Populism is the greatest threat to democracy, they all agreed, without an iota of difference of opinion. And they were applauded for this by an audience that comprised authors and writers, academicians and people from many strands of high society.
And without naming Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the Bharatiya Janata Party, panelists comprising parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, former MP Pawan Varma, lawyer Akhil Sibal and literary historian Rakshanda Jalil left it to no one’s imagination that the ruling party was acting in ways dangerous to democracy.
The event was a session on the subject, in the national capital on Tuesday, as part of the preview of the very popular Jaipur Literature Festival to be held in Jaipur from January 25 to 29, 2018. All of the speakers equated populism with trampling over other voices in the belief that those in power alone “embodied the will of the people.”
Tharoor, a Congress leader, pointed to the fact that populism presumes to speak for the people and represents them and populists presume that other views that are not in agreement with theirs are anti-national.
“With 31 % of votes too, other voices are presumed to be contrary to the voice of people, they don’t matter, they are anti-national if not in agreement,” he said, adding while this undermined pluralism and the rule of the law, it also delegitimised plural institutions that could be other political organisations, other views, the independent judiciary and free press.
Varma, a former Rajya Sabha MP from the Janata Dal (United) who was a diplomat, said while some element of populism will remain in competitive democracy,it does devalue the functioning of democracy. The danger, he said was when it becomes a norm to routinely make promises that the person and the organisation making those promises know they cannot be implemented.
“It reduces democracy to the lowest common denominator of who can tell the biggest lie,” said Varma, now part of the ruling NDA. He reasoned that when such promises are implemented, they distort governance, with the focus shifting to short-term results that can be achieved by the next elections.
Populism, the former diplomat said, also introduced an element of cynicism in democracy, with people losing faith in the elected representatives on account of their inability to fulfil such impossible promises.
“Even those who make credible promises, and newcomers to elections are judged by the previous standards of populist politicians. The feeling is sab jhoot boletin hain (they all tell lies)”, and the credibility of politics is lost.
But the worst, in his view, was the fact that unable to fulfil promises, the populist parties continuously deflect people’s attention to reclaim their faith on the basis of new and more emotional non-issues. Varma gave the example of the allegation of a former prime minister conspiring with Pakistan to impact the Gujarat Assembly elections now under way.
Lawyer Akhil Sibal saw populism across the political spectrum as a means to power. While democracy came with checks and balances, populism draws people to tyranny and shuns diversity, plurality and amounted to chauvinism.
“And a populist guy in power changes everything, by creating an artificial enemy,” said Sibal, drawing examples from the love jihad and Padmavati controversies that were used “to create the spectre of power.”
He also pointed out how when other voices raised the issue of what happens to patients when the licence of a Max Hospital was cancelled recently, the populist party in power responded saying, “We’ve not cut a deal with the hospital like you would have”, to dodge important issues.
“The attitude is, we are good, you are corrupt,” said Sibal, elaborating that populism was not exclusive to politics, but was all pervasive—be it the courts cancelling telecom and coal licenses or profit making being treated as profiteering.
“Populism is a real threat, and it is not going to go away. One has to fight the root cause—inequality, appeal to reason, and deliver.”
Literary historian Rakshanda Jalil, while refusing to be the voice of the minority—as a Muslim or a woman—said it was time for the majority to speak up for minorities, and that as a country, we were becoming ‘self-referential’. Populism in her view, was not about black and white, but came in many shades. “When populism leaves moral authority is when things go wrong. We are all responsible, we are all guilty,” said the writer.
So how does one deal with populism?
Everyone said with ‘more democracy’; for the people of India will realise they have been taken for a ride, “we cannot overestimate the strength of democracy,” was the sentiment.
Tharoor said one of the tasks of the political opposition was to point out that the emperor has no clothes!