From Inquiries Journal: Special Editions VOL. 2020 NO. 1
How Populist Conservatism Influences the Rhetoric of Ethnic Entrepreneurs
Inquiries Journal: Special Editions
2020, Vol. 2020 No. 1 | pg. 1/1
IN THIS ARTICLE
This research paper investigates the impact that the rhetoric of a populist conservative ethnic entrepreneur can have on ethnic conflict by analyzing the tweets of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Over the years, the emergence of right-wing leaders in power has led to the increasing importance of the study of their impacts on society. Ethnic conflict between Indian Hindus and Muslims has recently been exacerbated, so India under Modi’s tenure was an ideal nation to study. The original content analysis compares tweets from two time periods, those during a period of crisis and those from a period of relative peace. It was found that many of the tweets from the time periods varied from each other both thematically and tone-wise, where the ‘crisis period’ tweets were more adversarial, security-centric and domestic focused while the ‘peaceful period’ tweets were in contrast more positive, collaborative and open-minded. On average, tweets in Hindi were much less frequent and tended to be more bold. It can be construed that these techniques had an influence on the mindsets of the followers of the ethnic entrepreneur. Therefore, this paper may hold implications for right-wing political rhetoric globally.
In a world ravaged by ethnic conflicts, from historical genocides to modern-day territorial wars, understanding the motivations behind them is key to their prevention and resolution. In every conflict of such a nature, there are two parties at odds, each of which is often represented politically in the support of a candidate. These candidates or leaders carry immense influence, and it is not uncommon for them to make their ethnicity a key facet of their campaign. Rallying a faction behind them, these leaders can secure political power for themselves by weaponizing a clear message. Those which are most effectively polarizing are often Manichaean in nature, dividing groups by creating boundaries drawn between a constructed good and evil.
Action is always driven by a mindset, and leaders can often invoke their identity and claims in order to awaken a certain attitude within their faction towards another group. It has been proven, through previous research, that rhetoric is a powerful tool and can spark conflict (Wadley 2011). For example, a populist leader might use their speeches to arouse a common distaste for another party, often ‘the corrupt elite.’ Narendra Modi, in contrast to many other leaders who share his ideology, chooses to employ a more subtle, self-contained style of politics, letting many of his bolder colleagues discuss more controversial topics and engage in clear propaganda. Although the use of Twitter has been investigated in the past, often with regards to Donald Trump, who is quite open in his statements (Ott 2017), Modi is a relatively less-studied subject. The implications of outright vilification of certain groups is much more obvious. Meanwhile the less predictable nature of the impacts of subtler rhetoric makes it an intriguing area of study, especially since many other political figures utilize strategies that are similar in nature to Modi’s. Therefore, this style of politics is worth studying, as it is likely to yield a conclusion that could be applied to the effects of various other leaders’ actions.
Since Modi’s administration has often been criticized for displaying anti-Muslim tendencies (Jain 2018) and attempting to saffronize1 India (Chacko and Talukdar 2020), ethnic conflict between Hindus and Muslims has been rampant, and Modi’s role in influencing his faction is highly relevant. By investigating this case, scholars can understand the strategies used to polarize communities in order to further apply them when attempting to predict major ethnic conflicts in the modern day. This connects the study of social media to the studies of ethnicity and ethnic conflict, which have not been explored immensely, especially within the context of populist conservative leaders. This ideology has only recently taken the world by a storm: “right-wing populism... is on the rise,” (Merelli 2019, para. 1) and “the four most populous democracies in the world are ruled by populists: Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, and Bolsonaro in Brazil,” (Mounk and Kyle 2019, para. 3). Therefore, the ways in which this kind of leader could incite ethnic conflict are becoming increasingly pertinent on a global scale.
In this paper, I argue that Modi’s tweets in the month before a conflict become more strongly aligned with populist conservative values than in the month before a period of peace. This could include the employment of a more anticipative tone, attempts to rally his followers behind him, projections of anti-Muslim sentiment, or a divisive nature. This argument is consequential to understanding modern day ethnic conflict and the impact that social media can have on it, as well as the role that ethnic entrepreneurs—especially those who follow right-wing populism—can play.
In order to comprehend how populist conservative influences the rhetoric of ethnic entrepreneurs, there are various terms which need to be understood. The ethnic entrepreneurs being discussed in this particular case are those who believe in a right-wing, populist ideology and style of politics. In order to use their rhetoric to their advantage, they often utilize different strategies to ensure the empirical commensurability of their appeals, of which three examples are relative deprivation, the security dilemma, and time collapse. Therefore, each of these ideas needs to be understood before they can be explored or applied throughout the investigation.
Ethnicity is a fluid concept without a precise definition. According to the individual or the audience, it can change, and traits like familial background, citizenship, or race are often the most commonly claimed groups. As Joane Nagel, a professor of sociology, describes it: “ethnicity is best understood as a dynamic, constantly evolving property of both individual identity and group organization,” (Nagel 1994, p. 152). One can identify with multiple ethnicities; for example, when race makes one portion of their identity more obvious to the audience, a person may only state a more subtle trait, such as religion, with which they also identify.
Similarly, a politician may choose to only highlight the characteristics that win them elections and maintain their influence throughout their campaign. Oren Barak, who studied the Middle East, defines ethnic entrepreneurship precisely as “actors operating within the community itself who mobilize its members hoping to maximize their own, particular gains,” (Barak 2002, p. 619). He derives this from Nelson Kasfir, who, in his writings on the politicization of ethnicity, brings together two previously oppositional schools of thought to showcase how politicians can choose to invoke ethnicity for two very different reasons. The first is that “it is a key part of their identity,” while the second is that they feel they can provoke a sense of unity so strong that their faction will rally behind them (Kasfir 1979, pp. 365–388). Ethnic entrepreneurship can, therefore, be used to promote solidarity and uplift marginalized peoples, but it can also be used to alienate other ethnic groups and to create firm divisions within a nation.
It is often unclear whether or not the decision to highlight ethnicity is genuine and a truly major part of the leader’s motivations, but this also does not matter; the overarching desired result of an ethnic entrepreneur’s actions is always to amass political power. By using their ethnic identity, whether they mean to or not, the ethnic entrepreneur creates a path to power that is paved by their community through the solidarity that they invoke.
