As the world completes five months since the first coronavirus death became public, more than 10 million people across the world have been infected and over 500,000 have died. The dramatic spread of the disease, the high casualty rates in so short a period, the economic havoc that this pandemic has caused and the apparent inability of global science to bring it under control so far, all these have raised questions about how different governments and their leaders have coped with the challenges – medical, administrative, economic and political – thrown up by this catastrophe.
Four democratic countries – the United States, Brazil, the UK and India – are among the top five in the world in the infections league table (Russia being the fifth). The US leads the group by a wide margin: currently, it had over 2.6 million infected patients and nearly 120,000 dead. Brazil follows with 1.3 million infected persons and 57,000 dead; India with nearly 550,000 infected and over 16,000 reported dead, and finally the UK with 311,000 infected and 43,000 dead. These four countries taken together account for 46% of those infected globally and 48.5% global deaths.
The leaders of these countries – Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and Johnson – from different continents, heading very different countries, and with different political, economic and social backgrounds, share their identification as “populist leaders” of functioning democratic systems.
In 2017, Professor Pippa Norris of Harvard University, who was then researching populism, had noted that there had been “little comparative study of whether populists deliver better or worse results for their people than other types of politicians”. The pandemic clearly provides the first real test of these four high-profile populist leaders in handling a complex national crisis and offers a unique insight into their mode of functioning in the face of the challenges before them.
What is populism?
The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde in 2004 defined populism as a “thin ideology” in that, unlike developed ideologies like fascism or socialism, it refers to only “a very small part of a political agenda”. While the former takes a comprehensive view of politics, economics and culture in a state order, populism only refers to reordering the existing political establishment so that the leadership comes to reflect the “general will” of “ordinary people” in terms of their desires, needs and aspirations rather than those of the “elite” who are inherently corrupt and motivated only by self-interest.
In a more recent study, Jan-Werner Muller described populism as “a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world which opposes a morally pure and fully unified – but ultimately fictional – people to small minorities who are put outside the authentic people”.
Populists thus distinguish between two separate sets of people in the political order – “the pure, innocent, always hardworking people”, the good people, who are positioned against a selfish, self-centred and “corrupt elite”, who are in an “unhealthy coalition” with other marginal groups, eg, racial minorities and illegal immigrants in the US and Europe and ethnic, religious or sectarian minorities in other countries.
The moral distinction that defines the populist brand of politics is affirmed by periodic elections which provide representation to “the right people who are making the right judgement”. Once the popular will has been expressed, the people are expected to leave governance to the leader who has been elected due to his “superior capacity to discern the common good”. He governs on the basis of his deep personal bond with the “people”, whose interests have so far been neglected in the normal political processes.
Since the leader knows what the “good” people want and where their interests lie, there is no need for accommodation of other groups or factions or engagement with them in the political order, nor is there need for prolonged discussions before decisions are made. In short, there is no need for pluralism in the national order.
Populists in power do not change in any important ways, Muller points out. They are aware that their core support base is inherently narrow, but this consists of “the real, authentic people” who deserve support and good government. And, even when there is vocal opposition from certain quarters, they insist they represent the entire nation; they can and do assume control of the entire state apparatus in the name of the people on the basis of appeals to ‘nationalism’. This provides no place for liberal dissent and opposition and no scope for checks and balances or procedures – legal or constitutional – that might constrain the leader.
Traits of populist leaders
Given the political culture within which populism flourishes, populist leaders invariably adopt a political style that distinguishes them from mainstream politicians in a democracy. Benjamin Moffit, an Australian academic and author of The Global Rise of Populism, says that populism is not so much a belief system as “a way of speaking, acting, and presenting oneself”.
Academics and analysts who have studied the phenomenon have identified a number of traits that most populist leaders share.
They are essentially divisive persons. Their key strategy, Jan-Werner Muller notes, is “dividing citizens against each other and blaming minorities for all sorts of problems”. Their core support base is founded on a narrow and specific communitarian basis that is then clothed in a unified, monolithic, undifferentiated “cultural” ethos. On the same lines, “the Other”, unified on race and/ or faith basis, is also shaped as monolithic and defined by essential negative traits – criminality, lack of patriotic ardour, gross misconduct, and even poor personal hygiene.
Muller points out that “culture war is not incidental, but an essential part of such populists’ strategy”, with all debate being finally reduced to who speaks for the people and who does not. The leader perpetuates a state of crisis and always positions himself on the offensive in defence of the nation and its people; most national crises are clothed in the garb of “war”, calling for national unity, total backing for the leadership, and immediate obedience.
Muller also notes that the populist leader could also generate a “pseudo-crisis” to encourage conflict, particularly in times of national emergency. Such a “crisis” will encourage internecine divides that will divert attention from the leader’s administrative shortcomings and also provide scapegoats to blame for the national emergency. These “conflicts” are further fomented through the use of incendiary language that strengthens the “othering” of the enemy, domestic or external.
