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Many right-wing populists strut their manliness. Why does India’s Modi stress his softer side?

Not all populism is gendered in the same way

- May 25, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the aggressive masculine style of many populist leaders. Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump defended risky, macho behavior and characterized protective measures as effeminate and unmanly.

But as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrates, another style of populism is possible. Modi depicts himself him not as a man’s man, but as a modern saint. The differences between the public persona of Modi and other populist leaders tells us a lot about how populism can vary across countries — and how in this case it is rooted in the specifics of India’s history.

Some populist leaders have turned coarseness into a ‘style.’ Modi is different.

Gender norms are crucial to understanding both populism and politics more broadly. When populists appeal to the public, they can reinforce traditional gender norms — or, like Modi, they can subvert these norms.

Many modern populists have built public images around aggressive maleness. For example, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte often employs violent misogynistic language, telling a group of former communist rebels to shoot female rebels in the genitals and linking his love of his people with his sexual prowess. When a female lawmaker accused Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro of rape, he responded that she was too ugly to rape, and he has said it would be better to be dead than gay. Russian President Vladimir Putin has joked publicly about raping women, boasted about his country’s prostitutes, and ridiculed menstruation. Former president Donald Trump bragged about groping women and boasted of his sexual prowess and purportedly high testosterone levels.

Unlike these populist strongmen, Modi has sometimes venerated femininity and women, drawing on his interpretation of Hindu values. Modi’s leadership style involves displaying feminine-identified traits such as selflessness, humility, and devotion. After his 2019 election campaign, he draped himself in a saffron robe and meditated overnight in a cave. He has made it clear that he prefers silence to bragging and that he is a vegetarian, teetotaler, celibate, and ascetic.

Sporting a flowing beard and long hair, Modi looks more like a sage than a politician. While other populists make homophobia and sexism into a selling point, Modi supports certain trans rights, albeit specifically for the Hindu trans community, and Muslim women’s rights, as a way to promote Hindu superiority over Muslims. He has depicted himself as favoring women’s empowerment, and condemned violence against women, female feticide and discrimination against girls.

No, the pandemic didn’t sink populism. It might have helped it.

This is a different style of populism

Feminist scholars have argued that norms about gender and about the division between public politics and private life are more fluid than we might think. This helps us to understand how Modi has sought and achieved intimacy with the masses. Instead of simple machismo, Modi looks to inspire trust by embodying both masculine and feminine attributes. He flaunts a 56-inch chest and claims to have a wrestler’s body, communicating his muscular approach to national security and ability to supposedly protect the Hindu majority from purportedly traitorous religious minorities. This helps him justify his unilateral decision-making and disdain for representative institutions. But Modi also implicitly aligns himself with women when he depicts himself as small, humble, insignificant, and a political outsider who is dedicated to the well-being of the nation.

This gender-ambiguous identity means his political allies can describe him as “a god’s gift for India” and “a messiah for the poor,” while also allowing Modi to imply he is deferentially yielding power to the people when he wants to deflect responsibility for failed policies.

How Donald Trump appeals to men secretly insecure about their manhood

Modi is drawing on — and subverting — Gandhi’s approach to nationalism

Modi’s style shows that populists often draw on specific features of their national history and culture. In some societies, marriage and family are considered essential prerequisites for holding political office. In India, by contrast, marriage and family life are considered distractions from public service.

Modi claims to be the heir to Mohandas Karamchand (“Mahatma”) Gandhi, the founder of modern Indian nationalism, despite their radically divergent views; for example, Gandhi abhorred violence against Muslims while Modi has encouraged it. He has learned from Gandhi’s androgynous style and opposition to untouchability. Modi’s public appeal draws on Gandhi’s fusion of asceticism, religious and moral power, and self-sacrifice. Thus when Modi wanted to shame post-independence Congress leaders for their elitism, he launched a major campaign “Swacch Bharat” (Clean India) on Oct. 2, 2014, Gandhi’s birthday. Modi himself swept the streets of Delhi with a broom, a task generally performed by the lower castes in the public sphere and by women in the home.

Modi’s style gives us reason to devote greater attention to the way populists communicate with their followers by displaying both masculine and feminine attributes.

Scholars have identified the way women populist leaders, including Marine Le Pen in France, Sarah Palin in the U.S., and Alice Weidel in Germany, have used femininity and maternalism to soften the harsh images of their parties — but have not examined the ways some powerful women leaders combine male and female attributes. Take Mamata Bannerjee, the populist leader of the Trinamool Congress, India’s fourth-largest political party. Banerjee describes herself as Bengal’s daughter and identifies with the interests of minorities and women. However, she also deploys her identity as a single woman from a lower-class background to challenge the stereotype of the respectable maternal, married Bengali woman; in doing so, she adopts the aura of a gritty, abrasive street fighter who isn’t afraid of challenging Modi.

Modi faces new difficulties. His popularity has been dented by public anger at the enormous wave of coronavirus deaths. Modi has been characteristically and purposefully silent. Both he and his populist challengers will combine masculine and feminine imagery to justify policies, appeal to followers, and attract new supporters, in ways that will surprise those whose understanding of populism begins and ends with Trump.

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Amrita Basu (@Basu2Amrita) is the Paino Professor of Political Science and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College and author most recently of Violent Conjunctures in Democratic India (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She is writing a book on populist leadership.

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