It is time to hail Brand Modi and say hallelujah to him unreservedly for the sweeping mandate that the nation has given him. Narendra Modi is surely the undisputed political leader riding on the crest of populism. Historian Ramachandra Guha once wrote how surging populism determined and conditioned the course of Indian politics after Nehru and following a brief tenure of Lal Bahadur Shastri.
In fact, authoritarian populism and the rise of rightwing populist movements throughout the world are subject to international scrutiny, particularly since the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 US election. Trump without either the well-articulated party apparatus, or the full-blown ideology of the Nazis, exemplifies the textbook phenomena of authoritarian populism or neofascism and loosely the rise of Modi.
His adherents might prompt one to liken them to Trump and his supporters. The electoral triumphs of Narendra Modi in India, Vladimir Putin in Russia and that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are suggestive of the rise of rightwing populist parties throughout Europe such as Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, Victor Orban’s Fidesz Party in Hungary, and the Polish Law and Justice Party. The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential election and the triumph of the Leave Campaign led by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) inevitably point to an age of populism.
Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the Mélenchon, Sanders, and Corbyn insurgencies ~ as well as the ‘shape-shifting’ Five-Star Movement in Italy ~ have demonstrated that resurgence of populism is far from restricted to the right. Before Modi, Indira Gandhi was the greatest populist leader sitting on the pedestal with leaders who made a virtue of populism like Juan Peron, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno, ZA Bhutto, and Srimavo Bandaranaike. Indira Gandhi was almost as paranoid and delusional as Mamata Banerjee is today.
Modi’s arch challenger in West Bengal, now soundly rebuffed, was also one who resorted to unabashed populism since she was accorded the status of a virtual goddess for her ability to finally dislodge an entrenched Left in West Bengal buoyed by a groundswell of popular support. There is really no harm in being popular as long as we do not lapse into illiberal populism as in Argentina the populist trajectory of which first took to socialism/fascism and then into Peronism.
And what role did neoliberalism play in the rise of populist politics in the world? It has led to certain benefits to millions of people in countries as diverse as India, Brazil, and China, though the textbook pathogens of neoliberalism such as accumulation by dispossession, deregulation, privatization and an upward redistribution of wealth cannot be wished away.
It has increased both economic insecurity and cultural anxiety via three features in particular ~ the creation of surplus people, rising global inequality, and threats to identity. The anxiety wrought by neoliberal globalization has created a rich and fertile ground for populist politics of both right and left.
When centre-left and centre- right parties both pursue neoliberal policies and lose credibility and votes, it angers a sizeable minority of voters who take to the extreme politics of people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, who promised to take on the corrupt power elites by cracking down on easy targets.
The financial consequences of neoliberalism being the ballooning of gross domestic product, national debt and profits for a tiny sector of the population with the unwholesome outcome of a small number of individuals becoming mega-wealthy, wages for the middle classes stagnating and wages for the poor declining, it is looked at askance. What is worse, the root cause of the majority’s misery is concealed by the corporate and even state-owned mainstream media.
Phenomena like unemployment and high levels of welfare dependency are at best portrayed as the random workings of the world and at worst the fault of immigrants and scroungers. One may legitimately discover a dichotomy between neoliberalism and its discontent when we try to explain the rise of Modi by its parameters. His first tenure betrayed many aspects that bedevil a neoliberal regime.
But Modi was able to change the narrative, specifically after Balakot, cleverly linking the political establishment to the foreign ‘Other’, while reinforcing the assertion that the BJP and Modi are the true ambassadors of the Indian people and dissenting elements who ‘conspire’ with the enemy are anathema to people, then linking populist and nationalist logic, thereby playing on a Hindutva discourse that pits the people against a “pseudosecular” establishment guilty of perpetuating their vice-like grip on power through the ‘appeasement’ of minorities rather than representing the Indian people as a whole, and the Hindu majority community in particular.
The verdict reconfirms that populism is not about economics, politics or even, in the last resort, society. It is about personality in a moral sense. Populism claims that the individual should be a complete man. And Modi, to his worshippers loosely nicknamed as bhakts, was the King who can do no wrong. Chowkidar chor hai was therefore a personal assault on each of his worshippers.
On the national level, Modi and the BJP managed to create a populist electoral coalition by conjuring up a strong sense of crisis, economic anxieties and disillusionment with corrupt, inept and weak elites and presenting him as a political “outsider isolated from the elite class” who will rescue India from peril.
Taking a jibe at the intellectual elite and the political pundits while addressing party workers in his Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi during his Thanksgiving visit after his massive victory, Modi said: ‘’They will now realise that social chemistry is more powerful than arithmetic”. In UP this time, this chemistry has defeated arithmetic.
This personality cult bred a style of leadership and administration that is centred on his person. Modi, compared to a weak and tentative Rahul, or a truculent Mamata, or a host of other worthies including Chandrababu Naidu, Akhilesh-Mayavati, rendered electorally worthless, was perceived as a “doer”, untrammelled by niceties of political correctness who can ‘gets things done’ and take tough decisions even if this means waging a war or to overrule intermediary institutions (RBI, EC, the apex court et al), coursing through minor irritants like a riot here, a lynching there and the attendant noise thereof.
He can get his message, loud and clear, across to people be it through social media, conventional TV and radio addresses, be it from a Polo Ground stage in Asansol, or from New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium in London to an ululating diaspora. Right-wing populism is marked, according to Jeff Colgan and Robert O. Keohane Colgan (‘The Liberal Order Is Rigged’, Foreign Affairs, 2017), by the “belief that each country has an authentic ‘people’ who are held back by the collusion of foreign forces and self-serving elites at home”.
One such populist leader “seeks to weaken or destroy institutions such as legislatures, the judiciary, and the press and to cast off external restraints in defence of national sovereignty”. Fareed Zakaria (‘Populism on the March: Why the West Is in Trouble’, Foreign Affairs, 2016) lists Trump, Bernie Sanders, Syriza, and the Front National as examples of populism just to proclaim that “the West is in trouble”.
No prize for sniffing out any symptomatic resemblance to any leader closer at home because Modi never fought shy of conflating the elite and the foreign ‘Other’ who must accept Hinduism as India’s cultural foundation. Is it time to accept that the secular-pluralist idea of India associated with state founder Jawaharlal Nehru is a sham and assert that India’s identity and nationhood are grounded in Hindu culture and religion?
There was a kind of protopopulism in the English Peasants’ Revolt and the Jacqueries of the fourteenth century, or in the Bundschuh and the peasant wars of the Reformation. The history of populism often points to a bigot who loves to revel in a happy past: the happy slaves in the fields, the happy women in the kitchen, the happy white people with their picket fences, the happy Jews in the ghetto, the colonized happily learning the rubrics of civilization from the colonizer.
If he is sometimes seen to employ brutality to expunge the negative feelings of the malcontents, it is only natural and morally necessary. Utopia may exist in an ideal past as well as a new future, or can easily be both, where dreams can fly.
(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)