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.
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.
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.
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.
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.