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From Trump To Modi And Across Europe, Liberal Values And Democracy Under Threat As Populism Touches New Levels

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In this article, Adil Zahoor compares the rise of Trump, Modi and right-wing parties across Europe to lay out why democracy is under threat across the globe and how the established parties lost their control over political discourse.

Known as “thin-centred ideology” according to various political scientists, populism has been an integral part of political discourse.  Its use as a mass mobilising technique could be traced back to the Roman Senate and, according to some, even in Machiavelli’s Florence. The method became a serious political weapon for left-wing parties in the mid-twentieth century, which acting as a vanguard for the marginalised and poor, marshaled disgruntled working class under their populist-socialist narrative.

But this nascent phenomenon of right-wing populism which started emerging on the political scene in the 1990s and crystallised fully by 2008 — thanks to global financial crisis, rising inequality and declining living standards — is rather unprecedented.

The disenchanted middle class is at the centre of this movement which, after the prolonged rule of mainstream parties, their inability to deliver coupled with their anti-people neoliberal policies, was looking for an alternative and a way out from incessant economic miseries.

Taking advantage of the vulnerability of this class, right-wing populists with their “pro-people’’, “anti-elistist” and messianic appeal have galvanised the public through a monolithic and hate-mongering discourse, which according to various political scientists in the world is putting representative democracy in danger and is a serious threat for the inclusive and accommodating nature of democracy.

Jan Werner Muller argues that populism is anti-democratic because the very core doctrine of democracy is to treat everyone equally, and populist leaders tend to treat people monolithically. According to Zsolt Enyedi, the tendency of populist leaders to provide a moral status to state makes them anti-democratic.

Calling populism ‘pitchfork politics’, Yaschya Mounk asserts that by offering solutions that are doomed to fail, populists are making people doubtful of democracy.  The left-wing populism, currently prevalent in Latin America and some parts of Europe, is equally harmful for the democracy, posing a different kind of threat. But it is the populism of the right, which seems to have engulfed both Global South and North, and is putting sustainability of  democracy in danger with its monist, anti-pluralism, majoritarian and dictatorial characteristics.

Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi in India

The democratic-socialist Nehruvian model which thrived under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru for almost the first two decades provided India with the necessary impetus which it needed after independence from the British in 1947.

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Another interesting aspect of this model, according to Arend Lijphart, which worked really well for India was its consociational framework of organising states along the linguistic lines, something that kept Indian federalism intact.

But the decline in Congress popularity slowly started after death of Nehru in 1964 and even regions like Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh started depriving Congress of its absolute majority. This steady decline which reached its zenith in the elections of 2014 with the victory of BJP makes one question the authenticity of Nehruvian framework.

The other thing which casts doubt is the way minorities have been living as the most downtrodden class in India. Despite being the largest minority in the country with a population of almost 200 million, Indian Muslims represent only 7% of public sector jobs. The alarming situation of minorities and a looming majoritarian threat in India tells us that Nehru did not solve every problem; loopholes were left which BJP has exploited for its advantage over the years.

Taking advantage of the inadequacies left by Congress even after its prolonged rule in the country, Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, started its election campaign in 2014. The campaign was marked with simple solutions of complex problems of rising poverty and unemployment in the country.

Main components of the demagoguery included: promise of transforming India according to his “successful’’ development model of Gujarat, creating 20 million jobs every year and the ever-present banalisation of  Hindutva which has been a major political strength for BJP over the years.

The campaign revolved around the charismatic personality of Modi in which his “hard work and determination” to rank up the orders of BJP, despite being the son of a tea seller, was consistently used to present him as the leader of “the people” and the ‘neo middle class’—a term created by Modi to define this new middle class in India.

This was a major change in the strategy of BJP which prior to 2014 was a party of urban middle class and elite that supported BJP because of its business-friendly policies. Moreover, new records were set by the extravagant spending of BJP, most by any party in Indian history, where use of new media technologies, creation of new TV channels to cover Modi’s public addresses, 3D technologies and holograms were designated to revere “divine” personality of Modi. This carefully created amalgam of neoliberal project and hyper-nationalist-cum-anti-Muslim agenda gave BJP a land slide victory in the elections of 2014 with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Indian Parliament).

