Authoritarian Populism in South Asia

Panel at the SANR Meeting 2021 convened by Arild Ruud, Sten Widmalm and Ravinder Kaur

Partha Chatterjee in his recent I am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (Permanent Black, 2020) suggests that the West's experience with populism is in its infancy while Asia has decades of experience with populism. There are the film stars of South India, the radical

populism of Indira Gandhi, the sops of the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee, the religious populism of the godmen gurus and Zakir Naik, and of course the authoritarian populism of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath, the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka and their authoritarian brethren in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Is there an authoritarian populism turn in South Asia? What distinguishes the South Asian variety from other global forms (Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Netanyahu, others)? Is there a South Asian form at all, or are they incomparable national cases? What role play democracy, globalisation, new media, social media, economic crisis? And what of the opposition, the backlash against CAA, the innovative use of social media, the Shaheen Bagh protesters?


Session 1, 27 May, 9:15-10:45

Arild Engelsen Ruud, Zaad Mahmood and Niladri Chatterjee
Mamata Banerjee as a strong(wo)man leader

Sten Widmalm
Was democracy from the start? - Autocratization and regime convergence in South Asia

Ravinder Kaur
Bhakt. The history of a political category

Session 2, 27 May, 13:30-15:30

Samaira Khan, Idependent researcher
Did populist strategy help Imran Khan win the 2018 general election in Pakistan?: PTI, authoritarianism and the military

Pakistan is a hybrid regime with a military as the de facto power holder. It has four decades of experience with authoritarian military rule and an electoral system that promotes two-party contests in general elections in an otherwise multiparty system. This explains how votes turn into seats in a country where the voter alignment is based on social cleavages that are linked to candidates rather than parties. In 2018, a novice Imran Khan and the PTI won the election and their victory is largely understood as a result of populist strategy but since in power his government is more authoritarian than populist which goes on to persecute the opposition, suppress civil liberties and violate human rights.

The author analyses the reasons behind the PTI’s victory to define the role of populism in electoral politics. The author analyses the social cleavages to argue that the defection of career politicians from other parties was the major factor in the outcome of the result, and the mechanical effects of electoral system on the party system fragmentation and the parliamentary proportionality show how the electoral formula influences how the share of votes is translated into seats. The author concludes that the PTI is not an organised political party with strong grassroot level structure which is required to support an authoritarian order. Khan’s populism is a product placement rather than ideology to garner him popular appeal to compensate his weaknesses, and his alliance with the military establishment is to preserve his government in a quid pro quo that legitimises the military's de facto rule.

Ayan Das, University of Gour Banga, Malda, West Bengal and
Debajit Goswani, Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata, West Bengal
Populism as Alterity: Study of Two Political Parties in West Bengal, India

According to Ernesto Laclau populism is a way of constructing the political on the basis of interpellating the underdog to mobilize against the existing status quo. Populist politics implies the development of a common agency or project- 'the people,' for example, by creating a political boundary between 'we’ and 'they’ within the same social construction; in which the latter implies a collection of antagonisms and undefined ideological elements (or floating signifiers) which can be tied together into a unique ideological formation.

This paper explores the populist strategy of Left Front-I regime (1977-1982) and contrasts it to the Trinamool Congress-I regime (2011-2016) in the context of how the ‘We vs. Them’ frontier has emerged and interpellated in their political projects aimed at mobilizing majority populations for gaining larger political support among the masses. We examine their ideological stance, articulatory practise and policy formulations, implemented by both the regimes to examine their degree of populistic tendencies. We identify that both adopted populist politics in differently located ideological paradigms and examine their different type of populist politics, in their journey from opposition parties to elected governments. 

This paper locates the divergent dimensions of alterity that exists in the construction and interpellation of antagonistic frontiers created by the two regimes in West Bengal.

Ka-Kin Cheuk, Chao Center for Asian Studies, Rice University
“Modi should learn more from Xi!”: The everyday ethics of authoritative populism among Indian diasporic traders in Southeast China

