Aping the People

<< The canonical version of this content is accessible on jtmartelli.com. This preprint – SMUR version – is a draft manuscript under review in the American Political Science Review (2020). Depending on editors’ decision on the manuscript, the version of record will be available online sometime in Fall 2021 on the publisher’s website. Similarly, the SMUR version will be archived on Academia.edu (incl. keywords). Citation will be downloadable on the Hal repository. This complies with the access policy of Cambridge Core. The original title of the article is: “Aping the People: Populist Identification as Mimesis in Narendra Modi Speeches.”
Table of contents
3.Beyond Anti-elitism: Populism and Unmediated Identification
1.Thin Beyond Recognition? From the ‘What’ to the ‘How’ of Populism
Populism in Saffron Clothes: The Current Indian Scenario
Thickening Populism: The ‘Mimetic’ Hypothesis
Quantifying Political Mimesis: Method and Results
Context-based Wordlists through Collocations of Tested Psychometric Linguistic Markers
Results and Discussion


The emerging consensus on minimal understandings of populism, coined as the ideological pitting of the true people against the morally corrupt elites, relies on the promise of measuring and comparing political antagonisms worldwide. We hypothesize that populism requires anti-elitism to be complemented by a people-leaders’ identification abolishing the symbolic distance between the represented and the representative. Using a dataset of speeches of eleven Indian Prime Ministers to proxy such identification, we argue that populist leaders rely on a mimesis of the putative people as a metaphor of the majority. Three core mimetic speech-items are quantified: intimacy, disintermediation and simplicity. We use a replicable corpus-contextual multi-word collocation technique to populate lexicons of pre-tested psychometric profiles. The analysis finds that current Prime Minister Narendra Modi communicates mimetic identification around his ubiquitous persona, indexing his stylistic, ideological and institutional populist politics. We suggest that our method can be generalized to populisms worldwide.


Among the staged acts of bravura and shrewd communication in the political career of the politician Narendra Modi (1950–), one stands out as particularly successful. In 2007, while campaigning for his second mandate as the Chief Minister (CM) of the Indian state of Gujarat, he requested “real replicas of Narendra Modi” to be made (Price 2015:40). The distribution of masks in his effigy to the supporters of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), promptly ensued and was replicated, causing thousands of Modis to campaign together in the streets of Gujarat’s Ahmedabad (Jaffrelot 2015a:349). Questioned about the ownership of this idea, Mr. Modi replied: “The mask did bring about a connect between me and the masses. When I was attacked, they felt the pain” (italics added, The Times of India, 27 December 2007). Beside Modi’s victimization strategy, the attempt to build a mimetic rapport with voters was replicated for his CM reelection in 2012 (The Times of India, 29 November 2018), complemented by the use of 3D holograms which enabled him to campaign simultaneously in different places, contributing to his access to the post of Prime Minister in 2014 (Narayan 2014), and his reelection in 2019.

The grounded and theatrical connect between populist leaders and the people, enacting both the horizontal representation of direct democracy and the leadership verticality of authoritarianism (Diehl 2019), is culturally loaded, that is subject to regional variations. This is why political scientists find populism difficult to extract from the contextual environment in which it emerges, thus often labelling the notion as conceptually value-laden (Mény and Surel 2002), slippery (Taguieff 1995) or chameleonic (Taggart 2000). As a reaction to this constitutive fuzziness, a growing cohort of scholars[1] have come to define populism as a thin-centered ideology (Freeden 1998) based on antagonistic (Laclau 2011 [1977]; 2005; Mouffe 2005; 2013; 2018), black-and-white rejections of social, economic and political elites (Mudde 2004, 543; Mudde 2007, 23). Against this now dominant understanding of populism, others have insisted on another minimal definition, emphasizing the strategic (and electorally-driven) (Corniff 1999; Bonilowski and Gidron 2016) nature of anti-elitist populist claims,[2] which enable coalition-building (Roberts 2006), the by-passing of political brokers and intra-party rivals (Kenny 2017), the polarization of the electorate through communal politics (Hawkins 2010), the furthering of political mileage through fiscal largesse (Sachs 1989; Dornbusch and Edwards 1991; Acemoglu et al. 2013), or the reaping of the anguish of those ‘left behind’ in the age of post-industrial globalization (Aguiton and Mouffe 2018).

While the highly seductive interpellations (De La Torre 2010) of contemporary populisms are certainly weaved around anti-establishment claims that can be quantified,[3] we depart from minimal approaches as we suggest that asserting an aversion for the powerful few is not sufficient enough to turn a political representative into a populist. After all, most political parties display a strong anti-incumbency agenda, while many embrace a range of various revolutionary stands without being widely perceived as populist. As a tentative answer to this, a range of scholars have argued that in order to become populist, an anti-establishment call has to be voiced in a populist fashion (Heinisch 2003; Taguieff 2007; Jagers and Walgrave 2007; Moffit and Tormey 2014; Pels [Meijers] 2016). Thus, they have turned to the analysis of political style (Wodak 2009; Moffit 2016:67; Ostiguy 2009; Ostiguy 2017; Ostiguy and Casullo 2017) to make sense of how ‘the people’ are invoked by populists (Arditi 2007). The notion of style is understood by them as the bridge between political content (public policies etc.) and political aesthetic.[4]

Through examining Narendra Modi’s communication style and its interplay with institutional governance and his ideological leanings (Urbinati 2019), we argue that anti-establishment claims become populist when a leader complements anti-elite stances with personal identification with the putative and cohesive figure of the people, where one part of it is portrayed as its whole.  Identification is coined here as the eradication of the symbolic distance between the represented and the representative. The article suggests that anti-elitism activates populist tropes only when it is channeled by a mimetic process in which leaders emulate the simple, direct, affective, seemingly lowly manners of the people, while retaining a charismatic autonomy vis-à-vis the people, triggering their desire to imitate the leader. In such cases, vertical indirect representation is eclipsed by unmediated horizontal identification with an elected figure through a language that stresses similarity between leader and led (Diehl 2017). The article puts forward the concept of political mimesis in order to shed new light on populist attributes such as the flaunting of lowly manners (Canonvan 1999; Ostiguy 2009), affectual claims (Sanchez 2019), and charismatic stances (De La Torre 2010; Leonard 2011, 3). Political mimesis is here understood as the ensemble of discursive and governmental practices aiming at imitating the putative ways of the people in order to performatively embody unmediated democratic representation. Hence, the outcome of political mimesis is precisely this strong identification between the represented and the representative, to the extent of abolishing the symbolic distance between the two.

We propose an original method to identify mimetic identification with the people in political speeches by elected leaders advocating anti-elite values. We outline its three core components, namely (1) simple communication, (2) institutional disintermediation, (3) intimate vocabulary. Additionally, we identify two supportive components: (4) emotionally negative content and (5) markers of authority (Diehl 2019; Urbinati 2019).  For this set of five variables, we identify fifty categories made of wordlists that have direct or inverse relationship to those variables. We then derive words marking relevant psychological states with the help of Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) dictionary (Pennebaker, Booth, and Francis 2015). We then contextualize those entries (we call them seeds) by detecting associated words within the corpus of Indian Prime Ministers, which we term collocations.

When compared to the three other potential ways of calculating populism in speeches (i.e. Holistic Grading, Wordscores and Topic Modelling), our approach has the double advantage of not requiring any labelling of speeches by potentially unreliable experts while not needing any inference from pre-existing documents evaluated as populist. Additionally, populist variables are not limited to formal anti-elitist tropes and do not require any noise cleaning – i.e. removing non-populist vocabulary. Last but not least, while the search for co-occurrences has the advantage of making the populist word clusters reflective of the context in which they emerge, the text analysis is straightforward and easily replicable to cross-regional settings.

The rest of the article is divided into two distinct sections. We first provide a critical overview of debates on contemporary populism in order to locate the pertinence of political mimesis in the process of populist claim-making, both globally and in the Indian context. After briefly reviewing the mainstream methods of measuring populism, we move to the second section. Our alternative research design is introduced, as well as the five outcome variables at hand and the dataset upon which they are tested. We present the results and discuss the way populist identification makes up the warp and weft of media-centric contemporary Indian politics. To conclude, the article reflects on the need to interpret emotional negativity and authority markers of populist rhetoric not in isolation, but at the intersection of speeches, decision-making and political laissez-faire. We indicate that such political contexts provide alternative readings and ‘subtexts’ of populist statements that apparently flaunt positive emotions and postures of humbleness, while endorsing at the same time negative communal polarization and authoritative – if not authoritarian – leadership.

