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This is how Modi is different from other Right-wing populists like Trump, Erdogan & Duterte

Recent Right-wing populists follow a personalist playbook similar to populists on the Left, but their appeal to disaffected voters is different.

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Prominent Right-wing politicians like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the United States have won elections based on their populist messaging and personalistic appeal.

But the democratic success of populists during times of uncertainty is not new. Populists on the Left dominated elections in Latin America in the 1960s and again in the 2000s, based on challenges to the oligarchic order and neoliberal policies. In South Asia in the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi came to power on the strength of appeals for radical redistribution and leveraged that appeal to subsume state institutions under their personal authority.

Recent Right-wing populists follow a similar personalist playbook of challenging the political establishment, yet their appeal to voters disaffected with the status quo is quite different. Populists on the Left grounded their personal appeal on their capacities to advocate for the poor and the marginalised. By contrast, reactionary populists gain power by appealing to a sense of national greatness, which, they argue, has been lost and must be regained through their political programmes.

But there are also important distinctions within the universe of new Right-wing populists, which have important consequences in how they mobilise voters and how they govern. We argue that Right-wing populists’ appeals to national greatness are made either through the populism of apprehension or the populism of aspiration.

Also read: Khan Market booth didn’t vote for Modi. This is why he projects himself as anti-elitist

Apprehensive and aspirational

Apprehensive populists emphasise fear and loss. Their nostalgic rhetoric harkens back to an era when their nation was great. But they argue that this past greatness has come under threat because of the presence of immigrants and refugees, and the assertiveness of those with religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds different from that of the majority. Messages from Orban and Trump warn of dire consequences to the body-politic and society if borders are thrown open, traditional cultures are not protected, or previous hierarchies are not re-established. Their project is to make the nation great again, by metaphorically turning the clock back.

Aspirational populists, by contrast, emphasise a national project toward future greatness. For them, the nation must constitute a single cohesive community, and it will become great, but only if everyone follows the national programme of the visionary leader. This politics of aspiration is very much at the heart of the Modi vision and programme. For him, all Indians must stand united, and work together, in order to implement the development of a united India that represents the principal goal of his government.

Also read: How RSS pressure forced pro-business Modi to turn BJP’s 2019 ship towards populism

The populism of Modi

To be sure, there are elements of fear-mongering in Modi’s approach to governance. These are most apparent regarding questions of corruption and national security, such as the updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the expansion of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Yet, much of his messaging highlights hope for the future, realised through the nation coming together as one. This is precisely the central theme of Modi’s message regarding the removal of the key elements of Article 370, which applied to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. For Modi, the constitutional distinctiveness of Kashmir was preventing it from being fully integrated into the nation, and thereby leading to underdevelopment and violence.

Apprehensive populism has a naturally chilling effect on minorities, who feel that they are being targeted directly by a populist leader. This language of divisiveness is parochial and ethnocentric. Trump’s recent tweets attacking elected representatives from minority communities were targeted at his most rabid White nationalist supporters, constituting a minority of the American population. This may yet prove counterproductive in future elections.

Also read: Populism isn’t the end of liberalism. It’s now push-backism & Rahul Gandhi just faced it

Why Modi’s aspiration can inspire fear

Ironically, a regime of aspirational populism can be more dangerous for minorities. The message put forth by aspirational populists like Modi is not openly directed against them. Modi is, after all, focused on national development. Yet, he won’t entertain or encourage those ideas or beliefs that he thinks stand in the way of national development. In other words, aspirational populism is not pluralist. Entertaining contrary beliefs or perspectives is even considered “anti-national” since it challenges the path to national greatness. In doing so, Modi gives the cover of respectability to those who consider the beliefs, perspectives, and customs of minorities as politically counterproductive to the overarching national goals. At the same time, opposition parties do not give voice to those who challenge the national agenda for fear of losing political support.

Aspirational populism can be quite fragile and could easily devolve into a darker politics. The success of Modi’s aspirational populism is dependent upon trajectories of continued national development. It will be undone by a military defeat, or stagnation that threatens the well-being of an aspirational populist’s core supporters.

In India, the likelihood of war and clear military defeat is quite low. Economic well-being is another matter, however. If India’s current economic downturn continues, Modi’s message of aspiration will no longer draw popular support. There is legitimate fear that aspirational populists like Modi may turn to outright vilification of “anti-national” elements, including minorities, with dire consequences.

Also read: The Left is dead, but India deserves a new Left that dares to think afresh

Lessons for Left-liberal populists

How does one challenge an aspirational populist like Modi? A liberal political platform that focuses solely on the protection of the rights of minorities, however correct and morally defensible, can get drowned out in the din of aspirational nationalism and does not speak directly to the felt needs of the population that wants development. After all, Modi’s supporters will argue that the government’s policies are not anti-minority, but simply pro-national.

