Ascendant demagogues

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Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published 23 March, 2017)

It is a measure of both India’s growing international stature and the unconventional character of Yogi Adityanath that the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh made headlines here in the United States. The American press took a similar interest in recent Dutch elections because of the prospect of the rise of the firebrand Right-wing politician Geert Wilders (unlike the BJP in UP, Wilders failed). In both cases, these faraway exercises of democracy appeared “relevant” to American readers because of the fevered, populist politics involved. They offered echoes of the victory of Donald Trump.

Many of the responses to Adityanath’s selection reminded me immediately of the language used after Trump’s election. Amid widespread shock, some observers suggested that we must “give him a chance”, “let’s wait and see”, and “power will temper him”.” It’s still the early days of his presidency, but Americans have no indication that winning the White House has in any way restrained Trump. Though his moderate apologists insisted that he doesn’t mean what he says, Trump has stayed true to much of the bluster and fear-mongering rhetoric of his campaign, including planning the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, banning refugees and visitors from certain Muslim countries, whittling away methodically at the H1-B visa, and gutting governmental attempts to study and combat climate change. Similarly, it’s telling that one of Adityanath’s first moves as chief minister – the approval of a government-funded museum of the Ramayana – was geared towards his “base”.

I don’t want to belabour a comparison between Trump and Adityanath (the frequent comparison of Trump and Modi is often stretched beyond credibility). They are both obviously very different leaders, operating in very different political spaces. These comparisons are useful less in terms of understanding individual politicians and more in how they illuminate a wider context, a politics of the moment.

The security establishment in the US warned against Trump’s executive orders on immigration, arguing that they would do little to make Americans safer and that they actually might hamper US efforts in West Asia. But these orders weren’t devised for what they would achieve at the level of policy; they were meant to convey a message, project the image of a leader who would be true to his word and be “tough on Muslims”.

The truth is that matters of economic policy are often too granular to capture the public’s imagination and too complex to make sweeping changes. “Make in India” has been slow to have any real effect, while Trump’s desire to retrieve jobs that, in a 21st century of increasing automation, cannot return to the American heartland will likely be frustrated.

In the last century, demagogues have always professed to be technocrats ruling for the good of all, but instead have marshalled a divisive politics, corralling the majority against the minority. Early into his administration, Trump already has the lowest job approval ratings of recent presidential history. Yet without a shred of contrition, he maintains the approach of his campaign, demonising the media, dividing the public between supposedly un-American cosmopolitan elites and minorities, on the one hand, and the American heartland, on the other. Demagogues have long portrayed themselves as authentic representatives of the nation, while their opponents and critics are inauthentic and, worse, anti-national.

It is undeniable that this kind of politics has found a degree of success in the US. At a tactical level, liberals and pluralists must shoulder some of the blame. After Adityanath became chief minister, many political pundits persuasively blamed the secular strategy of pandering to the clergy and other conservative representatives of the Muslim community in places like UP. For decades, the Democrats in the US have not been nearly as organised as the Republicans at the local level; they also criminally underestimated the fatigue with the liberal economic order in post-industrial states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

But there is a darker, more pervasive malaise here that allows huge populations to countenance the rise of deeply flawed leaders. We should worry that the traditional guardians of democratic virtue – the media, civil society, and educated elites – are beleaguered and unable to keep this trend at bay.

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