In all the ongoing intellectual debate on the idea of New India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is a new uncritical celebration of the ‘people’ as the ultimate authority, and as rational agents. This ‘idea of the people’ — now represented in the politics around Ayodhya bhoomi pujan and Sabarimala — is one which both politicians and public intellectuals must bow to unquestioningly.
The idea of the ‘people’ is critical to any makeover that the idea of India gets.
Modi often likes to project himself as the unmediated implementer of the will of ‘sawa sau crore Bharat-wasi’. Or when he was the chief minister, he called himself the “hanuman for 6 crore Gujaratis” in 2012 and often referred to the Gujarati asmita (pride). He mounts his politics on this imagined will, wound, pride and prejudices of the people. But there has been little political and intellectual scrutiny of how Indian politics has used ‘the people’ trope over time.
Our public debates rest on a romantic view of the people. After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s stunning 2019 Lok Sabha election victory, liberals began accepting their limitations to evolve a people’s language and some intellectuals bemoaned how they may have lost the tools to understand the people. The unspoken idea is that the politicians and intellectuals do not dare question the people. It is from here that majoritarian politics emerges. Modi’s political project of New India actually survives on this imagination of the people as real, authentic and, above all, responsive citizens.
But this political portrayal of the people as unquestionable rational agents not only goes against the political traditions evolved out of the national movement but also contradicts our constitutional values.
The Indian story of ‘the people’
The will of the people as a governing principle is a recent phenomenon. Major streams of the Indian national movement tried to create a balance between social reforms and an ideal imagination of an egalitarian political order. M.K. Gandhi’s constructive programmes, B.R. Ambedkar’s criticisms of the caste system and Bhagat Singh’s emphasis on class division of Indian society were deeply rooted in the tradition of social reforms of the 19th century. There was a consensus that political action would remain meaningless if society was not reformed.
The Indian Constitution was the logical outcome of this belief. It recognises the people as the real sovereign and ensures that their individual and collective rights are adequately protected. However, it does not fully endorse the will of the people and, for that matter, the majority rule. Instead, it sets out certain principles for the political class to evolve what Ambedkar called constitutional morality.
The Nehruvian state introduced a series of radical social reforms in the 1950s through legal constitutional means. The people, in this framework, were to be educated and reformed by the State to make them fully democratic and adequately modern. Indira Gandhi reinterpreted the Directive Principles of State Policy to legitimise her authoritarian rule. She even justified the Emergency (1975-77) in the name of people’s welfare.
The economic liberalisation in the 1990s, however, was a turning point. The idea of the people as an extremely rational collective began to take shape only in the 1990s around the time of economic reforms and the explosion of popular private entertainment. Two years after economic reforms, the Babri Masjid was demolished as a demonstration of avenging collective Hindu wounds.
As the economy privatised and expanded, the State redefined itself as a political regulatory entity. It was established that society and economy are autonomous self-governing spheres and the primary function of the State is to reconcile competing interests through redistributive policies. This led to a new political narrative of inclusion. A series of policy initiatives were taken to address the specific needs of different marginalised groups — Dalits, OBCs, women, Muslims, and adivasi—without evolving any comprehensive vision for social transformation.
Hindutva politics challenged this political correctness in two ways. They invoked Hindu victimhood to attract the middle-class upper-caste groups; and at the same time, they came out with the idea of authentic and responsive people — who give priority to the nation and do not believe in any other identity. The New India of Narendra Modi actually rests on this hyper-nationalist version of the people.
The people — voter/citizen/aam aadmi
There are at least three features of the people in contemporary India. In a more direct political sense, the people are defined as voters and consumers who must be wooed.
Modi’s New India is about participative democracy and responsive, proactive citizenry, one that can be enlisted in a Kennedy-style call to use toilets, build temples and statues, pay taxes, and queue up to get rid of dirty cash. For Modi, ‘New India is the era of Responsive people and responsive government’. Even as Modi appropriates the people’s will unto himself while platitudinising that the voter is always right, he/she has to accept the authority of the government to facilitate the working of the political system.
Arvind Kejriwal and the Congress’ ‘aam aadmi’ (common man) is the third feature of the people. The aam aadmi is defined as a morally sincere, gullible, vulnerable and politically weak entity. We are told that despite having a right to vote, the aam aadmi does not have adequate resources to deal with the corrupt system. He/she, therefore, is expected to abide by the ethos of nationalism to create what Arvind Kejriwal used to call swaraj. This person is also a morally committed nationalist and a responsive citizen who can be called upon to give up car travel in winter to reduce air pollution or to not pay the illegal water and electricity bills.
Political use of ‘the people’
These popular portrayals of the people contribute directly to political arguments now. The reluctant responses of the political elites on the Sabarimala issue and their over-enthusiasm for bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya underline the fact that political parties do not want to go against what they view as the will of the majority.
A liberal politician like Shashi Tharoor justified standing with community beliefs and the temple in the Sabarimala row by saying he was representing his public. This line of argument also empowers the Hindutva forces to justify anti-Muslim violence as the natural reaction of the people/Hindus. In fact, a strong impression has been created that the sentiments, views and beliefs of Hindus must be respected because they are the majority or the authentic people.
The idea of the people, when elevated as rational, homogeneous entity, is highly dangerous — it hides the inherent class-caste-gender contradictions and empowers the political class to justify electoral majoritarianism.
We must learn from Ambedkar: democratic politics won’t work if we do not question the foundational structures of our society.
And now, as public intellectuals urge us to re-imagine our engagement with the people and restore what they consider the broken link, it can be a slippery slope towards imagining the people as the all-knowing and unquestionable monolith majority.
The author is Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.
This article is part of the series ‘India Modified’. Read all the articles here.