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Politics of Populism Decoded


India has never witnessed any populist movement since independence. The JP movement in 1977 was closest to populism but it was primarily anti-establishment rather than populist. For the first time since independence we are experiencing populist movement. Many has already described this as anarchy and at the same time some are very optimistic. I think this must be analysed and debated as it touches our daily lives.

Emergence of AAP is truly populist movement, a similar version of this which has been experienced by many countries. Populist movement need not to be tilted towards either left or right. History has examples of fascist like Mussolini and revolutionary like Che Guevara. Both represented two extremes. These leaders were very successful in influencing people against ‘System’ and “Elite” to create a place for themselves. They inspired the young generation and convinced them to become activist to garnered political support. The key characteristics of populist leader is that he is able to create an illusion that his integrity can never be compromised, he has courage and passion to fight against the mightiest of the system and his only objective is to fight for people and serve them. There could be many reasons behind rise of populist movement but invariably corruption and complacency of bureaucracy and political parties acts as catalyst to promotion of populism.

Populist movements are essentially based on the premise that a charismatic leader who tries his best to look alike an ordinary citizen always speak for ‘the people’. The rise and fall of movement is highly dependent on public affection for the leader. As long as this affection continues, the charisma of leader flourishes.

Now the question is how populist movement keep the public involved?

Over the period of the time the strategy to galvanize support for populist leader has been shifted to on-line social media. They have developed the ability to collect thousands of supporters within an hour’s time. Sometimes mobilization is crowed is faster than mobilization of forces to control the crowed. In India, ‘Dharna’ has become the important tool to achieve this objective. It is important to notice that when populist government started to slip a bit, even CM resorted to ‘dharna’. Besides this many opportunists also get involve for personal gains.

In Europe the issues are a bit different and they were primarily focused around  anti-immigration or anti- Asian religions etc. However, most of populist movement of 21st century were not that successful. It is to be seen how it progresses in India. Within a very short period of time they have been able to galvanize good enough support to form government and Delhi and have ambition to go national.

Can we equate populist movement with anarchy?

In a way yes. As stated above, the origin of populism lies with the disenchantment of public with the existing ways of working and complete distrust in bureaucracy and its institutions. People always want a quick fix to the problems. Since resolution of problems within the ambit of law is a time consuming process, anarchy becomes the most preferred tool of populist government. By doing so, they constantly keep reminding the people that they are with them. If you notice the actions of AAP government like mid night vigilante, Janta Durbaar, various subsidies and constantly ridiculing the leaders of opposition party and antagonizing the police force, all are part of this strategy.

Most important question is how long is the life of any populist government?

Populist Government is premised on breaking the existing system rather than creating the new system. As long as demolition of institution continues, their supporters feel something different is happening and they keep their support extended. At the same time demolition of institutions causes new set problems. Over the period of time problems caused due to demolition of institutions surpasses the problems created due to ineffectiveness of the existing institutions and this is the time populist government is thrown out. Some people may question why do I think AAP is demolishing the institutions? My simple answer to this is hidden in a counter question. when you paint everyone with the same brush and ask your citizens to do sting operations, what is it if not demolishing. Just think has everyone of us not ridiculed our teachers and professors and regularly indulged in name calling in private. If everyone is worried all the time that someone may be doing a sting, how will he/she will be open and fearless. We live is a society and greed is one of the basic nature of human being. I agree we need to put in additional check and balances so that individuals do not get succumb to the pressure of greed but please do not demolish the institutions.

Life of populist government depends upon the pace with which the existing institutions are demolished. So far AAP has already criticized Judiciary, Bureaucracy, Police, Media and Women commission etc.  I am sure they will continue to follow the same path. I would also like to reiterate that relevance of charismatic populist leader is intact as long as he is able to reassure the people that whatever he is doing is for ‘Public’ not for himself and to protect his image he  will make sure that the myth is not broken. Means more gimmickry and symbolism will continue.

Finally let us all decide how we would like our country to be governed - by Populist movement or Policy driven development framework. Choice is ours.

- RK Bajpai

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