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The power of populism: Populism in the world's largest democracy

Populism is on the rise across the globe, from Turkey to Hungary to Brazil.

And in the world’s largest democracy, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ushered in a sweeping, economic modernization plan for all Indians.

But he’s also cracked down on the nation’s civil society.

The nation’s massive Muslim minority also fears Modi’s ties to India’s Hindu nationalism movement.

“You cannot be a liberal democracy without minority protection,” Ashutosh Varshney says.

Today, On Point: India takes center stage in episode two of our special series “The Power of Populism.”

Guests

Pranab Bardhan, distinguished professor emeritus of economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia. (@ProfVarshney)

Also Featured

Arvind Panagariya, professor of Indian political economy at Columbia University. (@APanagariya)

Raksha Kumar, freelance journalist focusing on press freedom and human rights in southeast Asia. (@Raksha_Kumar)

Show Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Welcome to an On Point special series, The power of populism. Because populism. Episode two: Populism in the world’s largest Democracy. Pranab Bardhan is distinguished professor emeritus of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Welcome to On Point.

PRANAB BARDHAN: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: The global rise of populism. You write in your book that a third of the people on planet Earth currently live in countries that are becoming more autocratic. And only 4% of people in the world live in countries that are becoming more democratic. What’s driving this seeming worldwide populist surge?

BARDHAN: Well, there are many forces working and different people have different interpretations of those forces. Some people say that it’s because of inequality. Some in my book, I emphasize insecurity of different kinds, economic as well as cultural. And then other people talk about other forces, demographic, technological and all kinds of things.

CHAKRABARIT: But there’s something fundamental about democracy here that I mean, it’s in the title of your book about disenchantment with democracy.

BARDHAN: And the disenchantment of democracy is part of populism, at least in some interpretations of populism, is that when the strong leader tries to bypass the standard democratic processes, due process, for example, in order to do things quickly and decisively, at least that’s the promise, a rather seductive promise.

Although, in my judgment, ultimately vacuous promises. But that’s the way of bypassing or undercutting the standard democratic procedures. So that’s why people who go for these populist leaders are disenchanted with the rather slow, cumbersome, but necessary liberal process procedures of democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Slow encumbrance. Now, it depends on what nation you live in, because the term slow can mean different things, right? I mean, for example, we will be focusing in detail on India this hour. There’s a vast population of Indians for whom democracy perhaps hasn’t really changed their quality of life in a meaningful way ever.

BARDHAN: So they think that the populist leaders are going to get things now which they have been missing for all these years. But I think that’s a false promise. But that’s what they’re seduced by.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So tell me a little bit more about your thesis that you have about inequality versus insecurity as drivers of populism, and in different places and for different reasons in various nations.

BARDHAN: All over the world, inequality has been rising. And in some countries, it’s reached grotesque levels. So there’s all this reaction to this rising inequality. In fact, the occupation Wall Street movement was entirely focused on inequality. Countries like Chile and various countries, other countries in Latin America, inequality has produced strong reaction. But I personally, and this is one of the main themes in the book, I personally think while inequality is extremely important to workers, the way the workers are moving toward these populist demagogues, most often right-wing extreme demagogues. It is not just inequality because, you know, inequality is a leftwing issue.

The question is why aren’t people turning right instead of left? So that in order to understand that question, you have to grapple with cultural issues and also general insecurity. In my book, I talk about both economic insecurity, like in job losses, income losses, but also I talk about cultural insecurity, for example, immigration. Immigrants, rightly or wrongly, pose as a cultural threat to many native populations. Similarly, religious groups quite often become the threats to each other or one another. And so these are cultural insecurities.

And I want to emphasize both because quite often one of the reasons the working classes are turning right rather than the left is that the left or the liberals are not emphasizing these cultural issues. They are, for example, in the United States, it’s things about abortion or gay rights or gun rights, etc. A lot of workers, socially conservative workers, even though on economic issues they may be in line with the left liberals, on minimum wage, on health plans, etc. But the cultural issues are quite important.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in fact, I would say in the United States, frequently the elite political left oftentimes just dismisses the cultural issues outright and says, well, it’s just sexism or racism or xenophobia, so therefore not worth taking seriously or engaging with. But we do want to focus on India.

