The Pandemics also Diagnoses India’s Populist Turn

<< The canonical version of this content is accessible on This post-print was originally published in the Indian Express (2020). This is an extended version of the text. The version of record is available on the newspaper’s website and is archived on (incl. keywords). Citation can be downloaded on Hal. The text is co-written by Christophe Jaffrelot.

The management of the coronavirus spread is not only a global rupture, it also signals the consolidation of the personalistic and intimate rapport between Modi and the people, which routinizes direct populist appeals through disfiguring democratic institutional accountability.

In these times of unprecedented global health – and emerging economic – crisis, citizens, analysts and public actors tend to see political decision making within the paradigm of warfare. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaims, the executive must “work on war footing” to fight, defeat and eradicate the invisible enemy of COVID-19 pandemic due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The trumpeting metaphor is the one of society as battlefield, where underfunded medical staff has replaced soldiers, and in which casualties and – Modi tells us – “hardships” have to be endured by those who cannot afford social distancing. That includes the vast majority of workers in the informal sector, and in particular India’s internal migrants.

As we are busy outlining the exceptionalism of the hour, the realm of the extraordinary is blinding us to what the coronavirus upheaval could tell us about the consolidation of India’s democratic trends. Because, in a Clausewitzian sense, war is the continuation of politics by other means, we need to ask what this current politics of warfare is the extension of. By running against the grain, we must follow the logic of Tocqueville when he claimed that the crisis brought by the French Revolution was not only a rupture, but also the fulfilment of the Jacobin drive of the Bourbon monarchy.

At the national level, the current crisis consolidates a populist rapport between a person – Modi – and a fictional representation of the people. Here populism does not refer to irresponsible economic redistribution. It is understood not only as the enactment of stands against corrupt elites, but as a practice of democracy in which a political leader personifies in his/her style and governance imitative features of the imagined people. These entail institutional disintermediation and the “flaunting of the low” that Pierre Ostiguy has pointed out. Simple, direct and intimate language from the head of the state is a proxy of this low. Following this path, four aspects of the management of the COVID-19 outbreak in Narendra Modi speeches seem to comfort the populist rooting of India’s democracy.

All the major decisions related to the handling of the crisis are announced by Modi himself using direct visual mediums. As a senior journalist notes, no cabinet member, no parliamentary, no party official, not even the Minister of Health and Family Welfare is communicating on any significant policy information: “when he [Modi] speaks, they echo him, and nothing else. It ensures the ‘purity’ of the message. Everybody speaks in his voice.” in fact most of the briefings are made by a joint secretary. While parliamentary democracies are supposedly characterised by a polyphony of voices, we are told that the country has only one. This underlines Modi’s modus operandi in which an unmediated connection between the ruler and the ruled is continuously sought; it also constitutes a ‘one way traffic’ since no press conference and no parliamentary debate has created the space for questioning the handling of the crisis. Such approach requires a dramatic centralization of decision-making at the expense of pluralism and federal cooperation. While healthcare is an exclusive competence of the states and contagious diseases are on the Concurrent List, the imposition of the lockdown and the creation of the PM Cares Fund to cater to coronavirus-related medical expenses was pushed by the Centre without any consultation of elected governments at state levels. Not only that, but while CSR money can go to the PM Cares Fund, it cannot finance similar initiatives at the state level. This personalisation of power stands in stark contrast to the style of Modi’s predecessor, the primus inter pares of a team of experienced ministers.

The COVID-19 interlude does not uproot all political habits. Modi continues to tap into the intimacy of the everyday life of his increasingly plebeian support base – his typical voter in 2019 was resolutely younger, rural, poorer, feminine and lower caste. This contrast – once more – to Manmohan Singh who was not a gifted political orator but a policy-oriented technocrat. Such intimacy relies on two aspects. First, instead of concentrating on the technicalities of state interventions to address the complex sanitary crisis, he nudges every “countryman” into making personal contributions for an abstract greater good. Remember the 2016 demonetization: it was about requesting sacrifices from citizens to eradicate the black money of the corrupt wealthy lot. Now the “people’s curfew […] imposed by the people” is – in Modi’s own words – similar in scope, as it demands from us sacrifices to serve the country and “fulfil our duty in service of the nation.” Second, Modi-instructed people’s contributions to the so-called war are tied to familiar everyday items that are part of the mundane experience of the quotidian. These, such as everyday household supplies and devotional objects tie immaterial political messages to material intimate experiences. This call transformed society into what Victor Turner called a communitas, a group in fusion, as evident from the recent popular enthusiasm of recent taali bajana, thaali bajana (clap your hands, clang your vessels) and diya jalao, mombatti jalao (light earthen lamps, light candles) watchwords by Modi. They signal his masterful political use of relatable possessions, in the same vein as Gandhi’s symbolic use of salt during the civil disobedience movement. Through quoting the Valmiki Ramayana the imaginary of a lit lamp in the dark night of the nation’s soul, Modi’s speeches continue to secure an undeniable mass support.

