The Political Outsider
Indian Democracy and the Lineages of Populism
Srirupa Roy




POPULISM IS IN THE crosshairs of global public attention today. Scenes of mass public outrage where ordinary people rise up against the rule of corrupt elites take center stage around the world. From the resounding victories of populist parties and their strongmen leaders in electoral democracies, to the “public assemblies”1 of insurgent occupations in streets and squares, and the virtual but no less visceral outbursts of populist anger in social media worlds, the present marks the decisive arrival of a new kind of politics in the global history of democracy.

Populism has several distinctive features. Foremost among them is the attack on established systems, institutions, and practices of representative and electoral democracy. The moralizing rhetoric of populist discourses cleaves political and social space into two antagonistic halves and pits the virtuous people against a degraded and corrupt political elite. Populists argue that popular sovereignty, democracy’s core commitment, requires bypassing and dismantling existing institutions and practices of political representation such as elections and parliaments. Populism’s specific affect also stands out. Political legitimacy is linked to public displays of spontaneous mass outrage that veer away from the cool deliberations of individual reason endorsed by liberal democratic theory. Finally, from the Philippines to the United States, Brazil to Turkey, India to Spain, populism celebrates and venerates the redemptive agency of political outsiders. Only those who are not a part of the establishment or “the system” will be able to restore the lost promise of democracy and bring power back to the people and the people back to power, it is argued.

What explains the salience and attraction of such a politics? When, why, and how did an angry politics that hails political outsiders and rails against establishment institutions and elected representatives become so influential in modern democracies? What does it mean for democracy, and what for that matter do we mean by democracy, when diagnoses of democracy’s disappointments, failures, and sicknesses become the grounds for exercising political agency and authority? When political action and intervention in a democratic political system is enabled by cynicism and disenchantment toward that very system?

These are the questions that this book addresses through an examination of contemporary India, where one-third of the world’s democratic citizens live. Defying the many dire predictions at the time of its establishment as an independent republic in 1947, when the constitutional guarantee of universal franchise to a predominantly nonliterate and impoverished citizenry seemed like a foolish gamble that was guaranteed to end in quick disaster, the world’s most populous democracy is now more than seventy-five years old. But it is equally a place where the critique of democracy is intense and strident, and where the politics of populist outrage dominates contemporary public culture.

Political life in millennial India has witnessed spectacular eruptions of civic anger. Spanning real and virtual worlds, in the early decades of the twenty-first century numerous Justice for campaigns were launched by commercial media to demand justice for ordinary citizen-victims of crimes committed by powerful, politically connected individuals. Massive street protests of citizen movements against corruption took over urban public spaces across the country in 2011.

In recent years, this trope of victimized people suffering at the hands of a predatory elite and a dysfunctional political system has also reaped large electoral rewards. Since 2012, the populist language of redemptive outsiders who will combat the system and bring the people back to power has been harnessed by political parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party, AAP for short) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP for short) in successful electoral campaigns. The strongman populist regime of Narendra Modi and the BJP, in power since 2014, projects him as the ultimate outsider to the elite establishment that has wrested power from the Indian people for far too long. Modi’s carefully crafted public image is that of a celibate self-made man of humble origins; a former tea seller from the vernacular worlds of Gujarat, at far remove from the cosmopolitan English-speaking power elites of the capital city. If the size of electoral mandates and the vigor of media acclamation are the indicators to go by, he has very successfully fashioned himself as the consummate outsider, a heroic messiah figure tasked with the urgent work of curing democracy and redeeming the people.

In a paradox that is not unique to India and might well be a generalized and global democratic condition, the continued existence of electoral democracy is powered by the intense criticism of, and loud expressions of public distaste and disenchantment toward, electoral politics. This conjunction of democratic endurance and condemnation in India is fertile ground for an inquiry into the populism-democracy relation. It departs from the prevailing scholarly consensus on the subject to chart an alternative genealogy and trajectory for populism, as we will soon see.


There is a large and vigorous body of scholarly work on populism.3 The subject is approached from many different academic disciplines, but there are several shared presumptions. The first and most prominent is the presumption of electoralism. For the most part, when we talk about the rise of global populism, it is about the electoral victories of organized political parties in a formal democratic system. The contemporary public and scholarly imagination of populism is mostly preoccupied with the growing electoral popularity of particular political parties and leaders, and explaining the populist vote is usually the main analytical task. Second, the electoral preoccupation of contemporary discussions means that they are usually presentist in their focus, and are concerned with explaining a current and exceptional outcome, namely the most recent populist vote. “The populist problem” is approached as some kind of deviant occurrence that stands outside the terrain of democratic politics-as-usual. It is an aberration or puzzle that needs to be explained because it is so different, so sudden, and so abnormal.