In a young nation like India, which still faces deep dilemmas of development across many sections of society, the only option is to construct an alternative aspirational message – one that sees the diversity of perspectives as a national strength, rather than a liability – towards a shared goal of confronting the nation’s collective problems. This may require, as political commentators Shivam Vij and Yogendra Yadav have written – a new aspirational nationalism.

Pradeep Chhibber is a Professor and Indo-American Community Chair in India Studies at UC Berkeley. Adnan Naseemullah is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of War Studies and an affiliate member of the India Institute, Kings College London. Views are personal.

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  1. God help the students these two gents teach. What confused people!!! Guys, get out of your dorms and travel the length and breath of Bharat and then you will realise why Modi is popular. Yes he is a great orator, yes the BJP has a strong organisation and yes the opposition has been in tatters for a long time but these are not the main reasons why people live and vote for Modi. They voted for him in 2014 because they rightly believed that he has Donne great work for the people of Gujarat. They voted for him in 2019 because he delivered on most of his promises. They also believe that he works hard and tries his best, even though he might get things sometimes wrong. THAt is why he got such a huge mandate.

    So again go out and see and feel the real BHARAT and forget your theoretical bullshit

  2. OMG, yet another propaganda piece by leftists. Why don’t you get it that these nasty approaches won’t help your cause? Bring something tangible for helping the lives and sentiments of people? Rather than working for the people you guys want to scare people into follow your doctrine. Shame.

  3. Abrogation of Article 370 has been in the BJP manifesto for long. There is nothing particularly “Modi” about it. Yes, he took the risk to get it done, which Vajpayee could not because of coalition politics.

  4. All that BJP has done effectively under Modi is to consolidate Hindu castes into a single vote bank along with support of young ones. This was enough to defeat vote bank politics and minority appeasement by Congress and regional parties. Modi will be defeated the moment people lose hope with him as one who is leading from the front and non corrupt, decisive leader. He can make mistakes but his intentions are in national interest. Once this logic is understood, the article makes no sense as far as it targets Modi. If you want to promote Yadav and Shivam, then it is a different cause! Also note that If you get rid of Modi, you have Amit Shah behind him. Make your choice!!!

  5. What could be the new aspirational message? Consider Singapore’s “From third world to first” case study. India faces similar problems as encountered by People’s Action Party (PAP) under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership. These were mainly: attack on corruption and establishing stability of the nation-state by bringing, what Henri Ghesquiere, states as “order over individual expression.” He further describes Singapore’s journey as: “Gaining first-world status in the shortest time possible required a strong government capable of forging a consensus on sound policies. If rapid catch-up with the West required deviating from the ideal of adversarial multi-party liberal democracy, so be it.”

    Is this possible in India that has come a long way on the path of parliamentary democracy, a model that was borrowed from its colonial master? If yes, then who will provide such leadership? If today Modi OR even Kejriwal try to bring about any change, they are branded as dictators. And Congress is too inept to even move in the direction required to set things right. Plus they have already exhausted their currency with ‘Garibi Hatao’ and ‘Population Ghatao’ slogans. With an Italian as their leader, who, perhaps, wouldn’t give two hoots about what happens to this country deep inside her heart except that her son should be the PM one day, what’s new in their arsenal?

  6. I am not sure such clear-cut distinctions can be made – at least for Turmp and Modi. “Make America Great Again” is aspirational while being apprehensive….using the authors’ terms. – the unpacking could be: Make America – which was glorious and great till these ‘illegal’ immigrants came in and ruined that greatness – make that America great again – and that has to be done now before all is lost to the immigrants swamping that great American way of life.
    Similarly Modi’s messaging is very much rooted in a glorious past – hence the attendant tale of fear of loss (of a glorious past) which Hindutva (and Modi) seeks to overcome – while selling the nationalist utopia of a sone-ki-chidiya -bharat in the future. So the glorious past recreated and improved upon in the future through the magic of nationalism, going beyond the haunting memories of a lost past, is what Modi packages and sells, imho…

  7. Aspirational Populist may be Modi and inclined towards “national development” with whatever means that may include mass appeal (winning elections)or fear of reprisal (strict micro managing), India without an intelligent and innovative opposition at the national level will only begets problems and authoritarian future governance ! Whatever development or “acchhe din” might come about, if Modi govt wins the next term again in majority like the recent win, India will be in for an entirely new game of governance. The power balance will tilt pervasively and history and common horse sense tells you its not good news. Meanwhile, the only aspirant to a national level opposition has turned into a family business. Cross your fingers for the ride ahead !!!
    My 2 cents,
    Jai Hind !

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