The global rise in populist politics is an extremely worrying trend that has implications not only for the future democracy, but also for the core tenets it enshrines, such as pluralism and tolerance. However, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, support for populist leaders is declining. According to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, the number of populist leaders has declined from 17 in 2021, to 13 in the beginning of 2022.
In 2020, the World Economic Forum launched “The Great Reset” initiative as an economic recovery plan for the post-pandemic global economy. The programme includes recommendations such as prioritising sustainable development and pivoting towards a stakeholder economy. It also recommends greater deregulation of financial markets and an enhanced role for big business in policymaking. The messaging behind this proposal is centered on the idea that the global community is turning a page from the acrimonious social discord that had become a fixture of politics in a post-2008 world.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to argue that populism is receding. Leaders who rely on populist rhetoric tap into the insecurities and the sense of resentment of their voters to construct a narrative that revolves around the struggle between “the haves and the have-nots”. Unfortunately, the root causes of why voters gravitate towards populist leaders remain unaddressed. The global economy does not need a “reset”, as much as it needs to be reimagined.
While the West is attempting to build broad-based coalitions to counter the influence of populist leaders, South Asia still remains a hotbed for political narratives that pit the “true people” against the “elites” or the “other”. It is important to remember that populists can be both left and right wing. In general, these leaders posit themselves as the “true” representatives of ordinary people who can protect their interests against an outside group, whether it be economic elites or another community. By reaming against immigrants or corporate elites, these leaders tap into the resentment brewing under the surface. In both India and Pakistan, we can witness the rise of a similar brand of politics that places a stock in conspiracies and distorted versions of history.
South Asian populism has gone through various stages of evolution. From the left-wing populism of Indira Gandhi and Z.A. Bhutto to the muscular nationalism of Narendra Modi and the anti-elite narratives of Imran Khan, the growth of populist politics in South Asia is a direct consequence of the glaring inequity present in our societies.
South Asian populism has gone through various stages of evolution. From the left-wing populism of Indira Gandhi and Z.A. Bhutto to the muscular nationalism of Narendra Modi and the anti-elite narratives of Imran Khan, the growth of populist politics in South Asia is a direct consequence of the glaring inequity present in our societies. While populism utilizes these grievances in order to create a political platform, it too does little to address them. Instead, populism contributes to fostering a poisonous political discourse that seeks to divide rather than unite.
As Pakistan looks for ways to somehow resuscitate its ailing economy, one of the ideas that is being floated around is greater engagement with the broader region. Since the prospect of enhanced global connectivity has been hampered by the Russia-Ukraine crisis and its impact on global supply chains, it seems as if using regional trade to induce a stimulus in our economy would be a prudent measure. However, one must also consider the idea that greater economic engagement could be used to further enflame the political grievances that stem from the inequity present in our societies.
Some economists have argued that populism does not necessarily have a negative impact on society. In this regard, they draw a distinction between economic and political populism. In fact, economists such as Dani Rodrik at the Harvard Kennedy School argue that the economic variant of populism is necessary in order to stymie the growth of political populism. As long as these “economic populists” do not hollow out the plurality of our democracies, then such movements can aid in creating a more equitable system. However, one must also consider that the economy is intrinsically tied to public politics. It would be incredibly difficult to create a carefully constructed narrative that does not create divisions between sections of society, especially in an age where social media can greatly amplify the impact of disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Another important factor to consider is that there is no singular archetype of populist politics. It is not necessary that populist politics in South Asia will have the same characteristics of similar movements in the West. However, there is one glaring similarity between right-wing populist movements the world over. The nexus between big business and populist movements is as present in the United States as it is in India. The convergence between conservative economics and populism is borne out of a need to pin the inequities stemming from the latter on fringe communities such as ethnic and religious minorities. By vilifying immigrants or minorities, big business can avoid scrutiny of their own actions and their deregulated industries.
It is imperative that we shed our habit of “otherizing” different communities and societies before these popular myths adopt a gargantuan presence in public consciousness.
If a platform for greater regional integration is to be created, it is necessary that we avoid the same pitfalls that have led to the growth of Euroscepticism in the EU and economic nationalism in the US. There is a need to go beyond simply prioritizing sustainable development or regulating a select few strategic commodities pertaining to healthcare and food supply. At the same time, considering that populism in South Asia is constructed around the vilification of neighbouring nation-states, isolation is not an option either. In fact, a framework that prioritises human development and combatting climate change with a regional approach could be the exact antidote needed to counter the poison of populism. Moreover, without any substantial people to people contact, these narratives will continue to grow at an unprecedented level.
It is imperative that we shed our habit of “otherizing” different communities and societies before these popular myths adopt a gargantuan presence in public consciousness. However, the realms of foreign policy and international trade cannot solely cure the rot that dwells within. Domestically, states in South Asia and beyond need to adopt certain domestic policies that address our inequitable socio-economic systems. Even if populist rhetoric is abhorrent, these movements do raise some genuine questions.
One cannot deny that elite capture of the economy is reprehensible. However, hollowing out our democratic institutions and constructing cults of personality is not the cure for these problems. Nor can we continue to rail against ethnic, religious, and economic minorities. It is ironic that this in itself is the sword of Damocles that hangs over populist leaders. At some point, even after committing the most egregious violations against the great “other”, and pushing them to the fringes of society, the inequity present in our societies still remains unaddressed. This either leads to the downfall of these leaders or compels them to renew the cycle in search of the next community to victimise.