Psychologism is a third presumption. Contemporary discussions of populism frequently place populism on the couch, as it were, and identify some kind of internal psychic drive or emotion on the part of the individual voter as the prime explanatory mechanism. Variously described as anger, resentment, and ressentiment, these individual emotions are seen to scale up to reproduce a collective version of the same psychodynamic, which enables the political act of voting for a populist figure or party.4 Finally, most discussions of global populism advance a thesis of media mystification and reference the powers of media (particularly digital and social media) to persuade and ultimately distract or delude the voter from her real concerns. With this narrative of the largely passive voter-as-viewer who is misled and duped by fake news and media spin to support populist parties, populism is put on the couch in a second sense, we might say.5

All these presumptions rest on rather fragile empirical ground. For one, as even a cursory glance at the large corpus of work on “the age of anger” will show, the theses of psychologism and media manipulation often rely on anecdotes rather than sustained empirical evidence for how particular media-driven or psychological and emotional dynamics actually induce individuals to undertake the specific political act of voting for a populist political party. And where empirical data are provided, they tend to present a correlative rather than explanatory or causal picture. We get aggregate maps that associate particular kinds of voter emotions and “states of mind” with particular kinds of voter behavior and voting outcomes. But even if supporters of populist parties can be located in places where we can also locate particular knowledge deficits (“low information”) and social emotions such as anger and resentment, the explanatory mechanism for emotionally motivated or media-motivated political action is usually missing. Why would resentful and angry voters bother to cast a vote; why not opt out of politics altogether? Beyond correlation, what are the actual pathways that connect fake-news consumption to the decision and act of voting for a populist?6

Existing explanations are also hampered by the selective empirical evidence that they draw upon, of cases where contemporary populism casts its deviant shadow across the well-tempered landscape of Euro-American liberal democracy. These are the mainstay of contemporary populism scholarship, which, despite a few forays into comparative terrain, is mostly theorized as an Atlantic rim phenomenon. The view that results, of populism as some kind of monstrous interruption of normal democratic politics, cannot so easily accommodate the many cases of populist politics from other parts of the world where the preexisting political dispensation, though democratic, was never entirely liberal to begin with.

Finally, the presentist and electoralist understanding of populism fails to engage a very simple empirical fact. Populism does not fall from the sky. Populist electoral victories have antecedents as well as afterlives. The lineages of populist politics stretch well before and beyond the contemporary moment of voter choice. It is located not just in the moment of the electoral exception but in the unremarkable rhythms of everyday, normal democracy. In the words of anthropologist Matt Wilde, “in order to understand populism, we need to think about a lot more than populism.”7

This book is about the “lot more.” I zoom out from the exceptional figure of the angry populist voter to the historical lineages and the political-institutional contexts that have fueled the rise of populist politics. If populism is a “thin-centered ideology”8 or worldview of political and social life as a Manichean moral combat between a unitary and pure people and a dissolute and corrupt elite/system, then we need to understand how it both converges and conflicts with other, existing and older, ideas of the people: the central subject of modern political thought and practice.

If we take such an approach, two things quickly become evident. First, an investigation of populism’s backstory that goes beyond the immediate moment of electoral victories by distinctive new campaigns of angry politics in the name of a newly assertive political subject, “the people,” leads us to plenty of banal, bureaucratic-institutional processes and influences as well that have also fueled populism’s rise. In other words, it is not just an overtly emotional and exceptional politics of anger that produces the people/elite binary, and foments the idea of anti-establishment insurgency that is the distinctive hallmark of populism. Historically patterned rhythms and routines of democratic politics; institutions that are crucial to democratic governance; events that have been widely hailed as advancing the cause of democracy; and things considered to be crucial for democratic well-being have all had a role to play in populism’s rise and salience.

Second, a closer examination of the broader historical and political context of populism reveals that a particular idea about democratic change fuels such a politics. If, instead of proceeding from the assumption that populism is sui generis, we ask where it comes from or what it comes out of, then we see that populism is a project of democratic reform fueled by an imagination of democracy’s “repairable lapses.”9 The core of populist political appeal is the call to cure, revive, renew, or restore a presently flawed or diseased democracy. I term this broader political context and project curative democracy, and it is the main subject of this book. I contend that contemporary populism both in India, the specific geographical location of my study, and in several other parts of the world is the latest manifestation of an older and ongoing politics of curative democracy that took root in the 1970s through the first half of the 1980s (the “Long 1970s”).

Moving between twenty-first-century populist politics and its late-twentieth-century predecessor, curative democracy, this book intervenes in discussions about populism by offering a “consequent” rather than a causal explanation of its rise.10 I show that the present moment of populist outrage politics in India is a legacy of an older project of curative democracy that has enjoyed political and cultural legitimacy and institutional heft for more than four decades. The specific political lineage that I trace in order to make this argument is that of outsider politics, the distinctive institutional and normative formation that was central to the idea of the democratic cure first articulated in the 1970s in India, and which is at the core of the twenty-first-century populist project as well.

Other features of populism, most notably the people/elite binary, have commanded a great deal of scholarly and media attention in recent times. But the idea of the political outsider as the agent of populist redemption; the normative justification of populist movements and leaders in terms of their distinctive outsider status; and the location of representational authority in some putative pure space outside politics are the beating heart of the populist imagination. In the remaining sections of this introduction, I flesh out these arguments and the concepts of “curative democracy” and “outsider politics” that drive the book.


