The Majority of Democracy


Engulfed in a momentary dust storm induced by Bharatiya Janta Party candidate Narendra Modi’s helicopter as he departs from a public meeting in Robertsganj, Benaras (Varanasi), members of the crowd attempt to cover their faces and eyes as dry blades of grass and pebbles fly around them. Photo by @ravimishraindia.


In the busy years leading up to the founding of the nation-states in the Indian subcontinent, B. R. Ambedkar, with characteristic candour, admitted that a “statutory majority” existed in India. He wrote that, with the separation and recognition of the “minority,” its opposite had, in fact, come into being by default.[1]B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India[1946] Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, (Maharashtra Government Press, Mumbai, 2010), Volume: 8, pp. 117-38. For the first fifty years of the last century, despite its rejection by Gandhi and others, the tyranny of numbers, instituted by colonial initiatives that ranged from the census to separate electorates, had identified and reduced  “people” to enumerated groups that cast out the political and demarcated the nation-state itself.[2]Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Hurst &Co, London, 2013). Ambedkar was quick to point out that the conversion of such a statutory majority into a political unit would be impossible, even if there were those for whom it was desirable. Such a desire was associated above all, he noted, with the Hindu Mahasabha and its affiliate the RSS. In a prescient judgment, he declared that with the formation of Pakistan, the Mahasabha would vanish from the political horizon, losing as it were, its existential raison d’être. Yes, for Ambedkar, the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha were two sides of the same coin.

Today, does the decisive Modi mandate then tell us that the Mahasabha’s latter-day incarnation, the BJP, has articulated a latent desire for, or perhaps heralded, the political arrival of such a majority? For the first time in India’s democracy, the electoral majority coincides with the party that overtly and stridently represents Hindu nationalism, which claims distinction from and opposition to received Indian nationalism. Before accepting either with alarm or approbation that this mandate has indeed converted the majority into a political unity, it might be instructive to contextualise Ambedkar’s claim in relation to India’s recent democratic history and the shifting ideological stakes that have now set into motion a new historical sequence.

Ambedkar’s pessimistic prophecy on the life of the Mahasabha, though fulfilled, was based on the greater issue and premise that social majorities were not equivalent to political majorities. In other words, and as political theorists such as Pierre Rosanvallon have alerted us, a gap exists between the social and the political.[3]Pierre Rosanvallon, Democracy Past and Future edited by Samuel Moyn (Columbia University Press, New York, 2006), p. 243. Ambedkar’s interventions and innovations lie precisely in this question of what might be the relationship between the social and political, in a context that was overwhelmed by the dominance of numbers. To be sure and at that point, this was not the floating arithmetic of the democratic variety but was the rigid number encased in the census. Ambedkar took the division and antagonism of the social, namely caste, as primary, and as one that required recognition within the realm of the political. In short, the recognition of the Dalit (the Untouchables) ensured the pluralization of the minority form along religious lines but significantly, the minority was redistributed within the social. In so doing, a decisive form of mediation of the social was instituted, that disrupted any claims to or fantasies of cohesion and unity within the religious majority.

To appreciate how the friabile and contingent, but permanent, importance of the social plays out, which Ambedkar understood, one need not look further back than the early nineties. The triumvirate of Mandal (caste) Mandir/Masjid (religion) and Market, or what has commonly been termed by commentators as the “second democratic upsurge” in India, signified the arrival of identity politics. The social, in that instance, referred to the Other Backward Castes that laid claim for the first time to political power in their own right and in their own name. The clearest consequence of that moment was that religion could not consolidate a mandate in its own name. Unprecedented and violent mobilization of religion, in the early nineties, had also for the first time since the early twentieth century, given a public and political articulation to Hindutva that had remained either secretive or marginal for the better part of the last century.[4]Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1999)..

Twenty years later, the Modi mandate for the BJP at first sight seems to brook no such mediation. Ubiquitously, the mantra seems to be “it’s the economy, stupid!” It was symbolically reflected in the city of Benaras, where Modi inaugurated his campaign, and sought to shape media attention through the long election season. At once the symbolic capital of Hindu nationalism and the city that birthed commercial capital in the age of empire, its capture by Modi today alerts us to a new and arguably anti-historical trajectory of the BJP and Hindutva in its second electoral incarnation that has closed the gap between the new economy and the political sphere.

Popular consensus maintains that the coalition of big business and the first-time voter delivered Modi’s sweep of the parliamentary process. Overwhelmingly, Modi and his mandate represents a a turning away from India’s independent history and one that set the electoral landscape abuzz with aspiration and change. The young and other not-so-young Indians have helped close the gap between money and power from below as it were, casting their lot with India Inc. and its political figurehead of Modi. The assumption and aspiration is that the wealthy will generate a form of growth that will be experienced by individuals, even those who are far removed from Dalal Street.  In closing the gap between the economic and the political, this mandate has produced India’s very own conservative revolution. In turning its back on the inherited ideas of the Nehruvian state, electoral rhetoric replaced the conservative principles of preservation with a language of transformation.

