Populist demagogues

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

THE menace is as ancient as the Greeks and the Romans—democracies’ proneness to self-destruction. The prime architect of this disaster is the demagogue who arouses the latent fears of the masses, paints dreams of greatness (“ache din”), and leads them as they respond to his treacherous calls to amass power for himself. He lays democracy low before it can check him.

Plutarch recalls in his magnificent work Fall of the Roman Republic that Cicero, who launched himself on a political career with the highest hopes, had his eagerness somewhat blunted by a reply that he received from an oracle. He had consulted the god at Delphi, asking how he could gain the greatest favour. The Pythian priestess told him that his guide to life should be “not popular opinion, but his own nature”.

In modern times, Walter Lippmann repeatedly commented on the pitfalls of the democratic process; the electorate’s vulnerability to populist calls; and “the strong” leader’s insidious appeal. “Governments are unable to cope with reality when elected assemblies and mass opinions become decisive in the state, when there are no statesmen to resist the inclination of the voters and there are only politicians to excite and to exploit them” ( The Public Philosophy , 1955, page 46). That is a fair description of the calling of the modern populist demagogue. Sadly, there is little scrutiny and analysis of the phenomenon in India. In the United States, some of its finest minds studied it, apparently to little avail.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia co-authored Populism: A Very Short Introduction . Since populism has spread to Europe, he referred to a “Populist International” in an article in The New York Times in January. Well before Donald Trump’s election as President of the U.S., Michael Kazin, Editor of Dissent , who teaches history at Georgetown University, wrote a brilliant article in Foreign Affairs (November-December 2016) entitled “Trump and American Populism”. The book under review is authored by Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University.

Indians would do well to study them carefully, for the vice holds the country in its grip and only a concerted intellectual effort can help in liberating us. As one reads these writers’ analyses, one is struck, again and again, by the similarities between the twin demagogues Donald Modi and Narendra Trump. In both the streak of vulgarity in speech is pronounced. The cry of “America First” and the rejection of immigration has its parallel in Modi’s yearning for ancient times which knew plastic surgery but lost it and its achievements. The credo of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), heir to V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva, holds that Hindus alone are the true nationals of the country. The rest need to be Hinduised, as the RSS’ chief, M.S. Golwalkar, expounded in his Bunch of Thoughts . In Modi’s time you have ghar wapsi (return to the fold). No wonder his supporters in the U.S. and India enthusiastically support Trump. A pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sunday weekly protectively warned of “conspiracies” against Trump.

Populism is not a Western ailment; it is very much an Indian disease. Modi won only partly because of Hindutva. He won because he promised to perform and deliver on “development”. Read Michael Kazin and the affinities hit you in the eye. “Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans. Trump is hardly the first politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people.”

Both demagogues have a very private definition of who “the people” are. “For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—‘real Americans’, whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below —a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle.” In India it is not colour but religion that is exploited to divide the people.

In April 2016, months before the election, Trump vowed in a major speech that ‘“America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration”. Kazin also states: “He has even led crowds in chants of the slogan, while feigning indifference towards its dark provenance.”

Kazin’s analysis proved prophetic. “Trump will struggle to win the White House. Despite the manifest weaknesses of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee—including a lack of public trust and an awkward speaking style—her opponent has earned a reputation for vicious harangues against minority groups and individuals rather than statesmanlike conduct or creative policies.… It would be foolish to ignore the anxieties and anger of those who have flocked to Trump with a passion they have shown for no other presidential candidate in decades. According to a recent study by the political scientist Justin Gest, 65 per cent of white Americans—about two-fifths of the population—would be open to voting for a party that stood for ‘stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam’. These men and women believe that most politicians ignore or patronise them.”

Have you noticed one singularly ugly feature of Modi’s election campaign in Uttar Pradesh? He has written off the Muslim vote and concentrates on Hindu mobilisation. The abolition of the triple talaq figures in the election manifesto; the party knows that even Muslims opposed to that hideous practice will resent the BJP’s intervention in this matter.


Jan-Werner Müller’s book deserves a wide readership in India. He points out repeatedly that the core of populism is exclusion; the populist is anti-pluralist. He and he alone represents the people. “Populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognise the opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure. Put simply, populists do not claim ‘We are the 99 percent’. What they imply instead is ‘We are the 100 percent.’ …

“Populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once put it, ‘the people’ can only appear in the plural. And it’s a dangerous fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarisation; they also treat their political opponents as ‘enemies of the people’ and seek to exclude them altogether.”

