Populism hinders democracy

Answering hard questions with easy solutions is what the world is seeing now. Donald Trump in USA, Narendra Modi in India, Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Imran Khan in Pakistan are some of the faces in a democratic world highly influenced by populism.

In the roaring twenties, United States of America passed the Fordney Mc-Cumber Tariff to protect its agricultural farms and factories. The Europe, already with an ailing economy crumbled by the first world war, retaliated with tariffs on American products. Soon, the world observed clouds of depression in making and finally on October 29, 1929, sixteen million shares were sold in a single day – a day that the world remembers as Black Tuesday.

Now, years after striving to liberate the world economically and killing communism in the cold war, America is seeing Trumpism today demagoguing the public by promises to produce more jobs by stopping immigration and indulging in a trade war with China. The United States of America has started to follow how China was acting before Deng Xiaoping. The relation between USA and China is well explained by Niall Ferguson who coined the term “Chimerica”; China becoming America and vice versa. The 45th president of USA, Mr.  Donald Trump targets the desires of White supremacist Americans. Very shrewdly, he gets his narrative accepted widely. Populism triumphs.

A populist leader touches the wishes of majority, no matter what the outcomes may arise. Mean does not justify the end for populists. The rise of populism and identity politics is damaging the values of liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama explained rise of modern democracy as the triumph of isothymia over megalothymia. Isothymia is considering each other equal whereas megalothymia is considering oneself superior to others. In countries skewed towards identity politics, the working of democracy is turning upside down. The democracies are working now by the triumph of megalothymia over isothymia. A good news for someone is almost always a bad news for someone else.

The world’s biggest democracy India, a secular country by constitution, has a minority whose population is well over 200 million. It is only less than the population of China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. Such a large number of Muslims, though comprising only 11% of India’s population, can have little say if there comes a clash of civilizations if the identity politics strengthen there. Populist leaders like Modi and Amit Shah know very well how and when to play the cards.

India revoked Article 370 in internationally recognized disputed territory of Kashmir and now with the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, the once secular country is playing with the dignity of over 200 million people. Yet, on the other hand, the RSS backed BJP government is succeeding to win the support of a vast majority of Hindu supremacists. Populism triumphs with a bang where public is full of religious fervor.

Pakistan with extremely sensitive societies toward religion has always found the powerful elites use (or misuse) the peoples’ will to keep things smooth. Imran Khan who had been mocked at and called a western agent (for his bold stance on human rights years ago) would never be able to gather support of the public without demagoguing them with creating a state of Madina. He uses populist rhetoric every now and then. Soon after becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he ousted a renowned economist for his religious beliefs from his advisory council because the populist desire in Pakistan didn’t accept that. The Prime Minister of Pakistan bowed down to the wishes of people against the founder of Pakistan’s speech on 11th August 1947 stating religion to be a personal affair.

Long before the world observed the rise of liberal democracies in the world, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (who too was called a British agent by Muslims)described well the condition of British governed India. He insisted that it is not the political elites but the public’s collective conscious that leads the order of the state. If the public is not willing to move ahead, the leader remains helpless. With rise of populism in societies that have not politically and morally matured, the leader simply cannot do much for the collective good. People do not like complex answers for tough questions. The one who succeeds to satisfy the most wishes by any possible mean, finds the bigger office.

The media has a big role to play. In the competition to be more optimized for viewership, the print, electronic and social media works according to the populist theme. Though the media plays some role to educate the public, comfort is found more in pleasing the viewers for an increased watch time. Noam Chomsky described the working of media as manufactured consent. Audience’s choices are developed by the media itself which buys what the seller wants. With an increased liberation of social media, it is becoming difficult to separate truth from lie. Any disinformation, repeated for long, gives the notion of a truth. McCarthyism and populism go hand in hand.

In such circumstances, many issues in developing countries such as Pakistan cannot be well addressed for the populist rhetoric demands otherwise. Exploding bomb of population with an alarming 2.4% growth rate is highest in South Asia. Pakistan ranks 151 out of 153 countries in Global Gender Gap Index report 2020 by World Economic Forum. Religious intolerance is high. Madrasa schools are increasing in numbers but with graduates having close to no skills for job market are becoming a burden on society. Young students being sexually abused there is a dilemma and still a taboo to be talked about. No statesman is doing anything productive to counter the problems nor can have a loud voice.

Populism demands compromises and the harm those compromises do can have impact worth noticing. It is high time that we should start understanding that the populism is a big obstacle in the democratic ways. The buck stops at the Prime Minister and he should be very careful not to let the present government do what he struggled for twenty-two hard years to end. The times are tough and standing against the tides of populism is tough too. But where there is a will, there is a way. Imran Khan must learn from Nelson Mandela saying “For anybody, who changes his principles depending on whom he is dealing, that is not a man who can lead a nation”. The principles must not be uprooted nor sacrificed to fulfil the populist desires anywhere any time.

M. Abdul Basit
M. Abdul Basit
The author belongs to Pakistan and writes on international relations and sociopolitical issues. Twitter: @AbdulBasit0419