Populism triumphs in India: World's most popular man, Modi!

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: May 27, 2019 21:36:45 | Updated: June 01, 2019 21:30:28

Narendra Modi has emerged as the world's most popular politician historically, if democratic election is the measure. Over 900 million voters gave his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a resounding victory, especially over what might now be dubbed the "dinosaurs" (Congress Party), itself possibly viewing extinction from frontline Indian politics (even by gaining more parliamentary representation than in 2014).

These are all common knowledge by now: how populist argumentation salvages the seemingly sinking groups; jingoism as an electoral tool; institutionalising threat upon minority groups; and a big-business boom corralling mainstream consumers too rapidly for them to comprehend how they have been slapped. If anything, the 2019 Indian election aftermath is off on a similar exuberant note as was the 2014 election result. Anyone able to glimpse as far back as that will also know how that glow faded over time, even to the point of Modi himself wondering if his capacity would help him cross the 2019 election hurdle.

Equally common knowledge is how this was the best possible outcome if India is to show the vitality of its enormous, much still embedded, talent. It strengthens short-term economic growth (populism has never been a long-term winner, simply because its underpinning sentiments do not ever stay static). Thereby it positions India into a more amenable negotiations position, mostly regional, where its leadership claim or credentials have to be accepted more convincingly before it is ripe for others in rest of the world to draw their own conclusion. Given a sturdy India surrounded by China-based factory-production units and infrastructures of sorts, this message rings even louder globally.

All these opportunities dwarfs against the most prominent factor behind Modi's stunning landslide victory: the absence of any viable opponent, coupled with the stature of an all-India leadership capability in one of the most divided countries, is a truly daunting proposition. Modi's charisma wins hands down, but behind him the adrenalised Hindu extremists remain ready to fling a final blow to earn that South Asian supremacy it had thousand years ago. However that may come, through harassment during campaigns or intimidation under other circumstances, India is on a roll unparallel in its independent history.

What may be lesser known, at least in conversation and commentary groups, is how the world's most popular man reflects what might have become the world's most popular mindset today: populism. In one of the fastest technologically-driven era of the human epoch, the ascendance of populism is a stark reminder of how vast a population has been hurt by its rapid growth. Nobody saw it coming, but it silently snowballed to where it is now. That its creeping advance has not halted suggests how even classroom niggardliness, for those still in that station of life, ultimately produces the ghost enveloping us all, to put it succinctly.

Recent elections show all the above claims. If we begin with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election, then come down to Brazil in the western hemisphere and Australia in the eastern, we see more populist pillars than ever in a century. In all of them we see the circumscribed calling-card: the absence of a viable alternative. This emits a glaring signal and induces an uninvited guest if any would-be politician of a different stripe than populism is listening. It means mainstream candidates have either strayed from their commitments (essentially the same as not a living up to their mandate), or have been lousy in executing them. Among the corollaries that commitment is of reaching out to the other side, negotiating with them, but also keeping abreast of changing voter needs instead of taking them for granted or sliding into complacency.

Behind them lies not necessarily big-business, but aggressive ones snarling at foreign competition or societal restrictions. Australia, for example, lives off the fat of China's enormous demand for energy materials, meaning coal and other minerals of Australia. Pitching that stand gave Scott Morrison his unexpectedly handsome victory margin, since environmentalists and conservationists could not rally effectively to sell their cause behind a largely tepid and unknown leader. Though feeding China's energy thirst cannot easily be dispensed with for now, Australia is also wary of China's sprawling global grip. That might have clinched the vote of today's most powerful voting bloc: the undecided tally in the centre. This group gave Trump his victory, clinched the Brexit cause, abandoned Bolisario's opponent, tilted in Morrison's direction, and thickened Modi's flock. It is an equation too explosive to forget.   

A viable opponent aside, the fluctuating business role must be better understood. At stake may be the relationship between declining and emerging industries in the first phase, and then between this corporate profile and its policy expression. If the undecided voter is seen as the tool, the trigger cannot but be losing out to foreigners in economic competitiveness. Low-wage overseas production may be the reason to flare industrialised-country frustration, yet the argument cannot hold water over the long-haul: no uncompetitive condition simply drops from the sky, much less than come by surprise. The United States had ample warning of China's over-arching propensities from the 1990s, but did little to prepare accordingly. Brexit supporters were not suddenly riled by an invasion of "Polish window-cleaners": they previously resented South Asians and Middle East immigrants, in fact were driven more by visible minorities than East Europeans could ever be in their 2016 referendum. Similarly for Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, creeping stagnation under a now corruption-plagued Socialist government had worn out the patience of businessmen, as too the Australian apprehension of what an "unknown" left-centre candidate, Bill Shorten, may bring to the playing field against the "known" candidate's confirmed pro-business proclivity.

Populism cannot but grow when the economic growth subsides because of a foreign input, but its staggering spread today only confirms far too many low-waged countries knocking on industrialised-country doors. India does not quite fit that bill in the way the United States once did: it is a competitive low-wage contender with enormous high-skills, reversing the US label. Perhaps it is the inability to unleash the power behind those skills of past governments that fed the frenzy pot. Or it could be China's far more impressive economic outcomes that simply remain evasive for India. What we do know is Modi's commendable Gujarat leadership: replicating the remarkable growth there with the support of some of India's most hallowed current tycoons at the national level was always due: just the timing mattered.

That time has come. At one end, Modi's victory could enhance Indian global power by re-nationalising India, this time not with industry, but religion, while at the other, it might drift into peacemaking with Pakistan, much like Ronald Reagan did in his second term for the United States with the Soviet Mikhail Gorbachev (with monumental results), during the late 1980s. His business friends would be happy with both options. That sector-based, class-based reconciliation would be missing: farmers tremble with business behind the steering-wheel, as too the middle-class consumers. This feature, or its near-equivalent, can be found in the Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, and the United States. It is one reason why populism stirs long-term internal challenges, but also why there is life after populism, no matter how tattered, delayed, or fragile.

Modi victory may be a 21st century pacesetter. It will be fascinating to watch other democratic election to see how victory is fashioned by, not just fair and foul means, but possibly the fairest of middle-class expectations (since that is where a democratic state's heartbeat lies), mixing with the foulest (of which type many more abound today than perhaps ever before).

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.



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