It results that PM Modi’s language is comparatively more accessible and culturally evocative than his predecessors. The gradual majoritarian turn in Indian politics means that references to the Hindu fold have stronger electoral appeals, inducing the opposition to talk like Modi in the hope to retain its vote-share. COVID-19 or not, this modality of Indian politics is here to stay. The legitimate complaint by liberal circles that Modi speeches have led to wildfire diffusion of superstitious messages on social media is not inconsequential. The spreading references to astrology and the destructive powers of devotional noise are triggered by Modi’s fetishized references to the Hindu cultural and religious folklore. In his recent speech in Varanasi, he has not hesitated to use gods and epics to represent the collective fight against the spread of the disease in emotionally relatable terms:

Sathiyon. Remember, the war of Mahabarat was won in 18 days. Today, the war that the whole country is waging/fighting against corona is going to take 21 days. Our effort is that this should be won in 21 days. In the time of the war of Mahabaratha, god Sri Krishna was the hero/great character (maharathi), he was the leader/conductor (sarthi). Today we have to win this fight against corona with the force/support (balbute par) of 130 crore heroes (maharatiyon).

Sathiyon. You know, on the first day of Navratri, the worship of mother Shelputri [avatar of Hindu Goddess Durga] is done. Mother Shelputri is the incarnation of affection, kindness and motherhood. She is also called the goddess of nature. We all need the blessings of mother Shelsute in the crisis time which the country is going through. My prayer to mother Shelputri is, my wish is, that war that the country has declared against the pandemic corona, in that India, 130 crores inhabitants/compatriots get the victory.

The deliberate confusion and overlap between the calls for supporting the nation and those for supporting its spearhead is a demonstration of the shrinking democratic space for opposition, whose critiques are meant to be turned into evidences of anti-nationalism, forcing them into acquiescence or silence as it was after the 2019 Pulwama attack. In this scenario, another feature of Modi speeches is consolidated in the current scenario: the multiplicity of readings it offers. Approached literally, Modi speeches are about constructive and optimistic values, but when associated to the content of his governance, they consistently prompt communal readings. After the episode of “corona jihad”, in which many media made the Muslim community responsible of the epidemics after the hike of infections linked to a religious meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat, Modi’s call for switching off lights on 5th April also generated religious polarization. His appeal for expressing solidarity in the ‘war’ against COVID-19 sparked fear that noncompliance from Muslims will cause retaliations against them. A research scholar notes on her social media profile:

Many of us as Muslims in dominant non-Muslim neighbourhoods are debating how to go unrecognized and unmarked in this devdas type drama. My father is like “candle nai jalayenge but light off rakhenge [we will not light candles but we will switch off the lights] or the entire neighbourhood will come fighting with us and we don’t want to invite any attention or hostility.”

The management of the COVID-19 outbreak is not only the outcome of remarkable times, it is the persistence of unremarkable – yet efficient – politics, characterized by the populist ethos of the Modi-II government. An exploration of the Indian Prime Ministers’ Speeches (DIPMS) dataset, containing 5 254 speeches (9 154 654 words) of 11 Prime Ministers since independence confirms that the official discourse observable today is a prolongation of the Modi strand of politics. A text analysis of the DIPMS corpus indicates that Modi is the Prime Minister who overuses most the language associated to intimacy, disintermediation and simplicity. Modi furthermore enables multiple readings of his speeches, cultivating an image of unchallenged authority while simultaneously emphasizing humility, victimization and social harmony in his speeches. Similarly, he enables negative anti-minorities readings of his decisions, accompanying an otherwise positive discourse on nation building.

Linguistic patterns in PM speeches outline India’s trajectory towards populism. Modi’s simpler language relies mostly on the use of shorter sentences, non-conceptual vocabulary, references to non-elites, festivals; it avoids references to cognitive processes and democratic principles. Disintermediation in Modi speeches points at his reluctance to engage in institutional or political dialogues other than with “the people”. This results in the underuse of vocabulary associated to institutional processes, as well as dialogic indicators such as assent and insight. Democratic accountability is minimal in Modi India; instead what is enforced is permanent authorization through constant campaigning and direct apostrophe of the people. This results in an overuse of rhetorical questions, “I and you” periphrases, vocative cases as well as self-references. As epitomized in the current coronavirus momentum, the language of intimacy is a striking feature of Modi populism: his discourses keep on referring to conversant realms of family, kinship, home, religion and money. He shuns the use of ‘we’ which – as psychological studies show – is associated to inequal power relations and tokens of arrogance. Overall, when plotting the evolution of the Indian populism over time (here we compute a ratio between populist-prone and populist-averse vocabulary in PM speeches), it shows the extent to which it has increased since the arrival of Narendra Modi to power.

Of course, at the global stage, the COVID-19 crisis seems to outline two additional forms of political continuities, even if it is too early at this stage to predict their resilience after the end of the epidemics. However, as citizens we should be aware of them if we want to prevent the COVID-19 “normalness” to extend into our foreseeable future. Importantly, we are currently witnessing the thinning of the boundary between authoritarian and democratic regimes; in both, heads of state capture the whole media attention, limiting – in the name of public interest – the alleys for healthy checks and balances in which an argumentative civil society would have its say. In this scenario, surveillance and the limitation of freedoms of assembly and expression have become everywhere the wartime norm, possibly bearing longstanding consequences on our civic life. Additionally, the pandemic reveals the enchantment of the citizenry around the world for an interventionist and welfarist state. While our economies are shaped by the amoral rules of market, it is the state that monopolizes our expectations for rescue and care, encapsulating the deeper moral groundings of our societies, while defining state performances in competitive terms on the international scene. India is no exception to these global trends, demonstrating once more that what we are going through are not only times of ruptures, but also moments of continuity and historical realization.

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