Populism Threatens Democracy, but Is It Also Essential to It?

A preview panel for the upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival discussed the future of politics and democracy in India.

From left: Pragya Tiwari, Shashi Tharoor, Pawan Verma, Akhil Sibal and Rakshanda Jalil. Credit: Twitter/@ZEEJLF

From left: Pragya Tiwari, Shashi Tharoor, Pawan Verma, Akhil Sibal and Rakshanda Jalil. Credit: Twitter/@ZEEJLF

For the past week, the nation has had only two questions on its mind, ‘Who attended?’ and ‘What did they talk about?’ Every political commentator worth their salt is currently engaged in breaking down the significance of a dinner party – if not what transpired at the event, then whether we should even be discussing the dinner in the first place. Our current prime minister and his predecessor are engaged in a game of ‘he said, she said’ and the air is thick with outrage.

On one hand, a Muslim man was killed in broad daylight and his Hindu murderer had it filmed as an act of triumph, on the other, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has all but accused former PM Manmohan Singh, a former chief justice and the now-suspended Congress member Mani Shankar Aiyar of conspiring with Pakistan.  

When we started 2017, we were all reeling from Donald Trump’s ascent to power in the US and overusing the terms ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news.’ Everything felt slippery in those early months – the truth was negotiable, liberal beliefs contestable, democracy unstable. Then, of course, the BJP secured a landline victory in UP; Trump’s disasters and aggressions became routine and post-truth faded from our vocabulary. But clearly, we’re no closer to establishing a singular truth than we were at the start of the year. Instead, we’ve progressed from the post-truth moment to the populist one.

In January, the Jaipur Literature Fest (JLF) concluded for the year with a session on the dangers of fake news and on Tuesday night, JLF picked up right where it had left off with a panel on populism and its threat to democracy.

While moderator Pragya Tiwari, writer Rakshanda Jalil, lawyer Akhil Sibal and Congress member Shashi Tharoor all offered insights into the the nature of populism and how it corrodes democratic institutions and ideals, the show really belonged to the Janata Dal (United)’s Pavan Verma.

Unlike the others, Verma made it a point to acknowledge that populism isn’t just a threat to but also an essential part of democracy. In his words: “Ultimately the route to power is through winning elections, which is about swaying people’s emotions in your favour.” Politicians can’t act on their promises if they don’t win elections – and winning votes requires people’s support. According to Verma, the trouble starts when politicians promise things they can’t possibly deliver.

Although he walked a fine line between abstract diagnosis and particular critique, it was easy for the imaginative audience to plug previously cited examples into Verma’s thesis. Demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax stand out as two attempts to overhaul existing systems in the name of ‘vikas’ but failing to deliver tangible results.

A populist organisation ascends to power by deriding the elite incumbent and declaring itself the only legitimate representative of the people – but what happens when the dispossessed find themselves on top of the ladder?

Political parties are incentivised to chase short-term goals in order to keep winning elections and to deflect from their unfulfilled long-term promises. This, in turn, leads to a “devaluing of democracy,” said Verma. “It reduces democracy to the lowest common denominator – who can tell the biggest lie.” 

Also read: The Future of Populism Looks Very Different From Its Past

Parties then are forced to continually deflect attention from their old promises and they do this by appealing to people’s emotionality over their socio-economic concerns. And though Verma continued to refrain from examples, the furore over Padmavati and comments about Mughal rule came to mind. This “competitive emotionalism” is corrosive to democracy and has us “running from the pillars of governance to the manipulation of the masses,” said Verma.

 As Tharoor – the last to speak – pointed out, all the panelists seemed to be in full agreement with each other. Sibal said that populism is bound to emerge where there is social and economic inequality – dealing in symbols of progress and empowerment is much easier than enacting actual change. And after noting that populism delegitimises the rule of law, Tharoor went on to take a dig at Modi, his own party and our current political scenario. Talking about the irresponsibility of populist politics, Tharoor referred to manufactured distractions like the controversy generated around “somebody who never mentioned caste in his comment” or the recent claims of “Pakistan stealing elections.” A clear nod to Verma’s point about the need to “conjure up new problems.” 

Democracy is not majoritarianism but you do need a majority to rule – does this mean the entire system is tainted or prone to breaking or that populism is a manageable side effect of democratic rule?

For Sibal, populism is just one of the means to attain power in the democratic system – but one that can corrode even the purportedly neutral courts. For Jalil, populism can force even charismatic figures like Havel to bend away from democratic ideals and towards majoritarian demands.

None of the panelists questioned Indian democracy’s ability to survive and all of them professed faith in the Indian public. Verma confidently said, “The people of India know when they’ve been taken for a ride.” Tharoor cited a packed Congress rally in Gujarat as a heartening sign of democratic vigour.

Perhaps because there was no time, the panel didn’t discuss how to rebut the rise of populism, but everyone seemed to agree that things can’t go on the way they are. The populist moment is not a permanent state, it will either tip backwards into democracy or tip forward into autocracy.

What happens if people no longer want a democratic system?

In October, Quartz published an article detailing the results of a Pew Research report on global attitudes towards governance. It revealed something interesting about the world’s largest democracy, “While 79% of the Indian respondents were happy with the country’s democracy, 55% also believe autocracy is very good for governance.” Verma warned that populism can lead us to devalue the functioning of democracy. It seems we already are.

Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Did anyone from among the panelists ask Pavan Verma – why does he continue to be a member of Janata Dal (United) headed by a populist leader like Nitish Kumar, who is an opportunist politician to boot ? Isn’t he ashamed of being a part of the present ruling NDA (of which alliance his party is a member) – an alliance which for all practical purposes is controlled by the BJP prime minister Narendra Modi, who earlier earned notoriety for his populist policies and slogans as a chief minister of Gujarat that led to the 2002 communal holocaust there, and continues to follow the same populist strategy as a prime minister that allows his party’s foot soldiers to lynch Muslims and Dalits, suppress voices of rationalists, writers and artists (the intellectual community, of which Pavan Verma claims to be a member – if I’m not wrong ?) I’m expecting a response from Pavan Verma.