Ethnic entrepreneurship in itself is a relatively neutral term, and thus can be used by a number of different actors for different purposes. If part of the minority, one can speak up for the oppression suffered by them and garner the attention of progressive individuals; if part of the majority, one can claim a ‘greater right’ to their nation and try to gain support from another political faction.
It is important to note that ethnicity can be a very powerful tool in the hands of the right person. According to anthropologist Fredrik Barth, “the conflicts we see today are the work of mainly of middle echelon politicians who use the politics of cultural difference to further their ambitions for leadership” (Barth 1995). Identity is a powerful thing, and with the right methods and motivation—often stemming from an ideology—a political leader can often use it to his benefit.
All politicians—and therefore, ethnic entrepreneurs—follow some sort of broad ideology when making promises to their constituencies, aligning themselves with a political party, or framing policy. This paper focuses on conservative populist leaders, the first ideology being the visionary, providing an idea of what to strive for, which provides a base for the thin-centered second, which lacks definition.
Conservatism, according to Mark Garnett, is not some mixture of ideologies in a weak, selfish attempt to dispel liberal values, nor is it a placid, blanket of protection for traditions, in ignorance of changing times; rather, it is a distinct ideology of its own (Garnett 2017, pp. 65–92). Although conservatism is often classified under variances such as ‘modern conservatism’ or the ‘new right’ in many capitalist nations, Garnett argues that the core tenets of conservatism are foundational pillars which have stood the test of time and are rather static. Yet, Andrew Gamble describes the strait between classical liberalism and conservatism—often described as modern conservatism—as “the free economy and the strong state,” (Gamble 1998), in contradiction to Garnett’s reasoning of this concept being paradoxical.
The ‘true nature’ of the ‘traditional’ conservative ideology—a belief in flawed humanism, strong social hierarchy, and control over economic aspects—actually opposes liberal values like freedom, meritocracy and democracy. These are all concepts, according to the classical conservative, which place society in the path of danger from the pitfalls and imperfections of human nature itself (Garnett 2017, pp. 70–73).
Regardless of this, the most common form of ‘conservatism’ found within capitalist countries today is a promotion of traditional morals and family values paired with an aversion to state control over the economy, as posited by Gamble. It is made clear by Garnett that there is a distinct difference between the ideological and terminological perceptions of conservatism throughout history—that this new ‘variant’ of conservatism is in fact just a defense against the rise of communism.
Garnett even concedes that ‘actual’ conservatism became a fantasy rather than a feasible ideology during the 19th century, which further lends itself to the theory that conservatism had to adapt in order to remain at all influential or relevant. Whereas Garnett does acknowledge these changing circumstances and their contributions to the ideology, he also maintains that it is actually a cause of the confusion surrounding conservatism. He holds that modern conservatism is in fact just liberalism encased in the glitz of a defensive and attractive molding of tradition.
An important facet to note is that, although Garnett makes it clear that he does not believe in ‘variants’ of conservatism, Gamble argues that there is certainly a need to define these ideologies. Garnett maintains that conservatism is not, in fact, a reactionary ideology to liberalism, but rather its own, isolated being; writers of ‘modern conservatism,’ however, “were chiefly concerned with the possible effects of essentially liberal revolutions,” (Garnett 2017, p. 77) showcasing an inherently reactionary nature to this ideology. Therefore, rather than calling modern conservatism a branch of conservatism—simply the evolved daughter to its outdated predecessor—perhaps we can refer to it as its own, distinct ideology, regardless of the contradictions. After all, an ideology is but a set of beliefs. Such a prominent set, which polarizes constituents against each other, which is found at the basis for the policies of some of the world’s superpowers, and which is one of the major ideologies of the left-right spectrum, deserves its own definition.
At their core, all forms of conservatism—when yielding to the notion that variants do exist—are based on a desire for stability and security within society; Garnett states that conservatives in fact have “a deep-rooted antipathy to rapid or wide-ranging change,” (Garnett 2017, p. 66). The idea behind this is that no person can predict every impact of a new reform, owing to another fundamental principle of conservatism: the notion that all human beings are flawed. Therefore, the “tried and trusted” option is the most preferable as, throughout history, there has been empirical evidence for the results. Although Garnett argues that concepts like immigration are not at odds with conservatism, and that conservatives would not be bothered so long as those entering the country submit to the social structure, it is hard to imagine that anyone would believe that the integration of new cultures into society is not disruptive to the social norm.
The new status quo of our era is defined not by a rigid hierarchy and a hegemonic state, but rather by a balance of democracy, capitalism, and change against tradition, religion, and familial values. As the main foundation of conservatism is a desire to maintain the world ‘as it is’—a nod to the golden ages of the past and to the positives of the present—this lends itself to a distrust of “outsiders” who are, often, other ethnic groups that are newer to a certain society. This barrier can, in turn, often serve as the first spark of ethnic conflict. Classical conservatives may be motivated to alienate other factions, but they would not likely vilify them. Therefore, a conservative mindset cannot, on its own, explain the way these ethnic entrepreneurs polarize factions so strongly against each other.
Conservatism may be at the root of the mindset that can lead to ethnic conflict, but populism—an ideology which maintains there are distinct groups in society: the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—is what fuels it further. It is often described as Manichaean, the term referring to a dualistic distinction created between a constructed good and evil. Cas Mudde, a prominent political scientist, further explains that populism has not been precisely defined, as it is a new concept in relation to the modern era, and that there are various forms of the ideology.
Although populism is its own distinct ideology, Mudde describes it as “thin-centered” because it does not “possess the same level of intellectual refinement and consistency as, for example, socialism or liberalism,” (Mudde 2004, p. 544). These other ideologies paint a clear picture of the ideal society—a utopia which is to be worked towards through different stages. In contrast, populism sports a broad definition, without a precise vision, giving it a thin-centered characteristic, which also allows it to be easily combined with other ideologies, whether full—for example, conservatism—or similarly thin.