Beyond Anti-elitism: Populism and Unmediated Identification

Even if scholars might not come to a unified understanding of what populism is, they tend to agree on who populists are (Roodujin 2014; Moffit 2016). Not only has the average support for so-called populist parties doubled since the 1980s in Europe,[5] but as of 2018 a network of populist leaders around the world is steadily consolidating, including personalities such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Matteo Salvini (Italy), Imran Khan (Pakistan), Benyamin Netanyahou (Israel), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Thaksin Shinawatra (Thailand), Donald Trump (United States of America) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil).

The gradual yet irresistible rise to power of Narendra Modi (Rajagopal 2015; Pal 2015; Rehman 2018) is weaved around an apparently paradoxical and complementary narrative in which the figures of the victimized commoner and the hero are projected simultaneously by him. On the one hand he is the humble poor middle-caste tea seller (Bandyopadhyay 2016) who made it to the heights of power. On the other he is the multi-epithet champion – the Stakhanovist (Marino 2014), ubiquitous (The Hindu, 25 August 2018), pro-entrepreneurship (Ruparelia 2015), high-tech (Pal 2015; Rao 2018), fashionable (Visvanathan 2013), folkloric (Vishvanathan 2020), lion-like (Sinha 2017) and cult-like (Kapila 2016) masculine ruler (Srivastava 2015) – who flaunts his apparently simple, devotional and un-cosmopolitan ‘Indianness’[6] to national and international audiences (Biswas 2010). Assuming a fatherly communication style (The Hindustan Times, 28 March 2017), Narendra Modi seeks to appear as the embodiment of the fearless (Modi 2018a; The Hindustan Times, 4 April 2014) pater of the country, defending the masses (Jaffrelot 2013; Chibber and Verma 2014) against the corrupted elites and their black money (Ghosh, Chandrasekhar and Patnaik 2017). Somewhat in contrast, he also portrays himself as the friendly ‘dad’ who gives motivational advice to students ahead of their school examinations (Modi 2018b) and addresses common people directly on monthly radio shows (Khanwalkar et al. 2017).

This dual attempt to identify with the people and appear larger than life contributes to the anti-elitist agenda of Narendra Modi. His emphasis on the fact that he is a “small person who wants to accomplish big feats for other small people” is paired with a discourse against the insiders, the ruling family of the opposition party or simply those from the capital New Delhi (Jaffrelot 2015a; Basu 2017). Comparing himself as the powerful servitor-god of Hinduism, Hanuman (Jaffrelot 2015b), he likes to portray himself as a victim of the English-speaking elite media, and this anti-establishment discourse is being complemented by a clear anti-minority agenda. This includes, among others, the curtailing of constitutional provisions (such as the right to citizenship), reduced political representation for Muslims, the promotion of anti-Muslim discourses by the ruling party, the inaction against Hindu cultural vigilantes, and the denial of the existing socio-economic deprivation of Indian minorities (Jaffrelot 2017).

Thin Beyond Recognition? From the ‘What’ to the ‘How’ of Populism

Narendra Modi’s public omnipresence provides a vivid entry into the sensorial realm of everyday populist politics in which the continuum between ideology, style and institutional disfigurations is palpable in leaders’ speeches. The anti-elitist stand of Narendra Modi makes him enter the populist family if we abide by the minimal definition of Mudde, which defines the phenomenon as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people” (Mudde 2004, 543). Although this definition does a fair job in indexing and comparing populisms around the world, it tells us little about the way populism performs. The analytical and empirical problems that arise from the study of populism’s success are mainly due to a series of shortcomings that we review below. These shortcomings include artificially disembodied approaches of populist ideas, to a set of identification issues, to strong geographical tropism in case-selection, and to the overall analytical blindness of the continuum between ideological, stylistic and institutional components of populism.

Since the leading thin-centered school of research on populism revolving around Mudde’s body of work concentrates on the study of ideology, it tends to neglect the various ways through which anti-elitism crystallizes around charismatic figures. First, since populism, which thrives in electoral democracies, in an ‘incarnated’ phenomenon, the process through which anti-establishment claims converse with anti-pluralist tactics (Muller 2017), pure authorization (Diehl 2019) and permanent acclamation (Urbinati 2019) is systematically carried out by plebiscitary and personalistic leaders. Thus, populism is inseparable from its flamboyant flag-bearers; approaching the phenomenon from a strictly ideational (and often non-electoral) angle strikes as unreasonably restrictive (Moffit 2016). While ideas are crucial in understanding the politics of politicians such as Modi, we suggest that the personalistic form in which they are communicated to audiences also encapsulates the ability of leaders to claim populist representation of the masses.

Second, politics’ fundamentally agonistic nature (Mouffe 2013; 2016) makes it often difficult to distinguish anti-incumbency politics from its anti-elite counterpart. This makes Wodak ask the rhetorical yet crucial question: “are not all politicians populists” (Wodak 2015)? For instance, why would the denunciation by the main Indian opposition party of the nexus between the government and crony capitalists (Khatri and Ojha 2017) not qualify as populist? Whether treating populism as an ordinal or zero-one matter, ideational approaches to populism take the risk of detecting many false positives, in particular among opposition politicians and tribunes (Lavau 1981). Additionally, studies that use minimal definitions to grade populist text material often rely either on the subjectivity of graders (Pauwels 2011) or on a single and restrictive set of words that proxy anti-elitism. This leads again to risking the identification of false positives (Hawkins 2009; Pauwels 201109; Weyland 2017), casting shadows on the empirical reliability (Bonikowski 2016) of analyses based on minimal definitions. False positive issues suggest that anti-establishment statements alone might not amount to populism unless they get activated through the enactment of a people-leaders’ identification and its “repertoire of embodied, symbolically mediated performances” (Moffit 2016, 47). In the quest for establishing its scientific dominance in the field through asserting its denotative clarity (Pauwels 2011), distinguishability, categorizability, transposability, and versatility (Mudde 2017), the leading thin-centered definition of populism exceedingly concentrates on what is claimed, rather than on how it is claimed (Slatcher et al. 2007; Chapp 2012).

Lastly, the few cross-regional studies testing the causality between a change of voters’ attitudes and the success of so-called populist parties (Hawkins et al 2018) introduce a problematic distinction between developed and underdeveloped countries by claiming that the latter foster populism due to ‘bad governance’ (Hawkins 2010; Conniff 2012; Kriesi and Pappas 20165;  Kazin 2017; Castanho Silva et al. 2019). While not considering Asian and African cases, Hawkins and colleagues generalize by stating that contexts of crisis, corruption and political unresponsiveness trigger dormant populist attitudes among the electorate (Hawkins et al. 2018).  For instance, the Indian case contradicts the mainstream literature on Western populisms in two respects: it does not build on the resentment of the “losers of globalization” (Kriesi et al. 2006; 2008) and is not a primarily rural phenomenon (Mauger 2017). Both in the state of Gujarat and at the national level, Modi voters are mainly urban and upwardly mobile (Chakravartty and Roy 2015; Jaffrelot 2015c).

Overall, the focus on how populism is used to gain political leverage gives little attention to the internal efficacy of populist representative claims (Saward 2006; Tawa Lama-Rewal 2016).[7] Differently put, the reasons of populist successes are assumed to be exogamous rather than endogamous. Historical debates around the bulging performance of populist representative claims tend to consider it as a reaction to a socio-economic crisis in Europe and the American continent (Betz 2018). Functionalist arguments of the success of populism include: the demise of the liberal political consensus emerging after the Cold War (Errejón and Mouffe; Mouffe 2016b; Salter 2016), the erosion of the credibility of left-right ideologies (Ankersmit 1996; Pels 2003), the managerial and state-centered turn of political parties (Caramani 2017), the rising inequalities in free-market societies (Perrineau 2017), the attrition of work-related values in post-industrial societies (Ignazi 1996a; 1996b; Aguiton et Mouffe 2018), or simply the unintended consequences of economic shocks (Rodrik 2018) and feelings of cultural decay (Weiland 2001; Charaudeau 2011; Kriesi and Pappas 2015).

