Understanding the Discourse of Populism and Nationalism in India

Understanding the Discourse of Populism and Nationalism in India

Article by Feeza Vasudeva.


This article aims to explore the concepts of nationalism and populism within the Indian context. Populism and nationalism are two of the main issues affecting democracies around the globe. The academic debate regarding the relationship between these two concepts has been intense. One strand of the debate argues that both nationalism and populism are independently analytical phenomena and should not be conflated. This strand, followed by De Cleen and Stravrakakis, situates populism on a vertical axis (with top/bottom distinction) and nationalism on a horizontal axis (within/-out distinction). Thus, for De Cleen and Stravrakakis, what we see in some European nations now is a rise of nationalism and not populism. The other strand of the argument, followed by Brubaker, contends that seeking conceptual purity by disassociating the two concepts cannot capture the productive ambiguities surrounding the idea of ‘the people’, which is inherent in both concepts. Thus, for Brubaker, there should not be a sharp delimitation of populism and nationalism along vertical and horizontal lines. This is because, in contemporary societies, populism shares a relationship with nationalism. Within this debate, the article attempts to situate contemporary nationalism and populism within the Indian political context, where we see a rise of what many have called Hindu nationalistic politics. Considering the rising violence associated with this Indian form of politics, the article attempts to discover what drives Indian politics today: populism, nationalism, or a combination of both

Keywords: Nationalism, Populism, India, ‘The People’, Modi, Hindutva
Header image “Uranium Modi” by Ancho. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.


The last decade saw the entry of Narender Modi onto the political stage in India, paving the way for a politics dominated by the idea of India as a Hindu nation. Referred to as populist by many, Modi’s style of politics is charismatic, loud, dominant and divisive. Modi’s style of politics became immensely popular because it seemingly created unity amongst a very divided and fractured Hindu community, pitting them against outsiders. Considering the relative success of Modi’s politics, the article tries to situate contemporary nationalism and populism within the Indian political context, where we see a rise of what many have called Hindu nationalistic politics. To do so, the first half of the article focuses on the debate regarding the distinction between nationalism and populism and the different ways they lead to the construction of ‘the people’. The following discussion on the Indian case shows us that what we see in India today is a convergence of the discourses of nationalism and populism. 

Understanding Populism and Nationalism

The contemporary political arena has seen the rise of populist politics. Populism is characterized by its ability to construct people, the power to create a divide and mobilize emotions, as well as by its mode of governance. But what is populism? This is contested terrain as it does not adhere to a specific mode of governance and sometimes includes a wide gamut of movements, actors and behaviours. Many a time, it has even been equated with nationalism, thereby dissolving the distinction between the two concepts (Ruiz Casado, 2020). In order to not get caught up in the definitional trap, this article undertakes a discursive route and chooses to articulate populism as curated by Ernesto Laclau. 

Laclau’s interpretation is particularly useful because, for him, populism is a political logic rather than an ideology or a type of movement with a specific or pre-defined social base. It is a bid to establish identities on a terrain that is fundamentally contested and fluid, i.e. the terrain of politics itself. Laclau structures his theory of populism in the following ways – when a series of social demands cannot be met differentially by institutional apparatuses, they enter into solidarity or what Laclau calls a ‘chain of equivalence’ (Laclau, 1996). These unsatisfied demands can then be centered around common symbols and be advanced by social movements or political parties. These leaders can interpellate these symbols, and therefore the masses, which leads to a process of popular identification. Simply put, for Laclau, unfulfilled or unsatisfied demands are the embryos of populism as they lead to the constitution of ‘the people’ that aim to confront the status quo (Laclau 2005, p.127). ‘The People’ as a political subject is thus instituted (Laclau 2005). However, the unity of people can only emerge vis-à-vis identification with another powerful symbol or ideal, which Laclau calls an ‘empty signifier’ (Laclau, 1996). It is around this empty signifier that the chain of equivalence between different and sometimes contradictory demands can be built, thereby allowing people to imagine themselves as a unified collectivity. Understood this way, populism becomes a significant dimension of a democratic imaginary.  

Like populism, nationalism is also seen as a discursive formation that is centred around the signifier of the nation and construed as an incomplete sovereign community which exists through time (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017). The nation is coupled with a certain space and is structured on an in/out axis, thereby creating a boundary between a nation and outsiders. The nation is seen as a sovereign, i.e. with the right to make its own decisions. This is evident in the demand for an independent state (as is the case of, for example, the Catalan independence movement in Spain) or in demand for a state to be shaped in the image of the nation, as we will see in the case of India. Seen like this, it is the nation and not the state which becomes a nodal point of nationalism.