In many cases, the alienation of ethnic groups is caused by a belief in the “populist radical right,” a branch of right-wing extremism which utilizes the Manichaean nature of the ideology to justify nativism, a xenophobic form of nationalism (Mudde 2018, para. 12). Conservatism is often referred to as a right-wing ideology; therefore, the populist radical right is somewhat a perversion of the original ideology, showcasing the thin-centered nature of populism. Although referred to here as an ideology, populism is not strictly defined as such—it can also simply be a political style wherein the actor polarizes his constituents. According to prominent professor Ashutosh Varshney, the populist radical right is “culturally oriented, [and] believes that the majority community owns the nation and minorities are dependents and supplicants, not carriers of rights” (Varshney 2017, para. 9). Essentially, this variation serves to alienate ethnic minorities and to further uplift the majority.
The irony behind this is that populism originally aimed to unite the common people against the “corrupt elite.” However, when applied to the lens of the right, this original intention was inverted due to a desire to maintain the status quo: the majority, which tends to have greater privilege, amalgamated against the disadvantaged minority. Regardless, culture is a powerful thing. By using other methods to villainize another group, ethnic entrepreneurs can paint themselves as harbingers of justice for the majority, who, supposedly, should not be forced to sacrifice these privileges for the wellbeing of minorities. Yet, without some kind of methodology to ensure that the faction identifies personally with the plight outlined by the ethnic entrepreneur, their case would not stick.
Although ethnic entrepreneurship utilizes identity and can help promote conservative, populist ideals, it is important to note that people do not polarize blindly, based solely on words. Most need to have experienced themselves, or grown up around those who have experienced, some kind of evidence in favor of the argument that the politician attempts to make. Put simply, if there are no combustible elements, the fire will fizzle out.
Therefore, most constituents believe in claims that have empirical commensurability; the idea that if they have an experience aligned with the claim, it rings much truer (Burgess 2014, pp. 356–358). In line with this idea, the politician tends to utilize ideals that the majority of his faction can personally confirm as true to them.
Fredrik Barth confirms this in his analysis of how ethnic entrepreneurs work, describing that “leaders seek these constituencies and mobilize them by making select, contrastive cultural differences more salient, and preferably by linking them to grievances and injustices, whether in the past or escalating in the present,” (Barth 1995, p. 7). Whether through reference to a disadvantage of an economy or security-related nature, which are the types of situations most often brought up by conservative leaders, the actor can convince their factions to perceive another group as animus. Essentially, the goal of the politician is to create their own narrative, supported by past and present empirical evidence. Thereby, they can diffuse dissatisfaction throughout their faction as a set up to portray themselves as the only possible restorer of satisfactory conditions within society.
Without feeling as if they are at a loss because of another group, one faction will likely not feel threatened by another. Therefore, ethnic entrepreneurs can create the sense that something has been unjustly stolen from their faction—essentially, invoking a sense of relative deprivation. The phrase explains itself: relative deprivation, according to Ted Robert Gurr, is “the tension that develops from a discrepancy between the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ of collective value satisfaction” (Gurr 1970, p. 23). Another way it has been described is “a negative discrepancy between legitimate expectations and actuality” (Aberle 1982, p. 209). Fundamentally, it is the belief that one is not getting what they are entitled to, in comparison to what others have or what they perceive their past or future selves to have. It is important to note that this varies from absolute deprivation, the situation in which people are actually in a negative condition.
It was hypothesized by Gurr that relative deprivation can lead to collective violence; because the individual or group feels that they deserve more, they are more likely to rebel against the perceived ‘oppressors,’ or the ones they feel are withholding those resources (Gurr 1970, p. 24). Despite this, an ethnic conflict of such vigor and intensity is not caused simply by relative deprivation—there must also be some kind of basis to the claims of the leader inciting the conflict.
Another way through which empirical commensurability can be created is time collapse, the way in which past grievances impact the perception of related crises in the present. Although this can be a natural occurrence, where one event is simply very similar to another from history, it can also be utilized by politicians reminding their constituencies of key remembrances to influence the intensity with which they view the current affair.
Vamik Volkan introduced the concept of time collapse as a psychological term, although, in many cases, it applies to political science as well. The method uses the emotional distress caused by a past event in order to emphasize the impacts of a present or future occurrence—essentially, collapsing the implications of similar events across a certain timespan into the present. In Volkan’s words himself, “the interpretations, fantasies and feelings about a past shared trauma commingle with those pertaining to a current situation. Under the influence of a time collapse, people may intellectually separate the past from the present one, but emotionally the two events are merged” (Volkan 1998, p. 36).
Time collapse can be caused by a variety of factors, either through complications in the mourning process or by intentional manipulation by political actors. Volkan refers to ‘perennial mourning’ as the former cause, stating that when one is unable to move on from a tragedy, it can often place a filter over how they view anything happening in the world, causing the individual to be much more susceptible to time collapse due to their tendency to make a greater number of connections between their loss and other occurrences (Volkan 1998, p. 39).
On the other hand, politicians like ethnic entrepreneurs, especially those who practice populism, can use time collapse in order to reinforce a Manichean view of their faction towards another group. If there are historical grievances between the two parties, the actors can exploit these, reminding their people of a divide in the past to create one in the present and future. However, there must also ultimately be some kind of misunderstanding between the two sides of the conflict, in order for it to ignite with such fury.
The security dilemma is an international relations theory which is applicable to many cases of large-scale ethnic conflict, referring to a paradox in which making oneself more secure can actually have the opposite effect. For example, by procuring more weapons, a country can defend itself more easily; however, it is likely that another nation may take this to be a threat and choose to attack first. In the words of Barry Posen, “what one does to enhance one’s own security causes reactions that, in the end, can make one less secure,” (Posen 1993, p. 28).
Similarly, in the case of a smaller scale conflict, a group may act first due to an expected threat from another. Counterintuitively, securing oneself without proper communication with oppositional parties can lead to a loss of security, making a community a target for fear-driven attacks. An example would be the passing of a law which aims to make a nation more secure by shutting out a certain community. Members of the excluded faction may, in angered fear, retaliate in a way that in fact makes the country more unsafe. At the very least, the doubts that the two groups have about each other can cause attitudes to turn towards feelings of fear and suspicion (Butterfield 1951, p. 21). An interesting nuance of this is posited by Alan Collins through the suggestion that an intra-state ethnic-based security dilemma occurs in a “self-help environment,” or a nation in which the people have lost faith in their government’s ability to keep them secure (Collins 1998, p. 263). Regardless, the miscommunication which breeds a security dilemma and the feeling of relative deprivation often does not allow a claim to hold empirical commensurability, unless there is prior evidence for the same.
