled in political battles concerning the designation of vulnerable communities, the distribution of resources, and benefits, and the protection of cultural, and religious minorities.  In the 1990’s the voices of the Hindu nationalists were becoming increasingly “mainstream” in the public sphere. The 1985 Shah Bono Case and the subsequent overturning of the verdict by Rajeev Gandhi, and the 1991 exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley were presented by the Nationalist parties as a “mirror of the anxieties of the Indian middle classes, who felt themselves vulnerable to increasing mobilisation among minority and impoverished classes. The Babri Masjid controversy also enabled Hindu nationalist political parties to strengthen their claim as defenders of national boundaries and national interests in India” (Duschinsky, 2008). 

            The Hindu right in India has capitalised on the instability that the confusion over the term secularism has created – and used it to pursue an exclusionary social agenda. The idea of the nation here, is one that belongs to the majority. This is reflected in the party’s present rhetoric through ghar wapsi, love jihad, beef ban, renaming cities, etc. What is interesting to note however, is that this inward looking socio-political rhetoric is juxtaposed against an outward neoliberal economic philosophy. This is particular, I argue to developing societies – most “developed” nations – the U.S, Germany, etc who have also experienced increasing trends in right-wing majoritarianism, have both an inward looking social and economic philosophy. This is because in developing and post-colonial states, it is almost impossible to ensure development without opening economic barriers and borders. It is no coincidence that the rise of the BJP began in the 1990’s – the era of economic liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation. 

It is fascinating, how the emphasis on (economic) development largely drawing upon the “Gujarat model” has allowed Modi to transcend his deeply problematic past as the “butcher of Gujarat”. One of the main reasons for this, has been Modi’s phenomenal direct reach to his electorate via social media. These platforms have the ability to disseminate religious messages within a larger ecology – often presenting the political leader as the public face of an ideological and moral higher ground. Further, social media can be used as a means to translate radical ideas into populist ones, as extremist parties try to normalise by sanitising histories of their more radical leanings. The growing strength of social media coupled with a loss of trust in traditional modes of information has served information has served the populist agenda well. The election of Narendra Modi in 2014, not only represented the BJP’s first majority win since its founding in 1980, but as Govil and Baishya (2018) note it also “marked the consolidation of a technocratic power that aligned traditional political knowledge with digital affordances” (p.4). I argue, however, that despite the physical nearness to the electorate that had not been experienced before, there was also a marked separation – most clearly evidenced from the lack of formal press conferences. 

Further despite this communication with the electorate, Modi has maintained silence on certain key issues, notably gender. At the beginning of the year, when there was mass outrage regarding the case of Asifa, an eight year old Kashmiri Muslim child who was raped and murdered; and towards the end of the year when the #Metoo movement gained mass traction, and BJP MP, MJ Akbar was accused – Modi maintained a telling silence. While the BJP has focussed on gender through programs such as “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” these programs still maintain a patriarchal language that assumes women need ‘protection’. Some scholars such as Purewal (2015) go further and argue that that these social campaigns and financial schemes further entrench women and girls as “dependents”. This violence is not only an outcome of Hindutva social and political processes, rather it is also a core feature of this form of governmentality. 

            In conclusion, there are certain specific historic conditions in India that have enabled the rise of Hindu majoritarian politics. I argue that disputes over the term secularism, and the (contradictory?) manner in which it was defined in the constitution and practiced in the public sphere gave space to Hindu nationalists to criticise the existing form of governmentality, and present their own notions of secularism as an antithesis. Further while nationalism implies an inward looking ideology – both socio-politically and economically (in the West), this has not been the case with regards to Hindu nationalism, which has been inward looking socially, but has maintained a distinct neoliberal outward philosophy. The emphasis on (economic) development in an age of social media which the BJP were able to successfully exploit – allowed Modi to sanitise his problematic past. This “direct communication” with the electorate has replaced formal press conferences, and allowed the Prime Minister to not be questioned and maintain a silence and non-engagement with certain key issues – gender, farmer strikes, lynching cases, it goes on.  


Duschinski, H. 2007. “India Displacing Indians for the Sake of India: Kashmiri Hindu Migrant Vendors and the Secular State.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 30, no. 1 (May 2007): 90-108.

Duschinski, H. 2008. “Survival is Now Our Politics: Kashmiri Hindu Community Identity and the Politics of Homeland.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 12, no. 1 (April 2008): 41-64. 

Govil,N., Baishya, A.K; The Bully in the Pulpit: Autocracy, Digital Social Media, and Right-wing Populist Technoculture, Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1 March 2018, Pages 67–84, https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcx001

Purewal, N., 2015. Interrogating the rights discourse on girls’ education: neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and the post-Beijing platform for action. IDS Bulletin, 46(4), pp. 47–53.

Varshney, A. (2002), Ethnic conflict and civic life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New haven, CT: Yale University Press

[1] Till Indira Gandhi’s controversial 42nd Amendment during “Emergency”

[2] A key example of this would be Rajeev Gandhi’s overturning of the Supreme Court verdict in the Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum case (1985). The court delivered a judgment which favoured maintenance being provided to an aggrieved divorced Muslim woman. Rajeev Gandhi gave into the pressure of Muslim Orthodoxy and overturned this verdict by passing a law, whose most controversial feature was the right to maintenance for the period of iddat after the divorce, after which the maintenance onus was to be passed to the woman’s relatives or the wakf board. 

The article is written by Sarojini, research intern with MP Gaurav Gogoi

Published by mpgauravgogoi

Member of Parliament, Kaliabor Lok Sabha.

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