Mahanirban Calcutta Research group


Populism and Populist Politics in South Asia with Special Reference to India


(Kolkata, 1 January – 31 December 2019)

Concept Note 

1. The Research Background: CRG’s Previous Work on Popular Politics and Popular Movements

1.1 In the last three years (2016-18), Calcutta Research Group (CRG) worked on the histories of the popular movements in West Bengal and Bihar in 1950s-1970s. The research brought out the dynamics of a series of movements and investigated the transformation of popular movements into a full-fledged rebellion in late sixties and early seventies of the last century. In the process it brought out issues of leadership, class bases of the movements, and fracture in the old Left party structure, the significance of the issues that became the mobilising points of the movements, and their continuities and discontinuities. Several research papers were published. A collective of historical-political researchers evolved through the three year programme that included several workshops, filed visits, archival work, discussions, and events held in collaboration with universities and other institutions. A book on the basis of the research will be hopefully come out before the end of this year through Social Science Press (in India) and Routledge (global edition).

1.2 Two of the significant questions emerging out of this research are: (a) How to make sense of the changing face of popular politics in the long trajectory of mass movements? And, (b) given the fact that the interface of government and popular politics has become much more important today than say it was in the fifties of the last century, what are the principal gradients of popular politics today?

1.3 Both these questions make the theme of populism acutely important for any further understanding in the area of popular politics today - popular political practices that are loosely described collectively as populist politics and populism. An inquiry into this theme will also make our understanding of postcolonial democracy richer, of the way postcolonial democracy diverges from liberal democracy, and indeed one of the ways in which democracy faces neoliberal globalisation.

 2. Introducing the Theme: A Global Story of Populism

2.1 Populist politics is on the rise. In a large number of countries, from global north to global south, populist politics is fast gaining ground replacing to a great extent the liberal-constitutional discourses and practices of politics. South Asia is no exception. Etymologically rooted in the Latin ‘populous’, the term primarily means the people, which connotes the ‘common’ people. The anti-Tsarist orientation of Russian populism with its agrarian programme attracted the attention of Karl Marx who corresponded with the Russian populists on various related themes. In late nineteenth century there were other forms of populism – all of which had scepticism towards the claimed universality of bourgeois liberalism. The term was linked with a political party in United States which was formed in 1891 to represent the agrarian interests and advocate free coinage of silver and governmental control on monopolies. Populism prevailed in many parts of Eastern Europe (in anarchist forms) and emerged in anti-colonial movements. In Latin America also from Bolivar to Juan Peron, populism has had a chequered career. Yet notwithstanding its wide presence in various parts of the world, populism remained poorly represented in global political history, which was dominated by the liberal representation of politics and “people”, which would mean the legal category of the “citizen”, and the “voter”. Partly because “populism” is not a rigorous ideology, and may mean many things to many people situated in different places and times, and partly because populism is fundamentally a set of political practices based on a core belief that the will of ordinary people has to prevail over the privileged elite. Thus, by definition, populist politics is anti-elite and, therefore, it seeks to harp on the opposition between the elites and the common people. It also seeks to minimise any mediation between the state and the “people” and speak of the right of the common people to have immediate relation with those who rule. Institutional mediation is an anathema to populism, except the “favoured” institutions of the people, like the Russian commune, in some cases the army, or a particular party defining the people in a particular way.

2.2 The identity of the people is thus important in populist political ideas. The identity can be in the form of a nation, or say language, or caste, or race. In simplifying the complexities of reality, the concept of “the people” is thus flexibly deployed, and while deploying the conceptpopulists can encourage a sense of shared identity among different groups within a society and facilitate their mobilisation toward a common cause. Given the flexible location of the people in political ideas and practices, populists can be found at different locations along the left-right political spectrum. There is thus both left-wing populism and right-wing populism. Yet it is also true that in the wake of globalisation and neoliberal ascendancy, populism has increasingly taken on the role of mobilising people against the ravages of globalisation, and right wing politics may not find it easy to continuously adopt populist practices to cope with the fall out of globalisation. On the other hand left wing politics is increasingly turning to populist modes.