Although the cultural anguish and employment frustrations consolidated by globalization have a certain resonance in India (Mankekar 2015; Poonam 2018), there is no evidence that populism in fast-growing societies in mainly the result of imbalances caused by economic transformations. While the theme of corruption is often central to achieving political mobilization in Indian urban centers (Visvanathan 2012), explaining Indian populism as an expression of a general political disenchantment runs against survey-based evidence (Kumar, Palshikar and Shahtri 2017). Since leading interpretations of populism have a nearly exclusive focus on Europe and Latin America,[8] these approaches tend to produce canonical generalizations about the inherently ‘reactive’ nature of populism without considering cases running against this assumption.

Populism in Saffron Clothes: The Current Indian Scenario

While bringing the case of India into the larger discussion on populism, we acknowledge the limitations of populism studies in South Asia. Away from the dominant thin-centered paradigm, the stream of scholarship focusing on populism in India associates it to fiscal largesse and the endorsement of so-called irresponsible socioeconomic redistribution.[9] This policy-based interpretation attaches the populist label to the redistributive politics that are aimed at few and run against the interests of the majority (Dornbusch and Edwards 1991; Acemoglu, Egorov and Sonin 2013). These approaches, however, are unconvincing, as electorally driven expenditure points selectively to left politics and is not necessarily linked with anti-elitism. They are therefore of no use to our analysis (Wyatt 2013).

Another set of researchers on Indian politics interpret populism as the political instrumentalization of the people-elite divide, but accounts tend to label all the popular appeals as populist. For instance Subramanian coins freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi as a populist because he relied on an anti-modernist rhetoric against the British elite in order to mobilize a wide array of middle-class and professional groups in support of the nationalist movement (Subramanian 2007). Earlier works on Indian populism focused on the mobilizational appeal of film-celebrities-turned-politicians in the Dravidian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (Naidu 1984; Kohli 1988; Kannan 2017). As part of the larger phenomenon of the vernacularization of Indian politics (Michelutti 2008), they identified two forms of anti-elite politics in the 1980s-1990s, represented by the Congress Party and the assimilationist threat of Hindi speakers. One such politics was based on the protection of the poorest, and the other on the empowerment of middle strata groups introduced as the ‘authentic’ people.[10] Here the identification of the people with a leader aligns with a recognizable fault line of cultural identity and unfolds mostly at sub-federal levels (Chatterjee 2019). Jaffrelot and Tillin indicate that prior to the Dravidian cases of catch-all politics, such an inter-class strategy of coalition building was emulated by two political figures (Jaffrelot and Tillin 2017). On the one hand emerged the agrarian leader Charan Singh who emulated the peasantry’s values against the urban and corrupt establishment. On the other hand, immediately before that – at the end of the 1960s – a comparable anti-elite discourse emerged, represented by Congress leader Indira Gandhi and weaved around a pro-poor socialist rhetoric.

Since the late 1980s, attempts to embody popular subjectivity and its highly heterogenous reality (Laclau 2005) have been increasingly captured by Hindu nationalists (Hansen 1999), who are progressively shifting the collective understanding of “the people” from one of a rich tapestry of diverse yet united identities (Khilnani 1999) to a more homogenous collective under the flag of Hindu culture. The emergence of Narendra Modi as the most prominent Indian political figure signaled the banalization of the Hindu nationalist ideology as it coexisted with his image of the vikas purush (development man) (Ruparelia 2015; Jaffrelot 2016). Thus, the study of contemporary populism in India has to be grounded in a context in which the pervasive metaphors of the Indian people are becoming increasingly Hindu-centric.

As in other global populisms, India’s current politics of communal polarization tends to align the people with the majority, rejecting en bloc minority rights and democratic accountability. Hence, the populist attempt to exclude minorities from the “pure body of the people” (Resnick 2017) by extending tacit support to militias, vigilantes, moral brigades, and other vindictive groups, is a fixture of the current Indian regime. Modi has on several occasions let riotous kar sevaks (servers-in-action) and self-proclaimed gau rakshaks (cow protectors) of his own Hindu Nationalist organization (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, National Volunteer Organization) engage in state-sponsored communal killings of Muslims ever since he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat (Jaffrelot 2007; Spodek 2010; Basu 2015; Sen 2016, Basu 2018, Tudor 2018). The 2019 government’s initiative to define accession to citizenship on religious lines had as consequence the barring of Muslim migrants from three neighboring countries from applying for Indian citizenship (Farooqi 2020).  The act follows a series of triumphalist decisions against Indian Muslims: the suppression of a customary way to divorce in Indian Muslim personal law, the abolition of the special status of the only Muslim-dominated state in the country, and the final adjudication of land for the construction of a temple of the Hindu god Ram in place of a mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in the 1990s (The Free Press Journal, 30 December 2019).

Thickening Populism: The ‘Mimetic’ Hypothesis

Despite the highly regional and idiosyncratic features of Indian politics, a common denominator emerges when trying to identify their populist representatives: they are powerful individuals who magnetically relate to the people, while short-circuiting brokers and intermediaries (Kenny 2017; Jaffrelot and Tillin 2017). We use this insight to complement the consensual thin-centered approach. We float the concept of populist mimesis that we define as the set of performances – stylistic, ideological and institutional – by which charismatic anti-elite leaders mimic the majority as ‘the people’ in order to successfully speak in their name and bypass political intermediaries – such as institutions, medias, justice, civil society, political parties, unions, experts, non-governmental organizations, etc. We argue that in media-savvy societies, the endeavor of ‘aping of the people’ is paradoxically incarnated by highly personalistic leaders and takes the form of what Ostiguy (2017) calls the ‘flaunting of low’. By arguing that populist success lies in the seductive claim that the leader is an unmediated political transfiguration of the real people against the elites, our account suggests that populism necessarily entails a strong identification to a flagbearer of anti-establishment ideas.

Mimesis is not a new concept in the study of modern and contemporary South Asia, as the notion is central to the understanding of caste mobility though the prolonged emulation of the ways of covalent upper jatis – birth communities (Srinivas 1956). Mimesis is also a central mechanism to understand post-colonial nationalist reformism as a derivative discourse (Chatterjee 1983), in which the frustrated colonized competes against the dominating colonizer by emulating the latter’s political and cultural tenets (Jaffrelot 2005).

More generally, apart from its multiple uses in social psychology[11] and the arts[12]  – as a vehicle for creative and social identification (Girard 1979; Gallese 2009) – the term mimesis has been employed to make sense of public opinion making and the performing of political representation. Particularly influenced by the actor-network theory of Latour (Latour 2002, 2011) and the rediscovery of the sociological work of Tarde (Corvellec and Eriksson-Zetterquist 2017), the notion of mimesis is used to understand the way public opinion is formed through micropolitical processes of personal appropriation, imitation and personalized expression (Bennett and Segerberg 2012). The existence of mimetic behaviors among media audiences is particularly emphasized, especially among social networks users (ibid.). Social practices such as fashion or political mobilization are partly reliant on the individual’s imitative ‘translations’ of either influencers (Czarniawska 2008) or masses of easily influenced individuals (Watts and Dodds 2007). Crudely translated into the vote-seeking realm, social mimesis—understood as a social mechanism of binding one another – is key to achieving electoral performance as it enables the “manufacturing of consent” (Herman and Chomsky 2010).

While acknowledging the relevance of mimetic processes in the social transmission of political statements and order-words (Deleuze et Guattari 1980), we use the term here with reference to political representation. We understand mimetic representative claims as the various stylistic and discursive ways in which representatives convincingly make the appeal: “I am the people.” Our theoretical foundation of representational mimesis is informed by the work of Ankersmit (1996; 2002). Reworking the classical institutional dichotomy between the delegative and representative forms of representation, he understands mimetic representation as a form of imperative mandate in which the ruler is both the extension of the people and owned by them (Ankersmit 1996:21-45). Since popular sovereignty aims at the legitimation of political power by placing its origin with the people (ibid., 53), the idealized idea of mimetic representation is a grounded popular desire.

