If we go by the manifestoes released and the pronouncements of the top leaders of the country in this season of electioneering, competitive “populist politics” seems to have reached its zenith. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has promised 20 percent of poor Indian households Rs.6000 per month. In response, the ruling BJP has now gone on to say to “expand the coverage of Pradhan mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna (under which small and marginal farmers are being paid Rs.6000 per annum in three instalments) to all the famers in the country”. And all this, along with hundreds of existing schemes and subsidies for the poor in the country. But this is not all. Regional parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Yadav have promised reservations of the OBC categories, both in the government and private sector, in proportion to their actual population in the country.
I do not intend here to go by their merits, demerits, feasibility and implementability. But slogans like “Garibi Hotao”, ‘Nyay” and “sabka sath and sabka vikash”, at least in their essence, have come and gone and will come and go. Do not you remember Garibi Hatao (“Remove poverty”) slogan of Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election campaign and later also used by her son Rajiv Gandhi? Do not you also remember 2004, the year when the concept of the ‘aam aadmi’ was introduced by the Congress, with its simple promise– Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath (Congress’ loyalty rests with the common man). This was in response to the then ruling BJP’s ‘India Shining’? The point is that populism was there in the past; it is there at present and will be there in future. Every country, whether developed, developing or poor, is seeing the populist politics in some way or the other. And as has been the case so far, there are positive as well as the negative consequences, although in India poverty continues to be a major bottleneck on the path of the country’s progress.
In the following paragraphs, I am going to reflect Canada-based scholar Narendra Subramanian’s excellent works on populism. He rightly says that populist political forces have played significant roles in Indian politics, and have varied in their vision of political community, in the social groups they targeted, in the policies they pursued, and in their impact on democracy. Movements and parties that represented particular language and caste groups also employed populist rhetoric and methods of mobilisation, and pursued populist policies. The nature of the populist organisations influenced the effect of populism on democracy. “While Indira Gandhi’s populism weakened Indian democracy, leading to a period of authoritarian rule, the populism of many of India’s language and caste parties strengthened democracy. Populism is likely to continue in Indian politics, and is particularly significant currently in the mobilisation of the lower castes”, he concludes. Let us see how.
Subramanian rightly explains “Populism” as a term to characterise movements, parties and regimes which deploy distinctions between the virtuous “people,” said to have limited access to various spheres of privilege, and an elite, considered to be unfairly dominant in these spheres and to be culturally distinct from the “people.” Populists claim to represent the will of the people to overcome their subordination, and thus infuse their projects with an air of righteousness. Such discourses mobilise groups that are subordinate in certain spheres, yet may enjoy significant power in others. Populism is an analytically useful concept if applied only to cases in which such contrasts between the people and the elite shape movement strategy and organisation, mass response, the composition of support, and the policies pursued.
In a way, one can describe mahatma Gandhi as India’s first major populist leader, since his revaluation of an imagined pre-colonial social economy based in self-sufficient villages marked populist characteristics; it mobilised peasants and artisans as well as groups of middling and high class and caste status into anti-colonial agitations, and influenced a strategy alternating between non-violent civil disobedience and social work to rebuild village social infrastructure. This vision of a popular national community built a multi-religious and multi-ethnic alliance, albeit one fraught with tensions. Ironically, the Indian National Congress (Congress Party) under the leadership of “modernist” Jawaharlal Nehru in post-independent India abandoned Gandhi’s plans to build a radically decentralised democracy with a limited state presence and a non-industrial economy.
The very fact that the Congress was the preponderant party all over the country, the small opposition parties, both national and regional parties, resorted to populism to fight the ruling Congress. This began first with low and middle caste movements in western and southern India. We had leaders like Jyotirao Phule, who appealed to a bahujansamaj (a popular/ majority community) composed mainly of the low and middle castes, to oppose various caste inequalities and exclusions, particularly the dominance of the upper Brahman caste. Later came Bhimrao Ambedkar, who adopted the label “dalit”. In Tamil Nadu, the Self Respect Association and the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK – Dravidian Party) mobilised middle castes, and to a lesser extent low castes, to reclaim the autonomy these groups enjoyed. DMK and AIADMK are its successors.
In the Hindi-heartland, particularly after 1960, populism based on castes and language became the main weapons of the socialist parties (which include today Samajwadi party of Mulayam Yadav and RJD of Lalu) and low- caste parties, particularly the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that incorporated certain ethnic and subaltern notions.
It was against this background that the Congress reacted (of course BSP came later; but we are discerning the trend of what turned out to be counter-populism), in the wake of its poll reversals in 1967 in the states), by pledging to end poverty so as to strengthen the Congress Party among marginal groups. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as proof of her anti-poverty policies, came out with the nationalisation of some major banks in 1969. Then came her 20 point economic programme. Congress continues this trend. The BJP has also not been left behind; it has also used populist appeals at times and to introduce new anti-poverty measures from time to time, apart from offering a popular indigenous alternative to India’s so called secularist and multicultural institutions, which it portrays as Western imports that enjoy support only among a narrow elite.
This populist politics by all has no doubt increased the political participation and representation of emergent groups, and provided some members of these groups increased benefits. However, as Subramanian rightly says, ‘their discourses, forms of organisation, and policies varied, with different consequences for democracy, inclusion, equality, and conflict.”
Let alone the economic fallouts (diminishing a poor’s woes and celebrating poverty rather than empowering him or her so that he or she does not remain poor), populism has adversely affected the quality of the polity in the country. By weakening party institutions and civil society, Indira Gandhi prepared the way to override democratic institutions and curtail resistance to authoritarianism in the mid-1970s. The welfare policies that accompanied her populist rhetoric provided limited benefits to a small number of poorer citizens, but also helped her contain growing pressures for the more extensive representation and entitlement of emergent groups.
A populist leader can easily be authoritarian, casteist and communal. Despite their use of inclusive rhetoric, populist leaders’ support remains largely restricted to the castes or religions that they belong to. Strictly speaking, the so-called redistributive and welfare policies such as caste quotas in higher education and government employment and free lunch schemes are not only inherently undemocratic but also the source of huge corruption. And worse, these measures divide rather than unify people in the forms of caste-conflicts and communal tensions. All told, populist politics and leaders, obsessed with redistribution of the resources that are already meagre, do not bother about the creation or enlargement of the national resources that they need to redistribute among their followers. And that is a recipe for disaster, if not today but tomorrow.
By Prakash Nanda