Indian Populist Leaders: From Indira Gandhi to Modi

Navika Mehta

Why populism works in Indian politics as a political tool used by leaders to gain popular support.

In 2016, 2000 articles in the Guardian mentioned populism as compared to 300 articles in 1998. In 2017, “populism” was declared the word of the year by the Cambridge Dictionary. In the last 20 years, there is a significant increase in populist support worldwide and populist vote share has more than tripled in Europe. Although populism is not a new occurrence, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee influx in Europe have been commonly cited by academics as propellers of this “anti-establishment” rhetoric

“populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a ‘new’ kind of party that is different from all others.”

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, has defined populism 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 volonté (general will) of the people”. He explains that populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a “new” kind of party that is different from all others. He differentiates populists from early socialists because populists claim to speak for the “oppressed people” while unwilling to change “their values or their ‘way of life’”. For example, speaking for farmers’ rights while charging high-interest rates on loans. 

Indian politics is not a stranger to populist politics. Right from the movement for Indian independence from the British Empire, to the current BJP government, populism has been key to gaining votes. Prior to Independence, the nationalist movement which enabled the country-wide resistance against the British Raj brought about a sense of togetherness in the collective struggles against the oppressor. This movement succeeded largely by gathering the outpouring of popular support as the nation as a whole came together to bring an end to British rule. 

“After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase ‘gareebi hatao’, which means, end poverty.”

After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase “gareebi hatao”, which means, end poverty. And so, further enforcing redistribution through economic policies like nationalisation of banks and abolition of the privy purse (a sum paid to the former rulers of princely states of India who agreed to integrate with the union). Thus, creating a them vs. us narrative – the colonial past vs. modern egalitarian India – and – rich elite vs. poor. These redistributive anti-elite policies along with her emphasising a strong feminine character, being referred to as “Ma Durga”, Goddess of Power, challenged the political masculinities of Indian politics and enabled her to get the popular vote. 

“Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support.”

Populism can be inclusive or exclusive. For example, populism in Europe is exclusive and that in Latin America is inclusive. This means that while European populism has a socio-cultural dimension to exclude immigrants or refugees, the Latin American populism has an economic dimension of including and helping the poor and underrepresented. Indian history has witnessed both kinds. The independence movement was inclusive, it was a fight against colonial oppressors and freedom for all Indians. Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support. Identity here can be religious, caste-based, gendered or along any other social category. Due to this, a new political cleavage with a cultural dimension has now emerged.

“Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus remains on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign ‘chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)’ perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity.”

Populism in India today has taken a similar approach using this new dimension. With identity-based politics at the forefront, right-wing populism has slowly grown and has now taken a stronghold with the re-election of the BJP for a second term. Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus is on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign “chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)” perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity. The party has successfully created a them vs. us narrative through religion – majority vs. minority and also through nationalists vs. anti-nationals (those who speak against the government). While Gandhi herself belonged to the ruling class she channeled her image as the anti-elite rebel, similarly, Modi has emphasised his humble beginnings as the “chai wala” (tea seller). 

Both types of populism focus on pro-poor agendas, their solutions are oversimplified and inadequate in bringing about real economic equality. For example, demonetisation and privy purse, both claimed to be for the benefit of the poor, anti-elite, but neither had a significant impact in bringing real economic and social change for the masses. 

The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that prohibits illegal migrants from becoming citizens of India with exceptions for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities was defended by supporters of the government and mainstreamed a huge populist anti-immigrant sentiment. Suddenly, elite, upper middle-class and majority religious groups who may have never before concerned themselves with the rights of the Indian working class, expressed deep concern about Muslim immigrant workers from Bangladesh taking jobs of the Hindu working class. The focus of the political sphere thus shifted from the real causes of unemployment to the them vs. us narrative of Muslim immigrants taking the jobs of natives. This has been highlighted as the “scapegoating phenomena” by Colantone and Stanig who explain that anti-immigrant sentiments tend to be higher in areas with greater unemployment and in the presence of a right-wing populist party. They explain that unemployment and lack of opportunities trigger this belief that the labour market is a “zero-sum game”, wherein, in order to get a job the individual needs to take it from another person thus making immigrants a perceived threat for natives. 

