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Cultural Populism: The Rise of the Civilisation Narratives

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Ravi Dutt Bajpai, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia | 3 February 2020

One of the most striking outcomes of globalisation is the strong pushback against it, from its steadfast critics to even its most enthusiastic benefactors of very recent pasts. The highway to anti-globalisation runs through the narrow lanes of nationalism, an idea which has virtually risen like Phoenix. In its new avatar, it has reappeared as cultural nationalism, redrawing the ideational boundaries and reframing identity politics. This post explores how the idea of ‘Asian Century' has fired the imagination of both China and India to imagine themselves not merely as potential global powers but as cultural super-entities or ‘civilisation-state'. National identities in China and India were always framed as post-colonial societies whose glorious civilisations had been defiled by colonialism. In its populist interpretation, national identity is linked to the majoritarian interpretation of the civilisational identity.

In recent times populism has emerged as one of the most significant analytical frameworks to explain various events in global politics. However, it can be argued that while the idea populism has become a popular analytical tool to understand global politics, the concept has certain limitations. The idea of populism is drawn mainly from experiences in the Western democratic setup is now deployed as a universal concept often used indiscriminately to explain political decisions made in many different geographical/cultural/social settings. At the same time, populism with fixation on liberal democratic order ignores some of the most significant actors in global politics only because they are not considered appropriate replicas of the liberal democratic polity. The rise of Hindu nationalists in Indian politics is often explained through the Western-centric analytical framework largely ignoring the local political, cultural and social settings. China is seen as a single-party political system and thus cannot be subjected to any meaningful analysis by analytical frameworks applicable to liberal democracies. In fact, despite functioning as a single-party system, Chinese leadership adopts certain ideas form the populist rulebook to influence public opinion. This post argues that both China and India deploy populism to control their domestic politics and regulate their often-restive populations.

One of the central arguments for the spread of populism across the world is the rise of nationalism in erstwhile liberal democracies. China and India, as post-colonial states, have always placed nationalism, territorial sovereignty, and autonomy as some of its most sanctimonious ideals. It is important to explore how China and India construct their national identities and fan the idea of nationalism as well as to investigate why Indian and Chinese identity construction is different from the rest of the world. The idea of nationalism in China and India is very strongly linked to their civilisational legacy, and both frame their national identities in terms of civilisational entitlement and colonial occupation (Malik 2011; Ollapally 2014). Civilisational entitlement is a sense of considering oneself (state) as the natural and worthy inheritor of ancient civilisational glory. It frames their policies to regain the power and status befitting of 'their countries' size, population, geographic position and historical heritage' (Malik 2011, 28). China and India tend to imagine themselves not merely as ordinary political units in the global order but as cultural super-entities or ‘civilisation-states'. In its populist interpretation, national identity is linked to the majoritarian interpretation of the civilisational identity. Among other forms of populism, it is cultural populism that allows majoritarian groups in China and India to dominate other marginal groups.

One can find many similarities between the populism in China-India and the rest of the world on several fronts, especially since the advent of both Xi Jinping in China and Narendra Modi in India. This period has witnessed a sharp rise of Han Chinese nationalism in China and Hindu nationalism in India. Both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi claim to be not just charismatic, upright and strong leaders but also ‘the natural embodiment of a singular will of the people’ (Bonikowski 2017, 190). Both Xi and Modi claim to wage a battle against elite corruption and to withdraw the privileges of the cliques formed during earlier regimes. There is a very concerted campaign to establish a direct line of communication with the common people, surpassing traditional channels of communications. The widespread imposition of Xi Jinping’s thoughts as a political ideology in China is an attempt to establish Xi as an exemplary leader. Narendra Modi’s has pursued direct communication with the masses through Twitter and his monthly radio address, “Mann Ki Baat”.

It is not that China and India are dealing with populism for the first time; both had multiple experiences with different types of populism in earlier times as well. One of the most significant instances of populism in China was the Cultural Revolution during Mao’s regime. The Cultural Revolution is considered one of the largest political movements in modern history. It was Mao's idea of going back to the people and starting the revolution again; against his colleagues. While Mao may have achieved his political ambitions, the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for China that forced the entire population into ten years of turmoil, bloodshed, hunger and economic stagnation.

India too has witnessed multiple waves of populist leaders even during its independence struggle. However, one of the most significant left-wing populist moves in independent India happened in 1969. It was launched by then prime minister Indira Gandhi when she suddenly announced the nationalisation of 14 private banks in India. Facing stiff opposition from within her political party and from the established elites, Indira Gandhi went on to claim her socialist credentials and pro-poor policies. She combined her populist “garibi hatao(remove poverty)” campaign as one of the most effective tactics to gain electoral primacy. Subsequently, with the brute parliamentary majority, she decided to browbeat the legislature, executive, judiciary, and even media into following her dictates. However, soon the façade of socialism gave way to personal ambition and greed for power, culminating in the suspension of democracy in India between June 1975-March 1977.

There are other instances of populism in China and India; the above two instances underline the potential dangers of populism degenerating into a civil war as in China or authoritarianism as in India. In its latest incarnations, populism in China and India is firmly rooted in narrating their glorious past before European colonial aggression and how the current dispensation is trying to regain that lost glory and protect the honour of the nation. Chinese nationalism is firmly affiliated with the way Chinese people view their past. Thus, the Chinese government deploys the national-populism based on distinct cultural traditions, civilisational traits. Such campaigns attempt to enhance the support for the communist leadership, and also to overshadow more pressing socio-economic issues. Narendra Modi's avowed objective is to restore India’s global eminence as a Vishwa Guru (Word Guru/Universal Guide). The inspiration behind this campaign is to harness India’s soft power through its cultural and religious inheritance and to embrace the Hindu nationalist ideology publicly. Narendra Modi's government is endeavouring to make other states recognise India's civilisational heritage and historical influence.

There are some far-reaching and often deleterious implications of cultural populism when the state declares itself as the sole representative of "cultural ethos". It is straightforward for the state to interpret any critique of its behaviour as an attack on the traditional values/ civilisational attributes of the people. It is quite easy for the state to place restrictions or take drastic measures against ethnic, racial, religious and cultural minorities. It has allowed both India and China to alter the idea of citizenship from civic to cultural citizenship.


Ravi Dutt Bajpai is a Doctoral Researcher in International Relations at Deakin University, Australia. He is the co-author of Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics, published by Rupa, India.


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