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Few, if any, would regard Narendra Modi as a political theorist. His supporters see him as a man of relentless action, including the crafting of new words, acronyms, and slogans that circulate online and offline. His critics, too, view him as a man committed to praxis over theoria. Nonetheless, a close study of Modi's speeches at critical junctures - his post-election victory speeches in 2014 and 2019 as well as justifications for demonetization, GST, the end of Article 370, COVID-19 lockdowns, and the recent farm laws - reveals four surprising insights. Firstly, Modi's speeches, taken together, reveal a distinct conception of democracy as a socio-political ideal that is hierarchical and egalitarian at the same time. Such a conception departs from conventional models of "polyarchy" or pluralistic, even agonistic, forms of democracy as a type of regime. Secondly, with respect to Hindutva, a concept coined by V.D. Savarkar to describe a new political religion that seeks to incorporate all members of an imagined Indian polity as "political Hindus," Modi has vernacularized this quirky concept vis-a-vis the twin, hitherto antagonistic, languages of Mandal and Mandir. Thirdly, no prime minister, not even Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, has spoken more to persuade Indians that the state ought to remain the sole arbiter on all economic matters, and that a market economy does not (and should not) imply a market society composed of amoral individuals transacting with each other. Fourthly, if Modi is to be believed, the unity of India cannot rest on the flimsy old premises of sarva-dharma-sambhava secularism or federalism with a unitary bias. Instead, national unity, indeed the nation itself, can be secured only by the permanent subjugation of the Muslim Other within national borders, especially in Kashmir, and the strategic containment and downgrading of India's Muslim-majority neighbors in South Asia.
Modi as a politician, I suggest, may have limited electoral appeal to a third or so of Indian voters. But, if surveys conducted by CSDS during the ongoing pandemic, his political appeal goes beyond elections and voters, and if we go by Modi's justifications for major policy decisions such as demonetization and the forced return of migrant workers to their rural homes, they resonate with roughly double of those who may vote for the BJP. The implications of Modi the theorist for both Hindutva and democracy in India are worth pondering in ways that challenge our conceptions of both.
About the speaker
Uday Chandra (Co-Investigator) is an Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University, Qatar. He received his PhD in political science from Yale University and held a research fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Goettingen, Germany. His research lies at the intersection between critical agrarian studies, political anthropology, postcolonial theory, and South Asian studies. He is interested in state-society relations, power and resistance, political violence, agrarian change, rural-urban migration, popular religion, and the philosophy of the social sciences. His work has been published or will appear shortly in the Law & Society Review, Social Movement Studies, Interventions, Critical Sociology, The Journal of Contemporary Asia, Contemporary South Asia, The Indian Economic & Social History Review, The Journal of Asian Studies, and Modern Asian Studies. He has co-edited volumes and journal issues on self-making in modern South Asia, subaltern politics and the state in modern India, caste relations in eastern India, and social movements across rural India today. His first monograph Negotiating Leviathan: Making Tribes and States in Modern India will be published by Stanford University Press. He is also working on a second book project on Hindu nationalism and democracy in postcolonial India.