Populism vs pluralism

All Photos: CIJ Nepal

Translated excerpts of the panel Unmasking Populism marking the 25th anniversary of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal

Moderator Sewa Bhattarai:There are many terms in Nepali for ‘populism’, but in essence they capture the negative connotation of public figures taking a shortcut to popularity. Populism is considered to be damaging to democracy around the world, and in Nepal as well. In the panel today, we will look into how populism impacts on pluralism and how to unmask it.

CK Lal, Columnist, Kantipur and Kathmandu Post

This is almost a philosophical proposition. Populism is nothing new, it goes back to Greco-Roman times and the dawn of what we know today as democracy. We can look at populism in two ways: the first as a tendency, and the second as a method.

When populism was limited to individual behaviour it was not so damaging to society. It is when populism becomes a method that it becomes an ‘ism’ and unleashes a slew of other problems.

Populism also has several dimensions. It can be used as a means for domination by one group in society to use self-appropriated  divine right against rivals. Populism can be fanned by one group of an elite against another to mobilise the masses by portraying it as being made up of crooks who exploit them to get to power.  

Populism appears as demagoguery in politics, and in economics it manifests itself in nepotism. Populism can also be used as a strategy to aid and abet a political group in garnering public support to compete against rivals.

Culturally, populism can exhort the public with tales of historical glory to establish the narrative that things have deteriorated because of  outsiders who corrupt society.

The reason populism has become the preferred method for dominance by political groups in different parts of the world today is because all the others ‘isms’ and ideologies have been discredited one way or another.

Communism bit the dust in 1989, there was hope that at least Fabian socialism and the welfare state would replace it but that did not happen. Capitalism failed to deliver because of its excesses.

The inability of these ideologies to work in the public interest for equity and justice increased  disillusionment in society, and clever politicians exploited populist ideology to use it as a strategy to channel public support. Cultural entrepreneurs used populism to promote religious, literary or linguistic agendas. Also, there is the difficulty that while unmasking one sort of populism we replace it with another.

All these factors have led to the spread of populism around the globe. What makes it dangerous is that there does not seem to be any way to stop this trend because social networks now magnify populist ideologies so effectively. Without media gatekeepers, these networks add fuel to the fire with instant outrage and emotion.

Populism can also be positive. At one point in history, America had progressive populism with leaders who drove socio-economic reform. A Nepali leader calling for the abolition of untouchability would also be called a populist.

Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP in Delhi is a welfare populist when he tries to raise the quality of education or medical care to make it more equitable.

Radical populism can take on an ultra-reformist agenda like, for example, the call to abolish Nepal’s army because we do not really have an enemy to fight.

The problem is with negative populism. Demagogic populism  tries to drive home the majoritarian agenda. In Nepal, that would be fear mongering over giving citizenship to the husbands of Nepali women because that would mean we will be inundated with Indians, and this would lead to the country’s ‘Fijification’ or ‘Sikkimisation’.

Then there is charismatic populism, exemplified by Kathmandu’s Mayor Balen. There is no ideology attached, it is not ultra-reformist, or radical. It is just his personality that is driving a public service agenda through a partyless candidacy. Narendra Modi or Donald Trump could also be described as charismatic populists.

To overcome populism with pluralism, political parties have to believe and compete in the marketplace of ideas. For this, the institutions of democracy have to be strengthened to counter negative populism. Leaders should have the statesmanship to speak up for minorities even if they are from a majority community.

If a Nepali from the mountains supports representation and justice for the Madhesi people, it will be more effective than a Madhesi person saying the same thing.

Yubaraj Ghimire, Deshsansar.com

When mainstream political parties cannot deliver to the electorate and offer solutions, the public is naturally disenchanted. Our democracies are all about how to use the election system to drum up public support from voters so as to get to power. They use slogans to propel their agenda, and they know the limits of how much they can promise so that citizens will believe them, even though they may not be able to implement those promises for economic or other reasons.

When I was working as a journalist in India, for example, Prime Minister Morarji Desai was asked by his Janata Party to travel to the south to canvas for elections. He met farmers, who had a list of demands. He told them that even if he came to power, he would not be able to fulfil them. This was a rare example of a politician who was not tempted by populist rhetoric, and had the courage to tell it like it is. But he was an exception.

When Morarji was not in government, he opposed India’s annexation of Sikkim. But after he became prime minister he had to go along with it. So, populism is a tool of power. Even if they cannot fool all the people all the time, populists will keep trying.

Populism also manifests itself at election time when political parties are not rational in their character and articulation, when they can raise such issues and get away with it.  The reason the media is not as effective as it can be to counter this  is that owners of media have other business interests which they try to protect, and to bring down rivals through their content.

Populism is fostered when the basic tenets of the Constitution were passed without much debate in Parliament, elected representatives just signed off on it without accountability. This is detrimental to pluralism, encourages populism and further discredits credibility of the leadership, and by extension society’s own collective credibility.

Rajendra Dahal, Sikhsyak

It is quite natural for politicians to follow a populist agenda. They will argue that it is not possible to win in elections by telling people the unvarnished truth. They have to spout populist slogans, promise populist programs.

What is more, we in the media, academics and others have taken this as a normal state of things. This acceptance of populism is one of the biggest challenges of our democracy. And the reason it is a problem is that the press has decided to ignore populism, and does not see it as a problem. So, when politicians, elected representatives and even the judiciary choose a populist path, journalists begin to take that as a given, and not look at the trend critically.

Our reality today in the media is that journalists are not able to see through the fog to gauge what is really happening in the country. There are good papers and magazines, they are designed and printed well, but when I asked one journalist how about going deeper into the real state of the country. The answer was: “No way, we can report on that.”

The challenge for the media is to develop a deeper understanding of the processes of populism that are at work. And this is happening at a time when the entire state mechanism seems to be intent on blunting the influence of the media with easy public money. This commercialises the media, eroding its public service role.

The instant gratification that comes with populism hypnotises society. Populism now has Nepali society and our political mechanism in its grip. It also is proof of just how weak and unpopular Nepal’s leaders have become that they have to resort to these tricks. They have such low confidence in themselves and are so afraid of the public reaction that they cannot even face voters by themselves, they go in groups. The rise of Balen and the independents has really spooked them.

Mohana Ansari, Human Rights defender

Looking at the world today, we see the rise of Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Trump in America, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Duterte and now Marcos in the Philippines. Compared to all of these countries, Nepal can be considered one of the more progressive ones. Yet what touches the people of Nepal is religion. And I have a deep personal connection to that since the religious strife I witnessed as a child in Nepalganj, and even lately.

Our political parties, be they Congress, UML or Maoists, may sound very progressive, but the drafting of the 2015 Constitution showed that they were not able to adequately address the concerns of the minorities, and we thought that some of the aspirations would be filled in as we went along. However, what we find is that the majoritarian narrative is still dominant, and the media tends to black out content that challenges the status quo or the voices of the minorities. On the citizenship debate, for example, we still discriminate between male and female Nepalis.

Nepal still has a long list of challenges, but I think we are now equipped to address them. During the Constitution drafting process, there was a populist belief that federalism would divide the country. But I was always deeply convinced that it would actually unite Nepal.

Across the world populism and politics can obstruct the pursuit of human rights and rule of law. For example, with a rise in heinous crimes there is a populist push, even in media headlines, for capital punishment even though that is against the Constitution. Imagine if someone is falsely accused based on a phone complaint of rape, what kind of situation would we be in? Imagine the kind of message that would send to the world that Nepal is a violent country.  

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