The populist leader is paternalistic, the benign guardian of his flock; but, in reality, he has little interest in the genuine empowerment of the down-trodden and marginalised. While caring about those who back him, he projects himself as the tough and uncompromising guardian of the national interest – in diverse garbs as diplomat, statesman, the wise guru, and, when required, the unflinching military commander; at all times he is strong, courageous and decisive.
He is remarkably adaptable, even being able to project anti-people policies as beneficial to them. On economic policy he is “all over the place”, freely borrowing ideas and programmes from across the political spectrum, including from political opponents.
Most of his messages are made up of negatives: anti-intellectual, anti-elite, anti-politics. He focuses on dark conspiracies that are seeking to undermine his mission and him personally, often projecting himself as being victimised by these powerful elements in the political order. There is usually a strong element of sentiment and emotion in his claims of being victimised.
His public remarks often consist of false assertions, based on fake information, that frequently go unchallenged or need a tremendous effort at fact-checking whose results emerge too late to expose the falsehoods and undermine the leader’s credibility. With his control over media outlets, he exercises near-total control over the discourse relating to most contentious issues. The populist leader is backed at all times by a powerful “applause mechanism”, made up of mainstream and social media, robust spokespersons, and influential politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, academics and activists who intervene robustly on his behalf across public discourse.
He expresses dislike for and impatience with the constraints of modern democratic government – separation of powers, independent judiciary, mainstream media, which are described as elite and obstructing the realisation of the will of the people – and revels in asserting authoritarianism by cracking down on dissent. In power, he undermines countervailing ideas and institutions, such as courts, media, civil society, etc.
Opposition groups are delegitimised as enemies of the people; opposition politicians are either made ineffective through ridicule or intimidatory action or simply co-opted through promises of financial benefit or office. Florian Bieber has referred to this process as “exclusionary nationalism” that “denies the legitimacy of alternative political positions”. This sets the stage to demonise domestic communities that have been “othered”, but, when necessary, even foreign nations.
Above all, he exhibits his anti-establishment posture and contempt for mainstream politics through “bad manners” – which scholars refer to as “insult politics”. Pippa Norris has been quoted by Uri Friedman as pointing out that populist leaders “often use short, simple slogans and direct language”; some of them also often engage in “boorish behaviour” so as to appear “like real people”.
What Trump and Bolsonaro, Modi and Johnson share
The four leaders whose record in handling the pandemic is being examined here have different personalities and backgrounds but they share certain traits.
One, all four project themselves as outsiders who have forced themselves into national politics to rid the system of pre-existing corrupt “elite” who pandered to self-interest and pampered minority groups at the expense of the truly marginalised and downtrodden in the nation.
Two, at least three of them shape their support base by “othering” minority groups – immigrants in the US; Muslims in India, and indigenous communities in Brazil. (Boris Johnson is generally regarded as a self-centred opportunist and is not known to dislike any particular community or group, except possibly the European Union).
Three, all four are egotistical, self-absorbed and confident in their own knowledge, understanding and wisdom, having little need for consultation, deliberation or expert advice.
Four, they have very adaptable belief-systems, with little genuine empathy for the deprived. To retain their image as caring and to maintain their support base, they do proffer schemes for the poor that are generally very popular. Arjun Appadurai refers to such welfare initiatives as “populism from above” – motivated almost entirely by electoral considerations and, hence, being strong on rhetoric and weak in implementation. At the end of the day, all of them are wedded to the promotion of the interests of big corporates and the initiatives pursued most vigorously are those in this direction.
Five, all four dislike criticisms of their performance: they intimidate media critics or, as in the US and India, co-opt sections of mainstream media as the mouthpiece for their achievements.
Six, both Trump and Bolsonaro frequently indulge in boorish behaviour, usually to wild cheers from their supporters; Modi and Johnson are restrained in public, but this is made up, at least in Modi’s case, by several of his supporters who excel in uncouth speech and conduct.
Donald Trump’s abysmal record on COVID-19
During his presidential campaign in July 2016, Trump described an America confronted by terrorism, violence and chaos, with 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records terrorising and murdering innocent Americans. He spoke of falling household incomes, the all-time high trade deficit in manufacture, and infrastructure falling apart – because, as Adam Tooze summarises, “’big business, elite media and major donors’ had all conspired for decades to rig the system”.
Trump said he would stand against this conspiracy and fight for the “neglected, ignored and abandoned … the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice”. At his inauguration, his rhetoric was clearly populist: “January 20th 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Trump’s role during the pandemic, the greatest domestic challenge of his presidency, has met with near-universal scorn. Richard Haass, writing in Foreign Affairs, has said:
The American response to the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced doubts about American competence. That the novel coronavirus would reach American shores was inevitable … What was not inevitable was that the disease would take the toll it did. The lack of protective equipment for first responders and hospital staff; the inability to produce at scale accurate, quick tests for either the virus or the antibodies; the delayed and then inconsistent messaging about wearing masks and social distancing—these failures are the country’s own. The result is more than 100,000 fatalities, millions of infections, and a deadly American course no one wishes to follow.
