Populism is one of the few words that is being used in a general and widespread form in contemporary times, yet nobody has a complete understanding of it. Populism is also one of the few social science ideas that have been declared essentially controversial. The main reason for the controversy is the absence of a general opinion about populism.
Some people consider populism as a movement, some consider it as an ideology, some consider it as a political strategy, others see it as a special type of political discourse. The general understanding of populism is that of political space which is divided into two parts where there are common people on one side and the elite on the other. The theoretical basis of populism is linked to the idea of popular sovereignty.
Populism was first used in North America regarding the labour and peasant movement (the 1890s). Today populism is being used for certain governments, leaders, and strategies. Populism is also divided into two forms, one side is leftist and the other side is right-wing. Many people are studying populism, some of whom can get an accurate understanding of populism, including Jan-Werner Muller, Cas Mudde, and Ernesto Laclau. These three thinkers see populism in different ways:
For Muller, it is politics, for Mudde it is an ideology, for Laclau, populism is a discourse.
According to Jan-Werner Muller, populism is a moralistic imagination of politics where populists are not only anti-elites but also anti-pluralists. Populist people and populist governments have three characteristics, colonization of the state system, corruption, and mass clientelism, and the suppression of civil society.
Muller believes that populists, on the one hand, bring a silent majority to the centre of political strategy, while taking steps against constitutional values (control of the will of the majority, protection of minorities, fundamental rights) that exist in a democracy.
At the same time, Cas Mudde offers a different opinion about populism. According to him, populism is a thin centred ideology that believes that societies are divided into two homogenous and antagonistic groups where on the one hand there is a pure general public and on the other, there is a corrupt elite. The ideology of populism is made up of three central ideas: People, Elite and Common Desire.
People are imagined as pure and authentic and reflect an ideal self-perception, Indian as Hindu. The elite is registered as the corrupt and evil remainder, which frustrates the people because of favouring special interests or foreign/immoral ideals. Populist ideology has two enemies—the elite and pluralism.
According to Ernesto Laclau, populism is a discourse by which political boundaries are created within a society where marginalized people mobilize against those in power. Laclau views populism as a desire to achieve radical democracy.
The type of populism that is dominating today is right-wing populism. The rise of right-wing populism in the whole world is the result of economic insecurity and cultural nervousness spread by the policies of neo-liberalism which the leftist populists did not understand, which was directly availed by the right-wing populists.
The rise of right-wing populism in India was also due to the inability to establish political integration in the context of neoliberal policies and new problems such as corruption. Duncan MacDonell and Luis Cabrera believe that the contemporary populism in India can be understood by the populism of the case Mudde.
The Bharatiya Janata Party which is introducing right-wing populism in India is doing three things—
The Bharatiya Janata Party is using this populist technique to establish the idea of Hindu Rashtra. Ashutosh Varshney believes that they can do all these three things because they have fully understood communication politics and is using it for political goals. Along with the right-wing populism in India, we are also seeing the form of leftist populism Left-wing populism is largely associated with the idea of Laclau.
The leftist populism recognizes radical equality and the common people’s sovereignty-based democratic system, which is seen in the contemporary Dalit movement led by Chandrashekhar Azad Ravana. It has not only been able to connect the Dalits, but it is challenging the upper-class Hindu system by bringing together as many backward classes. Both types of populism can be seen at the same time in India.