Populism is front-page news these days. We hear so much about its spread across the Atlantic zone, with references to "America First" and "Brexit" dominating so uninterruptedly for 3-odd years. It has been triggered by economic competitiveness slipping in the host country, or mounting unfairness in economic exchanges, with the message of going solo being the cardinal tune. We have associated "Europe" so much to this outburst that oftentimes we just do not look elsewhere when it might help. Yet, examining other unfolding cases advances our understanding of 21st Century populism, since it is already off to a divergent start from the stock. Asia, obviously a dynamic playground, comes to mind as a fertile area to explore if the argument that economic forces spur populism is true, as in the Atlantic zone. We shall find, in Asia's fewer examples, populism of different breeds: far more political than economic, though the economic consequences might still cry out louder; and, unlike in the west, where the economy is populism's necessary condition, across Asia it is merely a sufficient condition.
Asian populism seems to be using economic growth for political purposes, or if it is religious, then for political outcomes. Of course, the most strident example is India under Narendra Modi: his political life in Gujarat was built upon this, and proved so successful he tried to replicate that same appeal of Hindutva nationally in his first term as prime minister, now much more forthrightly in the second. In fact, the transition from the first to the second term, highlighted by the 2019 election, indicated how radically rightist interpretations of Hindu precepts, principles, and practices actually drove the country's minorities into a life-long fear (not matched since the 1947 partition of India).
Indeed, how India's future is interpreted remains at the heart of its populism. It has convincingly shown how it can mix and mingle with the greatest powers today on the economic front, boasting every now and then the highest global economic growth-rate. Very much like in Gujarat, it has spilled over into politics by way of religion. For those who remember the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi's 2019 re-election might be a foretaste of a ghost mainstream Indians wish to avoid.
Against its economic salience, Indians have begun reinterpreting India's identity. For those with an extremist religious bent, Hindutva is the pathway to recreating India as it originally was.
One notices how European cases have enough on their plates to gripe about without religion fanning the flames: economic mismatches to begin with, drifting as it naturally does, in nationalistic and racial directions, raising political differences and divisions. Adding religion, which remains at hand, would make for an explosive mix, given the recently concluded war against Islamic State jihadis. As Brenton Tarrant exposed in Christchurch, New Zealand, last March, religion can be made part and parcel of European populism, something Adolf Hitler vividly illustrated through his concentration camps for Jews in the late-1930s.
Rodrigo Duterto's Philippines illustrates another Asian example. Economics, culture, and religion do not play a steering role, though they can be animated enough to serve other purposes, such as nationalism. Filipino nationalism under Duterte seems more to be security-driven, more precisely, against drug-traffickers, at least using drug-trafficking as an opening tool to pry open other policies needing "fixing" to show the nationalistic colours.
There are apprehensions of a Chinese populism variety, or Japanese. The former would most likely spin off against Donald J. Trump's trade-war and the secularly sliding economic growth-rates. Today's youth might be puzzled: having been bred amid a generation-long double-digit economic growth, not finding a lucrative job and tasting obvious other fruits would jolt their sense of stability and haunt China (while complicating global dynamics).
Japan's dominant catalyst, demographic disintegration, could also visit China, sooner rather than later, if the current economic impasse is not adequately redressed. What is striking about Japan is the dire need of foreign hands to run its factories and farms, machines and minds. This predicament has led the country to open up various forms of residency options to foreigners, mostly from the continent it invaded as an imperialist a century or so ago. On the one hand will be the local resentment, very much like in Europe today against foreigners. On the other, foreign encroachments could degenerate into tit-for-tat attitudinal aberrations.
None of these include upstart cases in already established authoritarian countries, or well-rooted monarchies. Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman comes to mind as exemplifying the kind of a reformist who, when his powder runs dry, pushes nationalistic buttons, while opening possible populist windows. Yet, Saudi Arabia is too entrenched an absolutist monarchy to admit that kind of populism, while North Korea is another totalitarian state without a face, that is, a public face, to permit emotional stirrings to spread. Pakistan's Imran Khan stands on the threshold of populism, were he not bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a dependence that requires accepting some degree of multilateral rules that populists loath.
Though India and the Philippines might end up being temporary, upstart cases, too much dirty water keeps flowing under the populist bridge to make that outcome so happenstance. If economic growth under multilateral rules was the post-World War II 20th century catalyst of 21st century populism, 21st century economic growth amid stern nationalistic orbits may give populism a firmer future springboard. Under those circumstances, the 21st century could become a century of unabated populism unless a stronger dynamic enters the political pipeline. So far, such a seed has not been planted.
Planting it begins with distributing economic gains far more equitably within countries (the Gini gap, measuring inequality, has, unfortunately, been widening in many countries across Asia, especially those registering rapid economic growth-rates, and in spite of, or because of, such rampant growth). Forging long-term partnerships abroad for each country is another approach (remaining an economic island has become the most inefficient policy approach against such competition and technological growth). Free-trade agreements may be an idea not at all too late in landing on Asian shores, but they may build more time for us to adapt to broader and more open policy changes. Europe is the example, if its immediate post-World War II pattern is studied more carefully, and especially if Asian countries are to avoid the populism plaguing Europe today. Relative economic gains can catalyse populism, but adroitly planned, also spark further growth by pre-empting obvious impediments.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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