India is one of the most well-known populist contexts in the world, and clearly exhibits the two core elements of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. First, the populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, has continually presented itself as an anti-establishment alternative to the “corrupt” elites; in this case, the longstanding Congress Party and Nehru-Gandhi dynasties, which dominated the political landscape for decades after independence. Second, Modi’s anti-pluralism prioritises Hindu nationalist policies that demand strict religious adherence, and equates this concept of Hindutva with Indian national identity. This has marginalised millions of religious minorities in the country, caused significant social polarisation, and fuelled further cultural populist rhetoric perpetuating divisions between “the people” and “the others”. Some additional features of populism are also present:
resistant to countervailing facts: The use of lies in India has been weaponised by the government and other actors. WhatsApp, the largest messaging platform in India, has also become the platform of choice for spreading false information by the government, the opposition party and even ordinary people. In this increasingly nationalist environment, stoked by the BJP, WhatsApp has become an ideological battleground.
rejects intermediaries: These politics of deliberate division are simultaneously accompanied by efforts to reduce space for civil society and media organisations to engage in democratic dissent and dialogue. Indeed, civil society organisations (CSOs) are frequently cast as unnecessary or even dangerous intermediaries to Modi and the BJP’s supposedly direct relationship with “the people”. For example, see Modi’s hologram speech that reached multiple rallies at once: a not-so-subtle attempt to cultivate a “direct” relationship with the electorate. Many CSOs and activists focused on rights-based advocacy have been targeted by government authorities. Advocates for operational and resourcing restrictions have been labelled “anti-development” for working against environmentally extractive projects that the government champions as initiatives to lift Indians out of poverty. The CIVICUS Monitor currently classifies India as having obstructed civic space. Modi has been described as a “high-tech” populist; his highly sophisticated social media campaign strategy was crucial to his initial electoral victory in 2014, effectively bypassing traditional news and media channels to engage directly with millions of people (and first-time voters) with anti-elite messages that he also adapted to low-tech imaging devices, such as the holograms.
crisis, breakdown or threat: In line with his Hindutva vision of India, Modi casts the Muslim minority as a threat to the country, inciting gruesome public lynchings and further polarisation between Hindus and Muslims, while diverting attention away from real and very pressing economic crises.