CHAKRABARTI: But let me bring into the conversation now Ashutosh Varshney. He’s the director of the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University. … This hour is really about the rise of populism in what I’ve been calling the world’s largest democracy. But as you well know, in Professor Bardhan’s book, he writes that India used to be the world’s largest democracy, but he would rather now describe it as an electoral autocracy. Would you agree or disagree with that?

ASHUTOSH VARSHNEY:  I have made the claim thus far that India is seizing to be a liberal democracy, but it is an electoral democracy. That was the claim thus far, but Modi’s suggesting that it’s heading towards electoral autocracy, but it’s not there. So if I have a difference with Pranab, it’s on degree rather than direction. … For example, the next election in India is not competitive and opposition party leaders are put in jail … then we are heading towards an electoral autocracy.

CHAKRABARTI: So right now, it’s the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that’s in power and has been for several years in India. But Professor Varshney, take a minute, though, and walk us back through India’s modern history, because obviously you could say that it was a very vibrant popular uprising that led to the overthrow of British colonialism. I don’t know if you’d call that populism, but then thereafter, would the Congress parties’ rule with Indira Gandhi, was that a form of Indian populism?

VARSHNEY: The anti-colonial movements may or may not be populist. India’s was not because it led to an institutional design of a constitution which had liberal oversight over politicians. So, for example, the judiciary was independent. For example, the press was independent.

For example, civil society associations, independent civil society associations could be formed and could freely exercise their choices. So all of that is very consistent with the liberal democratic polity, which India had. The first burst of populism at the national level was left wing populism, actually not right-wing populism, which led to Mrs. Gandhi 1975 to 1977 when she suspended the Constitution, even while claiming that she represented the popular will.

And her claim was more or less like the Latin American left populism, which is banish poverty. And the real people of India are the poor people who are a majority of Indians. And there, the abolition of poverty is the enemy of that. … And so her attacks on the elites of India, for the sake of the poor people of India, on behalf of the poor people of India, was the left-wing populism. She also attacked the judiciary, attacked the bureaucracy, attacked the press. Now the attack is on the right-wing side.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: You’re back with On Point. This is Episode 2 of our special series “The Power of Populism.”

And today we’re talking about populism in the world’s largest democracy: India.

India is a particularly interesting example of the power of populism – its very existence as an independent nation was brought about by a kind of charismatic populism led by Mahatma Gandhi that overthrew British colonial rule. Then came populism via India’s Congress Party. And more recently another, distinctly different version, under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.

MODI: India’s undergoing a profound social and economic change. A billion of its citizens are already politically empowered. 

CHAKRABARTI: That was Modi speaking before a joint session of the United States Congress in 2016.

Arvind Panagariya was part of the Modi government at that time. He was an early member of Modi’s cabinet, from 2015 to 2017.

PANAGARIYA: I sat on numerous, numerous meetings with the Prime Minister, and when I needed to have discussions with him alone, one on one, then I would go and have one on one discussions with him. 

CHAKRABARTI: Panagariya says he was an unusual choice for Modi’s cabinet, because:

PANAGARIYA: The general intellectual environment in India is very anti-BJP. 

CHAKRABARTI: And, Panagariya is an intellectual. He’s a renowned economist, an expert on free trade, who’s worked for the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. But, perhaps crucially, Panagariya is not an intellectual living in India. He’s lived in the United States for 40 years and is a professor at Columbia University.

CHAKRABARTI: In Modi’s cabinet, Panagariya served as vice chair of the National Institution for Transforming India. Its mission: craft economic policies to speed India’s development from the ground up.

PANAGARIYA: We had to put policies in different areas. We also produced a three year action agenda for the country. 

