The many faces of populism

Book cover of I Am the People
No conversation on contemporary world affairs is complete without a round or two of exchanges regarding the emergence of and continuing admiration for populist and authoritarian leaders across continents, especially in robust democracies. Most dialogues conclude on a note of depressing unanimity; the rise of this tribe of leaders is accompanied by, also partly due to, the failure of traditional adversaries to rise to the occasion and present a counter-narrative.

Partha Chatterjee's book, is based on three talks he delivered in Columbia University in April 2018 as part of a lecture series named after American anthropologist, Ruth Benedict. Although directed at academia and in great parts densely theoretical, the slim volume holds several keys to comprehending the paradox of populist authoritarianism securing political power and retaining their sway not by subverting democratic institutions and processes, but by using those. Barring countries where democracy is either feeble or exists in name, these populist leaders have renewed power by repeatedly winning elections. 

The book’s title stands in sharp contrast to the three most significant words in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. It is not to be confused with the Pulitzer-winning American poet, Carl Sandburg's poem —  The Mob , where the “people” are the working class. In the Indian context, which we cannot escape in any discussion on populism, both Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi have claimed at different points in history, explicitly or otherwise, that they effectively are the people. Unsurprisingly, Dr Chatterjee addresses Indian populism at length and analyses various variants in the country and its history from Gandhi's version to regional populism and in post-2014 India. More on that later.

Dr Chatterjee draws on several thinkers ranging from the 18th century German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte to Antonio Gramsci and the Argentinian political theorist, Ernesto Laclau. It is  from the last that he draws his argument that populism is not a pathological manifestation with the objective to destroy democracy, but is instead a rational approach to securing political power from within the democratic system and belief in it.

The process of the shift from classic liberal constitutionalist structures or systems is thereafter argued using the Gramscian theory of passive revolution. The author depicts the notion of an Ethical State where the State and Civil Society are perfectly balanced and a further swing to the Integral State where the ruling group exercises hegemony over the State as well as Civil Society. After laying this framework, Dr Chatterjee contends that the ideal Ethical State has never been a reality although the reviewer would like to contend that the Nehruvian system made attempts to be one. Likewise, at least the civil society component of the United Progressive Alliance’s regime, which influenced significant decisions on transparency, right to work (in rural India at least) and education by leveraging its presence, albeit in minor roles in the ruling edifice, aspired for this ideal.

I Am the People
Partha Chatterjee
Publisher: Permanent Black
Pages: 185
Price: Rs 595

But it is the Integral State that is the distinct characteristic of a populist and authoritarian regime. Dr Chatterjee contends there are two sub-types of such a state — first, where welfarism is both commitment and ploy although such a regime recognises universal social (and political) rights of people and considers political parties and political activity as legitimate. But it is the second type of the Integral State that is more worrisome and which has unambiguously reared its head. In this, there are no social (and political) guarantees for people and the state's safety net is earmarked only for those who are deemed to “genuinely” need its support.

Many readers may want to mark for further reading, the arguments of Fichte who while establishing the morality of nationalism contended, as Dr Chatterjee writes that a “true” nation had spiritual existence that required cultivation through (re) education based on “national” culture in its “own” language. Given the influences of 20th century European nationalists thought in Italy and Germany on the codifier of Hindutva, V D Savarkar, this reference requires further examination as culture and language are two important tools of the Sangh Parivar.

As a political phenomenon, populism in India has not been restricted to a particular ideology. Dr Chatterjee focuses on three distinct varieties of populism and authoritarianism in India with one sub-variety. Of these, while Indira Gandhi laid the first cobblestones on her path to authoritarian populism by the economic promise of “Dharma ) are the nation and anyone willing to remain a legal resident must embrace this.

India has also seen another form of populism that has been regional and on several occasions emerged on the shoulders of actors who had extraordinary capacity to sway masses. Significantly all three variants of Indian authoritarian populism secures acceptability of a highly centralised power structure that is committed to projecting the pivot as the “supreme” leader. Dr Chatterjee also argued that  India provides space and opportunity for the emergence of a “sovereign” leader. History shows Indira Gandhi being cast in the Durga mould while regional leaders were often seen as super-humans. Mr Modi is already seen with great reverence and with no significant counter-narrative, and he has time on his side to secure a divine halo around him.

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