Populism in the Indian context

Writing in the Indian Express, Tariq Thachil argues,

In the writings of corporate analysts, populism is most often defined in terms of a preference for redistribution over growth (setting aside the contentious claim that there is a necessary trade-off between these objectives). It is in this spirit that the UPA has been accused of being “more populist than [the late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez”. For other observers, populism is used to indicate any policy driven by narrow political calculations rather than the broader wellbeing of the nation. Here it is the timing of the food security bill, during an election year, that makes it a “populist” move by the UPA government. For some analyses written from this perspective, even non-economic election-year agendas, such as the BJP’s revival of Ayodhya, qualify as populist.

Professor Thachil further points out that properly understood, populism is marked by three characteristics: mobilization by a political outsider, attacking the existing establishment for ignoring the ordinary citizens, and development of a personality cult privileging a direct connection to voters. By these standards, Indian politics is hardly populist. In fact it is highly elitist in nature where family connections are the predominant currency of political advancement and where few leaders have managed to independently craft a strong political appeal. Indeed, besides Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal is perhaps the only significant populist leader. However, their appeal remains limited to certain geographical areas and they are in no position yet to challenge the so-called national parties.

That leaves an interesting question: Why hasn’t Indian politics seen a Hugo Chavez? A genuinely populist bomb thrower who threatens to upend the political system and replace it with a personality-driven polity of the dispossessed?

There can be multiple reasons for it. India is a vast and a highly diverse country which is divided on multiple lines besides class. It is virtually impossible to craft a new political coalition which can bridge these multiple divides and appeal to the voter in both UP and Tamil Nadu. The failure of the Communist movement with its obsession with class divisions is perhaps reflective of the same. Or perhaps the Indian people are naturally suspicious of sudden change; the likes of Arvind Kejriwal may appeal to them momentarily but ultimately the natural equilibrium is restored. Or perhaps the advantages enjoyed by the traditional parties–particularly the Congress—are so vast that it is virtually impossible to supplant them. Or perhaps the majority of Indian voters are deeply feudal in nature and the privileges of dynastic connections which may offend citizens elsewhere have a high degree of acceptability in a still largely fatalistic society.

Or consider this: Despite all the charges leveled against the indian political system—cronyism, corruption, and utter dysfunction–it is remarkably adept at self-preservation. Unlike the plutocratic regimes in Latin America,  at some level it is responsive to the larger demands of the Indian people. Take the fight over land acquisition for instance. Sparked off by the battle in Singur, it had become a highly contested and charged argument with genuine fears among the poor that the government was usurping their land for the privileged corporates. The Land Acquisition Bill is certainly a deeply flawed response to that popular sentiment–but it is a response nevertheless. By assuring the poor they the political system had heard their voice, it may help assuage popular sentiments though its effect on India’s growth is likely to be highly negative.

In that sense, the Indian version of populism is a cushion to protect the entrenched political power. It functions like a safety valve allowing some anger to dissipate while cleverly preserving the larger political system and the interests it protects. Obviously, it is disappointing to those who argue in favor of a more open and competitive Indian polity and not the same endless churning of Gandhis, Badals, and Karunanidhis. (Is it why political dynasties are so successful in India?) Nevertheless, its utility in ensuring the continued salience of Indian democracy should not be underestimated. 

And if it prevents the rise of a rabble-rouser like Hugo Chavez–always a possibility in a country as poor as India–’populism’ is perhaps a necessary trade-off.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.