In conclusion, each of these terms contributes to understanding the puzzle that is the research question: a key step before one can begin to solve it. Ethnic entrepreneurs are the actors who, because of their populist conservative ideology, use rhetoric in line with their beliefs to shift the attitudes of the people in their favor. Using strategies like creating a feeling of relative deprivation, lacking communication between factions—which leads to a security dilemma—and referencing key historical events to design a time collapse, they can ensure that their claim has empirical commensurability, and thus, that their followers have reason to believe their words due to their own evidence.
Therefore, it would be expected that ethnic entrepreneurs following a populist conservative ideology would use certain strategies. These leaders may utilize themes of distinguishing the ‘good’ from the ‘evil,’ whichever factions they may be. Their communications could also reference historical events to ensure that their claims have empirical commensurability through time collapse.
In order to conduct the investigation, it was important to narrow down the most appropriate methodology. Ethnic entrepreneurs draw on their ideologies in order to communicate their beliefs across various platforms and create a narrative which their people can rally behind. In the modern day, one of the most powerful, raw methods of communication is social media. Because social media tends to move so quickly, posts are often less filtered and concocted than speeches, press releases and written statements, because social media moves quickly. Being relevant to audiences on these platforms is difficult if one carefully vets every word before it is published, so politicians tend to be more open and characteristically themselves, rather than an image crafted by their teams.
Twitter is the platform of thoughts; even the character limit shows that it is meant for the impromptu sharing of casual ideas. According to Pew Research Center, “media personalities, politicians and the public turn to social networks for real-time information and reactions to the day’s events,” (Wojcik and Hughes 2019, para. 1). The present-time nature of Twitter means that it likely hosts the most accurate depictions of users’ thoughts—or, at least, that is how it presents itself to the audience.
Narendra Modi, like many other heads of state, is a prolific Twitter user. As of 2018, he was the third most followed person on Twitter, and he contributes hundreds of Tweets per month, both in English and Hindi. Because of this, India is a great case study: not only is the Prime Minister an avid ‘tweeter,’ but the majority of the population is Hindu, providing a basis for a sense of relative deprivation. Therefore, the adversity between the two communities has the potential to result in a security dilemma, and the historic tensions between Muslims and Hindus allow for a narrative which could invoke time collapse. Also, Modi is the face of a right-wing—and, therefore, conservative—party, who employs a populist style of politics, meaning that his beliefs and ideology, as well as his methods, align with this investigation. Ethnic entrepreneurs can use populism in order to polarize their faction by creating a clear and Manichaean distinction between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite,” whomever they may be, which is why populist leaders are usually good sources of clear and intent rhetoric.
In some ways, Narendra Modi is also a more difficult case to study, which only makes it that much more intriguing. He is more self-contained and restrained than other populists, putting thought and care into his words. A study which analyzed Modi’s tweets states that “the use of an overall positive tone, avoidance of divisive Hindutva topics, focus on feel-good messaging, and patriotic sentiment signal a new form of populist outreach,” which Modi uses to build support for his party (Pal et al. 2017, p. 4202). Many studies pick clear-cut cases, but I wanted to ask a question that was more intriguing: what kind of impact can more implicit rhetoric have?
In order to measure this impact, I chose two months of Modi’s tweets: one before a major conflict (referred to as the conflict month or the month of conflict hereafter), and one before a relatively peaceful period (referred to as the peaceful month, the month of peace or simply June hereafter). For the latter, I looked into the days between November 15th, 2019 and December 15th, 2019. On December 15th, after the passing of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, major protests took place near Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University. As a major source of Hindu-Muslim conflict, the bill was a catalyst which resulted in hundreds of injuries and many deaths. As for the month before peace, essentially a time without abnormal amounts of ethnic conflict, I chose the month of June 2019. It is primarily important to note that the month in question was not purely peaceful, but only had an average amount of conflict. Therefore, it is a suitable month to examine in contrast to the month before a crisis.
I initially began with only English tweets and created a system to choose them randomly so that my data would be as reliable as possible. I chose the first, third and fifth tweets of every other day, every third day and every tenth day. I did not use tweets that were only retweets or likes, and I ended up with 47 tweets from the conflict month and 51 tweets from the peaceful month.
I created a code book (Appendix A) before reading the tweets of what findings I wanted to look for and, based on this, drew up a Google Form that I could respond to. I tested for callouts, historical references, overall tone, and various other relevant factors.
After coding, I became curious about the content of the Hindi tweets—the intended audience would be different, and, therefore, their nature may be as well. Since there were far fewer tweets in Hindi, I simply used all the tweets from the two months, resulting in 23 tweets in the conflict month and ten in the peaceful month.
After the initial analysis, which was majorly qualitative but had potential for conversion to quantitative data, I looked over the data to find patterns and trends, searching for evidence to support my argument, and also for anything that may prove the contrary.
Since callouts were the most common kind of tweet Modi posted, consisting of around 48.5% of the total, the next step was to analyze this type of tweet further. Each tweet containing a callout was rated on a scale of zero to five, zero being no callout, one being not detailed at all, and five being extremely detailed. Here, the level of detail suggests intensity and efforts to propagandize a figure through greater venerance—Modi’s tweets were more than 70% positive in tonality, so the assumption that more detail is also a positive sign is valid.
The Hindu-Muslim conflict in India has raged for centuries, from regimes of the Mughal rule, throughout British colonization, and into modern times. As early as 1000 A.D., millions of Hindus died due to persecution by their Muslim overlords, and through the medieval period, this trend only continued. Ibn Battuta noted that “…war frequently breaks out between them (the Muslims) and the (Hindu) inhabitants of the town,” in reference to 1400s Mangalore, although this region was ruled by a Hindu Sultan (Verghese 2018, para. 4). This demonstrates that, regardless of who holds political power, ethnic conflict has occurred regularly throughout history between the two religious groups.