MODI: My to-do list is long, and ambitious. 

CHAKRABARTI: Here’s Modi, again, at that Joint Session of the US Congress in 2016.

MODI: A vibrant rural economy with a robust farm sector. A roof over each head, and electricity for all households. … Have broadband for a billion. And connect our villages to the digital world. 

CHAKRABARTI: Modi had reason to believe in the possibility of transformational growth in India. Because he’d done it in the Indian state of Gujarat, where Modi was the head of state government for 13 years, from 2001 to 2014. In that period, Gujarat’s economy grew dramatically, and Arvind Panagariya – who was still in the U.S. at the time, took notice.

PANAGARIYA: I was studying the Gujarat economy … it was completely bogus. 

CHAKRABARTI: Expert opinion of Gujarat’s economic performance under Modi is deeply divided. Some analysts point to the state’s stagnant position on various human welfare indices. Almost half of Gujarati children under five remained malnourished, the state’s spending on health care declined, female literacy, infant mortality were unchanged.

Panagariya points to a different data set: Gujarat’s GDP grew 10% under Modi. The World Bank named it the number one Indian state for “ease of doing business.” Modi ushered in tax breaks that attracted billions of investment dollars.

And that’s why, when Modi became India’s Prime Minister in 2014, Arvind Panagariya accepted the cabinet invitation. He supported Modi’s economic ambitions for India, even if he had reservations about Modi’s politics, specifically the Prime Minister’s personal history with right-wing Hindu nationalist groups.

PANAGARIYA: On the one hand, economic economist in me was very much with him. The press was not. And I did many interviews. And one of the interviews, you know, is a long one full page in the economic times.

Where after everything last question the reporter asked us was, Are you impressed with Modi? And I was hesitant to say yes. So what I did was to say yes with his economic policies. Because I did not want to give an implicit nod to his political as I understood at the time. 

That time was the aftermath of murders, looting, rapes, and riots that seized Gujarat in 2002, under Narendra Modi’s rule.

BBC Report from 2002: This is exactly what authorities hoped would never happen. The streets have become a battleground. The grief and anger at yesterday’s murders has boiled over into violence, looting, and religious hatred. 

CHAKRABARTI: On February 27, 2002, 59 Hindu pilgrims were trapped on a train and killed in a horrific fire at Godhra station in Gujarat. The cause of the fire was disputed. At the time, Muslims were blamed.

The next day, Modi, leading the Gujarat state government, said, “People were mercilessly massacred in a railway carriage by wicked people.”

Modi called for peace and “self-discipline.” But he also called the fire “a crime that cannot be forgiven.”

Riots exploded in Gujarati cities.

BBC Report: On the worst day of the violence when murder and looting were taking place all across the city, we saw policemen just standing by, watching what was happening, but doing nothing to try to stop it.

One official parliamentary report found that more than a thousand people were killed in the riots, almost 80% of them Muslim. Other reports put the number closer to 2000. A secret British diplomatic assessment referred to the riots as a “pogrom” akin to organized ethnic cleansing. Human rights organizations found evidence of the mass rape and murder of Muslim women and children.

Modi was accused of condoning the attacks and failing to control the violence. The United States even revoked Modi’s diplomatic visa in 2005.

Modi consistently maintained his innocence, as he did in this interview with the BBC’s Jill McGivering in late 2002.

McGivering: Some people have been accusing you of not doing enough to stop this, of not protecting Muslims even now.

Modi: These are also false propaganda made by our opponents, and you are also a captive of this false propaganda.

McGivering: And the independent reports that have already been published about what has happened –

Modi: They have no right to talk about the internal matter of any government. If they have done, they have done wrong.

McGivering: Some would say it is a human right, there is a general international interest.

Modi: Please, please don’t try to preach us the human rights. We know what the human rights are. You Britishers should not preach us the human rights.

McGivering: When you look back over the last months, you’ve been the leader of this state during a very difficult period. Do you think there’s anything you should have done differently?