In the first two decades after independence from British colonial rule in 1947, the projects of democratic founding and “nation-building” dominated the national political agenda of the new Indian republic. Post-independence public culture was saturated with images and promises of newness. The end of two hundred years of colonial rule in India was marked by the partition of colonial territory into the sovereign nation-states of India and Pakistan—an act that led to human displacements and deaths on an unprecedented scale. The violent contexts of Indian independence and the daily precariousness of national existence very literally confronted the nation-builders. Thousands of refugees arrived in the capital city of Delhi each day. Refugee camps sprang up within walking distance of the majestic colonial buildings where delegates wrote a new constitution for India. Shadowed by these experiences, the Nehruvian vision of newness was more cautious than triumphalist, more hopeful than assertive, although the theme of new births and new beginnings, of politics as an uncertain but also exciting experiment, always remained at the forefront.

The broad umbrella of nation-building covered ideas of social, economic, as well as political change. The term was associated with a wide range of initiatives. These included the building of monumental dams; the adoption of educational curricula that aimed to foster “scientific temper” and “youth discipline”; the creation of cultural displays for annual Republic Day parades that showcased the official nationalist theme of unity-in-diversity; and the establishment of new model townships and urban settlements that, through their rehabilitation of partition refugees, very literally enacted the promise of sovereign national beginnings that was so integral to the mythology of decolonization. This was not unique to India. In the middle of the twentieth century, similar nation-building projects were launched by newly sovereign nation-states across wide swaths of Asia and Africa.11 Within two decades, there was a gradual but perceptible shift. Starting in the late 1960s, the norm of newness was reconfigured as renewal and recovery. A quite differently inflected project of curative democracy took hold in India. From now on, the main goal of political action was not so much the establishment of democracy, but rather its recovery, reform, and cure.

This journey from nation-building to democracy-rebuilding was signposted in India by two significant political developments. The first was the dramatic proclamation of a national emergency in June 1975 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that suspended the normal operations of electoral democracy and rights protections, citing grave and imminent dangers to the stability and security of the country. The second was the equally dramatic and surprising decision to annul the emergency and restore the electoral process nineteen months later, in January 1977 (elections took place in March 1977). Both these inimical events—the end of democracy and the end of authoritarianism, respectively—were legitimized and publicly justified in the same way, as urgent and necessary acts of democratic salvation or remedy. The distinctive logic of curative democracy came into its own with these twin acts of democratic annulment and restoration. Outlasting the specific circumstances of its birth at moments of exceptional crisis, it would bend the arc of Indian politics well after the 1970s came to an end.

Turning Points: The Long 1970s

The idea of curative democracy emerged in the context of a gradual but definitive shift in the norms and practices of political mobilization and legitimization in post-independence India. India’s democracy at the time of its birth was unique both for the sheer ambition of the universal suffrage that it granted all of its citizens all at once—never before had so many millions of individuals been given an unqualified right to vote regardless of property, education, or gender considerations—and for the deep and complex social inequalities along the fault lines of caste, religion, class, and region that fissured the country.12 As he completed his work of drafting the constitution, Bhimrao Ambedkar, the chair of the Draft Committee, would declare to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949:

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.13

The contradictions that Ambedkar noted between the political promise and the actual social conditions of democracy were managed in the first couple of decades after independence by the distinctive architecture of the “Congress system” of party organization and political mobilization instituted by the ruling Congress party, the organizational legatee of the anticolonial nationalist movement. Combining the co-optation of local notables into party structures with a flexible ideological orientation that allowed both right-wing and socialist factions to coexist with a single political party, the Congress party was able both to ensure its own electoral dominance and reproduce political order in the new republic. The Congress system secured political consent to a centralized authority by continually negotiating and compromising with multiple and contending local social forces, deferring to entrenched traditions of hierarchical social patronage to allocate party tickets, and tempering legislative and policy proposals if they were resisted by powerful local social interests.14

By the late 1960s, the steady “massification” or social expansion of electoral democracy strained political institutions with the mounting pressure of social claims, and placed the Congress system of managed negotiation in crisis. The leadership struggles that seized the Congress party after the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 also played their part. Shortly after Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, became the party leader and the third prime minister of India, the Congress party split into two rival partisan formations in 1969, the Congress (Organisation) and the Congress (Requisitionists), the latter headed by Indira Gandhi. As the sixties came to a close, the flexible big-tent system of managing differences within a single capacious party organization that had multiple power centers gave way to narrow and centralized party formations dominated by a single leader, and heightened levels of interpartisan conflict.

The People as Political Subject

As political contestation moved from intraparty to interparty arenas, the modes of political mobilization and legitimization shifted as well.15 Indira Gandhi as leader of the breakaway Congress (R) bypassed existing Congress institutions and practices of locally mediated voter mobilization to address a new political subject, the people. Indira Gandhi presented herself as a decisive leader executing bold and swift actions to save an imperiled political system that had failed to deliver the fruits of democracy to its citizens. This gained public traction in the context of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. Evoking the myth of Hindu goddess Durga’s battle against the forces of evil, Indira Gandhi’s authorization of military intervention by the Indian Army in support of the East Pakistan/Bangladesh independence fighters was widely hailed across the country.

