Recent scholarship in critical agrarian studies has increasingly turned its attention to the relationship between authoritarian populism and the rural world. While acknowledging geographical variegation, this scholarship emphasises a defining political feature of populism, namely “the deliberate political act of aggregating disparate and even competing and contradictory class and group interests and demands into a relatively homogenised voice, that is, ‘we, the people’, against an ‘adversarial them’ for tactical or strategic purposes”. The literature sees these features in relation to how authoritarian populisms take shape in rural societies, generally contributing to worsening and deepening economic dynamics that are detrimental to rural classes of labour. This includes widespread and longstanding yet accelerating conditions of distress, resource grabbing, widening rural-urban disparities, ecological breakdown, and agro-industrial transformations that are largely unhinged from employment generation or other benefits to rural communities, coupled with an exhaustion of progressive counter-mobilisation. The rise of authoritarian populism in the rural world, in other words, simultaneously indexes an increasingly generalised crisis and a dire need for emancipatory politics from below, something we explore in an Indian context in our new book Authoritarian Populism and Bovine Political Economy in Modi’s India.
So far, however, much of this scholarship has retained a primary interest in the ideological and discursive qualities of authoritarian populism. This has, in turn, spawned new calls for analytical recalibration towards a more sustained analysis of constitutive capitalist and class dynamics. Bernstein, for example, writes: “What should be clear enough is that authoritarian populism, for all its diverse manifestations, should always be interrogated first through the questions: what class interests does it serve? By what means? And with what effects?” In a similar spirit, McKay and colleagues have argued for probing capitalist dynamics that structure authoritarian populism, with their distinctive class antagonisms. This, they argue, “requires going beyond the discourse to a serious engagement with the role and nature of the state, and thus, an analysis into the nature of the class and intra-class relationships in society and in agrarian formation”.
Authoritarian Populism and Bovine Political Economy in Modi’s India takes these invitations seriously as it uses India’s bovine sector – key to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of rural Indians – as the entry point for analysing capitalist dynamics under Modi’s authoritarian populism.
Two defining features of Modi’s authoritarian populism emerge from our analysis. In the political sphere, we see an aggressively advancing Hindu nationalist cultural politics centred on Hindu pride and unity. This cultural politics seeks (with remarkable success) to incorporate significant proportions of India’s poor and working classes across the lines of class and caste, in antagonistic opposition to a threatening Muslim “Other”. Bovines are crucial to advancing this agenda, evident in how Hindu nationalist vigilante groups operate with an increasingly free hand to violently enforce their brand of cow protectionism to punish individuals (especially Muslims) who “disrespect” the rules of Hindu cow veneration. They operate with the tacit approval of the Modi government that has, additionally, presided over the introduction of strict legal restrictions on the consumption of cow meat and the transportation of cattle for slaughter.
In the economic sphere, we find the Modi government heavily invested in neoliberalising the economy, opening new spaces for capital accumulation for dominant class interests. Bovines are crucial to advancing this agenda too as the slaughter of millions of bovines annually is required for key firms in the corporate beef export industry to sell Indian beef worth several billion US dollars to markets in the Middle East and South-East Asia. These firms are based on corporate concentration around dominant class interests and have been key in establishing India as a world leading beef exporter.
We argue that these twin features of Modi’s authoritarian populism index underlying capitalist dynamics which can be fruitfully approached as “state contradictions” between a political project that seeks legitimacy from and the incorporation of India’s poor and working classes, and an economic project that is hostile to the class interests of those same groups. These, we argue, can be understood as inextricably linked “moments” of Modi’s authoritarian populism, yet embedded in strained and conflictual class dynamics, something which we expand upon conceptually in Chapter 1 where we also locate Modi’s brand of authoritarian populism within the longer story of neoliberalisation and state-capital relations in India. Far from confined to the bovine realm, this lens can, we argue, illuminate broader ongoing dynamics at the heart of the political economy of Modi’s India.
