The making of a populist: Entering politics and autonomy-seeking in contemporary India

Accomplished populists are researched from distant quarters, long after they turned populists. Yet, populism—the attempt to represent the people through being the people—is not an overnight decision; it results from a gradual self-fashioning welded to the political trajectory of their bearer. This contribution proposes to explore populism diachronically as a political career. It builds on a 7-year ethnography of Indian student activism gravitating around the figure of Govind, a secular left student leader turned politician in North India during the 2019 parliamentary elections. Seeking simplicity and connect over ideological coherence, Govind progressively self-identifies as a populist, which he—and his new depoliticized entourage—recasts as the art to generate emotional mass identification to the people through bhashan (speech). Through combining qualitative longitudinal interviews, participant observation and computational discourse analysis the essay aims at contributing to three adjoining fields of inquiry: the political theory of populism, the sociology of political professionalization and the anthropology of political becoming and subject-formation. I will show how the embrace of populism is motivated by aspirations to gain leverage vis-a-vis political parties and group-based affiliations driving co-ethnic voting. Contra “ideationalists,” Govind’s case helps to reconsider populism as a non-ideological attempt to become politically autonomous—and not solely as an unmediated relationship between the people and a leader. Second, I will argue that the claim of representative sameness at the core of the populist appeal is inseparable from the one of hierarchical distinctiveness, embodied in the authoritative figure of the neta (leader). This generative contradiction emerges as essential to embody constituents’ aspirations to identify with the representative, but also to exhort future patron-client relations instrumental to India’s nonprogrammatic distributive politics. Third, I suggest that entering politics as a populist is not only about ad-hoc learning, but also about strategic unlearning. Moving from value-based left campus activism to ‘Hindu-centric’ national politics, atheist Govind has to tactically reinvent himself as a proud and decasted son of the soil, as well as a religious-friendly Gandhian, parting ways with his idealistic university comrades. The analysis relies on 90 unstructured and four semi-structured interviews with Govind and his entourage between 2014 and 2021, 14 of his political speeches in national and regional languages, his autobiography as well as a two-year-long ethnography of campus politics in a flagship Indian university and Govind’s subsequent political journey.

Keywords: populism; career; unlearning; equality-hierarchy; student politics; North India

Jean-Thomas Martelli is a mixed methods ethnographer in political science and sociology. His work examines the renewals of representation in South Asia from the standpoint of political aspirants and novices. Through combining field-centric and computational approaches of everyday political labour such as speech-making, campaigning, digital outreach and brokerage, he researches youth and student activism, political ambition, populist discourses and practices of the self in contemporary India. He is currently heading the Politics and Society division at the Centre de Sciences Humaines in New Delhi. Prior to joining CSH, he was postdoctoral fellow at Sciences Po Paris. He holds his doctoral degree from the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. Research repository:

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