Right after coming to power in 2014, the elected prime minister addressed Indian-American public at Madison Square Garden with pre-address Hindu-nationalist slogans. These slogans were a small episode of Modi’s “vision” of India, a vision which believes on the marginalisation of minorities, especially Muslims, and calls for reinstating India as a majoritarian Hindu state.

This did not come as a surprise to a lot of Indian political thinkers who were well-acquainted with Modi’s thirteen-year rule in Gujarat as a chief minister before becoming the prime minister in 2014. It was during this period that 2000 Muslims were massacred, the details and investigations of which are still covered with ambiguity and fear. Apart from the killings of Muslims in the state, Modi’s “vision of development could be debunked by looking at Gujarat’s abysmal performance in the human development index. Experience of Gujarat started coming handy, and soon after coming to power BJP imposed a ban on cow slaughtering and eating in various states. The decision proved to be havoc for Muslims in India, some of whom actually voted for BJP in the elections because of its “development” and “job creation” promises.

With the ban on beef, came the public lynching of Muslims on beef eating. Apart from the reported killings, there have been numerous un-reported cases of public lynching, all planned by vigilantes from RSS (Rashtriya Sawamsevak Sangh) and other right-wing Hindu groups, which are the militant wings of BJP and are playing the role of a newly emerging deep state in the country.

It is important to note that the Muslims are not the only group being affected by these activities; forced conversions of minorities of other faiths i.e. Christians and Buddhists have been on the rise ever since BJP assumed the office.

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The intensity with which this troika of deep state comprising of local police, judiciary and vigilante groups are operating have been active for the longest time, and it would be interesting to see how this deep state operates in the impending Indian Elections of 2019.

Although secularism and constitutional woes of India have always been there because of the flaws in the system, which were left un-rectified by the founding fathers, it would be right to say that no government in India ever had the audacity to serialise Indian culture and faith the way BJP is doing at the moment.

The persecution of minorities and gross human rights violations, taking hold of judiciary, politicising security institutions and changing electoral laws for their own electoral gains are the steps contaminating Indian democratic institutions and putting the pluralist future course of democracy of India under uncertainty.

Donald Trump in USA

From his slogans of ‘making America great again’ to ‘I am the only one that matters’ to making a wall on Mexico’s border to instilling the anti-immigrant and anti-minority tendencies among public and his consistent support and praise for the dictators from around the world, Donald Trump used every available tool to exploit and gain support of the American public, who were felt disenchanted after two consecutive terms of Obama.

Short-sightedness of populist zeitgeist is their overwhelming belief that they represent the “will of the people” and all the other political contenders are “anti-people”. That was precisely the belief system of Trump when he was attacking his political contenders. The authoritarian tendencies which he showed during the campaign escalated to just another level after he became the president.

One could say that this Orwellian shift in Trump’s personality was expected based on numerous other examples from around the world where after coming to power, the ability of a populist leader to be outright authoritarian doubles up, but what is really troubling is that this authoritarianism operates under the guise of democracy.

The shift could be clearly seen in the case of both Modi and Trump. One way the populists achieve this is through deconstruction of existing political regime and expediting efforts to bring constitutional changes which would further strengthen the populists’ hold on the system.

Trump has been scoring quite well in this category with his efforts to undermining the existing judicial system of America and trivialising the judges responsible for upholding the system and critiquing his anti-immigrant polices. This is being done by paying complete disregard to their decisions and calling them “so called judges”.

Various laws have been introduced which criminalise protest since Trump’s election as a president. Almost 48 laws have been introduced in the state legislature of which 8 have passed already and 25 are pending.

It was these curbs on the progressive values which rejuvenated the dormant white-supremacists in America who woke up from slumber as Trump won the presidency. The rallies from white-supremacist and fascist groups in Charletosville in the state of Virginia were the result of hate-mongering which Trump had been preaching ever since he held the office. Pulling out of Paris Agreement and public abusing of NFL players by Trump for not kneeling during national anthem were what followed afterwards.