Under-skilled diasporic traders from the global South has become increasingly ‘out-of-place’ in East Asia. Many countries in the region have been curtailing such migratory inflows through new economic and immigration policies that favor high-skilled immigration. One such out-of-place community is a small group of Indian diasporic traders based in southeast China, who managed to expand their transnational trade of low-cost textiles throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, but finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their business in recent years. Based on ongoing field and documentary research since 2010, this paper offers an ethnographic appraisal of the long career among these Indian diasporic traders in China and its related global circuits. In so doing, it analyzes the process by which their China-centric transnational entrepreneurship has become increasingly unprofitable since 2015. The paper shows that the rapid disappearance of low-cost production across China coincides with the time when the global trading industries has been undergoing a long-term recession. It therefore forces the Indian traders, especially those whose business budget continues to be tight and skill-level remains low, into a quagmire of what anthropologist Biao Xiang calls “suspension”: their position as diasporic traders in China is no longer a guarantee for success, while entirely uprooting themselves from China would not give them a better life. As the paper demonstrates, such state of suspension – precisely because of its perpetual liminality in the context of economic uncertainty – continues to animate the various ways in which they advocate a vision of India’s authoritative populism with ‘Chinese characteristics’: that is, an everyday disregard for human rights, democracy, and environmental sustainability are ethically defensible in favor of a development-at-all-cost mentality, which is often expressed by phrases such as “Modi should learn more from Xi” among the Indian diasporic traders.

Peter DeSouza
The Politics of Othering: Explaining the dynamics of democracy in India 2009-2019

Session 3, 27 May, 17:00-18:30

Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Oslo University and
Anwesha Dutta, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen
Authoritarian Populism and Environmental Governance in Contemporary India

In this paper, we analyze changes to environmental governance and policy under Narendra Modi’s authoritarian populist regime. Modi was elected to power in 2014 on a platform of rapid economic growth and development. During his tenure as Prime Minister, his government has consistently prioritised economic growth over other possible goals in the political economy, while simultaneously adopting an increasingly repressive approach towards dissenters, using both legal and extra-legal means. In this paper, we focus on how this style of governing has registered as an increasingly autocratic turn in environmental governance. In doing so, we join a recent academic literature that has mapped and analysed the often intimate connections between the rise of authoritarian and populist leaders, administrations, and movements on the one hand, and destructive trends in environmental politics and governance on the other. In the case of India, we argue that environmental governance as it has evolved under Modi has had significant detrimental consequences for the bio-physical environment, and for marginalised tribal and local communities whose rights have been greatly eroded, and whose access to deliberative and consultative spaces has narrowed. We substantiate this argument by analysing two specific domains of environmental governance that we are particularly familiar with, namely forests and land.

Lisa Bjørkman, University of Louisville, USA
NatakPolitical Theater and Political Deceit in Mumbai

Drawing on ethnographic research in Mumbai, the paper discusses cash-compensated crowds that assemble for popular political gatherings—protest marches, road blocks, campaign rallies—in the Indian city of Mumbai. Popular and scholarly discourse tends to dismiss paid crowds as inauthentic, even fraudulent forms of political assembly. This research instead explores cash compensated crowds as instances of political speech and representation, probing the dueling moral registers by means of which the theatrical character of popular political life in Mumbai is evaluated: as either political theater or political deceit. On some occasions, cash-compensated mass assembly are characterized as "meaningless" and as "only natak" (drama, theater)—suggesting a normative understanding of what a "meaningful" political rally should be. But in other contexts, we see that it is precisely its very theatrical quality that renders mass-political gathering compelling or convincing at all. This paper explores when—in what contexts—natak is evaluated as a compelling idiom of political utterance, communication, and representation, and when political theater is described as "only natak"—a disdainful dismissal that suggests something is only theatrical when it ought not to be—or indeed is pretending not to be. Taking theatricality and performance seriously as an idiom of political speech and representation, the accounts suggest, may offer one way out of the impasses of post-truth political present where political communication tends to be either evaluated for its truth value or else dismissed as lies. Attending to explicitly theatrical dimensions of political life calls attention to a richer array of ideas and moral-evaluative frameworks.

Tiyasha Sengupta
The Naming Game: Exploring the Vocabulary of Fear in India

Fear is a common technique used in populist politics. It is used to create a notion of supposed threat and conspiracy against the interests of one or more group(s) a populist group intends to serve (Delanty, 2008; Wodak et. al., 2009; Wodak, 2015). This study investigates how fear is linguistically constructed and disseminated via different communicative mediums in India since 2014.

With the rise of right-wing religious populism in India, the pan-Indian vocabulary has witnessed the introduction of new words and phrases, which have been subsequently used in mainstream political, news media and social media discourses (Bose, 2018; Daniyal, 2018; Rajgarhia, 2020). The study focuses on four terms -- ‘librandu’, ‘love jihad’, ‘tukde tukde gang’ and ‘urban naxals’. By applying a Discourse-Historical Approach of Critical Discourse Analysis, this study aims to explore the coinage and the use and reuse of the terms in different contexts and situations to see how they are used to generate a narrative of fear.

The study finds that the words, created by combining mostly Hindi and commonly used English words are used to construct an image of despicability, conspiracy and separatism to feed into the notion of fear. The terms have been used in online texts like blogs, social media posts and memes, offline texts like public speeches, and online and offline news media.