The problem

We, the people of India – a republican assertion explicitly expressed in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution – has been one of the highly contested notions of postcolonial Indian politics. The people as innocent, naïve, trustworthy, self-conscious and respectful collectivity are always contrasted with the corrupt, interest-oriented, and dishonest ruling oligarchy. Hence, success in politics is described as the people’s decision; while the political debacles are seen as a tactical failure to attract them.

The will of the people as a governing principle of the political system is a very recent phenomenon in the Indian context. The major streams of the Indian national movement tried to create a balance between social reforms and an ideal imagination of an egalitarian political order. Gandhi’s constructive programmes, Ambedkar’s criticisms of the caste system and Bhagat Singh’s emphasis on class division of Indian society were deeply rooted in the tradition of social reforms of the 19th century. There was a consensus that political action would remain meaningless if the society was not reformed. Politics and society thus became joined in a relation of mutual constitution.

The competitive electoral politics, however, produced a very different political mechanism. The Nehruvian state introduced a series of radical social reforms in the 1950s through legal constitutional means and gave the state and the ruling elite a pedagogical function. The people, in this framework, were to be educated and reformed by the state to make them fully democratic and adequately modern. The Indira Gandhi government intensified this process. She reinterpreted the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) to legitimize her authoritarian rule. Indira Gandhi even went on to justify the Emergency (1975-77) in the name of people’s welfare.

The economic liberalization in the 1990s was a turning point. The state redefined itself as a political regulatory entity. A clear dividing line between the society and politics was drawn. At the same time, the economy was given immunity from the ‘will of the majority’. It was established that the society and economy are autonomous self-governing spheres. The political class disassociated itself from these spheres by clearly indicating that the people must respect the exclusive domain of the state.

The New India of Narendra Modi actually rests on this state-society distinction. Actions from social movements against economic policy and its outcomes are strongly discouraged because such policy is portrayed as actions taken on behalf of the people against the vested interests of an allegedly corrupt elite, and because the new ruling elite suggests that the outcomes of the policy will only be evident in the long run. The tension between ‘the people’ ventriloquising through ‘elected government’ and expressing their criticism of the government via social (or people’s) movements has emerged a central one in the past decade.

There are at least three features of the people in contemporary India. In a more direct political sense, the people are defined as voters and consumers who must be wooed. This imagination of the people rests on the assumption that political parties, like firms, make electoral promises as products and voters as consumers choose the best package according to his/her collective as well as individual political needs. Since the consumer is given an imaginary privileged position in a market scenario, the people as voters are also treated like this in the realm of competitive electoral politics. It legitimizes the slogan voter is always right!

Lokniti-CSDS surveys are very relevant to understand the wider implications of this slogan. These studies show that Indian electorates attach a value to their vote. The efficacy of the vote – the belief that voting in elections is meaningful and effective – has increased significantly in last two decades. This enthusiasm of electorate to participate in electoral processes, it seems, is used by the political class to redefine people as rational voters.

The people are also defined as responsive citizens. According to Narendra Modi, New India is about participative democracy, a citizen-centric government and pro-active citizenry. For him, ‘New India is the era of Responsive people and responsive government’.1 The idea of responsive people as citizens does not disprove the voter-centric imagination of people as consumers. This definition of the people seems to underline the popular phrase – nothing comes free. It implies that although voter is always right, he/she has to accept the authority of the government to facilitate the working of the political system.

The aam adami (common man) is the third feature the people. The aam adami is defined as a morally sincere and politically weak entity. We are told that despite having the right to vote, the aam adami does not have adequate resources to deal with a corrupt system. He/she, therefore, is expected to abide by the ethos of nationalism to create what Arvind Kejriwal called swaraj.2 Even though this imagination of the people claims to represent an alternative view, the description of the aam adami as a morally committed nationalist fits well with other dominant meanings of the people. Aam aadmi is bound to assert his/her identity as a voter/consumer. And at the same time, his/her adherence to nationalism makes it easier for him/her to behave as a responsive citizen.

These popular portrayals of the people contribute directly to the emerging political discourse. The reluctant response of the political elites on the Gyanvapi issue underlines the fact that political parties do not want to go against what they view as the will of the majority. In a way, a fictive ‘will of the majority’ is invoked to pursue different ends. This line of argument also empowers the Hindutva forces to justify anti-Muslim violence as a natural societal reaction of the people/Hindus. In fact, a strong impression has been created that the sentiments, views and beliefs of Hindus must be respected as they are the majority or the ‘authentic people’.

A number of commentators associated with the ruling party have stated that electoral majoritarianism is ‘true’ democracy, and when expressed through a Leader, is the true expression of popular sovereignty. Against the view that elections are key to democracy but that democracy involves much else, they argue that such ‘popular sovereignty’ is held back by law and constitution and precedence. Two views are in contest here: winning elections as a way to impose the ‘will of the majority’, and winning elections to expand and deepen democratic practices and behaviours. Both views, at least implicitly, hint at the malleability of ‘the people’, to enrol enough of them to produce electoral outcomes that authorize quite different, and in some ways opposing, political projects.

Hindutva, we must note, is no longer seen as a reflection of what was used to be called ‘communalism’. It is an accepted, legitimate and hegemonic political discourse that also produces a very different idea of the people. While claiming India as a nation, which exclusively belongs to Hindus, Hindutva groups have been engaged in the simultaneous construction of a Hindu Rashtra – a cultural manifestation of the Hindu People.

Populism has moved towards an authoritarian horizon under Hindutva, the construction and maintenance of ‘the people’, ‘their enemies’ and the cleave between them relies on ‘fingers in the wound’, that is, on ‘feeling wounded’ by the actions, habits and presence of the perceived ‘enemies’, and then to inflict ‘retaliatory wounds’ on them. Because the same ‘people’ are potential recruits to other political projects, the ‘people/enemy’ antagonism requires serial and modular additions to be kept alive. This entails a move to ‘total politics’, that is, politics waged on aspects of everyday life and spaces, and their conversion into sites for splitting ‘the people’. It also involves the use of ‘cryptopolitics’, or the circulation of fake news and morphed images to construct and maintain the people/enemy divide. Social media technology and culture has played a key role in the politics of ‘finger in the wound’, total politics and cryptopolitics.

The idea of people is also being reconceptualized in the realm of popular movements. These struggles reclaim the people by disassociating themselves from established political parties. This aspect is clearly evident in three recent movements: the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement of 2011, the anti-CAA movement of 2019-2020 and the Farmers’ struggle of 2020-2021.

This overwhelming rejection of the political party as a representative form of organization offers us an invitation to revisit some of the fundamental questions of our political life. The everydayness of grassroots politics, in this sense, could be taken as a point of departure to understand the constitution of the people in the realm of non-party political formations.

The people are not a homogeneous entity and precisely for this reason their portrayal as rational agents are politically motivated. Who are the people? Why do politicians claim to worship them? If they are always right, what is wrong with our society? Can ‘the people’ be ‘constructed’, and if so, in ways that approximate the ‘We the People’ of the Preamble to the Constitution, or in ways that depart substantially from it? What acts of inclusion and exclusion of certain population-groups from ‘the people’ can we discern? These questions are crucial to make sense of the state-society distinction in contemporary India, indeed they are central considerations in the evaluation of any democratic polity. This issue of Seminar aims to unpack these different facets of the idea of people. Our objective is to locate the people as an analytical category in the long story of Indian democracy.





** Our thanks to Vidya Venkat for her intellectual and logistical support in organizing the CSDS-SOAS online workshop ‘India@75: idea of people’ in April 2022 on which this issue of Seminar is based.


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