The “individual” provides the insignia of identity in this election. Shorn of the symbolism of caste or religion, the latest election has cast the figure of the individual as paramount. Seeking transcendence of the social, whether it is in the saviour mode of Modi or the modest sufferer cult of the arriviste that is the aam admi [common man], the individual has arrived as the subject of a politics which is suborned by the logic of the free-market. Hindutva remained the great unspoken assumption of the latest successful electoral campaign. Identity-free identity has remade Hindutva. Hindutva is increasingly being articulated in terms of cultural warfare. In the new political landscape, a desire for political homogeneity is once more resurrecting the strident assertion of difference, which has primarily taken the cultural form. In other words, having sought and to some extent succeeded in closing the gap between the economic and the political, the work of difference and identity is increasingly becoming the work of culture. It is precisely the compact between big business and the Modi mandate that enables the work of Hindutva, but this time it does so in cultural terms that range from emergent controversies related to school text-books, to efforts to rewrite the official narrative of Indian history, and so on. Such is the nature of the Indian conservative revolution that has no antecedents and is, therefore, anxious to put its stamp on history.

The closing of gaps – or the new division of labour of the political – has declared the equivalence between politics and economics, with identity-talk subcontracted to cultural life. However, the social remains, if not unclaimed then certainly unnamed, open once more to its rediscovery. “People” or the subject of democracy, as Rosanvallon insightfully argues are at once central yet absent, marked repeatedly by an excess that militates against its equivalence with any given identity.[5]Rosanvallon, Democracy, p. 203. It is instructive that while this mandate produced a historic rate of conversion of votes to seats in parliament, close to sixty percent of the electorate did not vote for Modi’s rebranded BJP.

In his classic work, Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar warned dominant nationalism and the Congress in particular, for ignoring the social question in its pure pursuit of the political. Though focused on the issue of caste, his work points to their impoverished understanding of the political: as he argues, sovereignty, especially in democracies, lies not with the individual sovereign but resides within the social. Even a cursory glance at India’s democratic history attests to the emergence of new social majorities that are moored in either region or caste. Heterogeneous and reactive by nature, social majorities nevertheless ensure the contingency of the political. Far from having disappeared, the social in India’s democratic history has appeared in various forms, and at each juncture has redefined the political matrix.  Even a telegraphic glance at India’s democratic and electoral history points to the emergence of changing social majorities. In the 1950s and 60s the Congress consensus was challenged by parties seeking, on the one hand, recognition of linguistic identies. Then Communist parties, on the other hand, successfully asserted the nature of “class” configurations. The 1970s and 80s, however, witnessed the domination of regional parties that demanded the deliverance of federalism through a diverse play of region, language, caste and even religion, as in the case of Punjab and militant Sikhism. In each instance, the dominant and national party (and namely the Congress) became redefined inasmuch as its politcal fortunes waxed and waned in the face of these contestations.

Today, and in less than ten months of Modi’s majority mandate, the newly formed party of the common man or the Aam Admi Party has put a stop to Modi’s sweep and complete domination of the electoral landscape by resoundingly and completely overwhelming the Delhi state elections that were held in Februray this year. While it might be too early to forecast whether this is the new source of opposition on a national scale, it is nevertheless possible to say that this is evidence of the social’s ability to articulate new constellations. In this instance, the individual cult of the aam admi (common man) has tapped into the wider discourse of aspiration, but this time in the name of modesty rather than in the name of an assertive muscularity of the individual that characterizes Hindu nationalism. In short, this emergent party has positioned a populist and modest counter-individual as a political stakeholder to the strident Hindu nationalist. This has at the very least pointed out that the political cannot overwhelm the social entirely.

Having neither absorbed nor exhausted the social, Modi’s mandate has neither closed off nor determined the future. If anything, the opening of this historical sequence, in which the economy represents the political, and that has reinvested the work of difference to culture, this mandate has left the question of the social ajar. The contingency of the social, and its friability, not only identifies the source of opposition, importantly it still points to the potentialities of the political.


Dr. Shruti Kapila lectures and researches on modern Indian history, political thought and global history at the Faculty of History and is Fellow and Director of Studies at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge. She is editor of An Intellectual History for India (CUP, 2010) and co-editor of Political Thought in Action: The Bhagavad Gita and Modern India (CUP, 2013). She is currently working on a book on political ideologies and violence in twentieth century India. She also does commentary most recently on Indian elections for BBC,  Bloomberg TV and Al-Jazeera and for print media including, Financial Times, Economic Times, Outlook  and Indian Express.


1 B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India[1946] Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, (Maharashtra Government Press, Mumbai, 2010), Volume: 8, pp. 117-38.
2 Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Hurst &Co, London, 2013).
3 Pierre Rosanvallon, Democracy Past and Future edited by Samuel Moyn (Columbia University Press, New York, 2006), p. 243.
4 Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1999).
5 Rosanvallon, Democracy, p. 203.

Shruti Kapila