The narrative of the victorious goddess of avenging justice sharpened its populist edge in the early 1970s. Gandhi’s dramatic election campaign slogan from this period was garibi hatao, or remove poverty. With its emphatic flourish, it conveyed the decisive immediacy of the Great Leader’s actions, which set her apart from the sclerotic indifference of the existing political system. At the same time, the grand flourish of the promise meant that the benchmarks and measure of its fulfilment remained open-ended.

The economy was a key site of populist political address in this period. This involved the reorientation of a central theme of the official nationalist imagination. The post-independence “Nehruvian” nation-building project was tethered to a specific developmentalist vision of India as a homogeneous economic space planned and guided to progress along a linear trajectory by a centralized state.16 This idea of development as a progressive process of “becoming” was now supplanted by a new emphasis on immediate achievement and “doing,” and on the importance of visibly decisive action. Through measures such as the abolition of state payments and privileges for pre-independence-era aristocrats, and the nationalization of private banks, Gandhi signaled her commitment to fight the system of entrenched economic privilege with swift and immediate effect.

An oppositional, zero-sum understanding of the relationship between economic and political rights also became commonplace. Through her policies as well as a series of constitutional battles between the executive and the judiciary over the principles of judicial review, Gandhi increasingly recast the economy as the domain of authentic popular sovereignty, and hence the main priority of her government. The urgent economic needs of the people were, in this reckoning, more important than so-called second-order constitutional protections of individual political and civil liberties.

The idea of economic needs was specified mostly in relation to values like efficiency, speed, and order rather than to structural inequality as such. The specter of “economic offenders” who engaged in hoarding, smuggling, tax evasion, and the amassment of “black money”; the adulteration of food supplies meant for the public distribution system by corrupt state agents; and the ominous shadow of the “foreign hand” and “CIA involvement” that hovered around the edges of just about every statist pronouncement in the early 1970s animated the languages of political mobilization and legitimization in this period and brought an increasingly “paranoid style” to bear on public discourse.17

In sum, the end of the 1960s and early 1970s in India saw a new language of political mobilization emerge. Breaking from the prevailing Congress system’s logic of locally mediated and socially segmented appeals, the incumbent political regime of Indira Gandhi addressed an amorphous constituency of the people. In the new economic populist imaginary, individual and civil rights were cast as an obstacle to the realization of popular sovereignty. By the mid-1970s, the devaluation of individual rights and freedoms took the very material form of the emergency declaration that suspended fundamental rights of individual citizens in the name of realizing order, security, and economic progress.

Cleansing Politics and Curing Democracy

Alongside the turn to economic populism, the early 1970s in India also saw an intensified engagement with the theme of political corruption and the indictment of so-called “dirty politics.”18 The discourse of antipolitics, of political aversion and skepticism toward power and rule, has a deep historical presence in the South Asian subcontinent. Through the twentieth century, antipolitical thought and practice had a strong influence on the colonial and postcolonial polity. The Gandhian strand of anticolonial politics, with its emphasis on moral “truth force” and the cultivation of sacrificial and renunciatory modes of political address, made a virtue of giving up political power.19 The Nehruvian nation-building project worked to insulate “sublime” statist reason from the sordid squabbles of “petty politics.” The rise of interpartisan competition in the 1970s led to frequent and highly publicized episodes of “politicking,” “horse-trading,” frequent partisan defections, and the visible presence of money as a force in electoral politics.20 The long-standing theme of distaste for the pursuit of political power was reworked into a repudiation of the corrupt worlds of electoral politics in particular.

From the late 1960s onward, the corruptions of electoral politics and the malign workings of the money-politics nexus were targeted by both government and opposition with increasing stridency. The call to rescue democracy from the scourge of politics became the central refrain of the Indira Gandhi regime’s efforts to delegitimize social protests against its authority, as well as of the protest movements themselves. The student-led Navnirman (reconstruction) movement in the state of Gujarat started as a protest against an increase in hostel food prices and culminated in a demand for the ouster of the state government. The call for “total revolution” (sampoorna kranti) issued by the Gandhian socialist leader Jayaprakash “JP” Narayan saw millions of people take to the streets in the early 1970s to demand a thorough cleansing of the political order. All of these actions upheld a curative vision of democracy, a term that I will explain below. The festering sore of money-infested, power-hungry politics had to be excised from the corrupted body politic to restore Indian democracy to perfect constitutional health, they agitated.21 In an ironic twist, the Congress government under Indira Gandhi that these movements targeted would reproduce a similar discourse about remedial actions to cure the diseased democracy. Its emergency declaration of June 1975 suspended the normal procedures and constitutional protections of democratic politics in the name of saving democracy.