In mimetic representation, leaders are not trustees but delegates whose mission is to lead the people to a ‘revealed’ political truth (ibid., 34). As opposed to mimetic representation, aesthetic representation introduces a distance between the people and their substitute, thus permitting an aesthetic distinction between the represented and the representative. Such an aesthetic approach is the norm in contemporary democracies as it introduces various degrees of institutional autonomy of the political power vis-à-vis society (Sartori 1973). Forms of direct or liquid democracy (Bauman 2007) such as referendums, initiatives or recall elections are secondary compared to the mechanisms of governance relying on the elections of national legislatures and governments.

The wide and vertical demarcation (Ankersmit 1996) between represented and representatives in contemporary democracies is reinforced by the fact that mediatized societies require politicians to be clearly identifiable—distinctly visible through the display of original forms of communication. The centrality of media in political routines creates the need for politicians to develop an intimate complicity with their audience (Mazzoleni 2008) in which they are turned into celebrities and household friends at the same time (Pels 2003). In that context political success is not only a function of voters’ rational preferences, but depends on how the functional difference between the ruler and the ruled is symbolically ‘bridged’.

Emphasizing the relational components of populism, as well as the ability of charismatic populists to diffuse widely their discourse on media platforms (Koopmans and Muis 2009), Ostiguy understands its rhetoric in opposition to the “high ways” of mainstream politics (Ostiguy 2005; 2009; 2014; 2017). He coins populism as the “enactment of the low” in politics through the politicization of popular social markers such as warmness, directness, coarseness, manliness, boldness and the display of manners that are unpredictable, transgressive, provocative, crude, uninhibited, home-grown and un-cosmopolitan. There, anti-elitism takes the form of a socio-political style that attacks high and established forms of political cultures based on formal, impersonal, bureaucratic, legalistic and intuitionally mediated forms of decision making. In contrast, the political low involves the triggering of uncoordinated grassroots movements calling for a strong and personalistic form of leadership. Thus, “the most extreme form of populist representation and linkage is fusion, that is, a ‘fusion’ between the leader and the masses. The understudied, positive flip side of the populist fusional discourse, when in power, is that it is often explicitly a discourse of love” (Ostiguy 2017, 46). Additionally, victimization is one of the implicit facets of Ostiguy’s theory. It helps the populist leader to relate to the masses who fear for their future and who also feel badly treated by the elite groups and the establishment.[13]

We suggest that Ostiguy’s approach, sensitive to the discursive and sensorial features of politics, is much more adapted to the study of how populist anti-elitism translates into political efficacy – that is, through the identification with a charismatic leader who performs the suppression of the cesura between the represented and representatives. Thus, populism cannot be comprehended without understanding it solely as a set of political ideas, irrespective of their degree of ‘thinness’. Instead we see it as enactments of symbolic and embodied performances (Moffit 2016:47) to media-receptive audiences that disfigure the functioning of democratic representative institutions. Drawing on linguistic indicators of political mimesis, we conceptualize and measure the populist mimesis in Indian Prime Ministers’ speeches since India’s independence in 1947.

Quantifying Political Mimesis: Method and Results

While the existing literature quantifies populist ideas (anti-elitist claims), we concentrate on populist identification (mimetic claims). By examining the distribution of linguistic patterns among Indian Prime Ministers, we assess Narendra Modi’s aptitude to claim a mimetic rapport with the people.

 Context-based Wordlists through Collocations of Tested Psychometric Linguistic Markers

We disaggregate mimetic identification in five distinct measurable variables in political speeches. The first variable engages with linguistic simplicity, and includes word categories such as short sentences, short words, few cognitive, principled and conceptual notions, Manichaeism (simplistic elites/non-elites divide), folklore (festivals, cultural nationalism) and narrative markers – past-tense verbs (Diehl 2019). The second variable refers to institutional disintermediation, that is the propensity of leaders to avoid references to political intermediaries, insisting instead on an unmediated relationship with constituents. Here we include lexical categories such as self-referencing pronouns (I, me, my) and direct references to the audience (you, your) which suggest immediateness, informality and warmness (Pennebaker and Lay 2002) – see Appendix 1 for all the indicators. Conversely, references to institutional processes, political parties as well as insight and assent lexicon mark high levels of intermediation as they suggest pluralistic dialogue and mediation (Pennebaker 2011). Thirdly, we account for markers of intimacy, that is the vocabulary that marks closeness, casualness, commonness, kinship, social connectedness, everyday work and household matters. This category entails vocabulary categories of friendship, family, home, leisure, health, religion, money, body, eating, physical feelings, as well as indicators of social attachment. Contrastingly, we-words signify arrogance, detachment and high-status.[14]

We coin word categories included in simplicity, disintermediation and intimacy variables as the core features of mimetic representative claims. They relate directly to simplified, unmediated, lowly and popular avatars of identification to the people while flattering sameness, belonging, commonness and closeness (Oliver and Rahn 2016). We additionally test two supporting variables that are traditionally associated with the populist ethos: the flaunting of negative emotions (Muller 2016) and the display of charismatic authority markers (Canovan 1999). The literature stresses the emotional appeals (Wirz 2018) of populist politicians, including anger (Rico, Guinjoan and Anduiza 2017, Magni 2017), threat,[15] blame (Hameleers, Bos and deVreese 2016), shame, insecurity (Salmela and Scheve 2017), fear and resentment (Caiani and Graziano 2016). Therefore, in the variable acrimony, we account for negative emotions, including semantic categories like anger, anxiety, sadness, swear words, conflict, risk and community references. Recent accounts also describe populists as coterie-based (McDonnell 2015) extraordinary leaders (Pappas 2016), enabling personalist and radical authority (Pappas 2019), extraversion, provocation, aggressiveness (Nai, Coma and Mayer 2019), routinized charisma (Wayland 2001; Gurov and Zankina 2014), and moral embodiments of the absolute power of the people (Kramer 2014). We thus constructed a variable authority that includes criteria such as achievements, certainty, decisiveness and the aversion for tentative words.

We hypothesize in (H1) that core indicators of mimetic claims (simplicity, disintermediation and intimacy) are the markers of populist identification. We also test whether supporting indicators (H2) of mimetic claims (acrimony and authority) contribute to populist identification. Subsequently, we populate the 50 lexical categories of our variables with relevant lexicon. Word categories own a direct or inverse relationship to their respective variables. For example, the category ‘short sentences’ has a direct relationship to the variable simplicity, but ‘conceptual notions’ has an inverse relationship to it. We call ‘seeds’ the words of the vocabulary lists contained in the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) program. LIWC has over decades identified reliable linguistic markers of psychological states (Pennebaker et al. 2015), which can be used to analyze the linguistic tropes of politicians (Slatcher et al. 2007; Havas and Chapp 2016). We call ‘extensions’ the collocations extracted from our corpus that are statistically associated with our seeds (see Fig. 2).

In textual corpuses, empirical collocations (Evert 2007) are word combinations that are neither idioms nor free word associations (Van der Wouden 1997). Common in all types of writings and speeches (Smadja 1993), they indicate a continuous or discontinuous (Manning and Schütze 1999) sequence of two words or more (Bartsch 2004) that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance (Correa 2018). Since collocation mining (Wermter and Hahn 2006) provides frequencies of habitual word combinations (Lin 1999), it is a convenient approach not only for disambiguation or translation, but also for identifying the context in which words appear (McKeown and Radev 2010; Salama 1998). As base words attract collocators, context-specific multi-word units (Nesselhauf 2004) can be derived through computing statistical cooccurrence (Manning and Schütze 1999; Heiden, Magué and Pincemin 2010). Focusing on collocation as a frequent cooccurrence (Stubb 2001), we do not pay excessive attention to the syntactic relations between base words and collocators. For example, in the word category ‘assent’, the politically common feature accept is a cooccurrent of agree, and in the category ‘religion’, the culturally grounded feature guru is a cooccurrent of priest. We perform targeted frequency analyses (Xie and al. 2012) on our corpus of Indian Prime Ministers’ speeches using the statistically scoring collocations method of the natural language processing R package Quanteda (Benoit et al. 2018).

