Populism – Threat to Pluralism and Democracy


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Populist rhetoric is on the rise, which inextricably links politics to society with adverse fallout on economy particularly from a long term national security perspective.

The populist schemes list is ad infinitum to include: farm loan waivers and Rythu Bandhu grants for big farmers, subsidized canteens, free lap tops, free saris, baby/mother kits, wedding grants, free TVs, free call centers, old age pensions, unemployment allowance for jobless youth, reservations for castes and communities, free energy and pump sets for farmers,  free housing pattas even before construction of houses, free education schemes, free cycle schemes for girls, free smart phone schemes, free bus passes to students, free health schemes, free insurance schemes, and so.

By indulgence in such quixotic and farcical ‘free sops’ offers, populists – left-wing, centrist and right-wing – hell bent upon on being ‘one-step ahead” of others, are making a joke of not only liberalism and democracy, but also of disruptive and destructive economy and politics.  In retrospect, there is nothing virtuous about center-left, center and center-right politics as practiced in the past seven decades. Where are the revenues to fulfill pre poll promises galore?

Political leaders and parties are squarely responsible for the spiraling social and economic turmoil and political dysfunction.

The political semantics of pseudo-social, economic and even political justice in the name of “quotas for deprived sections of society” policy glaringly reflects fault-lines of governance over the past 7-decades and most farcical. The concept of “welfare state” is running amok – Jats, Gujjars, Patidrs, Kapu’s,  tribals etc on the boil. Add to it, the failure on the “gender equality” front – 33% quota for women in the Parliament and State Assembly’s and Council’s. In sum, deprivation and frustrations are simmering above the surface; but no really below the surface. Their full fury is yet to be experienced.

In reality, competitive populism, contra national security interests, cannot be wished away easily. Such is the absurdity of democracy in practice. Minority appeasement politics paved the way for appeasement politics of downtrodden sections of society followed by all round breakout of demands from other deprived sections of society.

Meanwhile, the days of single party monopoly of governance are over. No longer, national parties or leaders claiming to be secular and liberal indulging in appeasement politics can sway people to re-elect them to power. Even far-right party, that is, the BJP that gained majority in 2014 appears to be on the back foot. Polarization and fragmentation is intensifying. Uncertainty stares starkly over people what with governing becoming more difficult due to excess of democratic politics.

Yet another significant phenomenon is the growth of “authoritarianism” by the entrenched “few” – dynasts. Over the past 7-decades, dynasts have hijacked democracy. In reality, what India has today is “Kleptocracy or Autocracy”.

“Regional Straps”, mostly authoritarians or autocrats by nature, have scant regard or respect for liberal institutions in their backyards. They have politicized them so badly that they must act only in their leaders or crony’s interests. Its fallout is simple – rapidly eroding trust in institutions, particularly in ruling regimes, judiciary, bureaucracy and media, which is at an all-time low. Thus, “authoritarian dynast populism” is even more dangerous emerging threat to national security.

“Mahaghatabandhan” best illustrates the current dynamics of India’s messy or murky democracy. The electoral clash is between pro-changers and status quoits.

Retrospect and introspect over political developments of the past 7-decades!

2019 battle of ballot boxes is between 2 competing ideas of modern India: Dynasts vs nationalist rule. Nation-state is collapsing with vested interests murdering liberal democracy at every single opportunity.

Let me focus the fundamental percept of democracy. Most important, “We the People” is understood to mean all citizens, regardless of religion, manners and customs, and length of citizenship. People all alike must enjoy a common civic status- socially, politically and economically.

Next, populists, by the nature of their rhetoric, differentiate between the “We the people” and the “elite”; yet consider them homogeneous from political outcomes, which is patently absurd. In reality, Indian society is vertically and horizontally divided among many categories with many different sets of interests and values, whereas elites are widely different and divergent from them. In fact, they are not only different but fundamentally opposed. Their divides are moral as well as empirical.

Populism understands the elite as hopelessly corrupt. Factually, corrupt elite have already grabbed resources, wealth and power. They have already emerged as the Neo-Maharajahs – ala authoritarian populist dictators.

Factually, populist leaders, particularly dynasts, claim that they alone represent the people, the only legitimate force in society. Individuals outside the charmed circle – coterie or caucuses – of the people may therefore be excluded from equal citizenship, violating the principle of inclusion that is essential to democracy. How can anyone expect corrupt rich dynasts to allow the BPL families to gain equal share in their prosperity and status in society? It is utopian expectation.

In reality, populists globally are exploiting, more precisely, fooling people by exploiting their anxieties, inequalities and fears based around castes, religions, race and migrations. They polarize such vulnerable sections around identity politics with fake or fraud appeals. The aim of contemporary populism is, therefore, a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems.