2.3 In USA, populist politics rose in the first decade of this century in the form of the Occupy movement. The populist approach of the Occupy movement with its concept of the “people”, “the 99%”, and the rest 1% as the “elite”, challenged both economic and political elites. Its nebulous nature was reflected in the surge of populist sentiment in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with opposite ideologies, but both candidates running on anti-establishment platforms in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. More importantly, in the Middle East – in Egypt and Tunisia – populist politics produced regime changes with extremely complicated results. “People” did not last as a solid and stable category in the stormy years of revolutions. Likewise, in Latin America,which has perhaps world’s most enduring populist tradition, populist politics emerged at the start of the Great Depression in 1929 and lastedfor several decades. Politicians took power while emphasising “the people”: Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Perón in Argentina, JoséMaría Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. Then came another wave, which made heavy use of Americanismo and anti-imperialism, such as movements led by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

2.4 In the era of decolonisation, populism gained popularity in the aftermath of the Second World War, especially when newly independent state systems emerged in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Initially, the regimes in these countries tried to follow the institutions of the old colonial regimes, particularly, the patterns of the Western representative democracies, including the election systems based on universal adult franchise. However, within a decade or two, the cracks became evident, and as in India, political observers lamented over what was called “the crises of governability”. In this scenario, the advent of populist politics can be described as an uprising at the time of failure of the existing regimes to effectively address the problems of the masses.

3. India and South Asia

3.1 India has been the crucible of several types of populism over time. Populist political forces have played significant roles in Indian politics, and have varied in their vision of political community, in the social groups they targeted, policies they pursued, and in their impact on democracy. In the 1960s, it saw the rise of peasant populism, an ideology that erased class differentiation to promote a rural people vs. urbanites divide. The 1965 Indo-Pak war gave birth to war-centric nationalism under a populist slogan (coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri,the then Indian Prime Minister) Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan(Long Live the Soldier, Long Live the Farmer)!The Indian National Congress carried forward this populist spirit in a new form under Indira Gandhi’s leadership from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Inventing the popular slogan, GaribiHatao (Drive Away Poverty), she nationalised banks and coal, and abolished privy purses, enjoyed by the heirs of former princely states, and thus secured the support of the Left. In the mid-1970s, after the proclamation of the controversial National Emergency, she launched a series of targeted pro-poor programmes, popularised as the 20-point programme. In fact, she became a “socialist” voice of the nation under the slogan, “Indira is India.” Authoritarianism and “socialistic” public policies went together. This was the first time when the role of government and policies emerged as crucial elements in the evolution of populist politics. In course, the authoritarian presence in populist politics has turned extreme right direction, raising the slogan, Sab kaSaath, Sab kaVikas (With All, Development for All), and while excluding from “all” – the people - Muslim and Christian minorities, dalits, and several other groups by highlighting a“total” Hindu identity over the caste, linguistic or regional identities of these communities.

3.2 Elsewhere in South Asia, in Pakistan for instance, Z.A. Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, became a populist leader saying “Islam was the religion” and “socialism was the economy”. While he turned against the Ahmadis, and gave the emotional call of a thousand years was against India, his entire nationalist programme was based on his promises for quick economic turnaround with benefit for the people. Hence was his call, Roti KapraaurMakan (Bread, Clothes, and Shelter). Bangladesh known as East Pakistan before 1971 was one of the first regions in the Indian subcontinent that produced populist leaders like the peasant leader Maulana Bhasani and the founder of Bangladesh, MujiburRahman. They were not of same type, but while the Maulana’s politics carried traits of peasant populism, many of his personality traits and political preferences of MujiburRahman made more of a populist leader than a democrat.

3.3 However in India populism - through the fusion of elections, parliamentary democracy, welfare politics, anti-globalisation struggles that have inevitably turned against the corporate class, and historical identities of people - has carved out a niche for itself in the neoliberal era. It defies the traditional right/left distinction. It focuses on common masses of the poor. It is mostly local (in the Indian federal structure, confined to state), and does not aspire to be “national”. It is led by strong persons, less collectively guided, and the leadership manages a movement, which is less a party but more a swelter of petty, unorganized masses of informal workers, small producers, poor and middle peasants, people belonging to other weaker sections, and its strength is in small towns and large swathes of villages. It promises protection against the depredations of neoliberal capitalism.

