Focusing on India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Proma Raychaudhury argues that displays of vulnerability by strongman populist leaders can offer insights into the resilience of populist regimes
In their inaugural blog posts in this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti debunked three myths surrounding the phenomenon of populism. This piece concerns itself with the third myth: 'populists lie outside the mainstream’.
Populist actors continue to become well-integrated into mainstream party systems across the globe. This is also true in India, where the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been in power since 2014.
The BJP is a populist radical-right party. It is affiliated with a gamut of Hindu right-wing associations collectively designated the Sangh Parivar (Sangh Family). The BJP is distinct from Western Europe's relatively new radical populist (left- and right-wing) parties. Grounding the BJP’s ideological foundations is the exclusivist doctrine of Hindutva, which offers an ethnocultural definition of a Hindu. Hindutva propagates a vision of India as an essentially Hindu nation; a Hindu Rashtra. As a result, it casts Muslims and Christians as aliens to India's cultural ethos.
The BJP has been a dominant partner in governing coalitions in the past. But under Narendra Modi's personalised leadership, it has enjoyed spectacular electoral successes. Since 2014, the BJP has consistently strengthened its vote share. Analysts describe this period of BJP electoral dominance as India’s 'Fourth Party System'.
Modi's leadership offers an amalgam of nativist populism emphasising 'Hindutva' Hindu nationalism
Modi’s popularity endures amid aggressive nationalism, Hindutva, technocratic managerialism, a system of direct benefit transfers to economically marginalised citizens, and a pliant mainstream media. All this has enabled the BJP to weather the challenges of anti-incumbency and economic underperformance. Modi's leadership has even managed to survive global crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his leadership style, Modi offers an amalgam of nativist populism. He emphasises Hindutva and hypernationalism, and styles himself a technocrat. He practices a style of governance that is corporate investment-friendly. The party and its leader continue to consolidate and expand their support base to newer demographics. This includes voters who belong to oppressed castes, women, and young people. The BJP’s electoral consolidation and expansion persist even as India’s ruling regime faces criticism for its harassment of religious minorities, dissidents, and the opposition.
Modi’s effective communication skills are key to the resilience of the BJP regime. He has fashioned himself as a populist: a combination of a non-elite outsider in Indian (and global) politics, a strongman, a practitioner of pro-business ‘good governance’, and a political renunciate.
As research on the body politics of populist leaders suggests, Modi's leadership performance forges an embodied synecdochic connection with 'the people’ he claims to represent. His sartorial style deliberately differs from other leaders' established modes of dress. Modi is a chamaeleon. Sometimes, he appears in colourful clothing that represents neoliberal aspirations, sometimes in the austere style of Hindu ascetics.
Modi is a chamaeleon. Sometimes, he appears in colourful clothing that represents neoliberal aspirations, sometimes in the austere style of Hindu ascetics
Modi is open to donning the traditional headgear of different religious and regional communities, and this has deepened his support base. But his refusal to wear a Muslim-style skullcap has also burnished Modi's image as a Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts) among his core right-wing supporters. Modi’s symbolic dress choice enables him to sustain an unmediated connection strengthened by vishwas (trust) with the people he represents. Modi imagines his support base as morally righteous, and he expects his supporters to rise to his defence, in social media and elsewhere.
Such emotional attachments give Modi crucial advantages, during and beyond election cycles. For committed voters, Modi and his regime embody the promise of achhe din (good days) ahead. Sceptics, on the other hand, see Modi as presiding over inflation, unemployment, malnourishment, and more.
One popular state-sponsored anecdote claims Modi worked 18–19 hours a day during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such tales are intended as propaganda to counter the negative publicity generated by the ruling regime’s poor pandemic management. Recent BJP victories in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat suggest that spreading such anecdotes does indeed work.
Emotional connections among populist leaders and their supporters are driven primarily by vulnerability. So while we should examine populist leaders' strongman posturings, we must also consider their displays of vulnerability.
Modi often sheds tears in public. But such shows of emotion don't detract from his hyper-masculine image. On the contrary, in his supporters' eyes, crying humanises Modi, accentuating his vulnerability.
In the eyes of his supporters, crying humanises Modi, accentuating his vulnerability
When Modi cries in public, it is often at rallies during which he hurls demagogic insults and denounces perceived conspiracies against him. These emotionally charged performances are designed to provoke his audience to rise up against rival political parties such as the Indian National Congress and civil society dissidents. Such performances have proven effective mobilisers of voters, and shields against democratic accountability – particularly in moments of crisis.
The gendered implication of displays of vulnerability by populist leaders can complicate their hyper-masculine image. These displays also shed light on the interdependence between populist leaders and their followers. They can offer answers to the puzzle of resilient populist regimes, and help destabilise the leader-centrism of populism studies.