We are living in the age of populism. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the rise of right-wing populist parties across the world. Such an emergency hasn’t been confined to Europe but is a global phenomenon, as evinced by electoral triumphs of Narendra Modi in India in 2014 and 2019, and that of Recep Tayyab Erdogan in Turkey, as early as 2003.
Most theoreticians believe that the alarming nature of “new populists” is a threat to liberal democracy. They agree that “populism’s understood as a pathological form, pseudo- and post-democratic, produced by the corruption of democratic ideals.”(ibid., p.9) It’s been seen mainly as a “normal pathology” of western democracies. (Brubaker, 2017)
In popular opinion, there are two dominant characteristics of the term populism, highly socio-politically catalytic and negative. The etymological origin calls out populism as the politics of the “pub” i.e., highly emotional and simplistic discourse, that is directed at the gut feelings of people and sharpens opportunism intending to please the people.
As clearly pointed out by Ralf Dahrendorf perceptively, “one person’s populism is another person’s democracy and visa versa“. It’s defined by political binaries like “democracy and opportunism” and “elitism and pluralism”.
Elitism wants politics to be about the views of the oral elite instead of the amoral people. Pluralism, on the other hand, rejects the homogeneity of both populism and elitism, seeing society as a heterogeneous collection of groups and individuals with often fundamentally different views and wishes.
It can be theoretically argued that the concept of populism is a “thin ideology” as compared to the “thick ideologies”, like communism, which are visionary and more organised (Mudde, 2010). In this context, it’s important to unravel the mystery of how populist governments deconstruct their views; which are based on two fundamental claims. First, elites and “outsiders”, work against the interest of the “true people”. Secondly, since populists are the voice of the “true people” nothing should stand in their way (Friedman, 2018).
It’s important to contextualise these two outlining characteristics of populism. The first characteristic is defined in terms of “The Othering”, processes by which one set of the population identifies itself as “morally decent, economically struggling, hardworking, family-oriented, plain-spoken, and endowed with public-spiritedness”. While many studies define populism as an essential conflict between the marginalised and the elites.
In India, we see a similarly important division on caste-class lines. The populist regime utilises three strategies to aggravate this insider versus outsider division, which includes: stylisation of the leader based on the insider’s characterisation (Narendra Modi’s “chai-wala” stroke), the delegitimisation of the outsiders (National Registration of Citizenship in Assam) and a rhetorical of crisis that elevates the conflict between insiders and outsiders, to matters of national emergency (Revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir on the context of national destabilisation threat from separatist or the instance of demonetisation as a war on the corrupt elite).
The second strategy popularises that “Nothing should constrain the will of the people“, this requires strong leadership, the actual policies that populists make or present to address a crisis are typically simplistic and gloss over the many complexities of policymaking. The real challenge rests in convincing the supporters and is less about answering the problem, which can be only solved by their supreme leaders.
In many countries, there is also a tendency of the populist leaders to project themselves as heroic embodiments of historical importance. The concepts popularised by these leaders, like the concept of the heartland helps the people in the populist propaganda; but they are neither real nor all-inclusive. They are, in fact, mythical and a constructed sub-set of the whole population, and “Imagined Community”. (Anderson, n.d.).