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The price of populism

By December 15, 2017No Comments

Source : The Hindu


A panel discussion on the role of populism in democracy marked the curtain raiser event of the upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival

Setting the tone for the upcoming Zee Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), a panel discussion was held in New Delhi on “Populism is the Greatest Threat to Democracy” with four speakers, namely, Rakhshanda Jalil, Akhil Sibal, Pavan K. Varma and Shashi Tharoor.

All the four panellists were seemingly in consensus on the issue of rising populism in the Indian context and their presentations were complementary to one another. Calling populism a “fluid” category, Jalil said that it begins to operate outside the rule of law. She made reference to similar fascist tendencies in the western world, particularly in Germany that led to the persecution of one particular community. In context of India, she emphatically said that time has come for the majority to speak up for the minorities, closing her presentation with powerful lines, “We are all responsible; we are all guilty.”

Adding to her lucid presentation, Akhil Sibal, started with raising the question, “why is populism a potential threat to democracy?” Calling it “ideologically neutral”, Sibal said that populism talks of homogeneity and conformity; it shuns plurality, which results in chauvinistic nationalism. Sibal said that the entire exercise of practising populism rests on securing power and retaining it, which involves “manufacturing artificial enemy” and creating a “spectre of fear.”

Continuing with Sibal’s line of argument, Pavan K. Verma, pointed out three basic points on populism. Firstly, it devalues the functioning of democracy; distorts governance rather than pursuing priorities that may be beneficial’ and it introduces an element of cynicism in the functioning of democracy by taking way the legitimacy of institutions. This hampers governance and accountability. To retain the faith of the people who voted for them, the populist parties talk about completely unrelated issues, for instance, the issue over Aurangzeb and dragging Pakistan into everything.

In this context of demagoguery, Shashi Tharoor made his brief remarks, saying that “populism always presumes to speak for the people.” He clearly stated two major points that added to the discussion on the subject. “Populism”, said Tharoor, “undermines pluralism.” Secondly, it “undermines rule of law”, wherein the courts, the press asks convenient questions and give convenient opinions. Hinting on the element of absolutism in populism, he said that populist politics delegitimises plural institutions, attitudes of questioning and independence of judiciary.

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