Francis Fukuyama has added his voice to this criticism:
The United States … has bungled its response badly and seen its prestige slip enormously. … its current highly polarized society and incompetent leader blocked the state from functioning effectively. The president stoked division rather than promoting unity…
Watching from London, Robert Reich wrote in the Guardian:
In reality, Donald Trump doesn’t run the government of the United States. He doesn’t manage anything. He doesn’t organise anyone. He doesn’t administer or oversee or supervise. … His White House is in perpetual chaos. His advisers aren’t truth-tellers. They’re toadies, lackeys, sycophants and relatives.
Many explanations have been offered for this sorry situation, all of them centred on the president. First, there are the structural infirmities in the handling of the pandemic at apex level. Observers have pointed out that Trump had inherited a good pandemic infrastructure when he entered the White House. This was systematically dismantled by his administration, Jason Karlawish argues, due to its “anti-science” policy, so that the US was left “without a plan”, its responses were “ineffectual and inconsistent”, with the country divided by “misinformation and invidious messaging”. Thus, when at the end of December 2019, when the first indications of the viral infections emerged from China, the Trump administration was without any scientific inputs to prepare its response.
On March 10, Trump told the media that the US was prepared and doing a great job; he then added: “And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Later, from the White House podium, Trump told his people that this was a bacterium, that it would not cause a pandemic, that it would be killed with warm weather and sunlight. He also repeated promoted untested drugs as effective, adding that he personally used them. His low point was reached when he recommended the ingestion of cleaning detergents to kill the virus.
Oliver Milman has noted that not only is Trump averse to consultation with experts and giving them the lead in handling the emergency, he also backs “fringe beliefs and extreme and unsupported theories [supported by] quacks, cranks and conspiracy theorists”.
US commentators have carefully analysed Trump’s “lies about the Coronavirus”. Writing in The Atlantic, Christian Paz noted several specific occasions when Trump made false statements about the pandemic.
- He said several times that continued lockdown would finally lead to more suicides that pandemic deaths. (Fact: while suicides per year are about 50,000, pandemic deaths in the US are already well over 100,000)
- He claimed he had inherited no useful system to tackle the pandemic when the opposite was true.
- He said that the US had “developed testing capacity unmatched and unrivalled anywhere in the world”. Health specialists have declared that the US is lagging far behind other countries in testing and tracing capacity.
- He declared the FDA had approved an anti-malarial drug for treatment of the viral infection, though this was not the case. He similarly recommended use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), saying it “does not hurt people”. His health advisers have warned against its use. Later, on the basis of no evidence, he saw a “Trump-enemy” conspiracy in a report against the use of HCQ.
- He has repeatedly said that the pandemic will go away without a vaccine; this has been contradicted by his health advisers.
The New York Times has reported that till the end of May, Trump had made nearly 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency. The writer then noted that Trump made no attempt to cover his lies:
“His only real purposes are holding on to power by any means necessary and relentlessly reinventing himself to keep his reality show on the air for as long as possible. … he is perfectly happy to destroy those institutions that might expose him (the press, Congress, the courts, the inspectors general). He has nothing but contempt for the institutions that check him, so he has no urge to hide anything.”
As the US became the global hotspot for the pandemic, Trump, in good populist style, found two scapegoats – China and the WHO. He began to highlight Chinese culpability for the spread of the virus and the WHO’s role in backing China in the “coverup” in the early stages. But these accusations have not protected the president from sharp indictment from diverse quarters.
China’s Global Times provided its response thus: “Only by making Americans hate China can they make sure that the public might overlook the fact that Trump’s team is stained with the blood of Americans.” Its editor tweeted: “US system used to be appealing to many Chinese people. But through the pandemic, Chinese saw US government’s incompetence in outbreak control, disregard for life and its overt lies. Washington’s political halo has little left.”
The New York Times assessed this blame-game clearly by noting that by indicting China and the WHO, Trump was absolving himself of all responsibility for the deaths of 100,000 Americans, and that the president was only seeking to deflect the administrations “own bungled attempts” to handle the pandemic.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic has revealed several of his personal shortcomings as a leader. He failed to set up a well-organised administrative structure to provide guidance to the national effort and the equipment for protection and testing that the health workers across the country desperately needed. More seriously, he failed to seek the advice of medical and health specialists and to defer to their judgement.
In fact, he frequently undermined his technically qualified officials, insisting on travelling without a mask, questioning the efficacy of lockdown and social distancing, and often touting treatment that had no medical justification. And yet, given his ego and self-absorption, he would not yield the rostrum to others who were better qualified to dispense advice.
As a critic has noted, from the beginning of the crisis, “it was unclear who was supposed to be in charge”.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro has made a mess of things
Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil on January 1, 2019 having won 55% of the vote. He had earlier been a military officer and then a deputy in the lower house between 1991-2018. During his political life he was associated with racist, sexist, homophobic and generally illiberal positions. He has been particularly articulate in expressing misogynist beliefs, expressing abuse and contempt for women and insulting many of them in public.