For the next twenty-odd months, governance for the protection and benefit of democracy entailed its abeyance. Between June 1975 and March 1977, India was ruled under constitutional emergency provisions that strengthened the hand of the central executive and hollowed out deliberative as well as countermajoritarian institutions like the parliament and the judiciary. The suspension of civil liberties and fundamental rights protections enabled the mass imprisonment of perceived opponents of the Indira Gandhi regime. These included leaders and members of opposition political parties and of Hindu right-wing movements and organizations such as the RSS and the Ananda Marg; communist and socialist activists; journalists; and media owners critical of the ruling establishment. Controversial policies of media censorship, slum demolition, and the compulsory sterilization of male, disproportionately poor and minority citizens were implemented. All these acts were justified in remedial or curative terms, as bitter but needed medicine to restore India’s democratic health.22

The restoration of democracy in the aftermath of the emergency continued this pattern of repetition and relay between power and counterpower, of a common call to salvage and cure democracy. Surprise elections that were called by Indira Gandhi, ostensibly to demonstrate public consent and revalidation of the emergency regime, led to her ouster by an opposition coalition in March 1977. As we will see in the chapters that follow, the post-emergency project of democratic restoration in the late 1970s and beyond advanced many emergency-era curative idioms and practices. They reproduced many of the ideas that had previously anchored the project of emergency rule, the very object of their “never again” efforts. Departing from prevailing views of the emergency as a temporary aberration in Indian politics, this book shows how these post-emergency efforts to restore democracy in fact carried forward ideas and practices of curative democracy and populist logics of extra-electoral representation that were consolidated during the emergency itself.

The Curative Democracy Complex

I use the term curative democracy to refer to the complex of ideas, institutional interventions, and policy decisions that have the explicit aim of fixing and curing—hence curative—an existing system of political democracy. Together, these entrench new legitimization vocabularies in political and public cultural arenas where actions in the name of curing democracy garner sanction and approval. But this is not only about normative innovations. There are material effects as well, for instance when laws on electoral reform and freedom of information that aim to end and prevent political corruption impact the ability to get a ration card that will grant access to subsidized food.23

The curative democratic complex has several distinguishing features. First, it offers a diagnosis of disease and cure in which the democratic political system is approached as a discrete entity that can both be stricken by disease and targeted by specific kinds of remedial interventions. There is, moreover, a critical urgency to the diagnosis. This is the second distinguishing feature of curative democracy. The call to cure democracy is generally framed as a call to immediate action, and the health of democracy is invariably diagnosed as critically impaired, democracy on life support, as it were.

Immediacy is all about the visibility and suddenness of actions. Curative democracy projects involve sudden, public, and dramatic acts and decisions, such as the drama of Indira Gandhi’s emergency proclamation in June 1975, and the parallel drama of the equally sudden suspension of emergency in January 1977. The political theater of the India Against Corruption movement’s bijli pani satyagraha (electricity water campaign) from 2012 is a more recent example. The spectacle of activists scrambling up electricity poles to rejoin wires and provide electricity to people unable to pay the inflated electricity bills in Delhi very literally enacted the movement’s resolve of immediately acting against political corruption and curing the ills of the system right away, here and now.24

In recent years, the mobilization repertoires of the Hindu nationalist BJP party have included such performative displays of immediate remedial action as well. The incumbent Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s main public identity is that of a decisive, larger-than-life action hero who undertakes swift, sudden, and big actions. His demonetization policy of 2016 is an iconic example. Late on a November evening that year, Prime Minister Modi interrupted the regular television broadcast schedule to announce that, in order to immediately excise the festering sore of black money and political corruption that infected the body politic, two of the most widely used Indian currency notes would cease to be legal tender that very night. In the immediate aftermath of the ironically nicknamed “demon” policy, its adverse effects on individual lives and livelihoods were widely reported in the media. Although demonetization was widely predicted to weaken the BJP’s electoral chances, the party in fact gained in electoral popularity during crucial state-level elections the following year. The BJP’s campaign emphasis on demonetization as the ultimate act of immediate, daring, and risky decision-making—an act that signals Modi’s disregard for political power and his willingness to make electorally unpopular decisions in order to achieve a higher public purpose—may indeed have found some kind of public traction. We will revisit the “eventocratic”25 reign of Modi in the final chapter of the book and see how the concepts of curative democracy and outsider politics clarify the puzzle of Modi’s continued electoral success despite the havoc and misery caused by demonetization.

Political Outsiders

The third notable feature of the curative democratic complex has to do with the nature of the just-in-time remedial actions that it proposes, and the identity of the curative agent who is authorized to undertake them. Only the interventions of a political outsider who has nothing to do with the messy intrigues of electoral politics and the hunger for power that it breeds can cure democracy, it is held. Democracy’s external doctors can be of several different kinds. As the following chapters show, curative democracy projects in India have involved interventions by non-state institutions such as the media, state agencies such as the judiciary, and parastatal or quasi-governmental autonomous ombuds institutions. On other occasions, curative agency has been invested in individuals invested with superior intellectual-technical, entrepreneurial, moral, religious, or even magical/superhuman powers. Common to all of these varied expressions of institutional and individual curative agency is the assumption of political exteriority that places democratic sovereignty and the true power and authentic interests of the people outside the domain of electoral politics.

