Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the Global Entrepreneurship Summmit at the Hyderabad Convention Center on Nov. 28, 2017. (Money Sharma/AFP)
While most nations aspire to democracy as one of the best forms of government, they cannot but be aware that all democratic governments rule in tension. And the tension proceeds from two sources — corruption and confusion.
Democracies, unlike oligarchies, spread their corruption widely; and when everyone demands being heard, it’s a quick recipe for confusion. No surprise then that every democracy secretly longs for "the man on horseback" who will cut through the confusion and crush the corrupt — be this a Napoleon, an Adolf Hitler, a Donald Trump or a Narendra Modi. The perpetual temptation in a democracy is demagoguery.
Today we use another word — "Populism." Populism is the quick fix for all those too impatient to wait for what they want, and much too angry with their representatives.
Populism expresses the direct will of the people – not through representatives voted for, but through one man who has seized power (possibly legitimately), but who exercises this power arrogantly, promising to "kick the foreigners out," "to make the country great again," "to bring back income illegally obtained and deposit 1.5 million rupees into every Indian’s bank account." Wild promises, easy on the ear, but usually impossible to meet.
There have always been populists (or demagogues) in history. Julius Caesar was one. This is why his republican senators assassinated him. Napoleon was another, and so was Hitler. Their ambitions led them increasingly to wars of conquest, and so effectively destroyed their countries.
In India, our last major populist leader was the late Indira Gandhi, India’s former prime minister. Today, it’s the turn of Narendra Modi, India’s current prime minister.
So populism is not a Western ailment, it is as much an Indian disease. Wherever men will not hold each other accountable for governance, but listen instead to one who seduces them with easy glory and panders to their basest fears, there you have the demagogue.
Is populism easier today than at earlier times? It is, and largely so because of the media. All populists bypass intermediaries and want direct contact with the masses. What mass rallies and the radio were to Hitler, the social media are to Trump and Modi.
The populist leader avoids press conferences, brooks no rivals, dominates his party, and disdains democratic processes. His style of speech is crude and vulgar. In fact, most populists test the limits of how rude one can be in public and get away with it. Modi prefers the rally where he is applauded, to Parliament where he can be questioned. And the Nazis, as we know, burnt down their Parliament House (Reichstag).
The first step then is to control the media and to suppress the truth. Clear signals are sent that journalists should not report anything which is "anti-national" — understanding by this, that what the leader desires, the nation must also want. Here slogans take the place of argument: "India is Indira, and Indira is India." "Garibi hatao" (away with poverty) "Hindu hridaya samrat" (emperor of the Hindu heart); "Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fuehrer" (One Nation, one People, one Leader); "Make America great again."
Once the leader’s government is in power, the axe falls swiftly on all non-governmental organizations, especially those that are critical, or those with foreign connections. Populism is inherently hostile to the mechanisms and the values of constitutionalism. Constraints on the will of the majority, checks and balances, protections for minorities, even fundamental rights all become anathema. So populists in power systematically undermine democratic institutions: Indira wanted a "committed judiciary," Trump argues for "alternative facts," and Modi chooses puppets as his government appointees.
Do populists succeed in office? Initially, they seem to. But it soon becomes clear, even to their followers, that populists have their own agenda, which consists largely of self-glorification, often to a ridiculous degree. Whence the present obsession with some of our demagogic leaders to build "the highest statue in the world," the "fastest train in the country", and "membership in the U.N. Security Council." All this is a smokescreen to deceive the people that a great future awaits them, and to avert their eyes from their increasingly dismal present.
This is why all populist leaders must create a bogey to which they constantly point: Indira Gandhi had her "foreign hand" which aimed to destabilize her government; Hitler inveighed against "the dirty Jews," Donald Trump blames migrants for America’s problems, and vows to build a huge wall to keep them out; and Narendra Modi is hostile to all minorities — Muslims, Christians, dalits, tribals... and women.
Hitler mounted a secretive, well-organized plan to exterminate the Jews. Modi permits lynch mobs and private goon squads to target his antagonists, and thus keep the people in a constant state of fear.
Why then is populism such an attractive proposition?
All democracies rule in tension, for unlike totalitarian states which privilege stability over freedom, democracies are always in turmoil. Why? Because there is always one or other section of the electorate which does not have its demands met.
The recent surge in populism comes for many reasons – the global recession has made ordinary people wary of big financial institutions and the elite who run them; today’s refugee crisis is a result of the intrusive politics of Western countries, but the West itself refuses to acknowledge its role in its creation; finally, everyone wants greater participation in government, while also realizing how complex it is to run the nation state.
One final question: is Pope Francis also a populist? Has he effectively countermanded the machinations of a corrupt Vatican bureaucracy with his direct appeals to the people? The answer is yours.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.
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