3.4 The Dravidapolitics in Tamilnadu is a glaring example. In recent decades, the late Jayalalitha, popular as Amma(the Mother), personified the spirit of populist politics in Tamilnadu. During her different tenures as Chief Minister, she had to her credit a whopping 18 populist schemes like the “cradle baby scheme” to prevent female foeticide when gender-based abortions were rampant in certain districts; she also introduced various heavily subsidized ‘Amma’ products like ‘Amma canteen’ (Re. 1/ for a meal), “Amma laptop” (free laptops for high school and college students) etc. Women became strong signposts of her policies. In Bihar, the policies and politics of social justice gave new identity to the state and its people, and the caste content of such politics was strong. And in some ways, the tradition of populist politics went back all the way to the movement led by JP for “Total Revolution”.

3.5 In parts of the country and the region of South Asia we have varieties of populism riding on anti-immigration sentiment and demands for homeland. Yet such policies have also shown radical edges in the form of politics of autonomy and just access to resources.

3.6 However, it is in West Bengal that the possibilities of populist politics have been demonstrated most. Old tradition of agrarian populism, anti-establishment politics, history of Left led street agitations, electoral violence, contentions for power at the rural level, strong personality led politics, Leftist rhetoric, middle class as the conduit of social unrest, and small and medium towns, women’s participation in politics, and finally its enduring class basis, namely petty, unorganised labouring masses and small producers – have contributed to the re-emergence of populism as the defining feature of politics. We can also take the last 7 years of Mamata Banerjee’s rule, which uprooted the 34 years’ long Left Front rule in West Bengal. Popular as Didi(the elder sister), Banerjee has defined her ideology and policy in these words: “We are not Marxist or capitalist, we are for the poor people,” she said in her first major interview with a foreign newspaper. “Our policy is very clear: whatever policy will suit the people, whatever policy will suit the circumstances, whatever policy will suit my state.”She dedicated her policies to the causes of Ma MatiManush (Mother, Land, and the Human).

3.7 In these years she introduced an array of populist programmes such as, distribution of cycles to students, kanyashree (monetary incentives to girl students, the most well-known of her policies), rice at Rs. 2/kg through PDS (public distribution scheme); schemes for peasants, folk artists, artisans, and fisherfolk; donations to traditional youth clubs, festivals celebrating land, and many more. Her usage of language, idioms and phrases, lack the finesse of the elite bhadrolok (educated gentry), but are popular among the common masses. She also aims to uphold the Bengali-ness of Bengal in a very synthetic manner without any communal or even ideological bias, and thus attempts to redefine a “new Bengal” – one that draws on the nineteenth century tradition of Bengal Renaissance, religious tolerance, and local pride. As one author observes, “With Mamata, the people have arrived and are here to stay, and are reshaping what it means to be Bengali. This assertion of Bengali identity is also being used by her to counter Hindu populism of the BharatiyaJanata Party.”

3.8 The populist politics as in Bengal or Bihar taking shape in a neoliberal context has several features that have to be rigorously investigated: its limits and possibilities, class basis, rhetoric and style, capacity to redefine politics including leftist politics, its role as a site of liberal electoral politics and postcolonial developments such as urban slums, masses of informal workers, political violence, immediate nature, and its interface with globalisation. Without a deeper understanding of populism in post-colonial context and its contradictory aspects, popular politics and certainly left politics will not be able to proceed. Its nature as a specific reality of postcolonial democracy – as distinct from populism in western democracies – must be grasped. It is probably one of the biggest theoretical challenges for the Left today, precisely because populist welfare programmes are now defended in terms of “development” of the common people, and the necessity of the state for the poor to survive. All these are a far cry from the neoliberal fundamentalisms of withdrawal of the state from the task of protection of society. In view of the leftist variety of populism where does this leave us with conventional Left or western style social democracy?