After the British colonized India, they used their infamous “divide and rule” strategy to cause discord between Muslims and Hindus, knowing they would be stronger if they worked together. In fact, the Revolt of 1857, one of the most famous acts of rebellion in India’s history, occurred in solidarity (McNamara 2019). The British perpetrated this strategy through the Census of 1871, which created strong divides within the Indian community, and was only reinforced by future actions, most prominently by the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Indian Councils Act in 1909. Divided into two portions, the east being predominantly Muslim and the west being majorly Hindu, Bengal was one of the first official territorial partitions by religion (Encyclopædia Britannica 2009). The latter was especially significant, as the British introduced communal electorates in order to widen the gap between the Hindu and Muslim communities of India through the sector of politics (Anwar 2017).
The greatest split between the two groups was a physical one. The Partition of 1947, into the Hindu majority India and the Muslim majority Pakistan, was undertaken by a nascent government just after India had gained independence, resulting in inefficiency of the transition at best and violent riots and lynchings at worst. It is estimated that during this time, there were anywhere between 200 thousand and two million deaths across the region (D'Costa 2011, p. 53; Sikand 2004, p. 5; Butalia 2000; Zamindar 2010, p. 247). This was certainly not the first sign of ethnic conflict between Muslims and Hindus, but the animosity between the two communities was likely at its highest at this point. For believers of the Two Nation Theory, Hindus and Muslims could never cohabit a nation. Even the story of Kashmir, a territory caught between the two countries, is one reminiscent of the nationalistic ideas that led to the partition (Bennett 1958).
Today, these sentiments remain strong; the government has passed divisive legislation like the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (Swart 2020), causing protests and incidents of police brutality, and there has also been serious discourse over various religious sites, such as the Ayodhya dispute (Kumar 2019), all under the rule of the right-wing Hindutva party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In 2019, the BJP made history by winning a majority of seats in addition to the huge number of seats their coalition won through the victories of allied parties. To most Indians, this came as a huge surprise, as, throughout history, Congress has wielded the most power in the Indian government. A historically influential party even before independence, the Indian National Congress’s era was described as “unchallenged supremacy,” (Karlekar 1967). The Gandhi family held immense power especially due to their relation to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India; however, Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, quickly became a notorious figure. The Emergency of 1975, during which Gandhi stripped Indians of their fundamental rights and pressed forward an authoritarian regime (Sengupta 2019), is a common example of an event that other parties use to remind the public of Congress’s “saga of betrayals,” (Naidu, 2012). BJP’s rise and Congress’s decline have precedent in the Emergency period, but many attribute the pioneering successes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as Congress’s downfall likely set the stage for his historic win of 2019 (The Conversation 2019).
The BJP identifies its philosophy as integral humanism, but is most known for its close association with the concept of Hindutva. According to the party, Hindutva is a promotion of Indian values over “westernization” and therefore is not limited only to Hindus (Malik and Singh 1992, pp. 318–336). However, most analysts agree that it seems as if the party is trying to saffronize India and, therefore, this makes the BJP a Hindu nationalist party (Malik and Singh 1992, pp. 318-336; Guha 2007, pp. 633-659). The Modi administration’s policy decisions only further prove this point, and even reveal a possible religious bias. The bans of the consumption and sale of beef, the escalation of tensions with Pakistan (BBC 2019), and of course, the controversial passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (Swart 2020) all seem to express an implicit—if not blatant—anti-Muslim sentiment.
Because India has a clear Hindu majority at 80.5% (Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India 2001), Modi’s use of his ethnic identity as a Hindu to engage as many voters as possible has been a clear election tactic which has allowed him to amass political influence. Therefore, he can certainly be described as an ethnic entrepreneur.
Modi has undoubtedly made a name for himself amongst other huge politicians; Forbes identified him as number nine on their list of Powerful People 2018 (Forbes 2018). The Washington Post describes his politics as a “brand of right-wing, religiously-tinged populism” (Taylor 2019, para. 5), and many believe that this style, which has been winning elections all over the world, is similarly what allowed him to make history in India. Also in parallel with other leaders following his ideology—which could be described as populist conservatism—Modi is a big fan of Twitter. Most often posting several tweets per day, he became the third most-followed user in 2019 (News18 2019).
While other populist leaders—like America’s Donald Trump (Parrott 2020), and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro (Lyons 2020)—tend to post brazen, assertive, and often brash statements, Modi’s tweets are usually more reserved. As for polarizing content, he is better known for his speeches than his social media. In fact, in April of 2019, “Modi uttered the word ‘Hindu’ thirteen times in a single speech. He said Hindus have ‘woken up’ and insisted that Hindus have never engaged in terrorism” (Poonam 2019). His tweets, in contrast, are described as a “use of an overall positive tone, avoidance of divisive Hindutva topics, focus on feel-good messaging, and patriotic sentiment,” (Pal 2017). Therefore, it is intriguing to try and see how these more coded messages by a clear ethnic entrepreneur might be received during different times, how Modi may change the way he communicates over Twitter with regards to the situation, and what impact the statements may have on the public.
The Month Before Peace
In June 2019, Modi’s clear focus for his tweets was a celebration of “Yoga Day.” As the tweets being analyzed were his first, third, and fifth tweets of the day, the first tweet for five of the days being analyzed was the sharing of a video on a specific yoga skill. The animated character looked very similar to Modi, and the voiceover was recorded in Hindi. Initially, this tweet seems harmless—a sharing of culture with the rest of the world. However, a facet to be considered is that yoga is deeply intertwined with Hinduism: “deeply rooted in Hindu scripture and belief, yoga is, and always was, a vital part of Hindu religion and culture,” (Hinduism Today). Wendy Doniger, in a brief essay, debates the idea that yoga is a form of Hinduism, ultimately coming to the conclusion that it both is and is not: it has great meaning to Hindus and originates in the religion, but practicing it does not equate to believing in the Hindu philosophies (Doniger 2010). Therefore, it can be said that the promotion of yoga is a subtler way of promoting the Hindu culture.
Modi’s Yoga Day related tweets also consisted of retweets and commentary on the celebrations occurring around the world, making up approximately 13.7% of the tweets he posted in this month. By ‘exporting’ yoga, and essentially using it as a representative of Indian culture, he is, at least somewhat, engaging in saffronization. Subconsciously, a Hindu would feel more appreciated than a member of a religious minority, which could promote a sense of trust between the Hindus and the current government.
