“Friends… countrymen, lend me your ears.”
William Shakespeare’s famous line from his play Julius Caesar is one of the oldest mimicking the rhetoric of the “relatable” politician. Nowadays, words like these reach people a lot more quickly and in their own homes. Hearing mitron (“friend” in Hindi) on their laptops or televisions sparks almost immediate recognition in Indian citizens around the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasts the second highest number of Twitter followers, for a politician, after Donald Trump, with a little more than 40 million followers. For both presidents, this social media platform is a way of connecting directly with constituents without funneling their voices through third party channels. Mitron is overwhelmingly one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favorite terms of endearment for his constituents, as he emphasizes the bond of friendship that he holds with his people. The former chaiwala (tea boy) presents himself constantly as an aam admi (common man) who understands the needs of the population at large.
Graph by Samarth Bansal, “Despite the myth ‘mitron’ is not Modi’s favourite word,'” Hindustan Times
However, as seen from this analysis of Modi’s most used words, mitron is not used half as much as bhaiyon and behenon (brothers and sisters). In his 2015 Independence Speech, Modi expressed: “Brothers and sister, just ask yourselves whether corruption was rooted out or not? Whether the middlemen were ousted or not? Whether the door was shut in the face of the wealth-stealers of India or not? I did not make any speech in this regard. I just did it.”
Besides the use of “brothers and sisters,” Modi also centers this speech around his accomplishments and capabilities. This “self-centered” approach extends to his branding as a fashion leader as well, popularizing the “Modi kurta” that embraces simplicity. Essentially, when people see Modi, they don’t see a political leader, they see a man they want to be. Modi’s techniques signal Canovan’s thoughts about populism, in which leaders try to relate directly to the people by removing intermediaries. Specifically, the omnipresent illustrations of Modi construct a specific, visual populism in which constituents identify with the images they see. The question here, however, is whether Modi considers all of India close familial relations.
In 2002, after a train of Hindu activists was set on fire, Modi as chief minister labeled this incident as a “pre-planned attack,” implicating this as an event of religious violence, conducted by Muslims. In his following ad campaign and speech series, Modi portrayed himself as the savior of the Hindus against the violent “other.” His visual populism through social media and television targets a specific subgroup of the Indian aam admi and while he does now try to promote a unified India, it is much rarer to find the first and second person pronouns in his speeches targeted specifically at Muslims the way they relate with Hindus. In fact, a 2017 report by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, in Mumbai, and the Minority Rights Group International, in the U.K., describes an increase in hostility towards religious minorities since Modi’s rise to power in May 2014. Modi’s lack of convivial speech giving in these cases seems to embolden groups to carry on with the violent acts. In a nation of more than two thousand ethnic groups, with specific religions and sub-castes for many, “othering” another community seems almost inescapable. What’s more, the fact that there are so many means specific forms of violence towards communities is much more difficult to target than in nations with two or three main minority classifications. It may seem tempting to stay silent and let issues pass. While relationships between religious groups are multidimensional and far more complicated than the work of a few politicians, the populist approaches of the BJP’s old ideas of Hindutva and Modi’s lingering emphasis on the collective (mostly) Hindu “us,” continue to fire tensions.
What seems dangerous is that India’s government still operates under the title of the world’s largest democracy. While its constitution certainly represents a true democracy in a Schumpeterian sense, which focuses on the processes and institutions of the system, Dahl would urge a better form of measuring whether the government is truly responsive to its constituents’ preferences. While unchallenged harmony and unity are by no means associated with definitions of democracy, inequalities promoted by politicians and the judicial system hamper the ability for citizens to exercise rights freely and ultimately vote fairly. For instance, coercion and purposeful discrimination largely go unnoticed. No laws can force a person to be tolerant, but if the words of a politician have enough weight to rally social identities against others, then perhaps they can also foster a culture of tolerance. Populism that rallies a social class against the “system” is one mindset, but one in which different identities on the same playing field are pitted against each other can be dangerous.