Will Modi 2.0 usher in good populism?

“Of the great democracies to fall to populism, India was the first,” novelist and journalist Aatish Taseer wrote for Time Magazine earlier this month, referring to the concerted galvanising of the Hindu mind since 2014 that yielded Thursday’s landslide mandate in favour of the nationalist party.

While the rise of right-wing populism and ultranationalism in Europe has been noted with keen interest by political experts, Adam Taylor writing for The Washington Post recognises India as an antecedent as well.

“The brand of right-wing, religiously-tinged populism that led [Narendra] Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to a historic electoral win in 2014 soon turned out to be echoed in other anti-establishment votes” across the US and Europe, he writes.

So what ties Modi’s one-note campaign and subsequent victories to Italian leader Matteo Salvini’s rousing call to consolidate Europe’s far-right ahead of the European Parliament elections? What does right-wing populism even mean in the Indian context? And how does it differ from left-populism, if such a thing even exists?

More importantly, is it wrong to hope for a populist government to tone down its messaging, when violence against minorities is doing more harm to the nation’s image than good — and now that it has established itself, twice, as the majority party with a historic majority?

At this point, I am reminded of a senior Indian journalist concluding a panel on the poll results on May 23, saying, communal polarisation will win elections but it won’t be tenable while running such a diverse country as ours, especially when the incumbent government’s economic performance has been so poor.

Qrius analyses the pros of good populism and how Hindutva 2.0 can redeem itself if it wants.

What is populism?

According to New Yorker, populism is a stance and a rhetoric, more than an ideology or a set of positions. “It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems,” writes George Packer.

Described as a political context by some and a political strategy by others, populism—both on the right and left—shares some common characteristics.

First, it is anti-establishment in the sense it targets political experience, expertise and elitism in favour of “the ordinary people”, which is where populism gets its name from.

Second, anyone who is not recognised as part of this dominant group of “the people” is situated beyond the clan, identified as “the other” and are inevitably blamed for administrative failures.

Mexicans under Donald Trump and Muslims all over the world have become increasingly marginalised under right-wing populist regimes, where state-sponsored xenophobia continues to deflect attention from economic issues.

Meanwhile, left-wing populism is posited as a counterpoint to the fascistic tendencies of rightwing populism that is being increasingly conflated with the far-right. The Podemos in Spain and La France Insoumise, for example, are trying to turn things around and reverse the stigma, by reclaiming the label for the left.

Scholars argue this is nothing but a neoliberal moment and that most founding figures of neoliberal politics were, in fact, populists. But there are many who insist that there’s a sense of a political opportunity around positioning leaders like Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Democrat Bernie Sanders as populists. But more on that later.

Populism is for the people: But which ones and who decides?

It is conventional wisdom that when trying to woo a group of voters who are poorer and younger, you are not going to say the same things that you would to appeal to a group that is richer and older.

Conversely, populists on the left will tend to shape their poll promises and policies around the interests of minorities, over that of socio-economically privileged classes (and races).

In other words, the question of strategy is important because it’s a matter, not just of winning votes, but of which votes you are trying to win, and therefore of the policies you defend in order to win them.

Besides the US and Australia, right wing populism is ascendant in Europe and Asia—in countries like the UK, Austria, Hungary, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Turkey, to name a few—while Latin America, Spain and Greece is mostly about left-wing populism. There are left-wing populist tendencies in the US, the UK and France as well.

The rise of twenty first century populism

The populist momentum began with the financial crisis that was unleashed on the world’s population a decade ago.

It was towards the beginning of this decade that people, disillusioned by globalisation, began to see themselves as victims of neoliberal policies and looked to reform the economy.

With wealthy liberal cities growing more alienated from economically struggling rural areas, a new crop of politicians harnessed these populist sentiments, to rope in a previously ignored section of the population in shaping the mainstream political debate.

Technocracy perpetuated by digitisation, online surveillance and social media also played its part in luring the masses whose natural instinct is to reject intelligent analysis, moving politicking and political debates online.

Sensational, absurd and fake news – if it’s sufficiently hysterical and fulfills a populist agenda – came to be the vehicles of populist conspiracy theories aimed at denouncing establishments and the elite.

How populism invaded India

The Modi regime was arguably founded on authoritarian populism, driven by an obsessive need for a leader who people believe is someone just like them – one of the ordinary people. But such larger than life figures end up driving personality cults and in most cases, turn out to be a very powerful figure.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban, for example, is a millionaire with an enormous control not only over Hungarian media but in Poland, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Slovenia where he intends to spread his ideas of a Christian Europe.

In India, the anti-establishment rhetoric was perfectly moulded into anti-dynastic polarisation. After a decade of Congress’s rule fraught with allegations of decadence and corruption, Modi became a credible messenger with an attractive message without any alternative to challenge him. He played his humble background and hard working ethos to the hilt, garnering widespread support from the masses and even from many liberal intellectuals for whom, Modi seemed to represent something different.

