Stars of pop­ulist-na­tion­al­ism on the wane

Mint Asia ST - - Theirview -

As the page turns on 2018 and a new year is born, anti-es­tab­lish­ment politi­cians in power around the world have them­selves be­come part of the es­tab­lish­ment. Vik­tor Or­bán, Prime Min­is­ter of Hun­gary, in power for three suc­ces­sive terms now; Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, first Prime Min­is­ter, then Pres­i­dent of Turkey, over the last 15 years; and Don­ald Trump, Pres­i­dent of the US, now in the third year of his pres­i­dency, can­not claim to be out­siders cru­sad­ing against the po­lit­i­cal elite any­more.

The anti-es­tab­lish­ment move­ment can broadly be termed to be about 10 years old, dat­ing back to the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Pop­ulist na­tion­al­ists, or pop-nats as they are called, share some com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics.

They are pro-na­tional sovereignty in a very lit­eral way—em­pha­siz­ing walls, stat­ues and other phys­i­cal struc­tures.

They are against the idea of im­mi­gra­tion and for the idea of na­tional “pu­rity” de­rived from an ar­bi­trary but specif­i­cally cho­sen point in na­tional his­tory. Most of them ap­pear to have an il­lib­eral, au­thor­i­tar­ian streak.

They have a “win at all costs” men­tal­ity. They be­lieve that na­tional in­sti­tu­tions have be­come en­crusted with bu­reau­cratic choles­terol and they have been cho­sen by the peo­ple to break up their power.

They gen­er­ally pre­fer to go di­rectly to the peo­ple through the medium of their choice (Twit­ter for many, ra­dio ad­di­tion­ally for some). Their com­mu­ni­ca­tion through Twit­ter or ra­dio is gen­er­ally uni­di­rec­tional where they con­trol the nar­ra­tive. They do not brook dis­sent.

Even as the lat­est of them, Jair Bol­sonaro, has been elected Pres­i­dent of Brazil, the stars of these pop-nats may be wan­ing—at least in large het­eroge­nous coun­tries where the sys­tems, press and in­sti­tu­tions re­main strong. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­tin­ual high-pro­file ex­its and its gen­eral in­com­pe­tence in many ar­eas be­came more and more ev­i­dent as 2018 pro­gressed.

The Democrats winning the Con­gress in the US is a sign that the fear­mon­ger­ing and iden­tity pol­i­tics with­out ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions in the eco­nomic sphere may be run­ning out of steam.

The UK’S con­fu­sion re­gard­ing Brexit has be­come deeper by the day with no easy res­o­lu­tion in sight. In coun­tries like Hun­gary, Rus­sia and Poland where the “ap­pointoc­racy” has cap­tured in­sti­tu­tions, the jury may still be out. Whether elec­toral democ­racy will sur­vive in these coun­tries is an open ques­tion.

If pop­ulist-na­tion­al­ism is in­deed wan­ing, it is not clear ex­actly what will re­place it. Lib­eral in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, which dom­i­nated the post-war pe­riod for seven decades, may not au­to­mat­i­cally be the idea that con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics (re)turns to. That lib­er­al­ism pro­duced a dis-con­tended class in so­ci­ety and this is one of the im­por­tant rea­sons for the re­ac­tionary rise of the pop-nats. Lib­eral in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, in­clud­ing its em­pha­sis on global free trade, lifted the world as whole but some­times left out sec­tions of so­ci­ety within na­tional bound­aries. New pol­i­tics must find a way to lift each na­tion as a whole.

The 20th cen­tury an­swer to that prob­lem was com­mu­nism, which be­fore the end of cen­tury was thor­oughly dis­cred­ited. An­other so­lu­tion was high tax­a­tion, but this proved to be a ma­jor dis­in­cen­tive to cre­ativ­ity and pro­duc­tion. The 21st cen­tury an­swer is yet to be dis­cov­ered—pop­nats are merely the de­scribers of the prob­lem. The so­lu­tion will per­haps emerge with some el­e­ments of wel­fare-eco­nomics bor­rowed from the Nordic model and some new mod­els of in­sur­ance and tar­geted ba­sic in­come trans­fers.

Closer to home, the lack­lus­tre de­liv­ery on de­vel­op­men­tal prom­ises from the Naren­dra Modi govern­ment is be­com­ing more ap­par­ent to the elec­torate. While a loyal core of sup­port­ers re­mains per­suaded by the iden­tity pol­i­tics, that part of the pop­u­la­tion that ex­pected in­no­va­tive eco­nomic so­lu­tions is now more open to choices.

The re­cently con­cluded state elec­tions in Ra­jasthan, Ch­hat­tis­garh, and Mad­hya Pradesh, which were won by the op­po­si­tion, in­di­cated that there is room for po­lit­i­cal op­posi- tion—an idea that ap­peared re­mote when Modi came to power in 2014. With the fed­eral elec­tions in 2019, we are per­haps likely to get back to an era of frac­tured man­dates. For In­dia, mi­nor­ity and coali­tion govern­ments have proven to be among the best for re­form and progress—the P.V. Narasimha Rao govern­ment from 1991 to 1996 (the Con­gress had 244 seats in the mi­nor­ity govern­ment) and the Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee govern­ment from 1999 to 2004 (the Bharatiya Janata Party had 182 seats in the coali­tion) were among In­dia’s best for de­vel­op­men­tal progress. The two most re­cent ma­jor­ity govern­ments, the Ra­jiv Gandhi-led govern­ment from 1984 to 1989 (the Con­gress had 404 seats) and the in­cum­bent Modi govern­ment (the BJP has 282 seats) gen­er­ally squan­dered their op­por­tu­nity and have in­stead made some egre­gious con­tri­bu­tions—the Shah Bano case re­lated leg­is­la­tion in 1986 and de­mon­e­ti­za­tion in 2016.

Per­haps a split ver­dict with a coali­tion govern­ment is in­deed the best for In­dia—it re­strains ide­o­log­i­cal dom­i­nance and mit­i­gates hubris. If Pu­ti­nesque and Raspu­ti­nesque ten­den­cies from ei­ther side of the po­lit­i­cal aisle are cur­tailed, then we can get on with the job of devel­op­ment and pros­per­ity. We need nei­ther pop­ulism nor na­tion­al­ism, just a healthy dose of prag­ma­tism. Maybe best had with coali­tions.

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