Both populism and nationalism are discursively similar in the sense that they lead to the construction of a subjectivity, often defined as ‘the people’, thereby resulting in the conflation of both concepts. Theoretically, the scholarship of Benjamin De Cleen and Yannis Stavrakakis (2017) has tried to argue against this reified association of populism and nationalism. For them, populism is construed on a vertical up/down axis between people as underdogs and the elite, where the former represents the pure and powerless people and the latter an illegitimate and powerful ruling elite. Contrary to populism, nationalism is construed on a horizontal in/out axis between people-as-nation and outsiders. Thus, both nationalism and populism produce different meanings of ‘the people’ (one as underdog and the other as nation) (De Cleen, 2017; De Cleen & Stavrakakis 2017). Thus, many situations in contemporary politics (such as Europe’s anti-immigrant parties) might stem from nationalism and not populism. However, is it possible to chastely divide people on separate axes for the sake of conceptual purity? The theoretical approach offered by Rogers Brubaker can guide us here.  

For Brubaker (2020), ‘the people’ can mean three things in populist discourse: as plebs or common people who demand recognition and an equitable distribution of resources, as demos or sovereign people to whom power should be restored, and finally, as a distinct moral, cultural or political community that wants protection from threats. In other words, ‘the people’ can be understood as the plebs, as the demos or as the nation, thereby leading to a partial overlap between nationalist and populist discourses. An attempt at reducing the ambiguity between the concepts of populism and nationalism in the light of this partial overlap can sever the semantics of inequity (in populism) and semantics of difference (in nationalism). Brubaker (2020) argues against this because he believes that ‘the people’ are not simply positioned in double relations (up/down or in/out) but along both the axes. This is because the elite can be signified as both on the top as well as on the outside of the nation, positioning them as anti-national and thereby as non-nationals or traitors. 

Brubaker’s argument, that is understanding populism not as a one-dimensional space which demarcates the elite and the people-as-underdog but rather as a two-dimensional discursive arena that also includes an in/out supposition as understood in discourse of nationalism, can be helpful. It can help us considerably in understanding the recent articulations of populism in India as well as the rise of Hindu nationalism. 

Hindu nationalism and its peculiar populism

This section of the article looks at how the populist regime of Narender Modi aims to construct the idea of ‘the people’ as corresponding to the notion of an authentic people, primarily in reference to a pan-India Hindu nation. Thus, I would like to start briefly with the idea of Hindu nationalism which has its roots in an anti-colonial movement, a rising national consciousness and the construction of a concept of ‘the Indian people’.

The construction of ‘the people’ was an essential task of the Indian nationalist movement because Indian masses, though the subject of their own histories, were never understood as ‘the people’ (Hansen, 1996). It was the nationalist movement, combined with the populist tendency of strong leaders such as Gandhi, that gave way to an idea of ‘the Indian people.’ Yet, ‘the people’ constructed were a result of competing nationalisms. One focused on the national community which shares common interests while the other saw the national community as having an idiosyncratic religious identity. This religious identity, which was supposed to be predominantly Hindu, was rooted in the idea of an immemorial Hindu culture and a Hindu nation which was in decline because of the advent of Muslims as well as the British. In epistemological terms, the idea of modern Hinduism and a Hindu nation were born as an empty signifier, i.e. “as a signifier of the true and full ‘culture’ that made India truly Indian, thus stabilizing otherwise diverse and alternating ritual and social hierarchies around an ‘ideal’ core. Yet it was a signifier that no actual group could claim to control fully” (Hansen, 1999, p.67). Further, even though the tolerant nationalism of Gandhi was instituted in the post-colonial state, the idea of a fictional Hindu nation also became deep-rooted in the psyche of the post-colonial Indian state. 

The idea of the Hindu nation was further supported by the ideology of Hindutva or the primacy of Hindus, whose propagators were inspired by Nazi Germany and its accentuation on birth and race as the essence of a people (Jaffrelot, 1999). The ideology of the BJP (Modi’s party) rhetorically envisages a ‘Hindu-nation’ for a majority Hindu country. However, nationalism as understood traditionally doesn’t exist in India. This is because there is no historic Hindu nation. Therefore the “us” vs “them” division is not easy to create, especially in a society that is already deeply divided along the lines of caste (Gudavarthy, 2019). Thus, one of the tasks of the contemporary construction of ‘the people’ is to create a Muslim other and a cohesive Hindu us, a task that Hindu nationalism alone has not been able to accomplish. 

