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Narendra Modi and Populism: A Constructive Step for Democracy

Populism has been on the radar of media and political scientists across the world since over two decades now. Academic literature on populism around the world has been surging. The exponential rise in populist leaders and parties in global politics has been deemed as a threat to  democracies. Close to home, people have been raising red flags against Narendra Modi for his populist politics, hard line Hindutva ideology, or his quasidemocratic characteristics as a political leader and statesman. Intellectuals, activists, and journalists across the spectrum have expressed concern towards populism being a threat to democracy. However, this proposition is not a nuanced characterisation of how populist politics and especially leaders affect a democracy. This article argues against the general consensus for the detrimental effects of populism on democracy by analysing the leadership and reign of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India. The article provides two core arguments to show that populist leaders like Narendra Modi are productive for democracies. One, populist leaders are a result of the democratic system itself because democratic systems promote strong leaders to power. Second, populist leaders can prove to be key for the success of a democracy because of factors like public appeal, effective functioning, and swift decision making. 

It is important to note at the outset that the claims of the article aren’t absolute. The plethora of literature on the threat and negative effects of populism on democracy holds substantive merit. However, I aim to explore one unexplored and interesting aspect of the relationship between populism and democracy.

The Puzzle

Academics have undertaken the elaborate task of defining populism because of its vague and misjudged interpretations. Cas Mudde defines populism “as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people.” Populists consider people to be a homogenised entity. They don’t consider people as a heterogeneous collection of social groups and individual subjects with diverse values, needs and opinions. People are deemed capable of having a common will and a single interest

Despite the rising criticism of populism, populist leaders and parties are on a successful trajectory of winning elections, gaining political support and amassing popularity. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a paradigmatic case of a populist leader with increasing support proven by two consecutive massive victories in the Lok Sabha elections. Narendra Modi’s success isn’t limited to elections. His government has run remarkable schemes like the Swach Bharat Abhiyan, Ayushman Bharat for medical expenses coverage, and Ujjawala gas scheme that demonstrate the effective decision making and state capacity. The highlight of Modi’s era is the Modi wave, a phrase for his massive popularity across the country, or as Margaret Canovan would classify it, the “populist mood”, a term to denote the heightened emotions for a charismatic leader. Contrary to the core principles of democracy which emphasise the centrality of representative politics, Narendra Modi’s populist appeal has garnered massive support for his government. Academia’s perception of populism as a threat to democracy is challenged by the current reality of the Indian political system where a populist leader has popular support of the people in a democratic polity. I attempt to answer this puzzle by demonstrating that populism acts as a constructive element for democracy. 

Explanation for the Populist Boom

In this section, I posit an argument by Cas Mudde that attempts to explain the rising phenomenon of populism and the ways in which populism is accomodative of the shortcomings of democracies.

Cas Mudde explains the global surge of populism in his seminal text “The Populist Zeitgeist”. Mudde provides a constructive framework to understand the increasing popularity of populist politics. Populists frame their specific interpretations of the people, called ‘the heartland’. Mudde argues that the current heartland of populists doesn’t have a serious interest in being involved in or bothered by politics all the time because “nearly a half-century of surveys provides overwhelming evidence citizens do not put much value on actually participating in political life.” The common man wants a remarkable leader who knows their wishes and can implement effective policies. Contemporary populism is focused on generating output, i.e. effective policies for the heartland, rather than the input of democracy. Mudde also suggests that the populism of the past decade is the rebellion of the “silent majority.” The backdrop of representative democracy has been the silencing of majority groups in society which generates resentment. The hostilities of the majority are exacerbated by policies aimed at protecting and empowering minority communities. Mudde’s analysis of populism is instructive for the arguments I propose for populism of Narendra Modi and its benefits for democracy. I extrapolate ideas from his framework to present my analysis in the next section. 

The Argument for Populism as a Key to Effective Democracy

Numerous authors have dealt with the origins of populism and how it may damage democracy using theoretical arguments. Contrastingly, I formulate a case for the benefits of populism for democracy in consequentialist terms. I analyse the period of prime ministership of Narendra Modi to prove that his populist politics consist of remarkable benefits for Indian democracy.

Populist leaders like Narendra Modi have been successful in winning elections which is essential for making a substantive impact in a democracy. Considering the democratic processes of deliberation and constitutional checks, any policy or law that a government wishes to pass requires a large amount of time to get passed and then even more time for getting successfully implemented. Hence, governments require a long enough time to implement policies and make a real impact in people’s lives. Policies like Jan Dhan Yojana for providing bank accounts to the poor or setting up toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan require an immense bureaucratic effort to be performed over a few years. Economic policies, especially, require long spans of time to show results. It is essential for a government to be in possession of authority for successfully implementing its policy plan that it aims to roll out over its tenure. The longevity of a government’s rain is consequential for the benefits that the citizenry can gain from the government’s policy. 

Narendra Modi’s ability to win consecutive elections with substantial mandates has been a major reason behind the substantive impact that his government’s policies have been able to create on the people and, hence, Indian democracy. His populist image that vehemently connects with the people, charisma as a public figure and the offer that he represents the common man’s interests has contributed a fair share to Modi’s resounding success in elections. Modi’s populist politics has played a major role in winning elections that have produced numerous benefits for the Indian democracy. 

Narendra Modi’s populist appeal has been instrumental in tackling the societal failures that hinder the implementation of policies, specifically policies challenging the mentality and perceptions of the Indian people. Devesh Kapur explains societal failure to be one of the causes behind the failure of the Indian state to implement policies and programs that have to address the issues rooted in the society like gender or caste. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan(SBA), a massive project undertaken by the Modi government for improving the sanitation facilities in India, proves to be an exemplary case of how Modi’s populist appeal has helped mobilise people to action. Addressing the issue of sanitation definitely requires severe bureaucratic effort, but more importantly it demands changing the perception of the Indian people towards sanitation. The mission of making people aware of the importance of and work towards cleanliness in the country has benefitted hugely from the appeal of Narendra Modi. Modi’s persona and image makes an effective connection with the people that makes them attentive to consider and contribute towards such policies. District administrations cannot by themselves successfully tackle the problem of sanitation, regardless of the amount of efforts, unless citizens feel motivated and convinced of the necessity of sanitation. Using his populist appeal and innovative public relations strategies, Modi has been able to move people to make a conscious change in their lives towards sanitation in their homes and cities. The role of Modi’s populism in SBA proves to be a promising solution for the problems of societal failure that democracies face. 

The utopia of a representative system where the demands of every person is heard and acted upon doesn’t resemble the realities of democracies. The sheer size of the Indian population puts such core principles of democracies to test. There are two chief reasons for the rise of populism. One, people are not deeply interested in participating in the democratic system. They want a strong leader who resonates with their wishes and ensures to work for them. Second, considering the harsh realities and practicalities of a democracy like India with a vast, diverse population, populism poses to be an effective way for practising democracy. It accommodates for the challenges that democratic principles pose for making an impact on a diverse range of demands of the population. Populist leaders like Narendra Modi have constructively utilised their influence and connect with the people to take the government’s policies on the path of success. My analysis provides a different outlook on populism, one that is not purely theoretical. Due to the disparity between theory and reality, it can be useful to realise the benefits that a populist leader or party can bring in consequentialist terms. Populism, as witnessed in the case of Narendra Modi, proves to be productive for the practice of democracy. 

Aman Khullar is a second-year student of political science and economics at Ashoka University.

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