Populism & Plural Democracy
   26-Feb-2019
Populist rhetoric by well-entrenched dynastic forces, which are inimical to the very fabric of democracy, is alarmingly on the rise, feeding off on vulnerable sections of the society’s fear, anxieties, along ­their religious and racial fault-lines
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 include, ad infinitum, farm loan waivers and Rythu Bandhu grants to big farmers, subsidized canteens, free laptops, 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 to farmers, free lands for housing 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.
 
 
A section of the crowd raising slogan 
 
By indulging in such farcical ‘free sops’, populists – left-wing, centrist and right-wing – hell bent upon “one-step ahead”, they are not only making a joke of democracy, they are also disrupting our economy and politics. In fact, there is nothing virtuous about center-left, center and center-right politics as practised in the past seven decades. Where is the revenue for all these impossible-to-fulfil, pre-poll promises?
 
Leaders of all political parties are squarely to be blamed for the messy economic and political situation of the country today. The semantics of pseudo-social, -economic and even political justice in the name of “quotas for deprived sections of the society” is a disturbing reflection of the fault-lines of governance over the past seven decades. The concept of “welfare state” is wreaking havoc what with Jats, Gujjars, Patidars, Kapu’s, tribals etc., holding the Government to ransom. Added to it is the failure on the “gender equality” front – 33% quota for women in the Parliament and State Assemblys and Councils. In sum, frustration is simmering above the surface; but not 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 our democracy in practice. Muslim appeasement politics has paved the way for the all round breakout of demands from other deprived sections of the society.
 
Meanwhile, the days of single party monopoly of governance are over. No longer can national parties or leaders claiming to be secular and liberal indulge in appeasement politics to sway people to elect them to power. Even the BJP that gained majority in 2014 appears to be on the back foot. Polarization and fragmentation is intensifying.
Yet another significant phenomenon is the growth of “authoritarianism” by the entrenched “few” – the dynasts. Over the past seven decades, one dynastic family has hijacked Indian democracy to serve its own selfish agenda. In reality, today India is “kleptocracy or autocracy”.
 
 
Rahul Gandhi waving to the crowd 
 
The emergence of “regional satraps”, mostly authoritarian or autocratic by nature, have no regard or respect for liberal institutions in their own backyards. They have politicized the institutions so badly that these institutions pander to their leader’s or crony’s interests. The fallout is simple; rapidly eroding trust on institutions such as the judiciary, bureaucracy and media, where people’s trust have hit an all-time low. Thus, the “authoritarian dynast populism” is even more dangerous threat to national security.
 
Nothing best illustrates this more than the “Mahaghatabandhan” which has been cobbled together by unscrupulous regional politicians to protect and serve their own political agenda, a common malaise of Indian democracy. The clash is between aspiring young Indians and the well-entrenched ‘status quo’ists.
 
The 7-decade Mess
The battle of ballot in 2019 would involve two competing ideas of modern India: Dynasts vs the Nationalists. Nation-state is on the verge of collapse with vested interests bent on wrecking democracy at every single opportunity.
  • Populists are fooling people by feeding off their anxieties and fears based on castes, religion, and racial fault-lines. They polarize vulnerable sections of the society with vote bank politics thru fake appeals 
  • Yet another significant phenomenon is the growth of “authoritarianism” by the entrenched “few” – the dynasts. Over the past seven decades, one dynastic family has hijacked Indian democracy to serve its own selfish agenda. In reality, today India is “kleptocracy or autocracy”.
  •  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
 
Let me focus on the fundamental percept of democracy. Most importantly, “We, the People” is supposed to mean all citizens, regardless of religion, caste or creed. People all alike must enjoy equality, socially, politically and economically – a kind of “sabka saath, sabka vikhas, if you will.
 
Populists, by nature of their rhetoric, discriminates us between “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 into many categories with many different sets of interests and values, whereas the ‘elites’ are distinctly different from ‘We, the people’. In fact, they are not only ‘different’ but fundamentally opposed, too.
The elites are hopelessly corrupt. They enjoy enormous resources, wealth and power. They are the Neo-Maharajahs – ala populist dictators.
 
Factually, populist leaders, particularly dynasts, claim that they alone represent the people, the only legitimate force in society. Individuals outside their charmed circle – coterie, caucuses or whatever- may therefore be excluded from equal opportunity, violating the principle of inclusion that is essential to democracy. How can anyone expect corrupt rich dynasts to allow the BPL families to enjoy equal share in their prosperity and status in society? It is utopian expectation.
 
In fact, populists are fooling people by feeding off their anxieties and fears based on caste, religious, and racial fault-lines. They polarize vulnerable sections of the society with vote bank politics with fake appeals. The aim of contemporary populism is, therefore, a system whereby they can camouflage their self-serving interests into public policy without any impediments which prevents liberal democracies from responding effectively to their problems.
All politicians without any exception have mastered the art of populist rhetorics to suit the ‘pulse’ of “We, the people”. 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 the “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 undermine liberal democracy from within.
 
Decision-making in a nation of of diversity typically requires compromises. 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 fight 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 harbours the power of self-correction. Not only do liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannical concentrations of power, but they also provide mechanisms for channelling the public’s grievances and unmet needs into effective reforms. But, the power of self-correction is not always enough to prevent liberal democracies from crumbling.
 
Nonetheless, there is no excuse for complacency. The current ills of liberal democracy are deep and pervasive. People must rise to the occasion and overcome ­­populists appeasement tactics. Surmounting them will require clarity of thought.
 
People must opt for political leaders who are willing to take risks to serve society and nation for long-term interests. People’s choice, not a 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 chaos and anarchy.
 
DO NOT fall prey to competitive populism. None of them will honour their pre-poll promises.
Wake up “We the people of India”! Give a “DECISIVE VERDICT” against pretenders masquerading as your leaders and saviours. If you squander this opportunity, be prepared for the worst to unfold. No need to blame others; but yourself ONLY.