Another repetitive occurrence, consisting of three of his tweets throughout the month of June, is the promotion of episodes of Modi’s radio program, Mann Ki Baat. Roughly translating to “inner thoughts,” the show is in Hindi, although it is meant to address the nation as a whole. Also, Modi often chats with callers; by speaking Hindi on the show, primarily Hindi-speakers would be encouraged to call in and express themselves (Daily News and Analysis 2014). This means that this show, meant to represent the nation and to be cathartic for citizens, is most accessible to Hindi-speakers, who also tend to be Hindu.
Hindi, as an official language, has had a long and bloody history in India, the reasons behind which tend to be dredged up over and over for further debate. In 1965, when Hindi became the only official language, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s leader, C. N. Annadurai, even said that the Republic Day of that year would be observed as a “day of mourning.” In fact, on and before Republic Day, protests and even martyrdoms arose, showcasing just how averse many Indians were to the implication of only Hindi on such a large scale (Guha 2007, pp. 389–391).
The majority win of the BJP even as a singular party in 2019 served to highlight India’s Hindu majority. By communicating almost exclusively in Hindi and promoting Hindu cultural practices, Modi truly establishes his ethnicity, which allows him to play on that identity to rally his faction behind him. Additionally, speaking Hindi almost exclusively allows him to filter out the demographics who might be more distasteful of his regime: they may not understand his speeches, and they would not be likely to listen to his radio show or to partake in it.
Despite this, in June, Modi also presented a very global, modern and internationally-minded image to the public. In addition to his Yoga Day retweets of other celebrations which show his love for and desire to collaborate with other countries, Modi also attended the G20 Summit in Osaka, from which he tweeted with multiple heads of states from other countries, including Japan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. Although the leaders were almost all conservative or populist, Modi also expressed a desire to work with Turkey, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, posting positively about relations with these Muslim-majority nations on Twitter. In fact, Muslim conservative populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey (Genc 2020), was referred to in the tweet as a friend. This certainly showcased the tolerance, or even the promotion of Muslim interests, which was unexpected. In fact, Modi even wished his followers a “blessed Id-ul-Fitr.” Id-ul-Fitr (or Eid-al-Fitr) is an Islamic holiday (Encyclopædia Britannica 2020), so it was surprising that Modi even posted accompanying graphics with Arabic text on one of the slides as well. However, this could actually demonstrate that, in a time where controversial policy was not being introduced, Modi could politically afford to be more religiously neutral.
A popular tweet—one of the few carrying a negative tone—was posted on June 25th, 2019, the anniversary of the beginning of the Indian Emergency, amassing more than 34 thousand likes. “India salutes all those greats who fiercely and fearlessly resisted the Emergency. India’s democratic ethos successfully prevailed over an authoritarian mindset,” the tweet states. Clearly critical of the Emergency, which played a key factor in the BJP’s rise to power, it makes the military reference of “salutes” and essentially acknowledges the efforts of the resistance in a patriotic manner. This reinforces the nationalistic ideas within the faction to which Modi is appealing to and uses the concept of time collapse to remind the world of Congress’s dark past. As the Indian National Congress is the other major party in India and tends to attract the support of progressives, the reminder of the authoritarian regime the party carried out instils doubts in the population regarding both Congress’ capabilities and reliability. Two days later, Modi also tweeted about the importance of democracy, perhaps as a concealed jab at Congress’ history. Despite the strong and divisive underlying message in this tweet, it is certainly in the minority due to the overwhelming amount of positivity in June.
Modi also paid tribute to historical figures, or wished current politicians on their birthdays. Through the month of June, Modi praised and lauded persons directly related to his party almost in the same manner as other figures. For example, a tweet in honor of Narasimha Rao, who belonged to Congress (PM India), reads: “remembering Shri PV Narasimha Rao Ji on his birth anniversary. A great scholar and veteran administrator, he led the nation at a crucial juncture of our history. He will be remembered for taking pioneering steps that contributed to national progress.” Meanwhile, the founder of the Bharatiya Janata Sangh (Pandey 2019), the BJP’s predecessor, is acknowledged as follows: “remembering Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee on his Balidan Divas. A devout patriot and proud nationalist, Dr. Mookerjee devoted his life for India’s unity and integrity. His passion for a strong and united India continues to inspire us and gives us strength to serve 130 crore Indians.” Although the former focuses on the typically liberal value of progress, whereas the latter centers on the traits of strength and stability—both hallmarks of conservatism—they both have an overwhelmingly positive tone, a similar length, and discuss in equal measure their legacies as both people and politicians.
During this period, Modi also met with the party presidents who are included in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is led by the BJP (Chatterji and Ramachandran 2020). The tweets reflecting the meeting were all overwhelmingly positive and sounded inclusive; one was even very vague, not citing that the party leaders whose views were taken into account were, in fact, all allies of the BJP.
The aforementioned tweets were all written in English. It can be inferred that the intended audience was much wider on a global scale, but smaller on a national scale—the Indians who are literate in English tend to be younger and more affluent individuals (Rukmini S. 2019). Therefore, it is possible that Modi posts more subtle tweets in English, since the audience reading them would tend to be more global, progressive, and less sympathetic to a Hindutva stance.
Modi, in June, posted a grand total of eight tweets in Hindi. While the tweets at the beginning of the month focused solely on yoga, on June 25th, 2019, the anniversary of the Emergency, he posted three tweets, all containing some of the most polarizing statements he wrote during the month. Modi explicitly used time collapse, referencing specific conditions of the emergency and using rhetorical questions to engage the audience in one tweet. In another, he described how much the BJP government has achieved in just three weeks, adding that they cannot stop now. Lastly, he brought up the voter, capitalizing on nationalistic values. These three tweets alone contained almost as much, if not more, political content as the English tweets did all together. It can reasonably be construed that Modi uses Hindi on Twitter sparingly, only using his language when addressing his faction, the Hindu working and middle class.
In conclusion, throughout the month of June, Modi promoted Hindu culture very openly, which could be a mark of ethnic entrepreneurship, but he also portrayed a globally-aware mindset by embracing other countries and religions, which may influence his followers to do the same. Although his Hindi tweets did portray anti-Congress sentiments, his tweets regarding Muslim majority countries and the Islamic holiday all had positive tones, showing that he likely was not trying to polarize Hindus against Muslims through Twitter.
