Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The 2010s will be reme­mbered as the decade of populism. Populist figures within mainstream political parties, and dedicated populist outfits that were once confined to the peripheries, managed to storm into mainstream politics.

Populism is not an ideology, per se. It is a style. It doesn’t really have a doctrine as such. It is mostly shaped by booming rhetoric and chest-thumping antics. It exists on the right as well as on the left.

Populism on the left is often referred to as ‘social populism.’ It perceives established left-liberal and/or social democratic parties as compromised entities that do not challenge capitalist hegemonies anymore.

Read: Populism and Pakistan

Populism on the right is called national populism. This strand rejects conventional conservative parties, whom it criticises for becoming disconnected with the ‘silent majority’ and for watering down their views on matters of morality.

Populism does not really have a doctrine as such. It is mostly shaped by booming rhetoric and chest-thumping antics. And it exists on the right as well as on the left

Social populism may sound dedicated to postmodern leftist causes such as social justice, minority rights, gender/racial equality, etc., but it has failed to expand its appeal outside the ‘safe spaces’ it has carved for itself.

Before the 1990s, leftist politics was largely based on class conflict. After the Cold War, the politics of class conflict was replaced with the adoption of ‘reformed’ capitalism. Nevertheless, populists on the left did not emerge to revive politics of class conflict, but rather that of social conflicts. This failed to transform into becoming an effective electoral ploy.

National populism is anti-immigration and pro-nativism. Nativism is linked to an exclusivist neo-nationalism that only considers a particular segment of society as worthy of being a country’s citizens. National populism is also highly suspicious of social populists and often refers to them as ‘neo-Marxists.’ The fact is, social populism has only a superficial relationship with Marxism.

National populism encourages religion’s role in politics. But in Europe at least, this role is not theocratic in nature. It is more to do with Europe’s Christian heritage. Nativism is also found in the national populism that has been flourishing in India since 2014. It is attempting to replace inclusive Indian nationalism with exclusivist Hindu nationalism.

Both left and right populists position themselves as being ‘anti-elite,’ and ‘pro-people’. But, as demonstrated by the political scientist Cas Mudde, populism has little by way of its own political programme to offer. It piggybacks on to other more substantive political ideologies.

Mudde explains populism as a “thin ideology”. This can also mean that, often, left and right populisms merge inside a single carrier. It’s a style in which a leader uses dramatic, albeit conflicting, rhetoric to exhibit himself as a people’s voice against a cold, cruel elite. He moves back and forth, from left to right (or vice versa), to conjure a narrative that energises his/her supporters. The energy is then absorbed by the populist. This interaction is explained as ‘becoming one with the people.’

Former Pakistani prime minister Z.A. Bhutto came to power in December 1971 on the back of a left-wing party. His early leftist populism was a mixture of socialist ideas, anti-capitalist/ anti-bureaucracy rhetoric, and jingoistic nationalism. He often proclaimed that there were two Bhuttos. One that was him, and the other that lived in the hearts of the poor people.

By 1974, his government had shifted more to the right. Anticipating a surge of interest in political Islam because of the increasing influence of the Saudi monarchy, Bhutto attempted to dent the ability of the Islamist parties to benefit from the surge. He began to increasingly adopt Islamist rhetoric. By early 1977, he was claiming that his party was more Islamic than the Islamist parties. This didn’t work.

Another former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has been going back and forth from right to left and back again even more frequently. He entered politics in 1996 as the ‘voice of the ignored middle classes’.’ His early rhetoric was squarely aimed at attacking the time’s two largest parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). He accused them of being ‘corrupt.’

He did not say much against the military establishment (ME), because a large segment of the middle class that he was trying to attract was considered to be a constituency of the ME. It soon became Gen Musharraf’s core constituency. After Musharraf’s unceremonious departure in 2008, the ME literally handed Khan this readymade constituency.

Khan upped his rhetoric of corruption against the PPP and PML-N. He also added hefty Islamist symbolism to it. When challenged by those who pointed out his ‘playboy’ past, he claimed he was a ‘true liberal’ as opposed to the ‘fake liberals’ who were criticising him. He then claimed that he wanted to adopt the Scandinavian model of the welfare state because it was close to the social and economic model shaped by Islam’s early caliphs.

The middle classes ignored the dichotomies inherent in his rotating rhetoric. They decided not to see past the fact that he was (presumably) untainted by corruption and was handsome. When he came to power in 2018, he agreed to let his patrons in the ME do most of the governing.

This was the difference between Bhutto and him. Bhutto had to launch policies to action his rhetoric. Many of these policies created more enemies than friends. Khan did not put his rhetoric into action. And even in cases where he did, the policies mostly collapsed because of flawed planning.

In desperation, he started to move further to the right, until he began to claim that he alone could save the international Muslim community from Westernisation. Just how this was in any way connected to Pakistan’s economic problems that compounded during his regime, is anybody’s guess.

After his ouster in April this year, Khan insisted he was removed by a conspiracy cooked up in the US. When no evidence surfaced, he encouraged his supporters (who had, of course, believed the conspiracy theory) to start attacking his erstwhile backers in the ME.

Khan’s rightward shift continues as he has now begun to pose as a high-priest of sorts who has the blessing of the Almighty Himself, because as a political leader he is the vessel of true faith, morality and everything holy in between.

Most political commentators are of the view that the decade of populism is coming to an end. Mainstream political players and state institutions are now looking to reestablish some ‘normalcy’. But this is easier said than done because of the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on global economies and the increasing episodes of natural calamities because of climate change.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 18th, 2022

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