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Populism and Hindu Nationalism in India


This article presents findings from the first-ever survey of populist attitudes in India. Historically, the Indian usage of the concept of populism was mostly confined to the fiscal handouts of governments for the lower-income groups, something that is viewed as part of left-wing populism elsewhere in the world. The idea of right-wing populism, which equates popular will with the interests of the ethnic/racial/religious majority, is something relatively novel at the highest echelons of the Indian polity. Its emergence coincides with the rise of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national power since 2014. However, our survey finds, first, that at the level of mass attitudes, populism and Hindu nationalism are quite distinct phenomena. Those who can be called populists are not Hindu nationalists and vice versa. This finding, second, also leads to our argument that while right-wing populism has emerged in India as a leadership discourse, it is still to take roots at the level of popular attitudes.

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Map 1
Fig. 1


  1. An exception is Subramanian (1999).

  2. That this is not uniformly true is explained at length in Jenne et al. (this issue). Also, it is generally recognized that at least in Greece and Spain, populism has taken a leftist form in recent years.

  3. Weyland (2001 and 2017). Also see Kaltwasser et al. (2017).

  4. However, see Ding et al. (this issue).

  5. It is sometimes claimed that populism is regime-independent, meaning it does not privilege elections and referenda.

  6. Mounk (2018, 44–45).

  7. For how India’s long-term democracy is changing under Modi, see Varshney (forthcoming).

  8. Mainly Jain, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian. There are small Jewish and Confucian communities, too. These percentages are from India’s last census (2011). The next census is to be held this year.

  9. Rudolph and Rudolph (1987). This was true until the 2009 national elections.

  10. Savarkar (1989), originally published in 1923.

  11. For elaboration, Varshney (2002: Ch. 3).

  12. Varshney (2019b)

  13. Varshney (2019d)

  14. For details, see Kenny (2017).

  15. Nehru’s institutional commitment is explored at length in Varshney (2013: Ch. 1).

  16. Cited in La Torre (2017, 202).

  17. Cited in La Torre (2017, 198).

  18. An exception was Bal Thackeray in the state of Maharashtra, whose populist politics often aligned with the right.

  19. See Subramanian (1999) and Wyatt (2013).

  20. A big speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden, on 29 September 2014, famously used this trope ( Also see Varshney (2019a) for the populist overtones of his interview with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters, streamed to millions in September 2015.

  21. The two classic texts of Hindu nationalism that make this claim are: Savarkar (1989), originally published in 1923 and Golwalkar (1947), originally published in 1939. In their authoritative text on the RSS, Andersen and Damle (2018) discuss this theme in Golwalkar’s work.

  22. For the relationship between populism and lynchings, see Jaffrey (this issue).

  23. “Hate Crime Watch Lynching Dataset”, 2020, Center for Equity Studies, Delhi.

  24. Chelameswar letter text’, Scroll, 29 March 2018.


  26. Hindus are only 2.7% of Mizoram and 7.7% of Nagaland, respectively.

  27. Tiwari and Jha (2019)

  28. We could have assigned 2 points each to the necessary conditions and 1 point to the sufficient. That would not change the result, for we are not dealing with a statistical problem that requires continuous variables. We are dealing with categorical variables and additive indices.

  29. See Nehru (1946), edition 2004, pp 54–56.

  30. Uttarakhand and Kerala, but in both only marginally so.

  31. By merging the values of 6 and 7, we do not at this stage fully leverage the statistical possibilities of the necessary conditions. The dependent variable here is dichotomous. In a cumulative spirit of inquiry, we propose to have three or more values of the dependent variable and estimate more complex models in the future. At this first stage of research, we have opted for a simpler model.

  32. Dalit is a self-chosen political term for the former “untouchable” castes, while SC is the legal term, laid out in the Constitution.

  33. Adivasi is the self-chosen political term, whereas ST is the legal term.

  34. OBCs are the lower Hindu castes, traditionally placed above the Dalits and below the upper castes.

  35. Varshney (2019c).

  36. Varshney (2019c).

  37. Varshney (2019c).

  38. Lokniti NES 2019

  39. Lokniti NES 2019


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We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Azim Premji Foundation for the project on which this paper is based. We also thank our survey partners, CSDS – Lokniti, based in Delhi, India. For comments on earlier drafts of this paper, we are thankful to Kirk Hawkins, two anonymous reviewers of this journal, Ira Katznelson, Lee-Or Ankori-Karlinsky, Marco Garrido, Stathis Kalyvas, and Steven Levitsky. The last four served, respectively, as our discussants at a Brown University seminar and at the 2019 annual meetings of the American Political Science Association and the Social Science History Association.

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Varshney, A., Ayyangar, S. & Swaminathan, S. Populism and Hindu Nationalism in India. St Comp Int Dev 56, 197–222 (2021).

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  • BJP
  • Modi
  • Right-wing populism
  • Majoritarianism
  • Manichaean