He has been described as a far-right populist leader whose accession to high office reflects his people’s fatigue with traditional politics. He is said to have benefitted from the economic crisis of 2014-16 and the attendant corruption scandals that created political and economic uncertainty: there was a steep increase in unemployment, going from 6.8% in late 2014 to 11.9% in late 2018. Unemployment meant loss of familial and social status for men, who were attracted by Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric with its strong racist, fascist, misogynist overtones and appeared to back an authoritarian and violent government.
His handling of the pandemic has not promoted much confidence in his leadership. This is reflected in the fact that by the end of May, Brazil had emerged as the number two global hotspot for COVID-19, after the US.
Given that the first infection was confirmed in Brazil on February 26, two months after the first cases in Wuhan when the extent of the crisis was already apparent in South Korea and Italy, Brazil had sufficient lead-time to prepare for the epidemic. Hence, this massive increase in numbers and the rapid spread is being directly attributed to the country’s president. As Robert Muggah, head of the Instituto Igarapé think tank in Rio de Janeiro, put it:
“Crises such as this one demand focused, competent leadership. Bolsonaro is incapable of this, and the longer he remains in power, the more Brazilians will die.” Given the very limited testing in the country (total of 1.7 million, at 8000 per million), experts believe that infections could be 15 times higher than official figures and reach horrendous proportions fairly soon.”
Brazil is today coping with the twin challenges of the pandemic and political paralysis, with the president facing at least 35 petitions for his impeachment, most of them submitted in the past two months. As his approval ratings plummet, it appears that his political concerns are principally occupying his attention, while his country moves towards becoming the next epicentre of the pandemic.
Bolsonaro, often referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics”, has modelled himself and his presidency on his US counterpart. Like his mentor, he played down the seriousness of the pandemic from the outset, referring to it as a “small flu”. He has deliberately flouted social distancing rules, organising large political gatherings of his rightwing supporters and moving around freely among them. He has joked about the physical strength of the Brazilians, which would allow them to survive the pandemic. Like his American mentor, he has also blamed the media for spreading hysteria.
His conspiracy theory is that China is encouraging the hysteria to harm him and Trump. To demonstrate solidarity with the latter and show he was not afraid, he paid an official visit to the US in early March (though on return, 20 of his delegation members tested positive for the coronavirus).
Echoing Trump, he promoted HCQ as the panacea for the pandemic, leading to the dismissal of his health minister who favoured social distancing and rejected this drug. His successor resigned within a month as he would not also back the use of this untested drug. Brazil now has an acting health minister who is a serving military general.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly publicly criticised local governors and mayors who have enforced lockdowns and quarantine measures, and has led rallies against the national assembly and the Supreme Federal Court for criticising his government. One of the president’s influential rightwing associates described the pandemic as a “scare tactic to cow the people into slavery”. There are several reports of his indifference to the increasing death toll: when a journalist told him about the large number of dead, he answered, “Some people will die, they will die. That’s life.”
He is pushing to ease social-distancing rules to re-open the economy, though observers fear this will encourage the further spread of the virus. In early June, as a desperate measure, the government ended announcing cumulative figures of the infected and the dead, only giving daily figures. This was in response to a meagre 30% approval rating for the president at the end of May. But this measure has only encouraged public criticism and even the censure of the courts. A supreme court judge has said: “This trick will not remove responsibility for the eventual genocide”.
The country’s health system, already in poor shape due to under-funding over several years, is now under severe strain. In Rio, 90% of ICU beds are already occupied. About 13 million Brazilians live in extreme poverty, many in crowded dwellings; around 30% of the country’s households do not have access to sanitation or garbage disposal. They are most vulnerable to infection, while being hit hard by the lockdowns which deny them their daily wages.
At the end of May, the proceedings of a fiery two-hour cabinet meeting on April 22 were leaked to the media. Here the president is heard ranting against the political conspiracies against him and his family, but never once mentions the viral infection. Several ministers back him and lash out at the judiciary, feminists, communists, etc. The environment minister mentions the pandemic, but only as an opportunity “to change all the regulations and ease laws”. This has been seen as a reference to open the protected lands in the Amazon. Commentators have noted the “total disregard for the COVID-19 deaths and the agony of their respective families”.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s handling has been shambolic
The rise of Boris Johnson in the echelons of the Conservative Party, his entry into Downing Street in July last year after the ignominious departure of Theresa May, and then his historic victory in the December 2019 general elections – all these events are linked with one emotive issue in British politics, Brexit. This issue has brought down two Conservative prime ministers, fractured the Labour Party, and made Johnson the head of what many British commentators describe as a rightwing populist government.
Johnson’s earlier career does not suggest either his enduring commitment to any ideology or set of values or even his capacity to head a national populist government. He still carries the image and reputation of an opportunist who has few beliefs and convictions and is ready to swing in the direction where he can serve his interests best. Thus, it is recalled that he had no position on the contentious issue of Brexit that has roiled the country since 2016, and joined “Leave” only because he assessed that that position would best catapult him to high office.
