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The New Experts: Populist Elites and Technocratic Promises in Modi’s India

May 24, 2024 at 1:56 pm

The New Experts: Populist Elites and Technocratic Promises in Modi’s India
  • Book Author(s): Anuradha Sajjanhar
  • Published Date: May 2024
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Paperback: 198 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781009349758

In 2014, Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won India’s 16th general election and, among huge swathes of the country’s population as well as the international community, there was great concern about what a Modi India would look like. Aside from concerns over his role during the Gujarat riots in 2002, Modi’s platform was seen as illiberal, right-leaning populist, anti-establishment and anti-expert. Many wondered whether ideology would rule the day or competency and expertise would. The reality that unfolded was much more complex than what many expected at the time and Anuradha Sajjanhar’s The New Experts: Populist Elites and Technocratic Promises in Modi’s India argues that, while the experts and technocrats of the pre-2014 establishment were replaced and, despite the fact Modi and the BJP’s rhetoric could be harsh towards expertise – a new crop of experts aligned with the BJP sprung up and a marriage between right-wing popularism and technocratic know-how occurred. ‘Right-populism often sells itself on criticising established elites. But, when it takes power, it ends up simply reconstructing its own versions of them … while hypernationalist populist politics may appear contradictory to technocratic paradigms of governance and/or an ideal of a diffuse ‘common good’, a convoluted combination of these visions has become fundamental to how people make sense of their political, social and cultural forms.’

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Sajjanhar sees the BJP as operating with ideological ambivalence and the double sidedness of Hindutva often means that what appears contradictory to outsiders, is not only not a problem for the BJP but is, in fact, critical to its success. The last decade has seen attacks on technocrats in India’s political discourse while, at the same time, an extraordinary growth in big data and technocratic projects. This diffusion strategy can be seen across the board in terms of how the BJP operates. ‘The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a long history of building support by targeting different constituents with different messages. At times, the Party’s leadership delivers business-friendly economic reforms to appeal to its corporate constituencies, or develops welfare programmes targeted to specific populations. At other times, the Party uses its connection with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the grassroots paramilitary organisation, to incite and perpetrate Hindu majoritarian violence.’

A key component of the BJP’s rule is networks and networking. The RSS presides over a group of local, regional and national Hindu nationalist groups called Sangh Parivar. While the exact relationship between them and the RSS is hard to fully discern, these groups play an important role in the BJP’s diffusion strategy. The Sangh Parivar’s influence can be felt across civil society and unions for workers, students and other groups. It is also active across a wide range of cultural and religious associations, which, on the surface at least, are apolitical. The impact of Sangh Parivar was perhaps best demonstrated in 2018 when 100 public intellectuals, academics and professionals met to demand the creation of the Charter of Hindu Demands. The Charter had 8 demands, of which Sajjanhar says 2 have been fulfilled by 2021, which included a citizenship bill for those practising Indian-origin religions [Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Jains]. The huge dominance of Sangh Parivar is due to its ability to have a large presence across civil society groups and unions which, in turn, allows it to shape discourse. Aside from this network, the BJP has also worked to infiltrate the popular culture from schools, textbooks, films and books, while developing its own alternative intellectual culture. ‘Proponents of the Hindu Right have adopted mediums of liberal intellectual culture to disseminate its own politics: such as literary festivals, film festivals, policy conferences, panel discussions positing ‘open debate’, cultural festivals celebrating Indic cultures, and so on.’

A key take away for me from The New Experts is that the BJP have successfully created a new intellectual and technocratic environment with diffusion as a key component of their strategy. Modi is a unifying factor, but the BJP needs to be better understood made up of affiliations and networks that run at the local level. These local networks and actors can make promises in their area, which contradicts what is being said by the Party in a different area of the country and, better yet, through the use of AI, Modi can give these policy promises in different Indian languages and dialects. His new experts from think tanks, civil society organisations and unions have enabled all of this to happen. The book deals with them in a lot more detail that can be covered by this review, but The New Experts does make a powerful case for not only how we see India, but also how we understand popularism elsewhere. As we are nearly at the end point of another Indian election, this book could not be more timely.

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