Speeches by politicians, media houses and opinion-makers are often believed to be innocuous. Yet they shape citizens’ behaviors, manifest power relations and construct the realities we live in. Jean-Thomas will retrace the lineages and impacts of populist, authoritarian and communal rhetoric in the world’s largest democracy: India.

By using digital humanities and machine learning tools on a newly constituted archive of political speeches since the late 19th century, he examines how public discourses encode India’s gradual renunciation of its liberal democratic commitments to equal individual rights. In parallel, he proposes to examine speech-making ethnographically from the standpoint of political leaders and political advisory.

The research aims at identifying the discourse of authoritarian populism and its historical transformations. Jean-Thomas examines how it constructs a positive system of values around anti-democratic politics by investigating discursive themes of democratic decline. He will probe whether (1) authoritarianism speaks the unlikely rhetoric of peace, (2) populism of sainthood and (3) Islamophobia of unity.

He will show that languages of leadership retain core components of populism and authoritarianism worldwide—such as anti-elitism and extreme power centralization. Jean-Thomas suggests that this discourse can proliferate in India by acquiring strong vernacular overtones. Grounded in the intellectual history of political Hinduism, it would flaunt attributes such as irenism (nonviolence), pietism (religiosity), organicism (harmony) and distributive politics (targeted welfarism).

Jean-Thomas Martelli is currently a Research Fellow at IIAS as well as a visiting fellow at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University. Prior to this, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Sciences Po Paris and co-headed the Politics and Society research division at the Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH) in New Delhi. He holds his doctoral degree from the King’s India Institute, King’s College London.