Whatever the original impulse, Johnson and his advisers understood the popular mood well. In the UK, as in many parts of Europe, rural working and middle classes had been moving away from centre-left parties to the rightwing, even to rightwing populist parties; they were impelled by one overwhelming concern – mass immigration. This issue fractured Labour, with the defectors giving “Leave” a small majority in the June 2016 referendum. Johnson sensed a winning ticket here: he consolidated this support base by promising to restrict immigration.
He went to the polls with two simple but appealing slogans: “Get Brexit Done” and “Unleash Britain’s Potential”. The first gave him the backing of large numbers of voters who were fatigued by the endless Brexit debate and wanted closure. The second promise was attractive to the working class, which saw opportunities for employment. He placed himself on the side of the “people” and promised them a “new government”, though his party had been in power for nine years, skilfully pandering to popular concerns and grievances.
After the December election, a conservative commentator doubted there would be an “intellectual consistency” in the government, though he expected Johnson to seek to retain working class support through socially progressive policies. However, his most telling observation was: “He [Johnson] is an opportunist. He will go where he is most likely to win politically. Deep down, he is probably someone who is most bothered about winning power.”
This ability to win elections has not translated well into shaping a leader challenged by a national emergency – the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 14, the distinguished British political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, wrote in The Guardian:
“It was Britain’s misfortune for the [pandemic] emergency to occur under a prime minister notably ill-suited to handling a crisis of this nature and magnitude. Time and time again, I have heard accounts from inside government of warnings given and action exhorted only for the machinery never to properly click into gear for want of decisive leadership.”
The British government, like its counterparts in most other countries, is confronting the havoc wreaked by the pandemic on national health and the national economy. In both areas, it has been hit hard. Despite its relatively small population of 68 million, it has, at 310,000, the fifth-largest number of infections globally, and over 43,000 deaths, the third-largest. Rawnsley notes that the UK, with 955 “excess deaths” for every million of its population, has the highest record among all countries providing this data.
Similarly, among developed economies, it is expected to suffer the deepest downturn. Rawnsley believes this is the price the country is paying for “its sluggish imposition of the lockdown”, followed by its “chaotic mismanagement” of the easing of restrictions. Thus, with the high death rate and attendant economic uncertainties caused by Brexit and the pandemic, it is having the worst of both worlds.
Boris Johnson’s performance during this crisis has come in for very harsh scrutiny. Rachel Shabi, writing in The Independent, refers to Johnson as a “duplicitous clown” and speaks of “the devastating catalogue of government blunder, hubris and delay which left Britain shockingly ill-prepared” for the pandemic and led to needless deaths.
Journalists have by now pieced together the various errors and shortcomings in the government’s early response to the viral threat. From the time China confirmed the fact of human-to-human viral transmission to the first case of infection in the UK on February 29, the UK had a head start of nine weeks to prepare itself for the viral onslaught. Critics say the government was then entirely focused on the exit from the European Union and thus Johnson, according to Sonia Faleiro, “ignored every warning and squandered every opportunity to protect his country”. Large public events took place at home, and flights came in from China, Europe and the US.
The first error was the delay in effecting the lockdown, which, though approved on 14 March, was implemented only nine days later; this delay perhaps caused several avoidable deaths. This was followed by other mistakes, such as the failure to carry out widespread testing and non-availability of protective equipment (PPE) for health workers. Health workers were early victims of these two shortcomings, with 114 of them succumbing to COVID-19 by end-April.
Observers point out that Johnson was persuaded by some of hos scientific advisers about the efficacy of the “herd immunity” approach; this allows the virus to spread among vulnerable groups; younger people would get a mild form of the illness, would recover quickly, and over time become immune to the virus. This approach requires no action by government and was viewed as an effective panacea; this despite the fact that other European countries – Italy, Spain, France – were already reeling from the disease.
One serious outcome of this casual approach was the havoc wreaked by the pandemic in the nursing homes and care centres for the elderly. Thousands of older patients were moved to these homes, but they were not tested for the virus. Thus, these centres became hotbeds for the rapid spread of the disease, contributing to a third of British deaths.
There has been similar confusion relating to lifting the lockdown. Without sharing the related scientific studies with the public, the government contended that “behavioural fatigue” would be experienced if lockdown restrictions were enforced too early. This has been strongly contested by experts who recommended early and urgent implement of the restrictions.
Modi’s remarkable absence of competence cost India dearly
Narendra Modi has been described by Prabhash Ranjan of South Asian University as a “hybrid populist” – shaping his rightwing populism on religio-cultural nationalism and his economic populism on leftwing welfarism. In good populist tradition, he has carefully projected himself, in Ranjan’s words, as “a larger-than-life, iconic, charismatic, strong and decisive leader”. He entered national politics as an outsider in the capital, contrasting his humble background with the thoroughly corrupt “elite” – political, bureaucratic, corporate and media – who wielded the levers of power largely for personal advantage.
In the economic area, he has initiated several schemes – cooking gas for the poor, crop insurance for farmers, pension for unorganised workers, health insurance for the indigent, direct cash transfers to farmers in serious difficulty, and bank accounts for the poor – that have been projected as his personal concern for the poor.