Elections are commonly regarded as the sign and measure of democracy, and the formal distinction between authoritarian and democratic systems is based on the occurrence of free and fair elections in the latter. Assessments of Indian democracy are strongly influenced by such an electoralist understanding. Both (official and popular cultural) self-presentations and external commentary about the “world’s largest democracy” regularly highlight the conduct of elections as a sign of India’s democratic vibrancy.26 But the curative democracy paradigm adds another wrinkle. As much as they are celebrated, elections are also condemned as the vectors of democratic disease. They are seen to elicit and enable “dirty” political machinations and manipulations, to corrupt and corrode the public interest and the common good.

Extra-electoral Representation

Unlike the ideals of political transcendence and renunciation that have long informed the “saintly idioms” of South Asian political cultures,27 the outsider norm of curative democracy projects in fact demands a renewed and intensified engagement with politics. Curative democracy is about going outside electoral politics in order to cure it. Political transformation is a central aim: the mission is to repair and restore rather than overturn or escape the existing political system. It is in relation to this restorative and politically engaged impulse of curative democracy that its fourth significant feature gains meaning, namely the emphasis on extra-electoral forms and practices of representation.

Questions of representation and mediation remain front and center in discourses of curative democracy. The democratic cure aims to produce better and truer mediators and representatives of the people, not to get rid of representation as such. Curative democracy is essentially a project and process of representative claims-making that locates the agency and responsibility of “authentic representation” of the people outside the domain of electoral politics.

We will encounter several different kinds of extra-electoral representative claims in the chapters that follow, all advanced in the name of the people, in the name of repairing a broken democracy. In the Long 1970s, when the idea of curative democracy first took shape in India, extra-electoral representational authority was mainly vested in non-state organizations such as the media, civil society, and social movements, and in non-electoral state agencies like the judiciary. In many cases, this took the conjoined form of “concern networks” that brought media, civil society, social movements, legal actors, and judicial institutions together to advance a common claim about being the true representatives of the wounded and suffering people. The unfettered agency of executive decisions was also included in the field of extra-electoral representation, beginning with Indira Gandhi’s justification of the emergency as an effort to save Indian democracy.

In later decades, the space of extra-electoral representation was increasingly filled by community and culture-based discourses and formations, which claimed the moral mantle of truly representing the people in the name of religion, caste, or regional identity. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, still another set of claimants to representational authority emerged, this time from the field of corporate and entrepreneurial capital. New formations of “inclusive capitalism” and “pro-poor capitalism,” and the decisive agency and leadership skills of CEOs and “captains of industry,” gained media and public attention in the new millennium, as figures who would set things right for India.28

In each of these cases, the goal of democratic health was defined as the realization of new and better ways of mediating the will of the people. From the curative democracy projects that coalesced around normative notions of cultural community, to those that advocated for the interventions of capital, the authority of the change agent invested with the power of curing the sick system was imagined in representational terms, as a type of intermediary authority. The emphasis on mediation and representation yielded policy choices that took curative democrats away from participatory or direct democratic agendas and goals. The book will explore these divergences in further detail, building on the insights of recent scholarship on “monitory democracy” to document how curative democracy encourages power scrutiny more than power sharing or active political participation by citizens.29

Modulating Nationalism

The final feature of note in curative democracy projects is their relationship to prevailing norms of nationalism. The main political subject that curative democracy discourses addressed when they first emerged in India during the 1970s and 1980s was the people: janata, lok, makkal. At first, these ideas evolved on separate tracks. The evolution of curative democracy projects in the post-emergency period that legitimized the exercise of political agency by non-electoral representatives such as the media, judiciary, civil society, and social action groups unfolded in tandem with another kind of political-cultural mobilization in the domain of electoral politics: the rise of Hindu nationalism. The ideas of the nation that were taken forward by Hindu nationalist movements and parties in the 1980s were linked to cultural and ethno-religious idioms. Hindu nationalist or Hindutva ideology configured the nation as an ethno-religiously homogeneous and territorially bounded “imagined community,” and mobilized supporters using “blood and soil” discourses of belonging, inclusion, and exclusion. The people in whose name democracy was being saved and repaired was by contrast an “open signifier” that lacked the ethno-religious and territorial distinctions and the solidary frameworks or community-building emphases of nationhood discourses.

Over time, especially as Hindu nationalism moved from the space of social movement insurgency to that of government,30 the clear lines between the two normative orders of people/democracy and nation/community were muddled. Communal nationalist discourses were modulated into a national populism that did not stay limited to ethno-religious modes of imagining community. Moving beyond the parameters of collective identity formation, Hindu nationalism in present-day India seeks to reconstitute democracy and political order along majoritarian lines in the name of the people, often deploying the very languages and practices of curative democracy that many of its avowed left-liberal adversaries have used over the years. Promoting a politically lethal blend of majoritarian assertions of Hindu political power and discourses of democratic reform and people power, the Hindu-first transformation of the Indian republic is undertaken in the name of salvaging and redeeming democracy and popular sovereignty. And as the curative inflections of Hindu nationalism open up a political space for strongmen leaders and their decisive actions, what also changes is Indian democracy itself. The concluding chapter will consider the dynamics and implications of this change.


