Is Indian politics populist?

Not really. The charge of populism only enables obfuscation.

Written by Tariq Thachil | Published: September 4, 2013 12:07 am

Not really. The charge of populism only enables obfuscation.

Populism” has increasingly become a staple of the Indian news media’s diet. Most recently,the term has become a firm favourite within the commentary on the food security bill. The “populist” label is particularly favoured by critics of both the bill and the UPA government that promulgated it. But what exactly these observers mean when they call the policy populist is either unclear or widely varying,and at odds with how the term has been historically conceptualised.

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.

Yet,within the study of global politics,populism has meant something entirely different,and far more conceptually specific. First,it refers to mobilisations led by a political outsider,someone who was not previously a major player within the existing party system. Second,populist leaders would use their outsider status to craft appeals that attacked the existing political establishment for being self-serving and deaf to the needs of the ordinary citizen. Finally,populist figures would deploy these anti-elite appeals in the service of establishing direct links with voters,favouring the development of a personalistic cult over a party brand. This conceptualisation was developed most thoroughly within the context of Latin America,which produced iconic examples such as Chavez in Venezuela,Alberto Fujimori in Peru and,more recently,Evo Morales in Bolivia.

This threefold criteria suggests there are far fewer true populists in Indian politics than our media suggests. It is certainly difficult to portray the current Congress as populist,given that it is a party led by the ultimate insiders of Indian politics. The CPM’s opposition to economic liberalisation,or support for redistributive policies,has often earned it the populist label,but this is also misplaced. While the CPM certainly promotes an anti-elite platform,it prioritises a strong party apparatus over a single charismatic individual — even Jyoti Basu never had the monopoly on power that Chavez had. Narendra Modi fits the bill to the extent that he has controversially sought to create a personal cult independent of the BJP and its Sangh affiliates. Yet even his most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to call his platform anti-elite,and survey evidence continues to confirm support for him remains highest among urban upper castes. Of the major players in Indian politics,Mayawati probably comes closest to earning the populist label,as a relative outsider who used vociferous anti-elite appeals to craft a significant (and jealously guarded) cult of personality.

How does any of this matter for everyday political discussion? Isn’t this just a semantic discussion for stuffy academics? I do not think so. Using terms whose meanings are neither well understood nor consistent leads us to talk past each other,or worse. By constantly invoking “populism” for a disparate set of polices disliked for different reasons (we very rarely hear something praised for being populist),we have emptied the term of any specific analytic value,and replaced it with a vague negative connotation that enables obfuscation and slippery argumentation. Analysts can disparage policies for being populist,without having to clarify the stakes of their position.

Instead,the use of specific,appropriate and clearly understood terms is essential for transparent and responsible policy debates,which surely we all agree are needed. Thus,if we mean to say a policy is redistributive,we should simply say so. Doing so will force analysts to explain why they oppose redistribution specifically. It will also force them to clarify and defend the broader implication of this position,which is often that there is an inevitable trade-off between democratic politics (which they see as creating incentives for privileging redistribution) and a robust economy (which they see as needing to be freed from such electoral shackles): the so-called “democracy penalty” for growth. For the record,the numerous global studies on this subject continue to disagree on whether such a penalty exists.

Similarly,if we mean to say a policy is electorally driven,we should state this explicitly. Doing so would force us to explain why that is an undesirable quality for a policy to have. After all,the idea of a ruling party crafting policies that voters will reward it for is a sign of democracy working exactly as intended. We might further have to specify whether this critique is intended to imply the need for less democracy — should we leave policymaking to technocratic experts insulated from the voting public? Or does it conversely mean the problem is that such policy responsiveness only happens every five years,and that we need more democratic channels for public pressure to flow up to elected officials in non-election years?

This discussion brings us back full circle to the food security bill. The policy is certainly redistributive,and also clearly driven by electoral interests. To my mind,neither trait is a signal of a deep dysfunction in Indian politics (of which there are plenty). If politicians believe that the key to their electoral appeal lies in proposing policies that are popular among India’s poor majority,that is a heartening development,even if far from sufficient for ensuring the policy will be effectively implemented. Indeed,for most of its history,India has been viewed by outside observers as puzzling because it has enacted far fewer of these policies than one would expect from such a poor democracy. Why is this the case? That is a question for another column.

The writer is assistant professor of political science and South Asian studies at Yale University

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  1. Y
    Young Political
    Sep 5, 2014 at 11:02 am
    Very nice post thanks for sharing