On 28 June, India reported nearly 550,000 COVID-19 infections and over 16,000 deaths. Both these numbers have been galloping upwards over the last three weeks as the stringent national lockdown is being eased. The outlook remains very grim: Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, has estimated that by September India could have about 200 million COVID-infected persons, with a surge of infections in rural areas as migrant workers return to their villages from major towns where there is no work for them.
This outlook is particularly distressing because India is just emerging from one of the most severe lockdowns anywhere in the world. On March 24, Modi, in a televised address to the nation, declared that from that midnight the entire country would be shut down for three weeks. He sought the support of citizens with the following evocative words:
“If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years… Several families could get devastated for ever… This virus spreads like wildfire… There is no other method or way to escape Coronavirus (except social distancing) … Jaan hai to jahan hai… Carelessness of a few can put the entire country in jeopardy.”
The entire nation of over a billion people was thus given less than four hours to self-isolate itself. But citizens responded to this draconian measure with considerable alacrity, primarily due to the strong emotional bond many of them sense personally with the prime minister, viewing the implementation of his instructions as a national duty. Many city dwellers clanged pots and blew conch shells to applaud the nation’s health workers at his command, and later, on April 6, switched off lights and lit traditional lamps to ward off evil.
But three months after the lockdown was first effected and then extended on three occasions, with some relaxations being announced periodically from mid-May, serious questions are being raised about the Modi government’s handling of this grave national emergency, possibly the most serious domestic challenge the prime minister has faced in his six-year tenure as head of government. The widespread impression is that Modi has remained obsessed with drama and self-promotion and has exhibited a remarkable absence of competence in understanding and responding to this grave challenge.
The national lockdown abruptly shut down the country logistically, socially and economically at four hours’ notice, with no prior medical and administrative preparation or economic planning. Clearly, the intention was to immediately stem the further spread of the infection and use the period of the lockdown to develop all aspects of the health infrastructure to cope with the pandemic once the lockdown was lifted.
This was meant to include setting up nationwide testing and quarantine infrastructures to detect even asymptomatic cases and then isolate them under medical supervision. None of this seems to have happened. Based on inputs from Indian health experts, including from members of the prime minister’s national task force (provided anonymously), a picture emerges of a continuing disconnect between the government and its experts. While the lockdowns were extended thrice, on no occasion was this done on expert advice, nor was there any planning to develop the national capacity to meet the challenge.
Thus, on the basis of no discernible scientific input, Modi told citizens on March 25: “The Mahabharata war was won in 18 days. The war that the whole country is now fighting against Corona will take 21 days. Our aim is to win this war in 21 days.” He thus affirmed, in good populist tradition, the triumph of emotional sloganeering over serious reflection and attention to administrative detail.
The health reporter Vidya Krishnan has noted how “the government failed to use the time [of the lockdown] to conduct comprehensive contact tracing, scale up testing, and prepare India’s medical infrastructure for the pandemic”. Even today, India has a poor record on testing: by 28 June, 8.2 million tests had been carried out nationally, amounting to 5,963 per million of the population. This places India at the lowest position in the top ten countries with the highest infections. Even Brazil, with 200 million people, has double the testing rate, while the US has tested over 79,000 per million and the UK 104,000 per million.
This low level of testing has perhaps left several infected persons undetected and has made it impossible to identify the exact cause of death among those who might have been infected. Scientists believe this could account for India’s very low reported deaths due to the coronavirus.
The government’s other failures made the health situation worse: since no provision was made to provide food or financial support to millions of workers suddenly deprived of employment, they were forcibly stuck in their over-crowded hovels or compelled to move en masse to their native villages, thus aggravating the spread of infection. As Suvrat Raju notes, “large parts of the country are now in a worse position than they were at the beginning of the lockdown”, particularly due to its failure to identify infected persons through testing and by tracing and isolating their contacts.
On par with the failures on the health front has been the indifferent, even callous, approach of the government to the migrant workers – said to number about 100 million – who were blindsided by the lockdown. Several million of them, with no home or income, were compelled to leave for home.
It was clear from solicitor general Tushar Mehta’s plea before the Supreme Court that the mass migration of informal sector workers had taken the government completely by surprise. Affirming the government’s distance from and ignorance of the suffering of millions of its most poor and vulnerable people, it appears that “not one of the 11 empowered groups constituted by [the] Centre on 29 March to deal with COVID, had a direct focus on informal sector workers or migrant workers”. This insensitivity relating to daily wage and migrant workers recalls the same impulsiveness and lack of empathy that had attended Modi’s initiative to effect demonetisation of Indian currency notes in November 2016 at a similar four-hour notice.
A recent report on the plight of migrant workers points out that the government has created an “archive of distress and [a] museum of misery” through its gross mismanagement of the logistics relating to the migrant workers’ attempts to return home. Field studies have revealed that, despite government’s assertions to the contrary, most workers (67%) are still stuck where they were when the lockdown was announced and even more of them (74%) are unemployed.