Finally, we call the words that were not sourced using LIWC vocabulary and its contextual collocates ‘ad hoc features’. For example, to identify the language related to institutional processes in India, we used the index of the Oxford Companion to Politics in India (Gopal and Mehta 2011). Our use of the term ‘word’ includes free morphemes, lexemes (i.e. dictionary entries), stems (i.e. root forms) and n-grams (usually bigrams or trigrams) which are used whenever word combinations rather than single words need to be added to one particular word category. To avoid any confusion, we use the term ‘feature’ in our results. For additional accuracy, features of the dictionary are case sensitive.

Variables are constructed using the Database of Indian Prime Ministers’ Speeches (DIPMS), a dataset of 5 254 speeches (9 154 654 words) by Prime Ministers (PMs) since Indian independence, collected since 2017 by one of the authors. The current version of DIPMS covers all the elected[16] Indian PMs that have completed at least a one-year term.[17] We also included the short-lived prime-ministerships of Charan Singh (1979), VP Singh (1989-90) and Chandra Shekhar (1990-91) who have sometimes been labeled as populist by scholars in India (Bajpai 12992; Kumar 2018; Dhanagre 2016; Jaffrelot and Tillin 2017). The various speeches were sourced from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) of the Government of India or releases of the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). Whenever available in print only, speeches were scanned, OCRed and cleaned, both manually and via the use of regular expressions. To avoid comparison issues in multi-lingual corpuses, official translations to English were used for speeches made in Indian languages such as Hindi, Gujarati and Telugu. We commissioned translations of 45 speeches for which no available translation was found. Our analysis excludes oral communications and interviews of PMs as they were performed in the absence of an identifiable audience. The dataset includes PMs’ speeches made in the course of their mandate(s) and during their campaign(s) to access power. Figure 1 summarizes the distribution of word features of the corpus under scrutiny. Appendix 2 introduces summary statistics of the five levels of the analysis: hypotheses (H1, H2), variables (simplicity, disintermediation, intimacy, acrimony, authority), categories (the 50 of them), categories’ relationships to variables (direct, inverse) and types of features (seeds, extensions, ad-hoc). Figure 2 provides an overview of the hierarchies between the five levels’ nested lists of the final populist dictionary used for the analysis. Figure 3 presents the proportions (range [0,1]) of the various word categories of the populist dictionary for each Prime Minister.

In order to interpret the significance of our results, we first need to determine whether the linguistic measures of the different levels of the populist dictionary vary significantly across Prime Minsters’ speeches. One-way ANOVAs are performed for each of the measures at each dictionary level. We additionally compute eta squared estimates of ANOVA effect sizes in order to adjust for large sample sizes (Levine and Hullett 2002). As displayed in Table 1, there are significant linguistic variations among Prime Ministers on all measures (except one, the category ‘swear words’). The magnitude of the variations of dictionary lists compared to the non-included vocabulary confirms that substantial differences in the use of populist mimesis exist among speakers.

Table 1. Proportions, Variance and Effect Sizes for Select Levels of the Populist Dictionary

Results and Discussion

As indicated in Table 1 (in particular box a and b), Narendra Modi (2014-) is the one making the most frequent use of the core components of populist mimesis (H1). He uses a much simpler language (13.5% of simplicity prone and 16.4% of simplicity averse features in his speeches) than other Indian Prime Ministers. His language is the most unmediated among all PMs (7.0% of disintermediation prone and 3.5% of disintermediation averse features). Modi is also the PM who uses the greatest amount of intimate features (19.0% of intimacy prone and 2.0% of intimacy averse features), followed closely by Chandra Shekhar. However, when it comes to the supporting features of populist mimesis (H2), Modi does not stand out, and VP Singh and Charan Singh display slightly higher scores on average than other PMs. Jawaharlal Nehru and Chandra Shekhar display the most acrimonious speeches, and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) the most authoritative ones.

As displayed in Figure 4, when computing the ratio between the proportion of features that have a direct relationship with mimetic populism and those which have an inverse relationship with it, Modi champions mimetic populism (H1), but only when we account for mimesis’ core components. In that configuration, he is almost twice as populist as PMs such as VP Singh, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Since Modi stands out in the three variables of H1 (see Table 1, box b), the interpretation of the results of any multidimensional aggregate generated from it is straightforward (Wuttke et al 2020). When plotting the evolution of the populist ratio (H1) overtime (Figure 5), it shows how much it has increased since the arrival of Narendra Modi to power (for full model, see Appendix 3).

Results show that despite the ritualized semantic of the Indian state through the voice of its Prime Ministers (Bajpai 2018), Narendra Modi has revolutionized the speech exercise by saturating its content with markers of personal identification with the ‘common’ people. More than others, he uses plain language, replete with everyday vocabulary, rich in references to kinship relations, removed from the mediating presence of political, judicial, media and administrative structures.

If we unpack the word categories among PMs displayed in Table 1 (box c), we can further outline the salient characteristics of the leader-people identification claimed by Modi. His simple communication involves the use of short sentences full of exclamations, numeral metaphors, and other forms of direct interpellations of the crowd such as rhetorical questions. Conversely, he tends to avoid long words, cognitive processes and conceptual notions. Modi discourses are particularly poor in abstract references to principles, in particular democratic ones (e.g. few features like democracy, freedom, coexistence, secularism, equality, pluralism, dissent are found in his speeches).[18]

While Modi rarely targets minorities and Pakistan[19] explicitly in his speeches, he unfurls a language that suggests that Hinduism is the primary cultural backbone of the Indian people. He overuses Hindu symbols such as yoga, mantra, Ganga, Ayurveda, cleanliness, Swami, cow, god, temple, etc. He also celebrates assiduously popular religious festivals, which are numerically predominantly Hindu. By doing so, Modi identifies ‘the people’ as the religious majority of the country. Yet, Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology does not affect his characteristically accessible language. Contrary to ministers of his party at central and state levels (such as Yogi Adityanath, Rajnath Singh, Prahlad Singh Patel or Nitin Gadkari), the Sanskritization of his Hindi – a marker of Hindu purity alien to Urdu-intensive street level Hindi – is not overtly pronounced. A good example is the progressive replacement of the word mitro – the vocative form of the Sanskritized term for ‘friends’ – to the more colloquial synonym dosto in his addresses to crowds (Bansal 2017).

The language of disintermediation characterizing Modi speeches is averse to mentioning institutional processes, including parliamentary ones. Words such as cooperation, commission, conference, scheduled, understanding, proposal, legislation, consensus, programme, process, debate, deliberation, recommendation are rarely used when compared to other PMs. The unmediated character of the relationship Modi wants to strike with the people is epitomized by his excessive use of first-person singular pronouns (my, me, I). Modi also frequently refers to himself in the third person: he self-refers to ‘Modi’ or ‘Modiji’ 608 times in the DIPMS corpus. Conversely, in Modi speeches, you emerges as the fourth strongest cooccurrent of I (after my, believe and that). Using you more than others, the Iyou proximity (mean distance=4,7) indicates that he stresses a direct connection between himself and the audience. His speeches insist on a lexicon of boldness, success and individualized decision-making associated with yojna (schemes) on girls’ education (Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao), on cleaning rural and urban spaces (Swachchh Bharat), on LED bulbs’ distribution (Ujala Yojna), on loans for SMEs (Mudra Yojna) or on rural employment (Grameen Rozgar Yojna). By directly linking welfare schemes to everyday objects such as cooking gas cylinders, Modi’s schemes resonate as personal connections between lay people and himself, giving the impression that Modi himself gives people direct access to the state.

Hence, unsurprisingly, Modi has championed the language of intimacy by tapping into the mundane paraphernalia of the household and the daily life of the non-elite, exemplified by his overuse of the vocabulary of the house (i.e. house, family, stove, kitchen, bath, bed etc.). Similarly, he champions lexical fields associated with routine and intimate practices. He thus relies on the vocabulary of kinship (brother, sister, mother, son, bond, widow, pregnant, uncle, friend, neighbour, guest), money (poor, rupee, money, bank, penny, loan, crore, lakh), health (life, birth, medicine, pain, doctor, sick, disease, wellbeing, digest), body (heart, sleep, shoulder, sweat, hands, body, womb, clothes, knee, shirt), leisure (dream, team, tea, sports, photo, TV, photos, app, celebrate, Olympics), religion (blessings, baba, god, holy, devotee, bow, swami, guru, ram, shakti) or food (water, milk, sugarcane, honey, dairy, mangoes, sweet, eat, banana, bread, firewood). Modi, more than others, refers to the familiar historical figures of the Indian political landscape, often disregarding their actual ideological non-Hindu nationalist (Leftist, Dalit, secular) leanings. To boast his mimetic rapport with the people, he frequently invokes popular brand names such as Ambedkar, Vivekananda, Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel or Mahatma Gandhi, but not Jawaharlal Nehru, the icon of the main opposition party. Modi’s underuse of the pronoun ‘we’, a strong marker of detachment, arrogance and high status (Pennebaker 2011), contributes to his successful claim that despite his leadership status, he entertains a non-hierarchical intimate rapport with the people.

