Answering hard questions with easy solutions is the way of our times, it would seem. Donald Trump in the USA, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Imran Khan in Pakistan are some of the faces in a less democratic world highly influenced by populism.
In the Roaring Twenties, the United States of America passed the Fordney Mc-Cumber Tariff to protect its agricultural farms and factories. Europe, already with an ailing economy affected by the First World War, retaliated with tariffs on American products. Soon, the world observed clouds of depression in making and finally on October 29, 1929, sixteen million shares were sold in a single day. It was a day that the world remembers as Black Tuesday.
Now, years after striving to liberate the world economically and killing communism in the Cold War, America is seeing Trumpism today making demagoguery more mainstream than ever in the public. There are promises to produce more jobs by stopping immigration and indulging in a trade war with China. US behaviour has started to resemble how China was acting before Deng Xiaoping. The relation between USA and China is well explained by Niall Ferguson who coined the term “Chimerica”; China becoming America and vice versa. The 45th president of the USA, Mr. Donald Trump targets the desires of White Supremacist Americans. Very shrewdly, he gets his narrative accepted widely. Populism triumphs.
A populist leader touches the wishes of the majority, no matter what outcomes arise. The rise of populism and identity politics are damaging the values of liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama explained the rise of modern democracy as the triumph of isothymia over megalothymia. Isothymia refers to considering each other equals, whereas megalothymia is considering oneself superior to others. In countries skewed towards identity politics, the working of democracy is turning upside down. These democracies are working now by the triumph of megalothymia over isothymia. Good news for someone is almost always bad news for someone else.
The world’s biggest democracy, India, a secular country by constitution, has a Muslim minority whose population is well over 200 million. It is only less than the population of China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. Such a large number of Muslims, though comprising only 11% of India’s population, can have little say if there comes a clash of civilizations as virulent identity politics is strengthened there. Populist leaders like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah know very well how and when to play their cards.
India revoked Article 370 in internationally recognized disputed territory of Kashmir. And now with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), the once secular country is playing with the dignity of over 200 million people. Yet, on the other hand, the RSS-backed BJP government is succeeding in winning the support of a vast majority of Hindu supremacists. Populism triumphs with a bang where the public is full of religious or communal fervour.
Pakistan, with a population extremely sensitive toward religion, has always found that its powerful elites use (or misuse) the peoples’ will to keep things smooth. Imran Khan, who had been mocked and called a ‘Western agent’ for his bold stance on human rights years ago, would never be able to gather support of the public without demagoguery where he claims to be creating a new state of Madinah. He uses populist rhetoric every now and then. Soon after becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he ousted a renowned economist for his religious beliefs from his advisory council because the populist religious opinion in Pakistan didn’t accept him. The Prime Minister of Pakistan bowed down to the wishes of people against the founder of Pakistan’s famous speech of the 11th of August 1947, which had held religion to be a personal affair.
It is not the political elites but the public’s collective consciousness that leads the order of the state. If the public is not willing to move ahead, the leader remains helpless. With rise of populism in societies that have not politically and morally matured, the leader simply fails do much for the collective good. People do not like complex answers for tough questions. For those who succeed in satisfying the most wishes by any possible means, their path to the highest offices is an easier one.
The media has a big role to play. In the competition to be more optimized for viewership, the print, electronic and social media works according to populist themes. Though the media plays some role to educate the public, comfort is found more in pleasing the viewers for ratings and revenue.
Noam Chomsky described the working of the media as manufactured consent. An audience’s choices are developed by the media itself which buys what the seller wants. With an increased liberation of social media, it is becoming difficult to separate truth from lies. Any disinformation, repeated for long, gives the impression of being a truth. McCarthyism and populism go hand in hand.
In such circumstances, many issues in developing countries such as Pakistan cannot be well addressed, for the populist rhetoric demands otherwise. For instance, consider our exploding bomb of population. With an alarming 2.4% growth rate, it is the most rapid rise in population in South Asia. Pakistan ranks 151 out of 153 countries in Global Gender Gap Index report 2020 by World Economic Forum. Religious intolerance is high. Madrasa schools are increasing in numbers but with graduates having close to no skills for the job market. Young students are being sexually abused and it is still a taboo to talk about.
Populism demands compromises with such phenomena. The harm that those compromises do can have far-reaching consequences.
It is time that we start understanding how populism is a big obstacle to democratic ways. The buck stops at the Prime Minister and he should be very careful not to let the present government do what he struggled for 22 years to end. The times are tough and standing against the tide of populism is tough too. But where there is a will, there is a way.
Imran Khan must learn from Nelson Mandela saying that one “who changes his principles depending on whom he is dealing with, that is not a man who can lead a nation”. The principles must not be uprooted nor sacrificed to fulfill populist desires anywhere, any time.