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2022 was the year world turned against strongman politics. Bharat Jodo is India’s chance

From Brazil to the US to UK, this was the year mass democracies shifted the playbook of politics. India could be next in line to do that.

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Gaslighting’ was elected the word of the year by the good people who give us the dictionary. Psychological manipulation that distorts the perception of reality, as the word implies, has been everywhere. Yet, 2022 was the year when politics and reality finally had a proper encounter. As such, the favoured word of the global commentariat and analysts is ‘polycrisis’ — a new word to capture all the connected crises pushing the global order into a reset.

For all the doom and gloom, 2022 was a half-decent year for democracy – globally and in India. Straight up, I don’t mean to signal Ukraine as the latest symbol of (Western) democratic values pitted against Vladimir Putin’s Russia and all that it stands for. To be sure, the war in Ukraine has been the singular event of 2022, and its implications are neither obvious nor settled. After more than 20 years of the global war on terror in the name of liberal internationalism and democracy — with its mixed and even toxic legacy all too evident — it is now hard, if not foolhardy, to view the world in terms of grand and pure moral divisions.

In saying that 2022 was a decent year for democracy, I am especially thinking of how mass democracies shifted, or sought to shift, the given playbook of politics. It was the year of the pushback. From Brazil to America and Britain to India, politics pressed the pause button on the dominant trends of the last decade.

Also read: 100 days of Bharat Jodo Yatra: How Congress proposed and Rahul Gandhi disposed

Twilight of the strongmen 

Without a doubt, 2022 was a good year for American President Joe Biden. In November, he secured the best run in the mid-term elections for any incumbent president in the US since 2002. These elections were widely tipped to be a dry run for Donald Trump’s return to the White House. That has made Biden’s victory all the more significant, even though the Democrats have only a wafer-thin majority in the Senate. Trump seems tamed but not yet stymied.

While Trump traded on his outsized personality and divisive big talk, Biden’s power has been built on the back of slow politics, far away from the spotlight. Big-ticket policy shifts will define the next American presidential election. If the Republicans shouted loud and shrill on culture wars and ‘life politics’ while curtailing abortion rights, Biden steered the American economy with a big investment Bill, curbing inflation, and indeed amping up the economic war with China through restrictions on technology. To say nothing of Ukraine. It has all paid off politically for Biden. Trump has been restricted to his much-vaunted and zealous base as new (and young) voters pushed Trump back.

Britain, too, deposed its biggest political personality in decades. Boris Johnson was left hanging out to dry as British politics gave the world plenty to laugh at this year. No amount of Brexit-baiting or buckets of comedic charm could save Johnson’s premiership. High nationalist rhetoric had to face the harshest of realities of a cash-strapped economy with an all-but-collapsed public infrastructure. His successor Liz Truss’ instincts to push both cultural warfare and high-octane free-market talk has all but nailed the coffin of the power-driven Tories. The bookies and pollsters both overwhelmingly favour the arrival of a new Labour mandate when the clock finally stops on this government currently led by Rishi Sunak.

The biggest victory against strongmen politics, though again wafer-thin, belongs to Brazil’s president-elect Lula da Silva. Of the Left, and like Biden belonging to the older generation, da Silva’s victory was as much a surprise as it was a traditional fight of ideologies. But this conceals an important factor in Lula’s mandate. Like Biden, Lula moved well beyond the traditional base of his beleaguered and corruption-ridden Workers’ Party. From the Republicans to Tories to Brazil’s Liberal Party under Jair Bolsonaro  — all forged their mandates with the power that came from the swagger and charisma of their leaders. Importantly, they lifted and pirated votes out of their traditional social bases and party loyalties. Biden and Lula have, in turn, done the same and won. While the poor and minorities voted for Right-wing parties, Biden took the fightback to white, suburban aspirational neighbourhoods. Having lost the so-called northern ‘red wall’ to Brexit and Johnson, Labour Party, under Keir Starmer, too, is holding its nerve rather than rousing the electorate, let alone its base.

Is then the age of the strongman over? Is this, then, really the turning of the page toward progressive populism?

Also read: I am ready for the yatra test — no, not Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo…

A new politics?

The political word of the last decade has been ‘populism’. Associated with the high play of popularity based on the mixing of personality power and authority, populism is best understood as a distinct form of politics. But more than that, populism prises apart and calls into question the strongest principles of the traditional Left and Right to forge a brand-new coalition. As such, populism has found favour primarily with those leaders who wish to prevail over institutions and mould them in their own personas.

Whether progressive populism is a total nonsense or an oxymoron, what’s clear is that the debate over its meaning is now more than an academic bunfight. In the noisy corners of academia, philosophers, theorists, and historians have been precisely doing that—arguing and fighting over populism. As it has been associated with the degradation of democratic institutions, whether it is the law, judiciary, press, or arbitrary personal power, it is surmised that populism can only be fatal for any democratic — let alone progressive — politics. But does the rise of Lula, Biden’s new economic deal, and the taming of the Tories as the Labour Party sits in the waiting room, the coming of a new politics or even a global progressive populism?

India will be the touchstone of this live question on the future shape of democracy and populism. I have kept my powder dry on India in this column even as its democracy prefigured many of the global trends of the last decade and the country remains in the sway of a strongman.

In a crucial sense, India, though an outlier today, is also part of an emergent but fragile global pattern against strongman populism. Its cultural warfare of identity politics will be put to the test of lived realities of a harsh economy. It is too early to cast a verdict on the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra. But it is safe to say that the yatra has already succeeded in setting up the ideological stall against India’s dominant political ethos. It is a critical turning of the page as the yatra reaffirms democracy as political contention rather than a plebiscite on personalities. Whether or not it will succeed in pausing recent political trends, it has already articulated a new vocabulary in nearly a decade that seeks to push back.

Regardless of the outcomes of the major elections in America, India, or the United Kingdom that are all set to go to polls in 2024, historians who love the dating game will anoint 2022 as a watershed year for global democracy.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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