Populism and its perils

February 23, 2019

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Historians Ayesha Jalal and Eugene Rogan and political commentator Afshin Shahi share their views on the issue of populism. Ahmed Rashid moderated the discussion. — White Star
Historians Ayesha Jalal and Eugene Rogan and political commentator Afshin Shahi share their views on the issue of populism. Ahmed Rashid moderated the discussion. — White Star

LAHORE: Panelists at a session of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) said on Friday the present populism like in India, the USA and in the Islamic world was leading to the right wing autocracy and should therefore be discouraged.

The topic of the discussion was ‘Populism and the Future of Global Democracy’. The panelists were historians Ayesha Jalal, Eugene Rogan and political commentator Afshin Shahi. Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid moderated.

Ms Jalal said populism was not just an issue, it had roots in the concepts of “us and them” and also emerged in the USA out of the problems people felt were caused by migrants, automation, inequality and globalization.

In the Muslim world populism was leading to terrorism. It was creating contradictions in people who were contesting the root causes of their discontentment. “The populism in the 1960s and 70s was linked to communism. But now it was leading to the right wing authoritarianism through leaders like Modi and Trump,” she said.

She said populism was different in different regions in the world. In India people in the rural areas were feeling rejected and complaining of lack of jobs. Populism was a product of discontentment. In Pakistan, people of different sects were fighting each other. Bhutto’s populism was an antidote to the 60s problems. Now, the right wing populism was coming forth.

She said: “History is important. It’s a true process of inspiration. History is a dialogue with the past.”

Mr Rogan said populism would not just fail but “we will ensure it is flopped.” Populism questions the liberal order, established rules and institutions, democracy and everything we have invented like the World Bank and the IMF. Populism is being challenged all over the world, he said.

He said history was taken differently in the world. In the Middle East it was respected a lot. But US President Trump was indifferent to it. History was relevant as it helped find solutions to the problems in sight. Turkish people have rejected President Erdogan’s Ottoman Empire slogan.

Mr Shahi said people all over the world thought in the 1960s and 70s that they would change the governments through populism. But populism has had its root causes in the problems of people. Many problems were related to globalization and therefore populism could not resolve issues of a country having international links.

He said populism had its roots in the failure of capitalism. Just 20 individuals were wealthier than 50 per cent population in the world. Without looking into the failure of capitalism one could not handle the inequality it had created. “I know thousands of thousands of people cannot afford enough food even in Britain,” he said, adding “populism is not a problem, failure of the system is.”

He said in the 1960s and 70s most popular movements looked towards future and to create a better social reality. Marxism promised a utopian society. But the populist movements in the 21st century were afraid of future.

Mr Shahi said conflicts in the Middle East including the Saudi Arabia-Iran matter were related to the history which existed everywhere though tampered and selected to rationalize the present reality.

He said all problems in the world were either subjective or objective. Terrorism was subjective. It has had claimed less lives than other elements of death, but it was being showed as the biggest problem because it was easy to enlist its devastation. The objective causes were more severe and would cause a lot of pain. But they were not mentioned as they were difficult to map. As many as 700,000 people committed suicide in the world in one year due to various reasons. Mental health was the largest single problem.

The war in Syria had its roots in water shortage. Terrorism was not a problem. Problem was injustice, inequality, environmental degradation and irresponsible food industry. “We cannot tackle populism without handling its symptoms,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2019