When compared with other Indian PMs, the mimetic representation claim flaunted by Narendra Modi triggers two questions. The first one is historical in nature: why is Indira Gandhi (1966-1977), the Indian Prime Minister most often referred to as populist in Indian academia (Jaffrelot and Tillin 2017), ranking so “average” in our model? In the 50 populist categories Indira Gandhi stands out in none, thus defying easy categorization. She displays a resolutely more negative vocabulary (not, but, problems, difficulties, opposition) than the other PMs even though she is only the third highest user of negative emotions (after Chandra Shekhar and his father, Jawaharlal Nehru). As expected, she refers abundantly to the feature “people” but refers to non-elite markers only sparsely, less often than Narendra Modi, Chandra Shekhar and Charan Singh.

Moreover, results of the supporting indicators of populist identification (H2) indicate that Modi’s speeches do not per se display strong markers of authority and acrimony. We suggest however that the Indian political context acts as subtext, hence enabling Modi’s language of humility to be read as both modesty and authority, while discourses full of positivity trigger simultaneously national belonging and negative indictments to communal conflict. It is this intertextual relationship between speeches and context that enables polysemic Modi to talk about national unity while triggering majoritarian polarization, and to construct a discourse of pro-people selflessness while suggesting at the same time a personalistic leader’s cult. We illustrate below this line of argument with the help of extracts from nine speeches pertaining to five political decisions (Appendix 4, s1-5) in which Modi utters positiveness and self-effacement while simultaneously vehiculating opposites tropes.

In s1 Modi comments on his 2016 overnight decision to demonetize rupees 500 and 1000 (7 and 14 dollars) banknotes. The decision contributed to India’s economic slowdown and heavily affected the lower and middle classes that rely on the cash-based informal economy (India Today, 01 February 2020). Stressing that he is ready to sacrifice himself electorally (“I am not concerned about the elections, I am concerned about my country”) for the cause of fighting corruption, he strengthens his authority by involving every citizen in the moral quest of fighting “selfish interest.” He does that by associating himself with the “common man,” referring to the sacrificial contribution of the poor (auto-rickshaw [three wheeler] driver, vegetable vendor, widow, retired, Adivasi [Tribal] mother, soldier) to the national wellbeing, and invoking popular idioms of Hinduism associated with cleaning and purification (mahayajna, Diwali). Modi not only minimizes the negative outcomes of demonetization (temporary hardship, inconvenience), he transforms it into a positive “contribution to the country’s progress.”

In s2, Modi refers to the attack on Indian soldiers by an Islamic militant group in Kashmir in February 2019, and the subsequent airstrike retaliation by India on the presumed sponsor of the attack: the Pakistan armed forces (BBC, 26 February 2019). Assuming the authoritative role of military commander, he repeatedly refers to himself as people’s servant. The claim to be as low as the people he represents is followed by allusions to his leadership authority, as he invokes the “drum of India’s power” eagerly destroying “Pakistan’s arrogance.” This language also carries the positive feeling of national unity,[20] one that speaks with “one voice” to “the world,” thus flattering patriotic sentiments of an audience galvanized by his rhetorical questions.

In s3, Modi announces another “big bang reform” (The Indian Express, 5 December 2019), the removal of the constitutional autonomy of the then only Muslim-dominated state in India (Jammu and Kashmir) and its bifurcation into two separate entities with much weaker statutory provisions (transferring thereby the control of the local police to New Delhi). Opposition leaders in the region were thrown in jail – including three former Chief Ministers who are still being detained – and internet was curtailed sine die (Reuters, 12 September 2019). Achieving the longstanding ambition of Hindu nationalists while fanning sentiments of humiliation among Kashmiri Muslims (Daily O, 6 August 2019), the discourse of Modi emphasises positive features such as their dream, prosperous, peaceful, strength, courage, passion. Even if the decision is likely to radicalize Kashmiri youth (The Washington Post, 8 August 2019), the swift and resolute move is presented instead as a blow on “terrorist organizations.” Here again Modi plays the role of the authoritative leader, heading the country “as a family” while simultaneously reclaiming humbleness as he states: “I work selflessly.” Modi systematically used the most soothing style of rhetoric to dress up the most drastic measures affecting minorities.[21] For instance, Modi declared during his annual

Independence Day on August 15:

My dear countrymen, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh can become an inspiration for India for prosperity and peace. Can contribute a lot to India’s development journey. Let us all try to return those old great days. The new system that has been created with regard to those efforts will create the facility to directly work for the interests of the citizens. Now the common citizen of the country, Jammu and Kashmir can also ask the Delhi government. He will not face any interruptions. We have been able to do this straightforward arrangement today. …Today when I am addressing the country from the Red Fort, I say with pride that today every Hindustani can say – One Nation, One Constitution. (News18, 16 August 2019)

In s4, Modi comments on the decision of the Indian Supreme Court in November 2019 to allocate the ground of a former mosque to a Hindu trust meant to receive government funds for the construction of a Ram (Hindu deity) temple (The Week, 5 January 2020). The dispute escalated in the 1990s, when a convoy of Hindu militants destroyed the mosque, claiming that it was the birth place of the deity Ram (Bernbeck and Pollock 1996; Lazzaretti 2020). Headed by an overtly pro-BJP chief justice (The Week, 4 February 2020), the verdict of the Supreme Court was welcomed by Modi in positive terms like harmony, brotherhood, friendship and nation’s development. This feel-good discourse of national unity resounds simultaneously as a threat for minorities tempted to voice negative critiques: “In New India, there is no place for fear, bitterness and negativity.” The injunction to hold positive feelings can be read here as a warning for those tempted to challenge a new harmonious order in which Muslims accept their role of second-class citizens.

In s5, Modi reacts to the national protests that followed his decision to redefine access to citizenship on religious lines for migrants of three neighbouring countries (who have entered India prior to 2015), thus barring Muslims from these places to claim citizenship under the new law known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (Foreign Policy, 21 February 2020). Initially presented as the first step of a nation-wide plan for Indians to prove their citizenship through accurate documentation, the citizenship law is widely perceived as a safety net for non-Muslims who would fail to show such documentation in the near future, while making Indian Muslims run the risk of losing their citizenship (The Print, 5 March 2020). The law is meant, among others, to polarize the electorate and consolidate the Hindu vote bank, yet it is once again presented using a positive language, as an opportunity for India to give help and shelter to “Hindus and Sikh friends.” Negativity is once more associated with minorities who have misunderstood him, as he does not want to “snatch anybody’s citizenship” but rather “give nationality.” Remaining silent on the repression and killings perpetrated by the police against protestors (The New York Times, 3 March 2020), Modi puts the onus of violence on those among the demonstrators who “damaged public property.” Stressing the non-acrimonious foundations of the citizenship law reform, he suggests that the new law is in tune with the “feeling of Mahatma Gandhi,” who in collective memory stands as a symbol of non-violence and communal harmony. While demonstrations by students and Muslims were severely repressed by the police and Hindu nationalist vigilantes, Narendra Modi delivered a lecture in which he presented India as the country of “peace, unity and brotherhood,” a country where “one finds peace and harmony” because “the Indian way of conflict avoidance is not by brute force but by the power of dialogue” (NDTV, 16 January 2020; The Indian Express, 17 January 2020).

