In 1966, Bal Thackeray announced the formation of the Shiv Sena to champion the rights of the Marathi manoos . Eight years later, Jayaprakash Narayan led a powerful mass movement, demanding the dismissal of elected governments. In response, Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and imposed a National Emergency. In 1992, RSS and Shiv Sena-led militants demolished the Babri Masjid in the name of religion. Today, Raj Thackeray reprises his uncle's firebrand politics, targeting North Indians. No shared ideology can be identified in these instances. But common to them all is their assault on the liberal-democratic government in the name of “the people”.
As the Indian republic marks 60 years, populism has emerged as a major challenge to its existence. Populism is commonly decried as a debased form of politics. Lacking a coherent policy framework and philosophical complexity, commentators consider it unfit to be even called politics. Politics is supposed to be governed by reason and the law. Populism trades on emotions and spurns reasonable discussion and debate. It incites passions against lawfully constituted authority.
But to dismiss populism is to miss its political creativity. The fabrication of a homogenous body of Marathi manoos or Hindus, despite class and caste differences, is an act of pure political imagination. No analysis of the socio-economic context, no reference to unemployment and poverty, can explicate the projection of the phantom category of “the people”. Rather than being handicapped by this lack of fit between reality and imagination, populist politicians thrive on it. Having created an undifferentiated “people” out of a heterogeneous population, they claim to defend it against its supposed enemies. Bal Thackeray targeted South Indians, Communists, and Muslims; and his nephew attacks the “Bhaiyyas” as aliens, as outsiders who threaten the well-being of the “people”. The Marathi manoos is cheated of their rights because the system is rigged against them; and “pseudo secularism” and “vote banks” oppress the Hindus. Jayaprakash Narayan denounced elected governments as illegitimate, installed and maintained by corrupt means. Indira Gandhi hinted at conspiracies of anti-national forces and the “foreign hand” to justify the Emergency.
The politics of “the people”, poised against its enemies and the rigged structure of authority, licenses the street. Hindu militants were emboldened to demolish the Babri Masjid because they believed only direct action could accomplish what the lawfully constituted government could not, and would not. Populist politics permits Raj Thackeray's followers to cross the bounds of law to force shopkeepers to display signboards in Marathi and physically attack North Indians.
How did this come to pass? Speaking to students in Patna in 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru angrily decried “demonstrations and hooliganism in the name of politics”. What was once a legitimate form of politics during the anti-colonial struggle had become hooliganism, after India achieved independence. According to Nehru, citizens of independent India were expected to participate in State-led development efforts, leaving politics to the Parliament. This view treated politics as administration, as the management of society through the institutions of law and government. Democracy, however, permitted activists to oppose this view, treating politics as an arena for a fundamental re-imagination and reconstitution of society. The Dalit movement is an example of such a creative view of politics.
Populism also treats politics as a domain of invention. But because the category “people” admits no social difference, it cannot seek deep-seated social change. This is unlike the Dalit movement, which recognises social inequalities. Though shaped by democracy, populism is essentially anti-democratic because it asserts the supremacy of an undivided and organic “people.” So it resorts to fascistic direct actions. This is one of India's greatest challenges today.
The author is Professor of History at Princeton University, U.S.