NEW YORK: It was the one burning topic that hovered in the air throughout the course of the Lahore Literary Festival at the Asia Society here, on May 6, almost as if casting a halo around the audience and the speakers, sometimes voiced and reasoned rationally – as much as one could muster without passion brimming over, but more often, left alone as a quagmire too deep to wade into or to ponder deeply, relegated to only thoughts, not escaping lips: populism and the rise of populist leaders that have thrown a political vortex globally.
One of the talks at the festival did attempt to apprise the audience, prise open some of the secrets of a topic which has roiled discussions in corporate boardrooms and living rooms. ‘Populism and the Global Rise of Strongmen’ was moderated by Akbar Noman, Adjunct Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
The three speakers – Basharat Peer, who runs the India Ink blog in The New York Times, author of ‘Curfewed’ Night’ and ‘A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen’; Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and Saskia Sassen, Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, tried to stitch together cohesive reasoning behind the phenomenon of the emergence and rise of leaders like Donald Trump in the US, Narendra Modi in India, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
However, what emerged during the course of the discussion were individual strains of thought, which delineated aspects of the phenomenon, but couldn’t hold it down into one nuanced, demarcated category. It was to be expected, though. The regional differences between North America, Asia and the Middle East is too vast and diverse to be etched together into a similar political pattern.
Sassen theorized the emergence of Trump to economic and financial disruption in the form of more than 14 million people in the US losing homes to foreclosures in the wake of the last depression. That became the focal point of strong disquiet in the lower and middle class who couldn’t fathom as to how or why their lives had cascaded to ruin, life savings torpedoed. Trump exploited those sentiments to his benefit, gave the vision of an America which would insulate itself from loss of jobs, propel economic recovery.
Peer, who also co-wrote the script of the critically acclaimed Hindi film ‘Haider’, pointed out that while Sassen’s theory could hold muster in America and Europe, it wasn’t so in a country like India, where the middle class has greatly benefited from globalization.
Peer theorized that majoritarian, populist politics is a phenomenon that voters are slowly getting used to, a sort of feeding frenzy which has pervaded India, for instance.
“Voters get a satisfaction of a different kind than they get from the economic kind,” said Peer, analyzing how Modi’s demonetization policy had hurt the poor the most in India for months with their lack of ability to withdraw funds, yet the ruling BJP managed to roll over the opposition, gain massive victories in the recent Assembly elections, especially in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.
Haykel reasoned that it would be countries who have strong independent institutions like the judiciary and media, who would finally remain unscathed by populist leaders.
Haykel pointed out how in Turkey, Erdogan was trying to re-create history and paint the public imagination by imposing shows that feature him on TV, to the public. Turkey has also recently banned popular dating shows and restricted the access of Wikipedia.
The fascinating discussion only furthered the complexities of globalization and the emergent new political order.
The victory of Emmanuel Macron in France indicate both extreme right and left wing populism is here to stay. It’s just the beginning of an era where populists win elections, but create noxious divide and discord in society too.