This brings us to populism in India, personified presently under the figure of Narender Modi. The strongman figure of Modi has been immensely successful in appropriating various symbols in the polity and in constructing a larger-than-life figure of himself. Modi was born a poor man who has risen through the ranks on his merit. He was once a humble chaiwala (a tea seller) and a chowkidar (a guardian), and thus represents ‘the people’ as underdog. He is a devout Hindu who takes trips to holy shrines, praying for the welfare of mother India. He wants to unite India and fight against the people who seek to divide his country and also fight against the corrupt establishment. This is the powerful rhetoric around the figure of Modi.  

But the idea of ‘the people’ as constructed by Moditva discourse is sectarian and selective. Its authentic core lies with those who support the leader and is relentless, aggressive and intolerant towards those who oppose the leader. Within this discourse, anyone who challenges the PM is not only against Modi but also ‘the people’ and India. This includes Congress, which has pandered to minorities, especially Muslims, under the garb of secularism. There are Muslims whose population is substantially growing and who pose a threat to the very fabric of the nation. There are left-leaning university students as well as communists who seek to divide India. And finally, there are disruptive academics and intellectuals. All these groups have been construed as elites, who are in opposition to the pure people (Hindus). The pure people are the victims of the elite, or so this line of thinking goes. 

President Donald J. Trump” by GPA Photo Archive licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

However, populism as a strategy cannot alone unite the people, because the idea of a pure and unified Hindu majority cannot exist under a social structure that has a caste-like ladder structure as well as a horizontal structure of social divisions. Thus, populism in India has to be tied to a signifier such as that of the nation (Kinnvall, 2019). The internal diversity which characterizes the majority has to be reshaped in this union. Social differences have to be cast in the light of harmony, community, fraternity, as well as continuity with change– with that of a magnificent past and a glorious future (Gudavarthy, 2019). This includes strategies such as a hurt pride which is evident in the dominant castes in India who, due to neo-liberal changes, seem to be losing power and status. According to Gudavarthy (2019), their anxiety is also equal to that of Muslims and Dalits. Other strategies include what Gudavarthy calls a Congress-style accommodation, wherein the discrimination is not along the lines of traditional Brahminism but consists of a more covert inclusion (Gudavarthy, 2019). This means that political representation is provided to lower castes without really challenging social hierarchies and structures. 

Due to limited space here, it is not possible to deeply delve into the discursive construction of ‘the people’ in contemporary India. But it suffices to say that this construction exists on the vertical axis of populism as well as the horizontal axis of nationalism. On the vertical axis, the elite (comprising Congress, intellectuals etc.) is pitched against the pure people of India who are predominantly Hindus and view themselves as underdogs. On the horizontal axis, the nodal point of the nation works by creating fake solidarity which is based on a supposedly glorious past. This nation is pitted against the outsiders (mainly Muslims). Furthermore, some groups in India, such as Congress, are not only presented as elites that exist only on the vertical axis but also as outsiders (the horizontal plane). This is because “national belonging is a political claim, not an ethnodemographic or legal fact” (Brubaker, 2020, p.57). Based on this fact, Congress has been constructed (by Modi’s populism and nationalism) not only as an elite but also as anti-national and therefore non-national, thereby further converging the discourse on nationalism and populism. The following diagram explains this convergence:  


This article elaborates on the debate surrounding populism and nationalism. Many scholars such as De Cleen and Stravrakakis have argued against the reified association between the two concepts because they believe it conflates them. It has been argued that even though both concepts lead to construction of a notion of ‘the people’, they do so in different ways. Populism constructs the people on vertical up/down or elites/pure people axes. Alternatively, nationalism creates ‘the people’ on horizontal in/out or insider/outsider axes. Brubaker’s approach argues against the strict demarcation by reasoning that some constructions can exist along both sets of axes. Following the debate, this article focuses on the construction of ‘the people” in contemporary India. It highlights how this construction would not be possible only along the axis of populism or nationalism. Instead, a convergence is required to cohesively construct people in a society that is divided and fractured along both vertical and horizontal axes.  


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