Theories of populism, while offering some useful general principles for comparative work, must be attentive to the historical specificities of a given situation in order to make sense of their provenance and trajectories. In India, unresolved issues of political morphology (resulting in a tangle of political forms) have, since the time of independence, led to populist episodes at both the center—the site of Indian nationalism—and in many of the states, where linguistic or ethnic nationalities struggle to survive against the onslaught of the Indian national parties’ common integralist agenda.

The “cinematic populist” regimes that arose in three south Indian states in the 1950s and lasted up to five decades were something quite unique even as cinema populism is a worldwide phenomenon (exemplified by the films of Frank Capra or leaders such as Joseph Estrada of the Philippines). What three south Indian film stars (from three different linguistic nationalities) and their fans created were virtual political regimes by which, as I have argued elsewhere, their fans sought to secure political existence in an Indian national setting that was determined to ignore the very existence of nationalities. While all three film stars were the anointed rulers of virtual regimes, two of them broke out of their cinematic kingdoms to enter electoral politics.

In this contribution I will focus mainly on the cine-populism of south India and the Indian national populisms, which share a reliance on visual imagery. The main interest of these instances of populist mobilization lies in the way they express the ideologies of the competing nationalisms of India and the nationalities that comprise it.

To deal with a situation where populist events occur at multiple levels and involve a variety of factors, I propose a typology of populisms based on two criteria: one, whether they are imposed from above or instigated from below; and two, whether they occur at the level of the national communities of the states or at the level of the Indian nation. In the 1970s, events occurred in the states of Gujarat and Bihar that have been described as a “populist upheaval” and a “populist movement,” respectively, and were instigated from below. These had some of the qualities central to Ernesto Laclau’s definition, the forging of a chain of equivalences and so forth. The Indian national populisms, such as those associated with M. K. Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Narendra Modi, are invariably top-down phenomena involving varying degrees and kinds of trompe-l’oeil—sartorial, cinematic (the Films Division documentaries screened before every film in Indian theatres), holographic, et cetera. This overwhelming reliance on the visual, or the imaginary in the Lacanian sense, seems to be compensating for the lack of a symbolic connection. The state-level cine-populisms differed from the national populisms because the star image was central to them, even though the fans initiated the process. While this reliance on the projected image puts cine-populisms in the same category as the Indian-national populisms, they differ from the latter in relying on and foregrounding a medium available at the state level, i.e., a common language conducive to solidarity. In other words, genuine populisms are more likely to arise in the nationalities rather than at the all-India level.

Cine-populisms in South India

The three states in question are Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh (split up into Telangana and AP in 2014), and Karnataka; the languages are Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada; and the stars are M. G. Ramachandran (MGR), N. T. Rama Rao (NTR), and Rajkumar, respectively. Beginning in the late 1940s or early 1950s, each of these stars dominated their respective language cinemas as action heroes, closely identified with the swashbuckler genre described as a “sudra genre” dear to working class audiences. Departing from explanations that laid great stress on the gullibility and devotion of the masses and the power of the “cinematic medium,” I argue that their rise to virtual leadership was a historical event enabled by a confluence of circumstances. By mixing genres, the swashbuckler protagonist comes to inhabit the social film with its modern social setting, thus enabling the rise of virtual regimes modeled on the kingdoms in which these romance narratives are set.

In 1972, MGR started the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Anna Dravidian Progressive Party/AIADMK). The Telugu Desam Party (Party of the Telugu Nation/TDP) was launched by the Telugu star NTR in 1982. These parties continue to play key roles in the politics of the respective states long after their leader’s death. While MGR had already been a vote catcher for the Tamil nationalist DMK party, NTR, through his TDP, aroused Telugu nationalist sentiment to sweep to power in 1983. It was after these electoral victories that liberal commentators began using the term “populist” to describe their policies. These commentators found, for instance, MGR’s free midday meal program for school children a populist drain on resources, until more farsighted economists (like Amartya Sen) hailed it as a much needed and innovative welfare measure.

These political parties broke other rules of the game, as well. For instance, they did not represent any preexisting social segments or class interests, though in due course such interests began to seek expression through them. They only represented those who, as Karl Marx said, “cannot represent themselves.” The parallel with the Eighteenth Brumaire is not a flash in the pan, for the films through which first the virtual regime and then the reigns of state were earned were, in the words of a legendary filmmaker, “pageants for peasants.” The recourse to such devices for securing political existence is widespread and is not always mediated by cinema. What the virtual regimes all bear witness to, however, is that the struggle over the state form that began at the time of independence remains unresolved due to the conflict of interests between the colonial bourgeoisie and the rest of the Indian population defined by their national belonging. The spontaneous sociology of British imperialism identified Hindus and Muslims as the primary social constituents of India, an idea eagerly embraced by the Congress and the Muslim League, both interested in the suppression of the other, center-state fault line, whose resolution is more crucial to the future of democracy. Whether this conflict can be resolved at all within the present political structure is about to be finally tested by the Hindu nationalist party currently ruling at the center.

