Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, populism is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” Recently this idea has come under intense academic scrutiny because of the sudden rise of populist political parties and leaders in various countries.

Historically, populism has been more dominant in countries with a large urban working class and poor rural populations. But in the last decade or so, populist politics has also dramatically risen in developed European countries and in the US and/or in robust democracies and economies.

Prior to this, many Western political scientists, and most famously, Samuel Phillips Huntington, in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, maintained that populist political episodes only emerged in rigid and inflexible political systems.

The rise of Narendra Modi in India and Imran Khan in Pakistan may be a new variation on Western understanding of populism

Huntington stated that the more flexible democratic and economic systems of Europe and the US are able to pragmatically accommodate and then neutralise those segments of the society most prone to be attracted by populist ideas during a political or an economic crisis.

A decade later, however, the same political scientists have been left feeling boggled by the rise, in developed countries, of the kind of volatile populist politics which they once believed only occurred in developing countries with weak and authoritarian political and economic systems.

The US and Europe have experienced bouts of populism before. But as political scientists such as Huntington point out, these were addressed and neutralised by the democratic and economic systems of the West. However, the current strain of populism in these regions raises concern and bewilderment.

The researcher Sam Wilkins tried to mould a unified explanation by fusing together the findings of various recent studies on the emergence of populist politics in Europe and the US. In his book History Repeating, Wilkins presents the historical currents of populism in countries such as Thailand, Russia, Iran and Argentina.

Using these as case studies, Wilkins theorises that the emergence of prominent populist parties and leaders is almost always triggered by growing economic and political tensions between the ruling/economic elites, the middle-classes and the ‘underclasses.’ According to Wilkins, as the elite and a growing urban middle class jostle for economic and political dominance, friction is created which negatively affects the economy.

Those affected the most by this crisis — especially the working classes and the rural poor — become natural constituencies of upwardly mobile populist leaders who, ironically, often come from well-to-do backgrounds.

The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde writes in his book Populism in the 21st Century that populists squarely concentrate on anti-elite and anti-system rhetoric to stir the emotions and the anger of the have-nots. When in power, they try to retain this constituency with equally populist economic policies that initially benefit the poor but eventually end up creating galloping inflation and economic deficits.

According to Wilkins, the urban middle classes react to this and are often at the forefront of movements against populist governments. But even when these movements succeed in removing the government, the removal is often replaced by the return of the ruling elite which was sidelined by the hated populists. Ironically, the middle classes, too, are against the elite but eventually agree to accept it as a ‘lesser evil.’

Wilkins suggests that all mainstream political parties, whether on the left or on the right, eventually converge at the centre. This centrist position makes them complacent and stagnant. In such situations, populists may emerge from outside or from within these parties with rhetoric against the system.

They are roundly denounced as being pro-rich and anti-poor. Wilkins concludes that this frequently happens in developing countries but has now returned to haunt Europe and the US as well.

It would have been interesting had Wilkins also studied the history of populism in India and Pakistan because I believe a whole new model of populism is developing here which is different to the model constructed by Wilkins. Indeed, in the 1970s, populism in India and Pakistan was also derived by appealing to the sentiments of the have-nots and by demonising the economic and political elite. The Z.A. Bhutto regime did in Pakistan what the Indira Gandhi government did in India.

Also, both were, by and large, opposed by the urban middle-classes through movements which ousted them. The Indian middle class then had to sit through a rather disappointing experiment with the anti-Indira Janata Party, while the Pakistani middle class had to compromise by accepting the return of the elite in the shape of an anti-populist and conservative dictatorship (Zia).

However, the two massive electoral victories of India’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, in the country’s last two elections, and the coming to power of Imran Khan’s populist PTI in Pakistan, did not happen on the behest of the have-nots as such. Yes, both Modi and Khan’s rhetoric demonised the established political parties — the Congress, the PML-N and the PPP. Yet, both hardly ever used the other portion of the populist rhetoric which directly appeals to the poor. Instead, the demonisation of opponents and their ‘corruption’ was coupled by imagery of a country which mostly attracts the desires and imagination of India and Pakistan’s urban middle classes.

In most European countries and in the US, renegade members of the old elite are cleverly exploiting an exhausted political system to stir the emotions of the have-nots. But these populists are not quite as appealing to the middle classes. So the Wilkins model is relatable there.

But not so in today’s Pakistan and India, where the urban middle-classes have agreed to a secret handshake with state institutions, high society and the economic elite to construct its own form of populism — but one which does not include images of the ‘masses’ thronging around empathetic messiahs.

Indeed, both Modi and Imran too have been branded as messiahs, but by and for a class which, till the late 1990s, abhorred populism because it soiled its idea of decent politics, offended its morality and even threatened its economic position.

The establishment and segments of the economic elite, weary of populists stirring working-class sentiments, eventually came together with the frustrated urban middle classes to mould a new kind of populist — the middle-class demagogue.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 2nd, 2019