“nativism means that ‘states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.’ He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been ‘whitewashed’ by using the term populism.”

Mudde argues that this anti-immigrant ideology used by populist parties is actually “nativism” couched in a less explicit racist term as “populism”. He explains that nativism means that “states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.” He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been “whitewashed” by using the term populism. In India, the CAA along with the NRC (National Register of Citizens) is not only a threat for migrants and refugees but also against people who don’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship, with the CAA  specifically excluding Muslims who entered India on or before December 2014. Thus, further reinforcing the exclusive populist narrative of India in the 21st century. 

“The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs.” 

The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs. Post-Independence, in the backdrop of partition, the Indian government laid emphasis on ideas of pluralism, secularism and diversity, with the phrase “unity in diversity” coined by Nehru. These ideas were deeply ingrained in education, government policies and cultural references. In the present day, until the issues of “nativism”, economic inequalities and political propaganda of right-wing populists who pretend that they care about the working class are effectively tackled, populism will continue to thrive, and fake news and positive media coverage will enable it to do so.

Navika is the Editor of Bol Magazine and created this platform to inspire conversations and action.

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women in Politics

Nadia Ahmed 

Even after 74 years since universal suffrage and Indian Independence, women’s representation in politics remains low. 

The Constituent Assembly of India is often touted as one of the best in the world due to its production of a constitution that manages to encompass every aspect of a country as diverse as India and has withstood the test of time. While it was largely representative, the discourse was dominated by men. 

“widespread illiteracy and subjugation of women caused by pre-existing societal prejudices and norms made it impossible for women to claim political space.”

Out of 392 people in the committee, only 15 were women, making the representation of women less than 4%. While this is not ideal, it is important to note that widespread illiteracy and subjugation of women caused by pre-existing societal prejudices and norms made it impossible for women to claim political space. Due to this, there were very few educated, politically strong, and radical women at the time empowered to be elected to the committee.

Nevertheless, contributions by several women shaped the Constituent Assembly debates. Some of them include Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1946. Ammu Swaminathan who formed the Women’s India Association in 1917. Begum Aizaz Rasul, the only Muslim woman member of the Constituent Assembly. Durgabai Deshmukh who participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement at the age of twelve. Andhra Kesari T Prakasam, who participated in the Salt Satyagraha movement and established the Andhra Mahila Sabha, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who founded the first All India Institute of Medical Sciences as India’s Health Minister, among many others. To this day, defenders of the Indian Constitution rely on their contributions.

Indian history, however, has not been kind to the women stalwarts. Most women of the Constituent Assembly have since faded from the public conscience.

“In India, women did not have a popular movement to fight for their exclusive right to vote and contest for public office. In 1950, universal suffrage was granted to all. The involvement of women in the constituent assembly ensured their right to be an equal part of politics and governance.”

In India, women did not have a popular movement to fight for their exclusive right to vote and contest for public office. In 1950, universal suffrage was granted to all. The involvement of women in the constituent assembly ensured their right to be an equal part of politics and governance. While India prides itself on having had a female Prime Minister, President, Chief Ministers, and leaders of political parties, representation of women in politics is still low. In 2019, India stood 149th in a list of 193 countries ranked by the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments, trailing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, dropping three places since 2018.

From a representation of 5% in the first Lok Sabha (lower house) election in 1952, the percentage of women representatives in the house has gone up to a mere 14% of the Parliament as of 2019, the highest since independence. Only 78 women were elected as Members of Parliament (MPs), that is one woman representative per 8.5 to 9 million women, greater than the population of Israel, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“Since 1962, of the 543 constituencies in India, nearly half 48.4% have not voted in a single woman MP. The current Uttar Pradesh cabinet features only four women, Madhya Pradesh has two, Bihar has only one, and Delhi has none. This is one of the gravest representative injustices in the country’s history.”

Since 1962, of the 543 constituencies in India, nearly half 48.4% have not voted in a single woman MP. The Economic Survey of 2017-18 observed that women constituted 44.2% of elected representatives in Panchayati Raj (local government) institutions. But at the state-level, this number goes down to 9% especially in the Hindi heartland (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and Delhi NCR). Here women’s representation effectively collapses. The current Uttar Pradesh state cabinet features only five women, Madhya Pradesh has two, Bihar has only one, and Delhi has none. This is one of the gravest representative injustices in the country’s history.