1. See Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

2. Portions of this section are drawn from Paula Chakravartty and Srirupa Roy, “Mediated Populisms: InterAsian Lineages—Introduction,” International Journal of Communication 11 (2017),

3. A small sample would include works such as Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994); Rogers Brubaker, “Populism and Nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism 26, no. 1(2020): 44–66; Partha Chatterjee, I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); Jason Frank, “Populism Isn’t the Problem,” Boston Review, August 15, 2018,; Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner, eds., Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics (New York: Macmillan, 1969); Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, rev. ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2006); William Mazzarella, “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement,” Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (2019): 45–60; Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016); Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2018); Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2014): 541–63; Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Studying Populism in Comparative Perspective: Reflections on the Contemporary and Future Research Agenda,” Comparative Political Studies 51, no. 13 (2018): 1667–93; Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Francisco Panizza, ed., Populism and the Mirror of Democracy (London: Verso, 2006); Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981); Pierre Rosanvallon, The Populist Century: History, Theory, Critique (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021); Yannis Stavrakakis et al., “Populism, Anti-populism, and Crisis,” Contemporary Political Theory 17 (2018): 4–27; Paul Taggart, Populism: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000); Nadia Urbinati, “Political Theory of Populism,” Annual Review of Political Science 22, no. 6 (2019): 111–27.

4. See, for instance, Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (New York: Macmillan, 2017).

5. Within the field of media studies, this has been a primary area of focus with a disproportionate emphasis on the volume of media coverage of populist leaders like Donald Trump. See Claudia Alvares and Peter Dahlgren, “Populism, Extremism and Media: Mapping an Uncertain Terrain,” European Journal of Communication 31, no. 1 (2016): 46–57; Julia Azari, “How the News Media Helped to Nominate Trump,” Political Communication 33, no. 4 (2016): 677–80; Yochai Benkler et al., “Study: Breitbart-led Right-wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda,” Columbia Journalism Review 4, no. 1 (2017),; Jacob Groshek, “Helping Populism Win? Social Media Use, Filter Bubbles, and Support for Populist Presidential Candidates in the 2016 US Election Campaign,” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 9 (2017): 1389–1407; Issie Lapowski, “Donald Trump Supporters Are More Susceptible to Clickbait,” Wired, October 31, 2015,; Pippa Norris, “Why Populism Is a Threat to Electoral Integrity,” LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) Blog, 2017,; Brian Ott, “The Age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of Debasement,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 34, no. 1 (2017): 59–68.

6. For example, neither Pankaj Mishra’s popular take on the angry working-class voters in the UK and the US nor sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s account of southern Tea Party supporters marshals much empirical evidence about the concrete institutional mechanisms that translate or convert anger over economic exclusion into electoral support for populist political movements and parties driven by racism and xenophobia. Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016). On the concept of the “low information voter” see Richard Fording and Sanford Schram, “The Cognitive and Emotional Sources of Trump Support: The Case of Low-Information Voters,” New Political Science 39, no. 4 (2017): 670–86.

7. Matt Wilde, “Populism, Right and Left,” Public Books, 2017,

8. See Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist.”

9. Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 1.

10. Using the example of Alexis de Tocqueville’s comparative sociology of democracy (in France and in America), Sudipta Kaviraj distinguishes between Tocquevillean “sociologically consequent” modes of analysis that focus on the effects of democracy over extended periods of time, and “causal” analyses that are concerned with the rise of democracy. See Sudipta Kaviraj, “The Empire of Democracy,” in Anxieties of Democracy: Tocquevillean Reflections on India and the United States, ed. Partha Chatterjee and Ira Katznelson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 20–49, 22.

11. I have analyzed in detail these nation-building initiatives, and the distinctive imagination of a nation-statist identity that emerged out of Nehruvian nation-building, in earlier work. See Srirupa Roy, Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

12. On India’s unique “simultaneous” transition to democracy, in contrast to the sequential pathways of democratization in Europe and the United States, see Kaviraj, “The Empire of Democracy.”

13. Indian Constituent Assembly Debates XI, November 25, 1949,

14. The concept of the “Congress system” was contemporaneously theorized by the political scientist Rajni Kothari. See Rajni Kothari, “The Congress System in India,” Asian Survey 4, no. 12 (1964): 1161–73. On the pacted or negotiated character of power in Nehruvian India, see Pranab Bardhan, The Political Economy of Development in India (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984); Francine Frankel, India’s Political Economy: The Gradual Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

15. A perceptive analysis of this period is available in Sudipta Kaviraj, “Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics,” Economic and Political Weekly 21, no. 38–39 (1986): 1697–1708.

16. On the economic imaginary of India in the colonial and postcolonial periods, see, respectively, Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Satish Deshpande, “Imagined Economies: Styles of Nation-Building in Twentieth Century India,” Journal of Arts and Ideas 24, no. 5 (1993): 5–35.