Meanwhile, the PM’s closest associate and Home Minister, Amit Shah, assumes the charge of underlining the negative subtext of the positive language of Modi by promising to hunt Muslim infiltrators and termites all across India (Press Trust of India, 11 April 2019). This discourse, that reached its culmination point during the 2019 election campaign, was repeated in the 2020 Delhi state elections when Shah referred to “anger” as a legitimate sentiment – something that was already evident from the saffron sticker showing a “angry Hanuman” on cars and motorbikes[22]: “When you press the button [of Electronic Voting Machines] on February 8, do so with such anger that its current [poll result] is felt in Shaheen Bagh [the locality of the capital city of India where Muslims were protesting against the aforementioned Citizenship Amendment Act] (The Hindu, 27 January 2020).

The analysis of Modi’s discourses regarding these five political decisions (s1-5) shows that despite highly positive and humble stands, his speeches often unfold a subtext charged with negative emotions and authoritative postures associated to the populist ethos (H2). Such subtext seems to contradict the literal meaning of Modi’s oratory interventions. Yet, instead of neutralizing each other, both positive and negative connotations of Modi speeches complement each other by targeting complementary audiences and individuals’ own inconsistencies. The plurality of readings of Modi’s speeches is a formidable political asset, as it can flatter morally constructive opinions while at the same time incite hate and identity politics. While such rhetorical polysemy is part of Modi’s populist success, references to some of his overrepresented positive terms such as unite, dream, imagine, pride, love are also – even if only incidentally – expressions of the future-oriented Hindu nationalist project. Indeed, Modi attributed his personal quest to pursue higher values to the parental organization of the Hindutva (translatable as ‘Hinduness’) movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation – RSS). Modi admits that the RSS mission is “to unite the society through individual building in the service of Motherland,” by following the principles of “renunciation, penance, devotion, loyalty and commitment” (Modi 2015, 19-20).[23] Hence, the positive and irenic tonality of Modi speeches cannot be solely reduced to political instrumentality and to strategic ‘sugar-coating’ of populist negativity and authoritarianism. Positive/negative and humble/authoritarian generative contradictions in Modi discourses are also rooted in the ideological paradoxes of his political family, which for instance invokes the morally pure Hindu dharm (law, duty) of ahimsa (non-violence), while actually resorting to violent politics – directly or indirectly – when its majoritarian agenda needs to be advanced.  


By applying an innovative method to generate contextualized dictionaries of populist features, we have opened the black box of populism in Indian Prime Ministerial speeches since the country’s independence. The article indicates that anti-elitist statements alone do not constitute a sufficient condition to characterize the everyday appeal of populism. We argue that the modus operandi of populist representative claims is the imitation of the putative people by flaunting the language of intimacy, disintermediation and simplicity. The mimetic modality of populism in PMs speeches implies affective tropes, but as we have seen, these are not always by themselves emotionally negative. Indeed, the pitting of the acrimonious feelings of the silent majority against the minority is not necessarily located in populist leaders’ textual oration alone, but in the subtext produced by the convergence of speeches, governance and political context. Similarly, authoritative and commanding components of populist leadership need to be read at the crossroads of discourse, policies and para-legal state-sponsored practices. Using intertextuality to his advantage, Modi talks about positivity and humbleness while concurrently implying negativity and authority.

Since populist mimesis is effective when embodied and adopted by ubiquitous leaders, strategic differentiation and legitimizing closeness converge in their persona to produce political legitimacy. Hero and commoner, the populist figure charms us into believing that he has successfully bridged the undesired distance between the represented and the representative. The essential mimetic modality of populism suggests that thin approaches focusing exclusively on formal and objective anti-establishment claims should become resolutely thicker and make steps towards the integration of the way political identification to the people is achieved in their cross-country models.

The ‘mimetic argument’ presented here intents to contribute to the flourishing research sub-field on populist attitudes in three different ways. From a conceptual standpoint, it warns against the reductionism of those approaches who – by focusing exclusively on the “substantive message” of populism (Rooduijn 2019) – conflate ideational content with political meaning. This study suggests that the political meaning of populism is not only located in what it says and implements, but also in how it says it. The failure to place the inquiry at the articulation between the two prevents us from decoding populists’ electoral and popular success. From a methodological point of view, this article shows that ideas are not the only political artefacts that can be measured through quantitative content analysis. We indicate instead that ideas, style and attitudes towards institutions can be quantified holistically in political speeches – but less so in manifestos and party documents. In that regard, text analyses combining dictionary-based approaches and the computation of corpus-specific cooccurrent features can prove more analytically fruitful than expert surveys. They also enable the use of generalizable quantitative analyses along with a more a qualitative exegesis of political speeches to better unpack the political efficacy of the plurality of readings they permit (Mayaffre 2010). Lastly, from an epistemological viewpoint, this contribution confirms the worldwide reach of populism through examining the phenomenon form its “margins,” that is from a world region at the periphery of current scholarship on the subject. This approach contributes to the global study of populisms, rather than the production of global claims on populism based on evidence from its Euro-American avatars.


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[24] For alternative formatting: https://zbib.org/a9681c8b81ad43e7bb1d45bb48147094


APPENDIX 2. Summary Statistics of the Various Levels of the Populist Dictionary

APPENDIX 4. Excerpts of Narendra Modi Speeches on Five Issues (2016-2019


(s1) The evil of corruption has been spread by certain sections of society for their selfish interest. They have ignored the poor and cornered benefits. Some people have misused their office for personal gain. On the other hand, honest people have fought against this evil. Crores of common men and women have lived lives of integrity. We hear about poor auto-rickshaw drivers returning gold ornaments left in the vehicles to their rightful owners. We hear about taxi drivers who take pains to locate the owners of cell phones left behind. We hear of vegetable vendors who return excess money given by customers. […] The five hundred and thousand rupee notes hoarded by anti-national and anti-social elements will become just worthless pieces of paper. The rights and the interests of honest, hard-working people will be fully protected. […] This step will strengthen the hands of the common man in the fight against corruption, black money and fake currency. Experience tells us that ordinary citizens are always ready to make sacrifices and face difficulties for the benefit of the nation. I see that spirit when a poor widow gives up her LPG subsidy, when a retired school teacher contributes his pension to the Swacch Bharat [clean India] mission, when a poor Adivasi [tribal] mother sells her goats to build a toilet, when a soldier contributes 57 thousand rupees to make his village clean […] In a country’s history, there come moments when every person feels he too should be part of that moment, that he too should make his contribution to the country’s progress. Such moments come but rarely. Now, we again have an opportunity where every citizen can join this mahayajna [the five daily domestic offerings in Hinduism] against the ills of corruption, black money and fake notes. […] Time and again, I have seen that when the average citizen has to choose between accepting dishonesty and bearing inconvenience, they always choose to put up with inconvenience. They will not support dishonesty. […] Once again, let me invite you to make your contribution to this grand sacrifice for cleansing our country, just as you cleaned up your surroundings during Diwali [Hindu festival]. Let us ignore the temporary hardship. [8 November 2016, Huffpost’s translation] I am not concerned about the elections, I am concerned about my country. [7 February 2017, ABP translation]

(s2) We have complete faith in the valor of our soldiers. I am confident that the patriots of our country will provide correct information to our agencies so that our fight against terror is sharpened. […] It is an extremely sensitive and emotional moment. […] The nation is giving a befitting reply in a united way, the nation is united, the nation has one voice and this should reach the world because we are fighting this war to win. [15 February 2019, PIB translation] You did great love, you had trusted your servant, but today, five years have been completed, so it is your right and my responsibility. You tell me, that this servant of yours has fulfilled your expectations or not? […] The voice of the drums of India’s power is resonating in the all world or not? […] Friends surgical strikes, air strikes and this third, this is the third big international strike on Pakistan’s plans, on terrorists’s plans and on the plans of the leaders of terrorists. You tell me, Pakistan’s arrogance has been destroyed or not? You liked it, this is what should be done, no ? Modi is on the right way or not ? Do I have your blessings of not? [3 May 2019, authors’ translation]

(s3) As a country and as a family, you and us, together we took a historic decision. […] Brothers and sisters, Jammu – Kashmir is the crown of our country. We are proud that many brave sons and daughters of Jammu – Kashmir have sacrificed and risked their lives for its security. […] They all had a dream of seeing a peaceful, safe and prosperous Jammu – Kashmir. We, together, have to realize their dream. Friends! This decision will help in economic development of the entire country along with Jammu – Kashmir and Ladakh. When peace and prosperity prevail in this important part of the globe, the efforts for peace in entire world will be naturally strengthened. I call upon my brothers and sisters of Jammu – Kashmir and Ladakh to come together to show the world how much strength, courage and passion we have. Let us come together to build a new India, as well as a new Jammu – Kashmir and Ladakh. [08 August, PIB translation] India has to play a vital role in reinstating world peace. We cannot remain silent spectators in the global environment. We are putting up a tough fight against terrorist organizations. […] This means that everyone wanted this decision, but perhaps they were waiting for somebody to initiate the same and carry it forward. I have come to accomplish the task assigned to me by my countrymen. I work selflessly. [15 August 2019, PIB translation]