The Month Before Conflict
During the month between November 15th 2019 to December 15th 2019, Modi’s tweets were certainly more inclined to domestic topics. Domestic elections, being 17% of the total English tweets this month, infrastructure, making up 23.4%, and commemorations of famous figures, at an astounding 42.6%, were popular topics.
A few tweets did mention foreign collaborations, but they were majorly with other conservative and/or populist leaders like himself, for example, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who ran on a primarily nationalist platform (BBC 2019). These leaders are all addressed positively, with Modi even using an unusual amount of unifying terms—“sisters and brothers,” and “close and fraternal ties.” Considering the fact that Gotabaya expressed anti-Muslim sentiments to help him get elected (Barakat 2019), and he was tweeted about twice during this month, the firm alignment that Modi has made with him shows support for his regime and reveals more about Modi’s own mindset.
Modi also tweeted about his radio show, Mann Ki Baat, just as in June. However, this only comprised of two tweets, versus three tweets in June, despite the fact that he tweeted more often in the ‘conflict month.’ This suggests that Modi was more eager to listen to his constituents in the peaceful month than in the ‘conflict month.’
A significant change in his tweeting style was how he approached the acknowledgement of other public figures. When paying tribute to Indira Gandhi (Encyclopædia Britannica 2020) and wishing Sonia Gandhi (Encyclopædia Britannica 2020), both members of the opposition, he wrote only two brief sentences, the second of which was his standard line: “praying for her long life and good health.” In contrast, when he was discussing a fellow party member, Modi listed their accomplishments and positive traits. This is an implicit way of promoting his colleagues over his competition. In tributes, Modi called the birthdays of famous, positive figures “Jayanti,”2 while for Congress or oppositional politicians, it was simply referred to as their birthday. This also shows a difference in the reverence Modi has for each figure.
In this month, twenty of Modi’s tweets glorified him in some way. By posting videos of his support at rallies or discussing successful legislation, Modi was able to portray himself as a positive influence on India. This is a populist method; Modi is seen to be the source of good, whereas, in other tweets, he outlined the competition as evil, or failures.
Modi also significantly used time collapse throughout this month. By referencing famous historical figures, events or regimes almost twenty times, Modi created empirical commensurability for the situation. For example, it is referenced that Congress failed India once in the past, so it will likely fail again, through the tweet that is approximately translated to English as “for political self-interest, Congress has always done two things: to rob or to leave hanging.” Another example is the mention of Rani Lakshmibai, a Hindu who fought bravely for India (Encyclopædia Britannica 2020), and therefore evokes a similar sense of patriotism, in the tweet: “for millions of Indians, Rani Lakshmibai personifies courage and fearlessness. Patriotic and uncompromising when it came to upholding the pride of India, she fought imperialism with valour and determination. Tributes to the brave and inspiring Rani Lakshmibai on her Jayanti.” Notably, none of these figures were Muslim, and only one belonged to a religion other than Hinduism: Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, a Sikh. However, even he was known for fighting the forced conversions of Hindu Kashmiris to Islam (John 2019).
Surprisingly, in aversion to conservative values, Modi also promoted progress and a “New India” in some of his tweets, mentioning “progress” four times. This suggests that although Modi embraces the traditional values and closeness with religion that conservatism often creates, he in fact aligns with the liberal ideology in regards to the economy and innovation. Modi tweeted about a meeting with capitalist icon and Microsoft founder Bill Gates (Gates), promoting his endeavors, and, in another post, expressed pride at the development of a new satellite imaging device by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Modi also mentioned the military and paid tribute to India’s strength several times. This could be an indicator of a more conservative regime—shown by an emphasis on the importance of security, a key tenet of the ideology—where many of the related posts also served as reminders of terrorist attacks or the sacrifice that members of the military make. One such tweet, posted on December 13th, just two days before the major protests at Delhi universities, said: “today we pay homage to the brave personnel who sacrificed their lives while protecting our Parliament. Their martyrdom will never be forgotten.” Although there is no direct mention of terrorism, Modi is referencing the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament (Miglani 2001), which could serve to remind his faction of anti-Muslim sentiments and to create a security dilemma by making Muslims feel unsafe.
Despite an overwhelmingly domestic nature in most of Modi’s tweets for the month before the conflict, which showcases his desire to focus on the issues within the country rather than without, Modi only posted one tweet in direct reference to the Citizenship Amendment Act. Modi tweeted, “I want to assure my brothers and sisters of Assam that they have nothing to worry after the passing of #CAB. I want to assure them- no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow.” Considering how controversial the bill was, Modi seemed to be deflecting the discussion of the tweet and allowing more openly bold figures to cover the topic instead. In fact, Modi attempts to assuage the Assamese people in this tweet, regarding the fact that, as according to an activist, it “is likely to curtail the continuity of languages, cultures including economic well-being of the Indigenous Peoples of Assam and the northeast” (Sunuwar 2019, para. 4). Although the majority of protests did take place in Northeast India (Sunuwar 2019), the British Broadcast Channel describes the bill foremostly as anti-Muslim (BBC 2019).
Another interesting facet of Modi’s tweets in the month before the conflict is that he tweeted 25 times in Hindi. This suggests that Modi was trying to reach out to more members of his faction for support and that he was trying to rally them behind him. Many of the tweets in Hindi focused on the Jharkhand elections, criticizing Congress and promoting the BJP. In an approximate translation, Modi, for example, stated that all Congress did was rob the people and make empty promises.
Modi’s other tweets majorly were tributes or birthday wishes. One tribute that was paid was to B. R. Ambedkar, thanking him for his contributions to drafting the Constitution. Similarly, despite the fact that he belonged to Congress (News18 2019), Modi also paid his respects to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India. Modi highlighted Prasad’s contributions to the “framing of the Constitution.” Prasad was even known for his aversion towards secularism, and a love for the Hindu majority: “Rajendra Prasad, first President of India, who believed religion in the society is equally important as anything else wanted to have an uniform civil code whereas Nehru believed minorities should be given additional safeguards against Hindu majority,” (India Today 2017). Prasad, therefore, believed in a sense of relative deprivation, and by supporting him so clearly, Modi could remind his faction of the same in an implicit and subtle manner. Since the Citizenship Amendment Act is most often referenced as possibly unconstitutional, there is a great sense of irony in these tweets. It could be that by mentioning the Constitution and showing his respect for it, Modi felt that he could convince the public that he had no intention of infringing on its articles.
