Can the Popular Disembody Populism? Students and the Re-appropriation of the Nationalist Floating Signifier in Contemporary Indian Politics

Published date01 June 2021
AuthorJean-Thomas Martelli
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Can the Popular Disembody
Populism? Students and the
Re-appropriation of the Nationalist
Floating Signifier in Contemporary
Indian Politics
Jean-Thomas Martelli1
This ethnographic account chronicles the journey of one of the largest anti-government protests since
India’s independence. It examines the pivotal role of students—initially activists and then first-time
participants—in crystallizing challenges to the ruling dispensation, not only by opposing it directly, but
through subverting its way of claiming representation. More specifically, it is the strategic reuse of the
pervasive anti-institutional and anti-elite discourse at the top—while replacing its majoritarianism with
inclusiveness—that enabled protesters to disembody the populist modality of the current Indian Prime
Minister. Protesters’ short-lived success was achieved through an enactment of the popular, embodied
in a diffused fashion by faceless, peaceful and feminized protesting masses. The popular successfully
appropriated the claim to be the people through invoking a ‘derivative’ nationalist repertoire in part
shared by the government, emptying its anti-minorities subtext through appropriating floating signifiers
of patriotic belonging such as the Indian constitution, the flag and the anthem. By engaging on how rela-
tively small communities of politicized students used the campus ecology and its neighbouring spaces
as territorial and ideational nodal points for the mobilization of less politicized cohorts, the article
underlines their significance in the political articulation of dissent in contemporary Indian democracy.
Popular, populism, nationalism, floating signifier, social movements, student politics
Since the re-election of Narendra Modi as Indian Prime Minister in May 2019, his political party and the
central state machinery have accelerated the implementation of their Hindu-centric ethno-nationalist
agenda, progressively recasting ‘what it means to be an Indian’ (Aiyar, 2020). Among other things, the
government revoked a customary divorce law for Muslim men, scrapped the special constitutional status
Studies in Indian Politics
9(1) 7–20, 2021
© 2021 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023021999140
1 Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Jean-Thomas Martelli, Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, Delhi 110017, India.

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