(s4) Today the 9th November the judgment of the SC [Supreme Court] is giving us a message of staying united and getting together and living together. There should not be any ill feeling in anybody. If there is even a trace of bitterness in anyone’s mind, it is time to bid farewell to such a spirit. In New India, there is no place for fear, bitterness and negativity. […] Friends, Supreme Court has given its decision on the construction of Ram Mandir. […] As a society, each and every Indian, must work by prioritizing our duties and responsibilities. The harmony, brotherhood, friendship, unity and peace amongst us all, is very important for the nation’s development. Only if we Indians, work together and walk onwards together, will we be able to achieve our goals and objectives. [9 November 2019, PIB translation]

(s5) Since they are carrying the national flag [protesters], I feel assured that they will understand the responsibility of holding a flag… They will not resort to violence, they will protest against violence. Holding the flag is a right, but also a responsibility […] Friends, I want to clarify again, citizenship amendment act [English in text], citizenship law amendment is not to snatch anybody’s citizenship, it is about giving nationality. The minorities of out three neighboring countries, due to atrocities, they are compelled to flee and to come to India. They were given some help in this act. […] There is no need to believe that this relaxation is an idea of Modi, this is an overnight idea of Modi, this relaxation is according to the feeling of Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi said that Hindus and Sikhs friends, when they should come to India, then they are welcome. I am not saying this, Mahatma Gandhi is saying this. [22 December 2019, authors’ translation] […] In addition to rights, we must give as much importance to our duties as citizens. […] Those who committed violence in the name of protest and damaged public property should sit peacefully at home and think whether it was the right path. They torched public property. Wasn’t it for their and their children’s use? [25 December 2019, Telegraph’s translation]


[1] Those who have contributed to the success of the idea of populism as a thin-centred ideology include: Fieschi (2004), March (2007), Abts and Rummens (2007), Stanley (2008), Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008), Ruzza and Fella (2010), Rooduijn and Pauwels (2010), Učeň (2009), Akkerman (2011), Kaltwasser (2012), Rooduijn et al. (2014).

[2] For a definition, see Weiland (2001, 14). Other advocates of this definition are Barr (2009), Phongpaichit and Baker (2012), Rocamora (2009).

[3] See for instance Jagers and Walgrave (2007), Statcher et al. (2007), Lowe (2008), Koopmans and Muis (2009), Hawkins, Riding and Mudde (2012), Roodujin and Pauwel (2011), Pauwel (2011), Reungoat (2010), Bonikowski and Gidron (2016), Hawkins, Kaltwasser and Andreadis (2018).

[4] We use the definition of political style defined by Pels (2003, 45). In his understanding, “‘Style’ refers to a heterogeneous ensemble of ways of speaking, acting, looking, displaying, and handling things, which merge into a symbolic whole that immediately fuses matter and manner, message and package, argument and ritual. It offers political rhetoric, posturing and instinct, the expression of sentiments (such as political fear, envy or loathing) and presentational techniques (such as face-work, gesticulation or dress codes) an equally legitimate place as political rationality, thus knitting together ‘higher’ and ‘baser’ style elements in a loosely coherent but powerful pattern of political persuasion.”

[5] Cf. Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index (2017).

[6] See the entries of Narendra Modi’s online biography (2016): for example “Humble beginnings: The early years,” “Enjoying work,” “How the common man became Chief Minister,” “When simplicity becomes style” or “What Narendra Modi does on counting day.”

[7] We define representative claim-making as consisting of proposals that “might or might not be accepted, rejected or rearticulated by the represented.” See Dutoya and Hayat (2016).

[8] Out of 14 ‘leading’ journals in Political Science, 55 articles on populism have been published from 1990 to 2017, yet only two are on Asia and zero on India specifically (Kaltwasser et al. 2017, Fig. 1.2).

[9] For recent examples, see Kabra and Vrajaindra (2017), Naqvi (2018), Dubash et al. (2018), Thiruvadanthai (2018).

[10] Cf. the concepts of “empowerment populism” and “protection populism” by Swamy (1998) and those of “assertive populism” and “paternalistic populism” by Subramanian (1999).

[11] Cf. for instance mimesis in child make-believe (Goldman 1998), adaptive evolution (Ramachandran 2000), empathy stimulation (de Waal 2011) and language learning (Zlatev 2007).

[12] See for example Benjamin (1979), Walton (1990), Gaines (1999), Lehman (2006), Rasmussen (2008).

[13] The case of Modi is particularly telling. During the 2019 election campaign, he resorted to this discourse again (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2020). In a meeting in Madhya Pradesh he claimed: “The Congress people have so much hatred for your Modi that they are even dreaming of killing Modi. But they are forgetting that people from Madhya Pradesh and India are batting for me” (The Economic Times, 1 May 2019). This idiom complies with the stereotypes that Hindu nationalists are projecting for decades: for them, in contrast to Muslims, who are violent by nature (as evident from the fact that they kill animals and eat meat), Hindus are peaceful (as evident from their vegetarian diet, presented as universal whereas many members of the community are carnivore).

[14] Cf. Chung and Pennebaker (2007), Pennebaker (2017) and Adams (2016).

[15] See Moffitt and Tormey (2014), Taggart (2002) and Engesser, Fawzi and Larsson (2017).

[16] We consider that an Indian Prime minister is ‘elected’ when his or her nomination by the President of India follows a parliamentary election. We have thus excluded from the analysis the speeches of Lal Bahadur Shahtri (1964-66), who was sworn in after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru (1946-1964).

[17] Hence, due to the short duration of their term, the discourses of Prime Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda (1996-97) and Inder Kumar Gujral (1997-98) were not included in the analysis.

[18] Overrepresentation of underlined words is based on features’ hypergeometric probability distribution as computed with the R package ‘textometry’ (Loiseau et al. 2009, Heiden, Magué et Pincemin 2010). For more of the way it is calculated, see Lafon (1980), Habert (1983; 1985), Salem (1987), Lebart and Salem (1994), Labbé and Labbé (2001).

[19] In fact, Modi used directly an anti-Muslims and anti-Pakistan rhetoric only selectively, trying instead to appear as a victim and the great unifier of India. However, he used this repertoire when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat (Jaffrelot 2008, 2013), and continued to invoke it during the 2014 and 2019 general elections (Jaffrelot 2015b).

[20] The promotion of unity is a pillar of Narendra Modi’s repertoire. It is well in tune with the Hindu nationalist attempt at developing unity among Hindus beyond caste (and class) divisions. Hindu nationalism propagates an irenic view of society by minimising social hierarchies and make them more acceptable. Its key word is harmony, a word that is used repeatedly in the few books Modi has authored, and which are mostly compiling speeches and articles of the 1980sand 1990s (Modi 2015).

[21] He went even further during the 2019 state election campaign in Maharashtra when he declared: “We want to create a paradise in Jammu and Kashmir once again and hug every Kashmiri,” before adding: “For the last 40 years, Jammu and Kashmir had been a victim of New Delhi’s of wrong policies” (Business Line, 19 September 2019). These two sentences bring together the dimensions of Modi’s persona that we mentioned before: the sense of unity and victimization.

[22] Hanuman, the commander in chief of Ram’s army in the Ramayana, one of the most popular epics of the Hindu civilisation, has been promoted by the BJP as a symbol of muscular Hindu nationalism.

[23] Modi adds: “I have been fortunate to acquire these traits while living in this tradition in the capacity of Swayamsevak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” (ibid, 20). Modi constantly tried to emulate the RSS philosophy: “this bright tradition of sacrificing life without expecting anything in return, for the happiness of everybody.” These words have been echoed by one of Modi’s favourite 2019 slogans, sabka sath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas (together with all, development for all, the trust of all).

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