Apart from the attack on institutions, the deepening polarisation and conservative radicalisation, which is currently underway in the tenure of Donald Trump, is a kind of backsliding putting the key doctrines of American liberal democratic framework in danger. This ‘us vs. them’ discourse and exercise of dehumanising the opposing political contenders or even political commentators cannot do any good in a peaceful and democratic society.

Alienating allies and embracing dictators and a list of other nefarious adventures would only deteriorate representative democracy in America.

Right-Wing parties in Europe

The rise of ultra-nationalist and populist ideologies have been more ubiquitous in Europe than anywhere in the world. From Brexit to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to AFD party in Germany and an abundance of far-right parties in Eastern Europe, the whole Europe seems to be engulfed by these partisan ideologies.

According to the report released by institute for global change, since the start of 21st century the number of populist parties in the political landscape of Europe rose from 33 to almost 60. Although European reasons of resorting to populism are quite similar to America’s or other parts of the world, there are some indigenous reasons which need to be understood in a European context.

Three main reasons which explain the rise of right, include the post-cold war scenario, most true for Eastern Europe, in which after the disintegration of Soviet Union various cleavages unfroze and gave acceleration to nationalistic sentiments; the second could be the failure of mainstream and centrist parties; and third involves a broader resentment emanating from economic stagnation, rising inequality and huge influx of immigrants.

The optimists in Europe believe that populism is not destructive for democracy, though could be illiberal but could also serve a corrective for democracy. But one could say that the intensity of threat arriving from the policy measures might not be as intense as the one which is coming through the harming of minorities’ rights and their ability to live as an independent and equal citizens.

Statements like the ones given by Dutch Freedom Party’s (PVV) leader Geert Wilders calling Islam “ a dangerous  totalitarian ideology”, or Nigel Farage’s exclusionary political statement of calling 48% of  people who did not vote for Brexit “unreal”, do not go well with the core claims of liberal democracy and hence could be called anti-democratic.

Muller specifies three anti-democratic techniques which populist leaders use: state colonisation, mass clientelism and discriminatory legalism. Polish leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s jeopardisation of courts, Austrian Jorg Haider’s political clientelism of handing out hundred-Euro notes to the public and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s amendments in the laws are some of the European anti-democratic examples which fall squarely in Muller’s framework.

Victor Orban in Hungary has made laws which have restricted the autonomy of the courts and have fired a huge number of judges to place his loyalists on the seats. This subtle attack on the democratic institutions of Hungary is quite a recent one. In Germany, AFD (Alternative fur Deutshland), a far-right party, held an unprecedented majority. Apart from being anti-immigrant, the party is Islamophobic, homophobic and proposes a trial for juveniles.


For decades in the North America, Europe and even parts of Asia like India, the future of the democracy looked extremely stable and “consolidated” to most political scientists. The ascent of the likes of Trump to the top has posed a serious challenge to this notion, with populists’ illiberal reforms and legislations proving to be a challenge for the long-held theories of academics, who did not see this coming.

Academics like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have already warned that these slow and steady attacks on democratic institutions could prove to be costly and hence the looming threat of the death of democracies should not be ruled out.

In the light of the three case studies discussed above, what infers is that the open hostility to minorities and creation of monolithic laws in the US and Europe and the on-going saffronisation and introduction of pro-Hindutva laws in India have put the core doctrines of representative democracy in jeopardy. The realisation of the gravity of the situation is the first step towards taking control of our democracies. The next step is a call for a collective action. One way of evading the threat to democracies is that traditional and mainstream parties need to deliver and need to come up with inclusive visions and heterogeneous programs, which would include all citizens, irrespective of their political affiliations.

Civil societies need to play their active role with a common agenda to get the peoples’ facts straight about pluralism, multiculturalism and equality in the society. The civil service appointees made by the populists in power, responsible for all the dirty work for the populist governments, need to be immediately rescinded once a mainstream party comes back to power. The escalated level of intolerance in the society should be dealt with by going beyond party politics. Only then this impending threat to liberal notions of democracies could be avoided.


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