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NARRATIVE ARC: RISE OF THE ‘STRONGMEN’

Updated September 23, 2018

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In his 2005 introduction to ‘Jejuri’ — a celebrated poem by the leading English and Marathi language poet Arun Kolatkar — Amit Chaudhuri discusses the emergence of Hindu chauvinist parties in Mumbai. In his view, besides the increasing tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thrived on the moral vacuum in secular politics of the times. Over the last 15 years the Hindu right-wing continued to capture people’s imagination beyond Mumbai and Ahmedabad, allowing Narendra Modi take the central government in Delhi in 2014 and, subsequently, his party, BJP, winning in major states.

The moral vacuum in secular politics can be seen in other countries as well and can surely be considered one reason for a new variety of right-wing populism across advanced and developing countries. For instance, in Pakistan the PPP and the ANP come as close to being secular as is permissible in a quasi-theocratic environment. The two parties were not only censured for falling short of keeping their promises on delivery, but were fiercely criticised for lurking incompetence and financial scams. As a consequence, in terms of an economic agenda, we see the whole political game in the national mainstream shifting between two right-wing political parties — the PML-N — oscillating between conservatism and liberal democracy — and the PTI espousing neo-liberalism mixed with crass populism.

There is no doubt that enlightened public institutions and secular political parties have to introspect and shape up if they wish to successfully take on the concealed racism and systemic misogyny promoted by right-wingers the world over. But how can we speak of any moral concerns when living in a world governed by monopoly capitalism, financial markets, unbridled profit-making and flashy consumerism? Hence, a different future has to be imagined where civil, social and political rights are not dissociated from transforming the material conditions of the majority of the world’s population.

Vijay Prashad links the issue of right-wing populism and the strong individuals who represent it with the disarray in global capitalism, the thorough disappointment and the astounding inequalities it has caused. In a way, he sees it as another attempt by global capital to find its feet again through deception and farce.

Strongmen, a slim volume containing four essays by four artists and writers with an insightful introduction by the editor, discusses the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. What differentiates them from other political strongmen in other countries is their popular vote in democratic elections. That makes the issue more complex and warrants deeper understanding of societies as compared to autocrats who seize power through undemocratic means or managed elections.

Feminist American playwright Eve Ensler uses highly imaginative prose laced with wit to describe Trump and his supporters. She sees his followers having “an incurable strain of devotional father fever.” Indian actor and storyteller Danish Husain traces the history of Hindu fundamentalism in India, from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to the consolidation of BJP to the final emergence of the strongman in the shape of Modi. Turkish novelist Burhan Sonmez critiques Erdogan’s populist politics, economic policies and ruthlessness when dealing not only with adversaries, but any person or institution smacking of dissent. Filipino journalist and feminist fiction writer Ninotchka Rosca dissects the initial abstract leftist sloganeering of Duterte before he rose to power, his intimidation tactics and freehanded killing of people, including children, in the name of curbing drugs and crime.

Prashad, in his introduction, explores a pattern and establishes a link between the growth of fascism in the early and mid-20th century with the populism of today. He argues that this populism is the current brand of fascism. It makes hatred for the ‘other’ masquerade as patriotism. This populism remains couched in the rhetoric of development and trade, jobs and social welfare, but the policies and practice completely contradict this rhetoric. It is not entirely the same, but we can observe some similarities in current-day Pakistan.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 23rd, 2018