Though on paper major parties claim a 33% reservation for women in party leadership, that is far from the truth. Women only govern four of India’s political parties. From 1970-1980, 4.3% of candidates and 70% of electoral races had no women candidates at all. And in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only around 9% of the total 8040 candidates were women.

While women in India continue to improve their capability and enhance their economic contributions to society, the Indian electorate still deems them unfit for representative duty.

“What’s surprising is that the voter turnout of women has increased by 27% since 1962, and in comparison, men’s voter turnout rate has only increased by 7%.”

What’s surprising is that the voter turnout of women has increased by 27% since 1962, and in comparison, men’s voter turnout rate has only increased by 7%. Data from the National Election Studies conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that the number of women with high participation levels in election campaigns increased substantially from 13% in the 1999 general elections to 22% in the Lok Sabha Elections of 2009. Women have been actively participating in election campaigns, not limited to holding rallies, meetings, distributing party leaflets, door-to-door canvassing by party workers and supporters and roadshows by party leaders.

Still, according to Census 2011 data women’s representation in Lok Sabha had never touched 12% since Independence despite the fact that they constitute 48% of India’s population.

Further according to studies on election patterns, women show a higher winning rate than men. Going by the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where even though only 8% of the candidates were women they consisted of 14% of the winners, and 10.93% of women contestants won their election while only about 6.35% of men contestants were able to win. Additionally, average winning margins for women candidates generally tend to be much higher than those of male candidates. The same holds at the state level too, where data analysed from India’s state assemblies over 1980-2007 found that while women comprised 5.5% of all state legislators over this period, only 4.4% of the candidates were women.

“women-led constituencies contributed 1.8% more to the GDP of India than male-led constituencies. A constituency is likely to see 15% higher economic growth under a woman legislator.”

Furthermore, according to the United Nations University which published a paper titled “Women Legislators and economic performance” after studying more than 4000 state assembly constituencies in India for the period between 1992 to 2012, goes on to report that women-led constituencies contributed 1.8% more to the GDP of India than male-led constituencies. A constituency is likely to see 15% higher economic growth under a woman legislator.

Previous research has also shown that, in many instances, greater political participation by women does result in policy choices more attuned to women’s needs and concern as women are likely to bring attention to welfare and public health issues such as violence against women, childcare, and maternal health. Drinking water and road improvements are also issues most frequently raised by female elected officials. The most significant issues for men are roads, irrigation, education, and water. Furthermore, women representatives are more likely to oversee the completion of road projects. The share of incomplete road projects is 22% points lower for women.

“Having more women in elected office has been shown to lead to broader societal benefits such as better infant mortality rates, better education outcomes in urban areas and lower corruption as female legislators are three times less likely to have criminal charges pending against them than male legislators”

Moreover, having more women in elected office has been shown to lead to broader societal benefits such as better infant mortality rates, better education outcomes in urban areas and lower corruption as female legislators are three times less likely to have criminal charges pending against them than male legislators, and the annual rate at which women MLAs accumulate assets while in office is 10% points lower than it is for men.

“In states where gender bias is known to be deeply entrenched, a woman’s electoral victory is followed by a significant decline in the share of new women candidates in the next election.”

Despite these stats, it is seen that politics is still considered a man’s world where new women are not encouraged to contest, there are no spillover effects of observing a woman’s victory. Parties do not switch to fielding women candidates and there is no increase in female candidacy in nearby constituencies. Furthermore, in states where gender bias is known to be deeply entrenched, a woman’s electoral victory is followed by a significant decline in the share of new women candidates in the next election.

In 1994, the Indian government established quotas (reservations) in constitutional amendments (73rd and 74th) to reserve 33% of seats in local governments for women. The Women’s Reservation Bill (108th amendment) has been introduced in the national parliament to reserve 33% of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha seats for women, but even after 22 years, it is still to be made into a law.

“Such descriptive or numerical under-representation can have consequences for the substantive representation of women’s interests.”

Such descriptive or numerical under-representation can have consequences for the substantive representation of women’s interests. For a nation that had consciously decided to be a representative democracy, the vow in the Constitution to secure political justice and equality of opportunity remains only partially fulfilled.

