Right-wing populism is threatening pluralist underpinnings of diverse democracies around the world by staking claims of privilege for dominant ethnic groups and undermining minority rights. Existing scholarship has evaluated these threats in terms of the majoritarian vision peddled by charismatic politicians seeking electoral victory and the enactment of discriminatory policies through the dismantling of institutional constraints by those already in power. This article looks beyond these macro consequences of right-wing populism and examines vigilante violence as the mechanism through which these movements articulate and enforce their vision at the grassroots level. It compares the experience of India and Indonesia to evaluate factors that have enabled right-wing populists to deploy vigilantism for dismantling democratic protections against majoritarianism. I argue that the intrinsic properties of vigilantism as an efficient and transformative form of violence make it a valuable tool for right-wing populists. However, its use for political ends in two of the world’s largest democracies is enabled by three factors. First, because pluralist constitutions make it difficult to curtail minority rights through top-down legislation in India and Indonesia, vigilantism has become an appealing extra-legal strategy for undermining these rights from the bottom up. Second, widespread social legitimacy associated with everyday forms of vigilantism allows right-wing populists to scale up local templates of violence for national goals. Third, similar pathologies of state-building in both countries enable right-wing vigilantes to act with impunity. I conclude by arguing that while vigilantism has long been thought of as a way in which disempowered citizens cope with dissatisfactory provision of order by the state, right-wing populists are transforming vigilante violence into means for engineering social dominance.
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While this data is useful for illustrating similar in-country trends, it cannot be used to compare the magnitude of vigilantism between India and Indonesia because of vastly different data collection methodologies used in each country. In India, this data has been collected by the FactCheker at IndiaSpend from national media reports and is limited to communal incidents. In Indonesia, the data is from 16 provinces that comprise half of Indonesia’s population and represent all its major ethnic groups. The data is from the National Violence Monitoring Database collected from local media reports that provide more granular coverage of a much broader definition of vigilantism. For a detailed description of the definition and methodology used to collect vigilantism data, see Jaffrey (2019). For a broader description of the NVMS dataset, see Barron et al. 2016: Dataset available at https://microdata.worldbank.org/index.php/catalog/2626
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Jaffrey, S. Right-Wing Populism and Vigilante Violence in Asia. St Comp Int Dev 56, 223–249 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-021-09336-7