Centre for Ethnicity and Citizenship Seminar Series: Rochana Bajpai (SOAS) ‘Hegemonic construction and democratic decline: Democratic authoritarianism in India in comparative perspective’ - 25 June, 5 PM

25 June 2020, 5.00 PM - 25 June 2020, 6.30 PM

‘Hegemonic construction and democratic decline: Democratic authoritarianism in India in comparative perspective’

Speaker: Rochana Bajpai (SOAS)

India today is increasingly characterised as an ‘ethno-democracy’ (Jaffrelot 2015), an instance of the nationalist populism (Brubaker 2017) that has seen an upsurge across the globe. While appropriate, these characterisations also miss a crucial element in the dominance of the Hindu right in India today: the expansion of authoritarian power, which is exercised through, and within democratic-looking institutions - 'multi-party' elections, 'empowered’ constitutional courts, and 'private' media. Drawing upon a co-authored paper in progress and my research on minority representation, my talk will outline the following arguments. First, the influential distinction between democratic and authoritarian regimes has masked authoritarian processes within countries categorized as democracies, and has kept political scientists from asking important questions about the dynamics of institutions. We need to move away from a preoccupation with regime types, to meso-level inquiry into processes of democratic authoritarianism, and the extent to which these can be similar across so-called democratic and authoritarian regimes. Second, we argue that the best way to understand the capture of democratic-looking institutions by authoritarian elites is as a process of hegemonic construction, which involves the capture of multiple institutions across state and civil society, in order to monopolize political power and transform the identity of the nation-state. Third, the Indian trajectory of democratic authoritarianism, which reflects a pattern familiar to scholars of Eastern Europe, is significant for illuminating the range of mechanisms available in democratic contexts for the augmentation of authoritarian power, the sequential stages of democratic decline, and the limits of the often proposed remedy, of empowering the judiciary. In ideational terms, the legitimating vocabulary of the Indian state (Bajpai 2011) is being transformed not just with the jettisoning of secular nationalism in favour of Hindu supremacist identity, but also in relation to democracy, whose meaning is being truncated, even as it retains normative value. The routines of elections, parliamentary sessions and constitutional court decisions continue to be enacted in India as an earlier generation of scholars had noted, however, the content of their practices cannot be assumed to be democratic. 


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