It took us 90 years to achieve independence from the British Raj. But even after 74 years since independence , women continue to struggle for representation.

Nadia is a Political Science graduate who is pursuing Law and hopes that the world will become an unprejudiced and tolerant place.

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“Indian in blood and colour but English in taste”

Spandana Datta

How the British Empire spread English language in India and its consequences today in relation to the New Education Policy 2020

India’s linguistic diversity is unmatched globally. According to a census in 1961, India has more than 1652 mother tongues belonging to five different language families. The Constitution of India recognizes twenty-two languages in the Eighth Schedule. Hindi and English are the two official languages of the Union (not to be confused with “national” language). English is one of the most noteworthy remnants of the colonial era. 

Also known as the “colonizer’s tongue”, the spread of English began with the fascination of  Europeans for India. In 1600, the East India Company was formed when a document establishing a link between India and Britain, was granted by Queen Elizabeth I. This grant permitted merchants in Britain to trade with the East, chiefly India. Subsequently, the region was dominated by the British Empire and in 1858, it became the British Empire of India. This rule lasted until 1947.

“Initially, the aim of the British was not to replace local languages and impose their tongue on Indians. They were economically ambitious. They sought control on trade routes and dismissal of other European nations”

With the development of the British supremacy, English gradually started to seep in, across the land. English was spoken mainly by East India Company’s officers, merchants, members of the administration and the military. Initially, the aim of the British was not to replace local languages and impose their tongue on Indians. They were economically ambitious. They sought control on trade routes and dismissal of other European nations who were, if not more, equally economically driven. As time went by, India became Britain’s most important colony. Ensuing this, the English language began to gain importance in the Indian subcontinent. The language mushroomed when colonial servants demanded citizens to learn the language to ease communication between Indians and the elite, ruling class. The British made an effort to grasp classical languages to consolidate power in the country. Preceding English, Persian was the language of the ruling elite in India. 

“Before the spread of English education in India, students would gain knowledge from ancient texts, scripted in regional languages. Unlike today’s system of schools, there were pathshalas, takhshalas, madrassas and tolas.”

While initially uninterested, the East India Company derived a policy imposing English as the official language for all administrative purposes. The language policies derived and imposed by the English left a notable mark on the education system. Before the spread of English education in India, students would gain knowledge from ancient texts, scripted in regional languages. Unlike today’s system of schools, there were pathshalas, takhshalas, madrassas and tolas. The gurukuls catered only to the children of upper-caste Hindus and denied education at a provincial level. In the nineteenth century, scientific advancements were taking place rapidly around the world but a lack of awareness led Indian students to rely on ancient texts for literature, art, legal and scientific knowledge. Thus far, English education had been imparted solely to upper-class European children or children of traders.

Famously known as the “Father of Modern Education in India”, Charles Grant suggested English be declared as the official language of the education system. This proposal was rejected by the governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, who believed in “Oriental” learning. English education took flight in India after Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was appointed as a law member in the council of Lord William Bentick.

“Macaulay’s idea was to create an educated elite in India. He wanted to create a class that was ‘Indian in blood and colour but English in taste’.”

Lord Macaulay considered traditional Indian education or Oriental learning inferior to the Western education system. Macaulay’s “Minute Upon Indian Education” was circulated among the masses, expressing his ideas about the education system. In Minute, he argued that support for traditional education should be withdrawn. Macaulay’s idea was to create an educated elite in India. He wanted to create a class that was “Indian in blood and colour but English in taste”.  In 1835, he introduced the English Education Act. This Act aimed to reallocate funds towards English education in the country. The British did not support education in native languages and believed that it was best to focus on the creation of an educational system governed by Western principles with English as the means of communication.

Before the implementation of the English Education Act, three colleges were set up in India on the lines of ancient Indian history. The first college set up by the East India Company, with legitimate monetary support, was Fort William College in Calcutta, modern-day Kolkata. One lakh rupees were sanctioned under the Charter Act of 1813 for the establishment of Fort William College. Macaulay was supported by Raja Ram Mohan Roy who propagated the importance of Western education, not to impose a colonial language on Indians, but to modernize Indian society. What is noteworthy is that Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s ideas of Western education were misinterpreted as “English education” by Macaulay. Thus, English was declared as the official language of the government and medium of instruction in schools and colleges. Though the Act was implemented with great hopes, the British barely put in a genuine effort to spread education.