Modi: Yes. One area where I was very, very weak. And that was how to handle the media. 

Dozens of investigations, and years later, former cabinet member Arvind Panagariya says the Gujarat riots continue to hound Modi’s reputation.

PANAGARIYA: So the issue keeps boiling. At least that’s if I look at the policies, I see no discrimination whatsoever. This is not an issue. Discrimination against Muslims, you would see in the police, but that has nothing to do with the BJP itself.

CHAKRABARTI: Panagariya says for him, questions about Modi’s role were conclusively settled in 2012, when the Indian Supreme Court’s Special Investigative Team issued a 500-page report stating it could find no evidence against Modi and cleared him of responsibility for the riots.

Panagariya: I kept reading the bloody thing is a very long report for three or four days. And I was absolutely astonished. After that, my conscience is clear. I mean, I would not have actually gone to work for him in 2015 when I went in if I had not read that report. 

CHAKRABARTI: Moreover, Panagariya believes that while India’s huge Muslim community, and the nation’s intellectual elite remain concerned over Modi’s crackdown on various elements of Indian civil society, it’s the Prime Minister’s economic policies that animate his popular support among a broad swath of India’s enormous electorate.

PANAGARIYA: You know, corporate profit tax rates in India have been extremely high, going to about 35% or so. And so that is not sort of being more or less replaced by a uniform 25% tax rate.

But in general, I think, you know, one of the big things he has done to win the popular support, I mean, what keeps what you know, that same all the votes of the people is that he has done a lot of the rejigging of the social expenditure schemes and in particular, you know, he has evolved, established or developed a fantastic, you know, publicly funded digital infrastructure.

CHAKRABARTI: Finally, we asked Panagariya what he thinks about Modi being compared to other populist leaders around the world, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, or Recip Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or even former President Donald Trump.

PANAGARIYA: What I listed mostly that’s not what we economists’ kind of see because, you know, we basically see growth ultimately as the essential feature, which the prime minister sees as well. But — Modi is a much more holistic prime minister. The other thing about him is that he has the ability to get things done on scale and at speed.

His policy is that, you know, I have to get this benefit to the 100% of the beneficiaries. So he believes in this. He used to use the word in our meetings to saturate, saturate. So, for example, electricity. Every household must get. So he will cajole all the chief ministers, you know. Well, you got nearly ten 10% households left virally giving these out, complete them, get 100%.

He is an incredibly articulate speaker. And in his speeches when it comes to people, he would never come across as talking them down.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Arvind Panagariya. He is a professor of Indian political economy at Columbia University. He served in the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a cabinet minister from 2015-2017.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Professor Varshney, what I’d like to do for the next minute or two is connect Professor Bardhan’s thesis more directly to what we’re seeing in India, because remember, he was talking about insecurity and its various causes. Immigration, cultural tribalism, religious groups, etc. And how you had said the distinguishing difference between the populism in India under Modi versus the Congress Party earlier is the Hindu nationalist piece.

So what I think we need help understanding is Hindus form 80% of India’s 1.4 billion strong population. There are 960 million Hindus in India. But help us understand why many of them, even though the vast majority in a sense do feel culturally insecure. Because, I mean, do we have to look back to partition? Because do many Hindus feel that in a sense they lost their country and never fully regained it in 1947?

VARSHNEY: Yeah, let me put it to you this way. Partition is certainly very important in the evolution of Hindu consciousness. And precisely because at the time of partition, India didn’t turn towards a Hindu majoritarian state.

But a state and a constitution that gave each religious group, including the Muslims, who farmed, some of whom formed, 67% of whom formed the state of Pakistan, an independent state of Pakistan carved out of British India. So for some of those Hindus, not all some of those Hindus, the idea that India, even after the formation of Pakistan, became a country of religious equality as opposed to a country which gave Hindus primacy, as Muslims had in Pakistan, has certainly played a role in the evolution of consciousness of some Hindus.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, one of those Hindu nationalists even was the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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