Thursday, January 26, 2023
HomeOpinionModi or Boris Johnson, it's all about zeitgeist. Now go Google it

Modi or Boris Johnson, it’s all about zeitgeist. Now go Google it

Neo-liberalism & immigration take backseat as interventionist govt & stoking of anger take precedence. Populists have a club in bastions of democracy, and the common refrain is clear.

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In this holiday season, let’s do the lazy thing and see what another commentator wrote about the prime minister last summer. “His mission he says is to restore (his country’s) faith in itself, to battle…‘effete and desiccated and hopeless’ defeatism.” And yet, “To many, (he) is … the embodiment of the demise of public standards and the face of … post-truth politics … To his most vehement critics, he is … a charlatan who lied his way to the top, who endangers democracy … and who believes in nothing but his own advancement … He is leading his country through the most radical reshaping of its economy (and) electoral map …”

Our commentator noted: “His argument for patriotic optimism has obvious appeal”, but “wondered whether it masked more cynical impulses. Was he working in the country’s interest, or his own? … In one of our conversations, (he) had said that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves … and they shouldn’t be patronised for worrying that their traditions and connections are being eroded”.

The prime minister has been severely criticised for his handling of the pandemic. But “people are more patient with him, they are more forgiving of him, because he’s not a typical politician”. That frustrates the Opposition. “That nothing ever seems to stick (to him) drives his opponents mad … Time and again, when controversy has engulfed him, he has emerged unscathed. Part of his electoral genius lies in his ability to stop his opponents from thinking straight: In their hatred for him, they cannot see why he is popular, nor what to do about it.”

“…To him, the point of politics — and about life — is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in … Human beings are creatures of the imagination.” So he has stoked a populist, nationalist “…rebellion against an ostensibly unfair system, fueled by… angers”.

The problem is that this is dreampolitik, to use Joan Didion’s word. So the prime minister “must now address problems that cannot be dealt with by belief alone. If his domestic economic project fails, some fear the country will turn toward xenophobic identity politics … Even one of his closest aides expressed worry that the prime minister doesn’t think systematically about (the country’s) problems, that he is too reliant on unshakable faith”.

The common refrain

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, none of this is about Narendra Modi, though all or most of it could apply to him. The quotes are from Tom McTague’s profile of Boris Johnson, published in The Atlantic. You might have thought that no two people could be more unlike each other. Johnson is from Eton and Oxford. In contrast to Modi’s carefully coiffed hair and ever serious demeanour, his British counterpart is carefully dishevelled and jokey. When comparisons are made, Modi is usually clubbed with Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro — autocratic populists all. So the point is that in the celebrated bastions of democracy too, populists have formed a club.

Johnson’s membership candidature is thus added to that of Donald Trump. Eric Zemmour may not join the club as the next French president, but one can hear the common refrain. “Neo-liberalism” is out and interventionist government is in; immigration is out and the stoking of anger is in; culture trumps economics, and the politically incorrect must be stated with chest out. McTague aptly quotes John Bew, Johnson’s chief foreign policy adviser and the author of Realpolitik: The zeitgeist is “the single most important factor in determining the trajectory of a nation’s politics”. That remains true even if Trump is out of office, and the water in the tub may be running out on Johnson.

By special arrangement with Business Standard

Also Read: Is Modi a better builder of India or Nehru? They aren’t all that different

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