“In 1947, post-independence, the literacy rate in India was 16% which indicates that the efforts of the British government were ultimately futile. Economic expansion was the British’s sole purpose and their education policy helped them produce cheap administrators, who would act as catalysts in the process of subjugation.” 

The act aimed to spread English among everyone but scanty sum allocation resulted in an inability to set up new educational institutes and appointing teachers, ultimately leading to a downward infiltration theory. This theory would mean that only a few members of the population would be educated and would be assigned, thus, to further educate the masses. Unfortunately, the British failed to take fruitful steps to successfully impart English education. The aim of English education was not just to ease communication, but to “modernize” and “civilize” “the savages of the Orient“. In 1947, post-independence, the literacy rate in India was 16% which indicates that the efforts of the British government were ultimately futile. Economic expansion was the British’s sole purpose and their education policy helped them produce cheap administrators, who would act as catalysts in the process of subjugation. 

Years after the culmination of the British era, Indians fell for the colonizer’s tongue. After the British rule came to an end, many native languages were withdrawn and English was taught in schools. Consequently, over the years, many Indian tribes and languages are now endangered or extinct. Children were taught an adventitious language and were expected to fit into the Euro-Indian culture. This has led to a negligence of individuality among students and has fuelled “herd mentality” across the nation. Though English was taught as an attempt to civilise the “Orient” by the “Occent”, it led to a huge gap between those who are English speakers and those who aren’t.

“An English speaking individual in India is ‘educated’ and ‘sophisticated’, which highlights the inequality linked to colonialism and now, globalization. English has detached us from our unique cultural identity which  links innumerable cultures with each other.”

English has given birth to a different kind of social inequality across the globe. The number of English speaking people is greater in India, as compared to Great Britain. An English speaking individual in India is “educated” and “sophisticated”, which highlights the inequality linked to colonialism and now, globalization. English has detached us from our unique cultural identity which links innumerable cultures with each other. 

With the National Education Policy (NEP) coming into play, we might see a focus on education being imparted in one’s native language. The NEP will offer an Indian student to learn languages of their choice till secondary school. Realistic and applied education is the need of the hour which, according to research, is best learned in one’s own mother tongue. Research backs one’s mother tongue as a medium of instruction in schools being more effective than a foreign language like English. Experts like Meeta Sengupta, though slightly apprehensive, consider the implementation of the three-language policy under the NEP 2020, “as a step in the right direction”. In a recent interview with The Hindustan Times, India’s Human Resource and Development Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank spoke at length about the New Education Policy. He clarified that education in English will not be completely shunned and no particular language will be imposed on any state. A three-language choice will be offered, out of which two shall be native languages. 

“the language of the world (and the internet) is still English and proficiency in it is highly essential for those who aim to work in BPOs, multinational companies or even in our country’s government sector.”

That said, although NEP appears to be inclusive, there are structural barriers that would only contribute to widening the gap between English and non-English speakers. The policy does not define what is meant by “mother tongue/local language”. In a linguistically diverse country like India, this could mean different things and especially to migrants who might have moved to another state or region. Moreover, the language of the world (and the internet) is still English and proficiency in it is highly essential for those who aim to work in BPOs, multinational companies or even in our country’s government sector.

125 million people i.e. 10% of the Indian population are English speakers and mainly control the portion of wealth and cash flow in the country. A lack of good English education, which incidentally is accessible only to this upper and upper-middle class, creates a huge gap between the rich and poor. In offices, whether private or public, spoken English is a necessity, leaving non-English speakers at a disadvantage. Prestigious schools in India, especially those established during the colonial era provide for children of the rich, english-speaking privileged sections of our society. Linguistic experts consider the spread of English universally, a unique kind of imperialism. Opportunities globally are linked to English. 

Unequivocally, English has facilitated and resulted in oppression and inequality, worldwide. One’s mother tongue and English should be placed on the same pedestal. Not only will this help preserve India’s cultural diversity, but it will also present a plethora of opportunities for skilled individuals on a global platform. English must be treated as a skill and not a measure of one’s potential or worth.

Spandana is an English literature graduate who loves writing and aspires to rebel against prevailing conventions, one day at a time.

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