4. Research Questions We can now frame the research questions after the above-mentioned brief, but careful, look into the dynamics and variety of ongoing populist politics in South Asia, especially in India:

4.1 In the global history of populism is there any special place of populism in postcolonial setting? Can we draw certain general conclusions from the history of South Asian populisms? Can we identify a moment of arrival of the populist politics in South Asia/India? Is it Indira Gandhi’s regime in India or Bhutto’s in Pakistan that inaugurated this new politics in South Asia, or, should we trace it in the post-liberal times with the ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism and postcolonial capitalism? If both are true, what are the continuities and discontinuities in the history of populism and populist politics in South Asia?

4.2 How are the identities of class, caste, community, linguistic/ethnic groups are being appropriated under a lucid identity called “people”?

4.3 And this follows from the preceding research question: If populism is the name of politics that defines the “people” through a set of practices, slogans, rhetoric, and ideas, then given the fact that the idea of the nation also revolves around a given identity of people, can we say that in almost every kind of nationalism there is populism? And that, there is no nation without its populist content? What then is the history of interrelation between nationalism and populism – at least in India and broadly South Asia?

4.4 How is “traditional” politics with its institutions adjusting to cope with populist political practices?Or, is it, as evidenced by the rise of populist politics, in an irreversible decline now?On the other hand, how does populist politics reflect changes in governmental mode and forms? Does it reflect a new form of governmentality?

4.5 What are the styles of populist politics in India? How do the populist leaders address the “people”? What are their main slogans/idioms that attract the “people”? What is the dynamics of populist leadership as distinct from traditional liberal democratic leadership or the party leadership?

4.6 What are the main features of populist governance? How does gender mark this governance? What are the social experiences of populist policies such as Kanyashreeand the Anna propgrammes?

4.7 In view of the political experiences of formations like AAP, Trinamul, RJD etc., what are the possibilities of populist politics in India, its further change of forms? What are its implications for a radical democratic and socialist politics?

5. Research Topics and Research Organisation

5.1 On the basis of the above mentioned questions the three-year research will be conducted. It will result in six papers dealing with:

(a) Some aspects of the global history of populism and the Left response;
(b) Asian including South Asian experiences of populism;
(c) Populism in India, neoliberal capitalism, and the issue of justice and development-I (focusing on West Bengal);
(d) Populism in India, neoliberal capitalism, and the issue of justice and development-II (focusing on three states where populist politics in strong in different forms)
(e) Populism in India, neoliberal capitalism, and the issue of justice and development-III (focusing on the crisis of liberal democratic institutions and the response of popular politics, such as the campaign of AAP, etc.);
(f) And finally, populism and there making of identities of race, caste, and nation.

5.2 The particular topics may change or be reformulated, focusing on outreach programmes, publications, discussions, and a conference. 5.2 Interviews, dialogues with political thinkers, development planners, gender rights activists, and media personnel will be important.

5.3 There will be dedicated web-based activity as in the previous programmes. This will include a dedicated web page which will showcase not just the research done on the theme but also
(a) interviews with populist leaders
(b) dialogues with political analysts
(c) policy papers on the theme
(d) events/special issues of journals/newspaper articles on the theme
(e) focus on populist movements in other parts of Asia and the world

5.4 Research papers will be published.

5.5 Two books will come out as a result of the work:
(a) one based on the research work and
(b) the other a selection of newspaper articles covering the evolution of populist politics in West Bengal with all its complexities, limits, and strength.

5.6 There will be one planning workshop and a research workshop in the first year; a second research workshop in the second year, and a conference in the third year.

5.7 There will be public lectures and face to face sessions (at least two) with not only academics but also policy makers, political thinkers and leaders – these sessions to be held in various parts of the country (particularly in West Bengal, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Bihar)

5.8. At least one collaborative research/dissemination meeting will be held outside Kolkata each year

5.9 All these activities will be archived.

5.10 Simultaneously, the resource centre in CRG for public access will be expanded through acquisition of books, documents, and other non-book material (to be digitised if they are in non-digitised form) on the relevant themes and issues of this research.

5.12 Finally, on the basis of research findings there will be an orientation workshop in the second or third year for young academics, journalists, and social activists.



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