In terms of transport home, only 39% used the special trains announced by the government; while 44% went by bus, others made ad hoc arrangements, either using private trucks or simply walking home. Every transport arrangement subjected the workers to extraordinary distress and expense – including the need to pay bribes and suffer unhelpful police and officials. There are reports of several instances of police brutality to enforce the lockdown and manage the crowds of workers desperate to get home.
Besides its obvious failures in regard to health and migrant workers, Modi has used the pandemic to push initiatives in the political and economic areas that have little to do with the interests of the people shattered by the crisis but all to do with his ideological agenda. Thus, while the pandemic has deprived over a hundred million Indians of employment and threatens to push them below the poverty line, with 12 million even plunging into extreme poverty, the government, with great fanfare, announced a “relief package” that was anything but one.
The distinguished social scientist Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that what Modi unveiled was not so much a relief package as “an entire wish list of long-term structural changes to allow greater participation of Indian and foreign corporate houses in sectors of the economy from which they had been hitherto excluded”. In the name of labour reforms, the package deprives workers of several longstanding rights relating to hiring and firing, working hours, minimum wages, and health and safety regulations. It also opens several sectors – defence, agriculture, mining, atomic energy and space – all of them of interest to large domestic and foreign enterprises, and none of them concerned with ameliorating the ravages of the pandemic.
The government has also revealed its authoritarian tendencies by enforcing, in Pankaj Mishra words, “political, social and intellectual conformity”. He says that before the lockdown, Modi met media owners and editors and urged them to “work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories” relating to the pandemic. Obviously, these “inspiring and positive stories” cannot include criticism of government performance during the pandemic. No surprise then that 55 journalists in different parts of the country have been charged with “fake news” and other violations.
The Modi government also used the pandemic to hone its communal, anti-Muslim agenda, the basis of its communitarian mobilisation. It used the fact that a Muslim congregation had met in Delhi just before the lockdown to hold the participants responsible for spreading the infection across the country, and then assiduously encouraged official spokespersons to highlight this on national news. These Muslims were then condemned on social media for gross misconduct, being unclean and even deliberately spreading the infection as part of “Corona-jihad”. The abuse ended only when it came to the attention of the intelligentsia in the Gulf countries and threatened to damage India’s ties with the region.
Now, despite the pandemic, Modi’s party is using the easing of the lockdown to actively move into politics-as-usual mode. This means declaring unilaterally that Modi has won the war on the pandemic and then using sections of the co-opted media to mount sustained attacks on opposition governments in the states by highlighting their poor handling of the viral infection and gearing up for elections – in Bihar later this year and West Bengal a year hence. The party’s messages are already very aggressive and polarising, with no attempt to promote national unity during a national emergency.
The pandemic has revealed Modi as the archetypal populist leader that he is – totally egotistical and self-absorbed, believing his own slogan of the 2019 general election: Modi hai to mumkin hai (‘Modi makes everything possible’). The deep sense of pride in their history and conviction in their future greatness that he has engendered among large sections of Hindus in India (and many abroad) has created for him a solid and loyal support-base that views him as a messiah and tolerates no criticism of the leader.
But the pandemic has also revealed several of his shortcomings – his deep self-belief that prevents him from accepting expert advice or correcting obvious errors; absence of interest in consultation, planning and attention to detail; impulsive decision-making rather than one based on study and reflection. His fervent belief in his communal vision and agenda ensures that he is at all times a polarising figure. This, coupled with a hardness at the centre of his persona, prevents genuine empathy with large sections among Indians, particularly the poor.
The ugly reality of populism in power
Several countries across the world have opted for populist leaders; each of them has emerged from a specific national context, but the common motive force for electorates has been a disenchantment with politics-as-usual and a desperate desire for a leader who will – possibly with a magic wand – transform their lives and take them to the ‘promised land’, an El Dorado. Populist figures have sensed this frustration and the popular aspiration for change and have appealed to their electorates with powerful messages of hope and achievement, projecting themselves as the longed-for harbinger of good times, capable of spinning magically golden threads of dreams realised and desires fulfilled.
However, if the pandemic is the first real test of populists in power, the past five months have shown how seriously inadequate they have been in terms of leadership, ability and empathy. In its early stages in January, February and most of March, all of them either ignored the viral infection or played down its virulence, despite warnings from the WHO and the lockdown being enforced by China at Wuhan.
For them, it was truly business-as-usual, a period for politicking and grand-standing – Trump and Bolsonaro denied it was serious, Johnson focused on “getting Brexit done”, while Modi entertained Bolsonaro on India’s Republic Day and then welcomed Trump with thousands of fans in Ahmadabad and then Delhi; in the second week of March, his government told the public COVID-19 was not a health emergency an in the third week his party brought down the state government in Madhya Pradesh and promoted itself to power. In this way, precious weeks were lost in all four countries. They remained entirely ill-prepared for the pandemic as it spread across continents.
The US, Brazil, Britain and India have paid a heavy price for their leaders’ limited understanding of the challenge and their casual approach to contending with it: the four countries account for over 45 percent of global infections and global deaths, grim figures that should permanently tar them with ignominy.