Populism is a degraded form of democracy in which its institutions— elections and the rest—are used to undermine its values. The structure is stripped of its life. “That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly anti-democratic should trouble us all—and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.”

Populism has, for over a century, flourished in many a State in the U.S. It flourished in Gujarat after the pogrom of 2002. Once in New Delhi, Modi lost no time in consigning to the wilderness those who had saved him in 2002.

“This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people. Think of Nigel Farage celebrating the Brexit vote by claiming that it had been a ‘victory for real people’ (thus making the 48 per cent of the British electorate who had opposed taking the U.K. out of the European Union somehow less than real—or, put more directly, questioning their status as proper members of the political community). Or consider a remark by Donald Trump that went virtually unnoticed, given the frequency with which the New York billionaire has made outrageous and deeply offensive statements. At a campaign rally in May, Trump announced that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything’.”

The populist leader disdains accountability. In all the three months since demonetisation on November 8, not once has Modi cared to meet the specific criticisms in Parliament. He has, instead, accused critics of corruption.

The author reckons with India’s experience. “The leader does not have to ‘embody’ the people, as statements such as ‘India is India, and India is Indira’ might suggest. But a sense of direct connection and identification needs to be there. Populists always want to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and to rely as little as possible on complex party organisations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true of wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of ‘mediating’, which, as the very word indicates, is what they are actually supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.” The populist leader avoids press conferences. He rides above his party and his colleagues, indeed, above the institutions of democracy. His style of speech is coarse and abounds in calumny. “Some populists test the limits of how rude one can be in a debate.”

Why blame the populist when he acts on his proposals once he is in office? “The notion that populists in power are bound to fail one way or another is comforting. It’s also an illusion. For one thing, while populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government will become contradictory. First of all, all failures of populists in government can still be blamed on elites acting behind the scenes, whether at home or abroad (here we see again the not-so-accidental connection between populism and conspiracy theories). Many populist victors continue to behave like victims; majorities act like mistreated minorities.…

“Populists in office continue to polarise and prepare the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralise political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies—and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.”

The checks and balances of democratic constitutions are abandoned. Populists try to “colonise the state”, to own it. They seek next to perpetuate their rule. The civil service is suborned. Journalists are co-opted as “clients”. The unwilling are denounced but also persuaded. The judiciary fares no better. “New judges were appointed. Where a reshaping of the entire system proved difficult, as has been the case in Poland so far, paralysis of the judiciary proved an acceptable second best for the governing party. Media authorities were also immediately captured; the clear signal went out that journalists should not report in ways that violate the interests of the nation (which were of course equated with the interests of the governing party).… The end result is that political parties create a state to their own political liking and in their own political image.”

Such a strategy to consolidate or even perpetuate power is not the exclusive preserve of populists, of course. What is special about populists is that they can undertake such colonisation openly and with the support of their core lay claim to more representation of the people. Why, populists can ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives? Since the state belongs to the people, their representative, the populist, is entitled to wield power unchecked, whilekeeping up the appearances of democratic rule .

The people, so long deceived, wake up when it is too late. But there will always be some who will argue that corruption is okay because the populist is their own man doing good on their behalf. They do not understand that in the long run it will harm them.

Suppressing civil society

Why were people in India surprised when Modi’s axe fell on non-governmental organisations? “Populists in power tend to be harsh [to say the least] with non-governmental organisations that criticise them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people.”

There is an insidious effort to test the limits, but no total break. Yet in the process “cultural nationalism and authoritarian politics become inextricably linked”. And Hindutva, according to the RSS-BJP family, is synonymous with “cultural nationalism”. Call it what you will. “Populism is inherently hostile to the mechanisms and, ultimately, the values commonly associated with constitutionalism: constraints on the will of the majority, checks and balances, protections for minorities, and even fundamental rights. Populists are supposedly impatient with procedures; they are even said to be ‘against institutions as such’, preferring a direct, unmediated relationship between the personal leader and the people.” Modi prefers the rally, where he is applauded, to Parliament, where he is questioned.

We, in India, have learnt much by experience—Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship, the Janata Party’s rifts and her return. Our polity is hopelessly divided. So are large sections of the media. TV is a revolting spectacle. There is a dire need for a disinterested group of persons who belong to no faction but study the politics of the country impartially and present the results to the people. The Association for Democratic Reforms in Hyderabad is a shining example of such a group. Its integrity and commitment are equalled by the labours it devotes to study.

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