More importantly, populism did wonders for Modi because it is mostly euphemistic and entails a more acceptable form of xenophobia. It is widely noted that those on the political right are often reluctant to own up to racism, Islamophobia or anti-Semitism; while they have democracy on their lips, none of their policies reflect it and they are never answerable for acting in a non- democratic manner.

Modi’s campaigns, party workers and policies remain divisive to this day, but his ministers will still insist that the PM has never discriminated even though the absent condemnation for hate speech or open calls for lynching (coming at times from his own party men) speaks a different truth.

So why should his next term be any different?

If you want to mobilise voters who are lured by fascism, you will try to avoid antagonising them on issues such as immigration or minority rights; that needn’t involve becoming actually racist or xenophobic, but perhaps you will put more emphasis on national identity. Such a strategic choice alters the nature of the political discourse you defend, says Èric Fassin, author of a book titled Populisme: le grand ressentiment [‘Populism and deep resentment’].

When the BJP came to power in 2014 on the plank of a populist mandate, it was still regarded as a wild card entry in India’s increasingly progressive and global polity.

Over the last five years, however, Modi wielded his iron grip and consolidated the party’s core base, bridged the urban-rural divide with a saffron ideology and attracted new followers from unexpected quarters, to return stronger than ever.

Clearly, his second term is no longer about proving his might or his party’s trength – it’s about using that power to bring some stability to the socio-economic crises facing the nation. Yes, some of these issues certainly predated the BJP and the advent of right-wing populism, but the 2019 mandate points to immense faith in the government to do the right thing, and turn the tide.

In his victory speech, Modi barely hinted he wants to make India more inclusive, leaving critics hopeful that this time around, the BJP strongman will moderate his hard-line style of governance by taking a stand, simply because he can afford to now.

Even investors who seem spooked by European populism, are fine with the Modi’s reelection, according to Bloomberg.

And I don’t personally don’t see why that’s not achievable. There is no longer a need to appease more voters by “teaching Indian Muslims a lesson,” but a much greater need to unite against growing Chinese influence in the neighbouring region. There is nothing left to gain by encouraging gau rakshaks and their lynching rampage, but everything to gain by creating more jobs for those whose livelihoods depend on cattle trade. Instead of slipping into further electoral authoritarianism, it is perhaps time the government gave precedence to the constitutional way of life over Hindutva.

Alternatively, we could perhaps look at Italy, where populist governance birthed by a coalition between two protest parties is branching into a new, more acceptable and tempered form.

Since populism in India is clearly here to stay, here is one way of looking at things.

Something’s afoot in Italy. A lesson perhaps?

On May 18, Milan witnessed the convergence of Europe’s far-right leaders, some of whom are leading a resurgence of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric in countries that already grapple with colonial and xenophobic pasts.

Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord party led the rally attended by Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Jörg Meuthen of Germany’s Alternative For Deutschland party, and Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally party, to consolidate the far-right grouping ahead of the European Parliament elections (May 23-26).

“There are no extremists, racists, or fascists in this square,” Salvini told the thousands of supporters who’d gathered in the central square in Milan raising anti-migrant, anti-Muslim slogans; a short distance away, some 2000 people marched to protest the assembly.

Two days later, Italian unions joined by human rights campaigners refused to load cargo onto a Saudi ship carrying weapons, in protest against arms trafficking and Riyadh’s war on Yemen. Dock workers have gone on strike, refusing to work until the ship leaves port in Genoa.

A counterpoint within the populist coalition

The ship was loaded with weapons in Belgium, but successfully blocked from picking up additional arms at a French port as a result of a similar protest. But there’s something going on in Italy worth looking at.

Salvini, the head of the populist League is courting votes ahead of the European elections by waging war on refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe by boat, and he wants his bill adopted ahead of the May 26th ballot.

But the country’s 5-Star movement, a part of the government’s ruling populist-leaning coalition with Salvini, has fought to end the government’s arms deals with the Saudi kingdom for years.

While Salvini’s bill was slated for debate at a cabinet meeting before the elections, the M5S signalled it was not prepared to pass the law in its present form.

This shows that political participation, dissent and debate within a populist government against populist agenda, is possible. For some it suggests the renewal of a two-party system while others have even termed it “good populism” in contrast to the authoritarian nationalist populists governing Hungary and Poland.

The pressing question about today’s Italy, then, is not whether populists in general can govern—they have proven in many countries that they can especially when tempered with liberalism—but whether their brand of technocracy and populism is a one-off experiment or a harbinger of things to come in global democracies. 

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

General Elections 2019Narendra ModiPopulism