The ongoing protests by farmers have posed a serious challenge to the populist hegemony of the right in India. The hegemony turns into a myth and is then reduced to rhetoric. I had argued in my book India by Modi: Populism and the Right (2018) that the Right took a hegemonic position in India by drawing an equivalence between various different, controversial and contradicting social demands in Möbius’ seamless demands. They mobilized a local cultural language to project an anti-elitist stance while pushing for regressive traditionalism to restore hierarchies of caste and religion. They were “business friendly but against modernity” in mobilizing the community but pushing for big capital. They mobilized the “injured pride” of the social elites and sewn it with the stigma of the “cultural subaltern” which enabled them to establish continuity between differently situated social groups and to create an optic of a conflict between “economic elites” and cultural subaltern . This was made possible by creating a political subjectivity that I referred to in the book as “feeling like the subaltern and thinking like the elite”. Subaltern emotions of vulnerability and sacrifice have been used to protect the interests of social elites. A certain kind of “performative dialectic” emerged that could speak to a socially differentiated reality.
In the course of political campaigns and political frameworks, the right has institutionalized the gap between what is said and what is seen. They mobilized most election campaigns through polarization, but repeated them again and again ad naseum that they believed in it “Sab ka Saath, sab ka Vikas(Everyone supports everyone’s development). As soon as Minister Narendra Modi’s second term began, he began to dismantle the core principles of the constitution. The repeal of Article 370 and the formulation of discriminatory citizenship laws through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) reflect such aggressive measures.
At another level, the right kept switching from one slogan to another and from one political focus to the next without the first guidelines leading to concrete results. They started with Acche din (Good days), Swach Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Movement), Standup India, India First, Saaf Niyat Sahi Vikas (Clean intent, correct development) and then with Atma Nirbhar Bharat (self-sufficient India). Before we even realized what some of these slogans meant, we were served another set. This was partly to demonstrate the scope and speed of service delivery and partly to cover the flaws of previous slogans, campaigns and policies. It was essentially a way (of maximum governance, minimum government) of saying “maximum hope, minimum performance”. However, none of them violated the social hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party – Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (BJP-RSS). Both organizations are part of a larger conglomerate that often works together.
Previous rounds of student protests against fee increases, Muslims against the National Registration of Citizens (NRC) / CAA, and journalists and scholars failed to counter-narrate. In other words, they remained sectoral, even if they wanted to make greater demands to save democracy and the constitution. Various social groups did not see their story in these protests; and the government managed to project these protests as sectarian and against the majority. When Dalits protested in Bhima Koregaon, they were referred to as “urban Naxal”; when Muslims protested, they were referred to as “urban Naxal” Pakistani and JihadiWhen the students took to the streets, the Tukde Tukde Gang (a group of people trying to divide the country) and anti-national.
The incursion of the state had some buying opportunities and took the form of a tangible narrative of national interests, security, and nationalism. However, all of this seems to have changed when it came to the farmer’s protest. It’s not that the ruling regime hasn’t tried, they have gone to great lengths to push for a sectarian narrative of farm protests led by Khalistanis, wealthy farmers who are only from Punjab and Haryana, and they are mainly Sikhs and Jats. But none of these worked, and the media couldn’t create the hysteria it usually creates. The government, contrary to its earlier records, had to consent to talks and was cautious in handling violence.
Farmers were accused of being terrorists and only the rich farmers protested and not others and this was effectively combated by the farmers. They projected the images that this protest was about India’s food security and corporate interference in agriculture. This was a serious challenge to the nationalist rhetoric of the BJP-RSS combine. The posters that read “No farmer, no food” during protests said it all. The normative universality of the farm protests seems to have undermined the universal claim of nationalism, or to put it another way, the farm protests themselves looked more authentically nationalistic than other forms of nationalism in India.
Among other things, the farm protests intruded on a deeper level into the seamless continuity of the BJP’s campaigns and, in an unspoken manner, managed to expose the duality and rhetoric in the BJP’s claims. The link between the use of a local / non-metropolitan and non-modern language and the call for a damaged business model of growth has been broken. The restaurant was reclaimed by the farmers and turned against the company. It was the farmers who authenticated the ideas of “Vocal for Local” and “Being” atmanirbhar.
Farmers have also recalibrated the equation between “feeling like subaltern, thinking like elites” by claiming their status as rich farmers, but how their struggle converged with the interests of Dalit wage labor and India’s food security. Nationalism itself in India continues to have roots in agriculture and rural areas. The slogans of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer) were embodied by the farmers and their protests in the state capital. They demonstrated the ability to avoid being framed in the singular – either just as Sikhs or just as Jats. The nature of the protest and the nature of the demand from farmers allowed greater support to emerge and pierce the BJP’s narrative, which earlier student and anti-CAA protests failed to do.
The government has not given up yet and has launched a smear campaign against global celebrities and their interference in “internal affairs”. However, it seems difficult to win back an over-nationalistic discourse against the authentically “local” and “indigenous” farmers.
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