What was the nature and “reality value” of the virtual regimes? This can be gauged by looking at the example of the third movie star, Karnataka’s Rajkumar, who never formed his own party, joined an existing political party, nor contested in an election. Rajkumar’s primary political act was to lend support to the language rights agitation of the early 1980s demanding primacy for Kannada in administration and education. When the Congress Party’s S. M. Krishna became chief minister in 1999, he visited Rajkumar at his home to “seek his blessings.” This suggests that while the virtual regime has established its preeminence over government, the nationality’s claim to political autonomy has been both acknowledged and rendered harmless. This is the price at which the peaceful coexistence of competing nationalisms (Kannada and Indian) has continued to be secured. But such peace is periodically disturbed when the interests of the central government and the states (or provinces as they were known in colonial discourse) clash and the representatives of Indian national interests perceive a threat to their preeminence. It is at such times that populisms arise at the national level.

Indian national populisms

In the 2014 elections, then-prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s holograms delivered campaign speeches all over India, from booths mounted on trucks and driven to villages or set up on urban street corners. The impact of these was overwhelmingly visual, almost independent of the content of the speeches. For instance, in the booth set up in my neighborhood in Hyderabad (see image above), the speech was drowned out by the ambient noise; in any case it was the magic of the hologram that attracted passersby. Whatever the impact of this may have been, the visual dimension, with the projected image at its center, plays a role in both the cinematic populisms discussed above as well as the Indian national populisms. Of these latter, three are of special importance: those developing around Gandhi in the 1920s, Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and Narendra Modi in the present.

Indeed, it may be that, counterintuitively, the visual dimension operates more exclusively in the case of the Indian-national populism than it does in the audiovisual medium of cinema. For in the latter speech, bearing messages in the language of the nationality is of decisive importance whereas for an early exponent of Indian-national populism like Gandhi, a connection established by speech mattered little, as is shown by a remark attributed to him in which he tells the organizers of a public meeting not to worry about audibility because “they come to see, not to hear me.” It was a matter of taking darsana (a Hindu practice of presenting oneself before a deity or a guru to see and to be seen). There was in any case no common language between Gandhi and the vast majority of the Indian population.

The populist strategies of Narendra Modi are powering the current efforts at forging an Indian nation. Modi’s populism involves an Indira Gandhi-like appeal over the heads of and through the instrumentalization of the government machinery. This includes the party organization but also, increasingly, parliamentary codes of conduct and the constitution. His language, drawing upon the idiom of the undereducated that revels in the magical qualities of rhetorical coincidences and quaint translations of technical language into vehicles of sentiment (see here for a Hindi example), as well as the aggressive lingo of the street fighter, produces in audiences the experience of vicarious self-expression. The need for self-expression, which arises from the breakdown of traditional structures and is a fundamental compulsion of democratic subjectivity, was suppressed during the dirigiste era of Congress rule for all but the highly educated, who were a small minority given the (English) language barrier that the elite erected between itself and the people in a continuation of the logic of colonial rule. The political guilty conscience of the Indian intelligentsia is nowhere more starkly evident than in the professions of indifference to education as a factor in modern life. There is an unstated prohibition of references to educational asymmetry and the difference it makes that is as strong as the ban on references to caste. And yet without this “development of undereducation” Hindutva would not have found such ready reception for its ideas. Thus the violence of the “people” mobilized by Hindutva, whether in symbolic form on the internet or in the form of lynchings and assassinations, can only make sense as acts of self-expression by subjects newly empowered by the recognition granted by the populist leader to the linguistic disabilities fostered in them by a state that, like Bharata in the absence of Rama, ruled in the name of an absent (colonial) master.

For the political form developed in India, which is unique in political history, the phenomenon of competing nationalisms is constitutive. Populisms are a means by which these nationalisms periodically assert themselves against the threat posed by their counterpart. Of these, some have arisen in a virtual dimension opened up by popular cinema, to enable political existence by other means. Such events were specific to a particular historical juncture where the charisma of rent prevailed in a mixed economy. Stars today appear in television commercials, promoting consumer products, earning a wage. They can cash in their celebrity credit but can no longer aspire to be kings, virtual or real.