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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Opinion | The stars of populist-nationalism may be waning

Opinion | The stars of populist-nationalism may be waning

The lacklustre delivery on developmental promises from the Modi govt is becoming more apparent

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

As the page turns on 2018 and a new year is born, anti-establishment politicians in power around the world have themselves become part of the establishment. Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, in power for three successive terms now; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first Prime Minister, then President of Turkey, over the last 15 years; and Donald Trump, President of the US, now in the third year of his presidency, cannot claim to be outsiders crusading against the political elite anymore. The anti-establishment movement can broadly be termed to be about 10 years old, dating back to the global financial crisis.

Populist nationalists, or pop-nats as they are called, share some common characteristics. They are pro-national sovereignty in a very literal way—emphasizing walls, statues and other physical structures. They are against the idea of immigration and for the idea of national “purity" derived from an arbitrary but specifically chosen point in national history. Most of them appear to have an illiberal, authoritarian streak. They have a “win at all costs" mentality. They believe that national institutions have become encrusted with bureaucratic cholesterol and they have been chosen by the people to break up their power. They generally prefer to go directly to the people through the medium of their choice (Twitter for many, radio additionally for some). Their communication through Twitter or radio is generally unidirectional where they control the narrative. They do not brook dissent.

Even as the latest of them, Jair Bolsonaro, has been elected President of Brazil, the stars of these pop-nats may be waning—at least in large heterogenous countries where the systems, press and institutions remain strong. The Trump administration’s continual high-profile exits and its general incompetence in many areas became more and more evident as 2018 progressed. The Democrats winning the Congress in the US is a sign that the fear-mongering and identity politics without effective solutions in the economic sphere may be running out of steam. The UK’s confusion regarding Brexit has become deeper by the day with no easy resolution in sight. In countries like Hungary, Russia and Poland where the “appointocracy" has captured institutions, the jury may still be out. Whether electoral democracy will survive in these countries is an open question.

If populist-nationalism is indeed waning, it is not clear exactly what will replace it. Liberal internationalism, which dominated the post-war period for seven decades, may not automatically be the idea that contemporary politics (re)turns to. That liberalism produced a dis-contended class in society and this is one of the important reasons for the reactionary rise of the pop-nats. Liberal internationalism, including its emphasis on global free trade, lifted the world as whole but sometimes left out sections of society within national boundaries. New politics must find a way to lift each nation as a whole. The 20th century answer to that problem was communism, which before the end of century was thoroughly discredited. Another solution was high taxation, but this proved to be a major disincentive to creativity and production. The 21st century answer is yet to be discovered—pop-nats are merely the describers of the problem. The solution will perhaps emerge with some elements of welfare-economics borrowed from the Nordic model and some new models of insurance and targeted basic income transfers.

Closer to home, the lacklustre delivery on developmental promises from the Narendra Modi government is becoming more apparent to the electorate. While a loyal core of supporters remains persuaded by the identity politics, that part of the population that expected innovative economic solutions is now more open to choices. The recently concluded state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, which were won by the opposition, indicated that there is room for political opposition—an idea that appeared remote when Modi came to power in 2014. With the federal elections in 2019, we are perhaps likely to get back to an era of fractured mandates. For India, minority and coalition governments have proven to be among the best for reform and progress—the P.V. Narasimha Rao government from 1991 to 1996 (the Congress had 244 seats in the minority government) and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from 1999 to 2004 (the Bharatiya Janata Party had 182 seats in the coalition) were among India’s best for developmental progress. The two most recent majority governments, the Rajiv Gandhi-led government from 1984 to 1989 (the Congress had 404 seats) and the incumbent Modi government (the BJP has 282 seats) generally squandered their opportunity and have instead made some egregious contributions—the Shah Bano case related legislation in 1986 and demonetization in 2016.

Perhaps a split verdict with a coalition government is indeed the best for India—it restrains ideological dominance and mitigates hubris. If Putinesque and Rasputinesque tendencies from either side of the political aisle are curtailed, then we can get on with the job of development and prosperity. We need neither populism nor nationalism, just a healthy dose of pragmatism. Maybe best had with coalitions.

P.S.: “Our words, action and efforts should be aimed at trying to achieve pragmatic goals rather than creating rhetorical effect," said Vajpayee.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at

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Updated: 06 Jan 2019, 11:44 PM IST
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