Political leaders without exception have mastered the art and science of targeting populist rhetoric to the ‘pulse’ of the “We the people” hearts and minds or sentiments and emotions. Importantly, populism appeals to emotion-laden expression of disappointment over frustrated economic expectations, but also resentment against rigged rules and special interests, and fear of threats to physical and cultural security. Most important, partisan polarization on the basis of populist rhetoric is contra unity.

It is also in the full realization that never ever social groups can be elevated on the same level on equal footing economically and politically. So, what is the alternative? It is to sustain life styles of economically deprived sections of people to somehow make both ends meet through “doles or sops” on daily basis.

Dynamic changes are sweeping societies. After all, the ongoing technological revolution has stirred “growing awareness and raising awareness” and spurred the growth and consolidation of an education-based meritocracy, giving rise to new class divisions – growing urban middle class in at least three layers (High, Medium and Low). For citizens in rural areas and smaller towns, the dominance of this new elite has led to feelings of marginalization. It is breeding inferiority complex and fueling resentment, one of the most dangerous of all political passions. Hence, the growing demands for their share of reservations.

Historically, right-leaning populists have emphasized shared ethnicity and common descent, while left-leaning populists have often defined the people in class terms, excluding those with wealth and power. Recently, a third definition has entered public debate—the people as opposed to cultural elites.

Left-leaning populist leaders attack “right-leaning populists” in moralistic terms, as corrupt, self-seeking, and given to conspiracies against ordinary citizens, often in collaboration with foreigners. With these developments, divisions among citizens based on geography, formal-education levels, and value systems are growing sharper.

Even the growth of cultural liberalism is contra religious customs and traditions. The combination of economic dislocation, demographic change, and challenges to traditional values has left many less educated citizens feeling that their lives are outside their control.

Populism, either left, center or right, have some striking commonalities: deep suspicion about the rise of a surveillance state; mistrust of major institutions and suspicion about elites. Left unchecked, populism may pave the course to undermine freedom of the press, weaken judiciary, concentrate power in the hands of the executive, and marginalize groups of citizens based on ethnicity, religion, or national origin will. In the ultimate, it may undermine liberal democracy from within.

Decision making in circumstances of diversity typically requires compromise. If one group or party believes that the other embodies evil, however, its members are likely to scorn compromises as dishonorable concessions to the forces of darkness. In short, populism plunges democratic societies into an endless series of moralized zero-sum conflicts; it threatens the rights of minorities; and it enables over-bearing leaders to dismantle the checkpoints on the road to autocracy.

In the context of apparent inability to address mounting problems, ruling regimes face growing public ire. Many citizens, their confidence in the future shaken, trust their politicians to restore a semblance of equality and equity.  As popular demand for strong leaders grows, rising political actors are beginning to question key liberal-democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, and minority rights. Thus, the return to forms of authoritarianism written off by many as relics of the past is real.

However, the appeal of populism—with its embrace of tribalism and the constant conflict it entails—is deeply rooted in the enduring incompleteness of life in liberal societies. This vulnerability helps explain why the advocates of liberal democracy have moved to near despair. Thus, populism requires constant combat against enemies and the forces they represent.

Viewed in the above postulations, populism is the enemy of pluralism. It fallout is simple. Populism is directly threatening liberal democracy in its present manifestation. Populism accepts the principles of popular sovereignty and democracy, understood in straight forward fashion as the exercise of majoritariansm power. It is skeptical, however, about constitutionalism, insofar as formal, bounded institutions and procedures impede majorities from working their will. It takes an even dimmer view of liberal protections for individuals and minority groups.

Liberal democracy is not the end of history. Everything human beings make is subject to erosion and contingency. Liberal democracy is fragile, constantly threatened, always in need of repair. But liberal democracy is strong since it harbors the power of self-correction. Not only do liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannical concentrations of power, they also provide mechanisms for channeling the public’s grievances and unmet needs into effective reforms. To be sure, the power of self-correction is not always enough to prevent liberal democracies from crumbling.

Nonetheless, there is no cause—and no excuse—for complacency. The current ills of liberal democracy are deep and pervasive. People must rise to the occasion and override populists appeasement tactics. Surmounting them will require intellectual clarity.

People must opt for political leaders who are willing to take risks to serve society and nation long-term interests.

People’s choice, not historical inevitability, will determine liberal democracy’s fate.

People must opt for political stability that is vital for peace, progress and prosperity. Otherwise, political instability will perpetuate and end in chaos and anarchy.

DO NOT fall a prey for competitive populism. None of them will honor their pre-poll promises.

Wake up “We the people of India”! Give a “DECISIVE VERDICT” against pretenders masquerading as your leaders and saviors. If you squander this opportunity, be prepared for the worst to unfold. No need to blame others; but yourself ONLY.