Countering Right-wing populists requires building broadest possible alliances, and simple messaging with emotional appeal

  • A lot of liberal and Left supporters tend to sow divisions internally by othering anyone with whom they disagree.

  • Their quest for ideological purity contrasts sharply with the Right’s, which shows no such compunctions.

  • The BJP in India, for instance, has welcomed opponents with open arms and given them party tickets and positions.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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India has just completed celebrating its 71st Republic Day, commemorating the day in 1950 when its Constitution came into force. The celebrations came at a time when reading the preamble of the Constitution has become an act of rebellion, and countrywide protests have been on for well over a month now, against an amendment to the country’s citizenship law that is seen as part of a process aimed at altering the basic character of the Indian republic. The chief guest at the Republic Day ceremony was Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who in the past has defended destruction of the Amazon rainforest on the basis of his country’s sovereign rights to develop the area. Bolsonaro was awarded the title of “Racist of the Year” by Survival International last year for his efforts to forcibly “integrate” the Amazon tribes into “society”.

Similar issues of environmental destruction and attempts at forcible “integration” face India as well. There is a largely monochromatic view held by the country’s current ruling dispensation and its supporters that India is primarily Hindu and Hindi-speaking, and the definition of Indian culture and society are derived on the basis of North Indian Brahminical Hindi-Hindu culture. This is especially the case in food culture, which is a matter of everyday importance in India. For centuries “inter-dining”, meaning people of different castes and communities eating together, was a huge deal, and food taboos were of the utmost importance. If someone ate differently from you, they were viewed with suspicion. The hangover of that attitude still survives in caste-conscious Indian society — and the suspicions now go beyond beef and biryani. It is the attitude that leads to incidents such as BJP general secretary and the party’s West Bengal in-charge, Kailash Vijayvargiya, concluding from seeing a few men eating the very vegetarian poha that they were Bangladeshis. Bolsonaro will have competition from India in defending his “Racist of the Year” title this year.

 Countering Right-wing populists requires building broadest possible alliances, and simple messaging with emotional appeal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Brazil President Jair Messias Bolsonaro arrives for a meeting at the Hyderabad House, Delhi. Getty Images

The next world leader to visit India is likely to be Donald Trump, in February. Like Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi, he is a populist Right-wing leader. Like them, he is a divisive figure. He is currently facing impeachment proceedings in the American Senate, having already been impeached by the lower House of the American parliament, the House of Representatives. He has been having a running battle with a teenager, Greta Thunberg, over climate change, about which he is deeply sceptical (to say the least). Among his pronouncements on the topic is a tweet in 2012 stating that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. He has however also said, “The environment is very important to me. Someone wrote a book that I am an environmentalist”. Such authors can be found here as well.

What is it that is driving countries around the world to elect characters of this ilk? Scholars and writers around the world have been speculating on the possible reasons. They have often noted anti-elitism as a common feature. Along with this is perceived corruption and nepotism among a chummy ruling elite. The populist leader typically positions himself or herself as the outsider fighting the establishment, leading the sons and daughters of the soil to victory in cleaning up the system and reclaiming the country. The opposition is characterised as morally bankrupt and, worst of all, inauthentic — they do not really represent the rooted patriots. This is the playbook in country after country, including India. The absurd unscientific and ahistorical statements, the attacks on ‘Lutyens Liberals’ or their equivalents, the characterisation of opponents as unpatriotic ‘anti-nationals’, and the politics of migration which helps to sharpen ethnic divides are all familiar here and in America. Even the sense of perpetual crisis is probably part of the plan. It does nothing to break away support from the seemingly embattled populist leader.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro (R) meets with US President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro (R) meets with US President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka in June 2019. Photo by Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images

President Trump is due for re-election later this year, and his campaign has already begun. If he survives the impeachment trial in the Senate — as he is likely to, given his Republican Party’s majority there — it will leave him with his political base intact. He will then go into his re-election campaign on a victorious note. The fact that his liberal opponents are confused and divided will aid him in his campaign. The confusion was apparent when the editorial board of The New York Times announced it was endorsing the candidatures of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren from the opposition Democratic Party. They could not pick one clear, charismatic and widely popular challenger to take on Trump.

Taking on populists is a difficult task because they have very simple messages and they play to very base emotions. To counter them, equally simple messaging on basic issues that have an emotional appeal with large groups of people is necessary. Complicated and confused messaging is sure to lose. Moreover, a lot of liberal and Left supporters tend to sow divisions internally by othering anyone with whom they disagree. Their quest for ideological purity contrasts sharply with the Right’s, which shows no such compunctions — the BJP in India, for instance, has welcomed opponents with open arms and given them party tickets and positions. Democratic politics is a numbers game, and they know it well. They leave their virtue-signalling out of it because winning matters more to them. They trust their leaders to implement their agendas, while making excuses for all their many failures, because having their own people in power is ultimately what they care about most.

Whether it is America or India, the rise of the Right-wing populist cannot be countered without building the broadest possible alliances. Holding the nose and reaching out to potential allies some of whose past or present views they may not like ought to be the first step forward for liberals. Rallying behind one charismatic leader to take on the populist is next.

Otherwise, the trends are clear: They will face crushing defeat again.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2020 13:55:38 IST