Martelli, Jean-Thomas. 2023. “Populist Careers as Autonomy-Making: A Longitudinal Ethnography of Political Entry in North India.” Polity. (August 2023)

Jean-Thomas Martelli, a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and an Associate Researcher at CSH, wrote an article titled, “Populist Careers as Autonomy-Making: A Longitudinal Ethnography of Political Entry in North India.”, published in the journal Polity.

The article is available at:

Abstract: Accomplished populists are researched from distant quarters, long after their populist turn. Yet, populism—the attempt to represent the people through being the people—is not an overnight decision; it results from a gradual self-fashioning welded to the political trajectory of its bearer. This article proposes to explore populism diachronically as a political career. It builds on a seven-year ethnography of Indian student activism and political entry. Through combining qualitative longitudinal interviews, participant observation in North India, and discourse analysis, the article aims at contributing to three adjoining fields of inquiry: the sociology of political professionalization, the political theory of populism, and the anthropology of political becoming and subject-formation. First, I show how the embrace of populism is motivated by aspirations to gain leverage vis-à-vis political parties and group-based affiliations driving co-ethnic voting. Contra ideationalists, this case study reconsiders populism as a para-ideological attempt to become politically autonomous. Second, I argue that the claim of representative sameness at the core of any successful populist is inseparable from the one of hierarchical distinctiveness, embodied in the authoritative figure of the neta (leader). Third, I suggest that entering politics as a populist is not only about ad-hoc learning, but also about strategic unlearning.

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