Another figure glorified in a birthday wish was J.P. Nadda, who was in fact a vehement supporter of the Citizenship Amendment Act, and even held a rally in its defense (Times of India 2019). Other actors recognized were nationalists and other Indian Hindus.
In conclusion, Modi’s tweets during the month before the conflict had a much greater domestic focus, showcasing nationalistic tendencies. While there is some mention of foreign collaboration, all of his tweets together show a general sense of the saffronization of India and the condemnation of Congress. His Hindi tweets were more polarizing in nature and were likely aimed toward a more receptive audience. The use of callouts of political figures, both past and present, seems to be a tool Modi uses often. For actors he favors, the wishes are overwhelmingly positive and serve to promote them, whereas for those he does not, they are brief, and seem to be done only out of respect for social etiquette. The way in which his tweets indirectly involve the Citizenship Amendment Act or Constitution are also noteworthy, considering they may have convinced his constituents of his reverence for the latter, regardless of the implications of the former.
Overall, Modi tweeted hundreds of times across these two months. A comparison between the month before peace and the month before the conflict shows that he tweeted more routinely in the latter—almost every day—whereas in the former, his tweets were more sporadic. Also, the total number of Hindi tweets in each month is significant; in the month before the conflict, Modi tweeted in Hindi more than three times more frequently than in June.
June also held a variety of internationally related tweets, and many of them related to other global leaders—even those of Muslim-majority countries. In contrast, Modi’s tweets in November and December focused on domestic topics, and promoted the BJP and the government’s accomplishments, possibly to rally support for the party, in anticipation of the response of opponents to the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Modi also used references to historical figures and patriotic ideas more often in the month before the conflict, whereas his promotion of Hindu culture in June leaned more towards yoga and the export of the practice to other countries. In June, he wished the opposition, especially members of Congress, with the same positivity he gave to his allies. In contrast, in November and December, Modi restricted these tweets to the bare minimum, likely only posting out of basic respect and obligation. In general, however, almost every Indian political actor mentioned was Hindu. Implicitly, this itself shows his bias.
Modi’s tweets in June also did not revolve much around domestic policy and legislation; rather, they focused on culture and diplomacy. In the month before the conflict, Modi touched upon the importance of security, both through technology and the military, innovation, and patriotism.
Using the numbers assigned to the tweets in order to determine the level of detail of a callout, I found that, on average, tweets in the ‘conflict month’ held a value of around 2.2 in detail, whereas in the ‘peaceful month,’ the average was about 1.3. This also reflects the lower number of callouts in the peaceful month. After completing a test of two means to determine the significance of my findings, the value came out to be 0.0165, meaning my results would be accurate in 98.35% of cases.
The fact that the level of detail in the callouts during the ‘conflict month’ was higher by nearly one full point suggests that Modi put more effort into his callouts that month and tried to use more references to ensure that his claims had greater empirical commensurability. This further indicates that Modi wanted to rally his followers' support during this time, and therefore shows populist tendencies do impact his rhetoric.
These findings suggest that, during the conflict month, Modi attempted to draw his followers’ attention to domestic issues, which could provoke an attitude of nationalism or patriotism. This relates back to the research question, as the former elements are often part of a larger, populist conservative mindset and style of politics. In contrast, during the ‘month of peace,’ it seemed that Modi was trying to create a love for international cooperation.
In this paper, I set out to investigate whether or not conservative populism influences the rhetoric of ethnic entrepreneurs and, through analysis, I found that it does. The results of the investigation were admittedly not as stark as expected, but this was to be expected when using a case study in which the politician is more careful and contained within his rhetoric. However, overall, Modi’s tweets did seem to change as expected, falling more in line with his ideology leading up to the date on which he passed controversial legislation, and coming across as more progressive during a peaceful, or mean, period.
Of course, there were several limits to the exploration. For example, the entire investigation was conducted over a very short period of time, also limiting the sample size to fewer than 150 tweets in total. However, it is important to consider that the significance level suggests that this sample size, although not ideal, worked perfectly fine. Also, the tweets analyzed took place over two isolated months, which may not reflect Modi’s tweets over a larger timespan. Lastly, many of the tweets had videos attached to them, but due to a language barrier and a limitation of time, I was unable to analyze the content of these except, in some cases, to a limited extent. They could have contained extremely polarizing content and therefore enhanced the results.
The aim of the paper was to discover if the conservative populist ideology does in fact impact rhetoric and therefore the attitudes of a leader’s constituents. It has been proven time and time again that “violent political rhetoric fuels violent attitudes,” so that is not the issue in contention here (Wadley 2011). Since Modi uses more nuanced language, it was worth investigating whether subtler rhetoric works parallelly, and how much his communications call upon his ideology to incite ethnic conflict. In this case, it can be determined that leaders who use methods like Modi would have implications of the same nature—in his case, the month of conflict could have been somewhat influenced by his tweets.
However, it is also important to consider that different nations have varying political climates and intensities of the ethnic divide, so it may not apply in exactly the same way. Pakistan, led by right-wing populist Imran Khan (Merelli 2019), would be an ideal case to apply this paper’s findings to, as India and Pakistan hold similar tensions and atmospheres.
As, to extend this investigation, scholars may look into exactly what kind of impact the tweets have on the attitudes of a leader’s followers and constituents by examining and analyzing the replies and comments on high-profile tweets. Another extension would be to look at left-wing populists’ tweets so as to compare the results.
In totality, this area of study is important because it could provide insight into what kind of language incites ethnic violence—or, at the very least, it could help predict such occurrences. For example, if a leader starts posting tweets that are more polarizing, it could be a signal that they may be gearing up to perform an action that will be deeply divisive and trigger an ethnic conflict. With populist conservatives winning elections around the world, this research is more important than ever to prevent the loss of human life and dignity.
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1.) “The reinterpretation of history, with an emphasis on Hindu cultural values, is called ‘saffronization,’” according to Margaret Usha D’Silva (D’Silva 2005, p. 59).
2.) The english translation of jayanti is ‘jubilee,’ which is a special anniversary of an event.
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