Starting from an analysis of the politics of vigilantism and cow protectionism, Chapter 2 demonstrates the centrality of bovines to the Hindu nationalist project of turning India into a Hindu state. This project also unfolds in the legal domain of ever-stricter cow protection laws. The state contradiction becomes clear once we document a surge in beef exports from an expanding formal meat sector – with state support – that sits in uneasy proximity to the bovine politics being pursued by Hindu nationalists. We uncover a process of considerable restructuring of the bovine economy over the last decades, characterised by the expansion and consolidation of a corporate beef export sector dominated by a limited number of large enterprises. This aligns with the overall neoliberalising thrust of the Modi regime, entailing novel class and accumulation dynamics that differ markedly from how the livestock economy otherwise functions within the livelihoods of the country’s classes of labour. The emerging scenario is one where an informal bovine economy largely in the hands of classes of labour faces usurping competition from a formal industry that is centralised, capital intensive and firmly controlled by dominant class interests.
The subsequent chapters explore the unfolding dynamics of these state contradictions. Chapter 3 analyses their impact among classes of labour engaged in sectors of the bovine economy who live through what we refer to as a process of double victimisation. Specific segments of classes of labour are direct and indirect victims of new forms of legal and extra-legal regulation of the bovine economy that restrict their economic agency and produce economic hardship and physical suffering. At the same time, they are also increasingly excluded from a transforming bovine economy because of broader political economic restructurings that favour dominant class interests. This chapter thus offers substantial evidence concerning the class interests that Modi’s authoritarian populism serves, as well as its ramifications among the country’s poor and working classes.
Chapter 4 analyses the acceleration and intensification of these political economic dynamics that undermine the livelihoods of classes of labour while contributing to corporate concentration during and immediately after the Covid-19 pandemic. Fast-changing class and accumulation dynamics in the bovine economy have, we argue, enabled further corporate consolidation across multiple sectors. This trajectory of change favouring upper-class and corporate interests means that the organised beef industry is now increasingly well-positioned to capture a larger share of the value hitherto produced and retained among classes of labour in the informal bovine economy, starkly revealing the class bias of Modi’s authoritarian populism. When read alongside the argument that the incorporation of already-precarious classes of labour in Modi’s political project increasingly occurs through the destruction of key parts of their livelihoods, this chapter demonstrates how the state contradictions that this book is centrally concerned with are arguably moving towards being less contradictory insofar as the political and economic moments of Modi’s authoritarian populism move towards increasing alignment in an intensifying manner.
While this emerging dynamic is an acute threat to the livelihoods of millions of rural Indians, it also opens for another – and more hopeful – line of thinking politically about the prospects for emancipatory or counter-hegemonic projects. This is the ambition of our concluding chapter. Returning to our central contention that India’s bovine sector must be understood as an exemplar of broader political economic dynamics at play in Modi’s India – and of the contradiction between Hindu nationalism’s attempts at incorporating India’s poor and working classes while also pushing neoliberal economic restructuring to the benefit of capitalist classes – we suggest that the unfolding intensification of such dynamics may index emerging structural conditions of possibility for progressive counter-hegemonic mobilisation. In making this argument, the concluding chapter engages the emerging scholarship on the recent farmers’ agitations in India, locating structural conditions of counter-hegemonic mobilisation surrounding bovines within broader dynamics in a restructuring economy in which agrarian relations are taking on novel configurations; and where Modi’s authoritarian populism seeks political majority by pitting classes of labour against each other.
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Author: Jostein Jakobsen
Jostein Jakobsen is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway. His research interests are broadly within political ecology and critical agrarian studies. Recent articles have been published in journals such as Journal of Rural Studies, Progress in Human Geography, and Journal of Agrarian Change.
Author: Kenneth Bo Nielsen
Kenneth Bo Nielsen is associate professor of social anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway, and research associate at the Department of Sociology, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He works on land politics, agrarian issues, and the political economy of development in India. His books include Land Dispossession and Everyday Politics in Rural Eastern India (2018) and The Great Goa Land Grab (2022, co-authored).