17. Hindi commercial cinema from the Long 1970s is a rich repository of this discursive and affective style. The stock figure of the smuggler-villain, and the “angry young man” vigilante hero who transgressed institutional and legal boundaries in the name of popular redemption, proliferated across the films of this period, diffusing the themes, fears, and fantasies of outsider politics and curative democracy through the everyday worlds of public culture. For a close discussion of these tropes in the cinema of the time, and their subsequent mutation, see Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

18. On the condemnations of “dirty politics” in India, and the normative distinction between the political and the nonpolitical, see among others Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), and Prathama Banerjee, Elementary Aspects of the Political: Histories from the Global South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

19. For a rich and nuanced account of the role that renunciatory and sacrificial themes (and the difference between them) play in the “political theology of Indian democracy,” see Thomas Blom Hansen, The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics (Delhi: Aleph Books, 2021), especially chapter 3.

20. On the political economic transformations of this period, see Stanley Kochanek, Business and Politics in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Atul Kohli, India’s Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Rudolph and Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi.

21. On the Navnirman and JP movements, see Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–77 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2021); Dawn Jones and Rodney Jones, “Urban Upheaval in India: The 1974 Nav Nirman Riots in Gujarat,” Asian Survey 16, no. 11 (1976): 1012–33; Ghanshyam Shah, Protest Movements in Two Indian States (Delhi: Ajanta, 1977); John Wood, “Extra-Parliamentary Opposition in India: An Analysis of Populist Agitations in Gujarat and Bihar,” Pacific Affairs 48, no. 3 (1975): 313–34.

22. There is a large literature on the emergency, from both academic and political perspectives, including a substantial genre of autobiographical accounts of what it was like to live through this period. For comprehensive and innovative accounts that include useful against-the-grain appraisals of existing scholarship and present hitherto unknown and unpublished primary material that sheds new light on the emergency, see Jaffrelot and Anil, India’s First Dictatorship and Gyan Prakash, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). See also Arvind Rajagopal, “The Emergency as Prehistory of the New Indian Middle Class,” Modern Asian Studies 45, no. 5 (2011): 1003–49, and Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

23. This can cut both ways. On the one hand, transparency reforms have made it more difficult for ration shop owners to divert supplies to the open market by monitoring stocks and daily sales practices. On the other hand, the biometric and surveillance technologies have exclusionary effects. They can burden ordinary citizens who are marginalized on grounds of education, caste, class, and gender, and can increase their dependence on new sets of intermediaries and brokers. On the ambivalent power relations of transparency reforms, see Guillaume Dandurand, “The Techno-Politics of Food Security in New Delhi: The Re-Materialization of the Ration Card” (PhD diss., York University, 2018); Rob Jenkins and Anne-Marie Goetz, “Accounts and Accountability: Theoretical Implications of the Right-to-Information Movement in India,” Third World Quarterly 20, no. 3 (1999): 603–22; Ursula Rao and Vijayanka Nair, eds., “Special Section: Aadhaar: Governing India With Biometrics.” South Asia 42, no. 3 (2019): 469–81.

24. See NDTV, “Arvind Kejriwal Launches ‘Bijli Paani Satyagraha’ in Delhi,” October 6, 2012,

25. For an analysis of the demonetization policy as an “eventocratic” performance, see Rohan Kalyan, “Eventocracy: Media and Politics in Times of Aspirational Fascism,” Theory & Event 23, no. 1 (2020): 4–28. I discuss demonetization in relation to Modi’s strongman politics in chapter 5.

26. On the strong presence of electoralist tropes in discourses of Indian democracy see Mukulika Banerjee, Why India Votes (New York and London: Routledge, 2014), and David Gilmartin, “Towards a Global History of Voting: Sovereignty, the Diffusion of Ideas, and the Enchanted Individual,” Religions 3, no. 2 (2012): 407–23. While Banerjee gives us a celebratory account of Indian elections that emphasizes the democratizing experiences of voting, Thomas Hansen offers a sobering counter that draws attention to how electoral majorities constitute and express the “violent heart of Indian politics,” seeing in elections not so much democratic inclusion as the constitution of permanent majoritarian power. See Hansen, The Law of Force.

27. W. H. Morris Jones, The Government and Politics of India., 2nd ed. (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1967).

28. For a comprehensive account of the braided logics of capitalism and democracy that define the “new India,” and the powerful role of corporate capital in setting national agendas, see Ravinder Kaur, Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020). For a discussion of the broader global logics of a “pro-poor capitalism” that exert influence well beyond India, see among others Anand Girihardas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York: Knopf, 2018); Ananya Roy, Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development (New York and London: Routledge, 2010).

29. See John Keane, Power and Humility: The Future of Monitory Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Sonia Alonso et al., eds., The Future of Representative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

30. Amrita Basu, Violent Conjunctures in Democratic India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Angana Chatterji et al., eds., Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Thomas Blom Hansen and Srirupa Roy, eds., Saffron Republic: Hindu Nationalism and State Power in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022); Christophe Jaffrelot, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021).