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How to identify a populist

Image Credit: CC by Modi/ Wikimedia Commons

From parts of Europe to Argentina. From India to the US. From developing countries to established democracies, populism has become popular. What is populism and how do we identify a populist. Furthermore, are there any risks or dangers associated with populism?

Much like violence, democracy, and secularism, populism remains an essentially-contested term. There is no pure meaning of the term, no original sourcebook by which populists model their movements, and no shared structure between populist movements around the world.

A  Roundtable on Global Populisms at King’s College London some progress was made in creating an academic consensus around the term. Among the speakers was French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot who provided a framework on how to identify a populist in India. He said that this framework was equally applicable to current Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and former Prime Minister India Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC). Jaffrelot provided five characteristics of Modi and Gandhi’s brand of populism.

  1. They produce a personalized concentration of power which means that the emphasis of their messaging is more on the leader’s personality and abilities, and less on the party. This was exemplified best by Mrs Gandhi, who would famously say that “Indira is India and India is Indira”.
  2. Populists short-circuit institutions. Mrs. Gandhi declared an emergency between 1975-77, circumventing numerous democratic institutions “for reasons of state”. In recent years, Prime Minister Modi and his party have made genuine efforts to challenge the independence of numerous respected institutions in the country such as the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Supreme Court both of which could have significant repercussions for democracy, as did the actions that Mrs Gandhi took during Emergency.
  3. Populists occupy an isolated public space which is characterized by one-way communication between them and their “people”. For example, Prime Minister Modi rarely participates in press conferences which allow journalists to pose questions to him. Instead, he chooses to spread his message through an online address called Maan Ki Baat where he speaks about his policies and views. This enables him to control both the content and tone of his messaging.
  4. Populists speak on behalf of the people and not on behalf of the elite. In doing so they try to build appeal with the masses to ensure continued political support. For example, Modi frequently conjures up his humble roots as “chai-Wallah” (tea seller).
  5. Populists do not tolerate pluralism of ideas represented by other parties. They view and portray their political opponents as enemies rather than adversaries. During Emergency, Indira Gandhi famously jailed journalists and political opponents. Prime Minister Modi, he has frequently called for a “Congress-Mukt India” (Congress-Free India).

While it is clear that both Gandhi and Modi are/were populists. We cannot know until 2019 whether they will share the same political fate in elections. In the first elections after the end of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi campaigned and lost (the first time the Indian National Congress had lost an election in the country).

However, defying logic, she returned triumphantly in 1980 to become Prime Minister, again. Fast forward to today. By all estimates, Modi should return to office in 2019, however, recent events suggest that this victory come with a dwindled majority and not as strong as the previous election in 2014.

Paul Taggart, one of the editors of the Oxford Handbook of Populism and a speaker at the event rightly pointed out that populist movements are never isolated. They are inevitably accompanied by another ideology. In Modi’s case, his populism is accompanied with Hindu Nationalism which does not provide a space for religious minorities. Following the analysis of Modi’s populism with the large popularity of his cult personality, limited opposition and weakened institutions, religious minorities continue to face a sense of insecurity.  After all, Modi himself, and his party have been alleged to stoke communal tensions for their political gain; especially around election time.