At the commencement of the pandemic there were suggestions from some commentators that it would end the populist surge in global politics. For, the pandemic called for leaderships that took expert advice and needed detailed plans instead of simplistic slogans, qualities that were well-beyond the capacities of populist leaders. Now, it is clear that, while the populists have been severely challenged, there has been no change in their character, style and approach.
Through the crisis, all four have remained polarising figures: Trump saw in the pandemic the justification for the “wall” to keep out unhygienic and criminal Latinos; Modi’s followers demonised Muslims, Bolsonaro ranted against media conspiracies to undermine him, while Johnson, despite widespread national opprobrium, continued his shambolic handling.
The four leaders have indulged in theatrical gestures to mobilise popular support – Trump by withdrawing from the WHO and using harsh anti-China rhetoric; Modi by calling his people to clang bells and conch shells and light diyas, affirming their shared communal identity under his leadership. They have also declared total success in meeting the challenge, ignoring completely their dismal record. For Johnson, Britain is a “world-beater” in testing, tracing and treatment; Trump has said that the only reason the US is showing such a high rate of infections is because its testing rate is the highest in the world.
All four have taken recourse to “suppression, distortion and diversion”, as Michael Peel has put it. They have made every effort to control bad news, while enhancing their own authority. Modi has used the pandemic to push through his political, economic and social agenda, benefitting large corporations and diluting workers’ rights, and effecting sweeping changes in Jammu and Kashmir to bring in new controversial laws. He has also given his bewildered people a new vision, a new mission – self-reliance – as a cover for policies that favour big business.
At all times, the four have remained self-centred and self-absorbed, their defining characteristic, displaying a remarkable absence of empathy for the very people they are allegedly representing – the “ordinary people”. Modi called on Indians to go to their balconies to applaud the health workers, forgetting that most Indians’ homes do not have balconies. It is surprising how the Modi government did not anticipate the impact of the lockdown on daily-wage and migrant workers and, when it became a national scandal, entirely failed to come up with effective measures.
Both Trump and Johnson have fumbled in the face of the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) protests over the last month, at times displaying their innate antipathy for the protestors, on other occasions, impelled by political considerations, showing false empathy. Trump, for instance, initially described the protestors as “thugs” and gloated about “the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons” that awaited them. Here, he was pandering to his rightwing and racist “law-and-order” support base, until prudent electoral considerations led him to reluctantly sign the order banning choke-holds by the police.
Johnson too has been criticised for using inflammatory language in the context of the BLM protests in the UK that encouraged far-right extremists to confront the protestors.
Bolsonaro has continued his confrontational politics through the pandemic: In the words of the Brazilian academic Matias Spektor, he “has all but declared war on Congress, the courts, the press, and now the mayors and governors who are imposing social distancing policies”. He has openly boasted the militarisation of his government by appointing military personnel to senior positions and stating publicly: “We have the people on our side, and we have the armed forces on the side of the people”. As Brazil witnessed BLM protests of its own, the president threatened them with severe police action.
In India, under the cover of the pandemic, the police have rushed to arrest opponents of the government’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, some of them under the anti-terrorism law.
There is a disconnect between the populists’ claim to represent the “people” and their real predilections in support of venal politics and corrupt business, ie, politics that is not very different from the “elite”-led order they supposedly dislike. What it boils down to is that an alternative “elite” – led by the populists – seeks power from those whom, as Appadorai notes, they “despise, hate and fear”. The composition of the so-called new order in India is, thus, also made up of “career thugs, kleptocratic business tycoons that work through monopoly, lobbying and straightforward corruption, and the newly shameless class of criminal politicians and legislators”.
On similar lines, Bolsonaro is using the pandemic to malign his opponents and, in the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “to advance the loss of rights, the casinos, the privatisation, the dismantling of the Amazon and the elimination of environmental restrictions”. “Against the president’s wishes,” notes Spektor, “Congress passed legislation to provide poorer Brazilians with monthly stipends of around $120.” Bolsonaro has responded by bringing his supporters onto the streets, deliberately flouting social-distancing norms and blocking the movement of ambulances.
Johnson on his part is facing public criticism for repainting his official aircraft for a million pounds while the rest of the country is experiencing the pandemic. British commentator Martin Kettle describes this as displaying “an almost Neronian indifference to the nation’s larger anxieties”.
These populist leaders have been severely tested and found seriously wanting. But, despite their obvious incompetence and the death and destruction that surrounds them, their core support-base remains intact. Trump will be judged fairly quickly at the polls, but an economic recovery could perhaps see him through. The other three have a few years before them to redeem themselves at the next general elections. They will use all the tricks in their arsenal – rhetoric, slogans, scapegoats, intimidation – to affirm their fitness to shape their nations’ identity and destiny.
This will take some effort: what the pandemic has conclusively revealed is that the very qualities that bring populists to power are those that make them the worst possible leaders of their nation. They have, in Byron’s words, “fronts of brass, and feet of clay”.
(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Consulting Editor, The Wire.)