National and international political observers regard a host of heads of governments as populist leaders. Without going into the criterion for such categorisation, the leaders popularly called populist include Donald Trump of USA, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of UK, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, Jair Bolsanaro, President of Brazil, Evo Morales. President of Bolivia, Vicktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, and Narendra Modi, Indiaan Prime Minister. An International Study has identified 46 populist leaders in the world. What is of interest and some anxiety is that when the whole world is locked down in battling the coronavirus, the Hungarian Prime Minister did not want to waste this crisis to enlarge his powers. Populism goes with concentration of power ironically for the sake of fostering the people and building a nation.
My concern and attempt here is to examine if Modi who is also considered a powerful populist leader may be “sympathetically’ looking at his Hungarian counterpart. If so what will be the implication for our post-corona politics. Unease and uncertainty stem from Modi’s creation of new instrument called PM-CARES, where as we have a full statutory body called National Disaster Mitigation Authority (NDMA), and the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund for such calamities. I was not alarmed if he did it in the name of PM, with a compassionate name like CARES, but many discerning observers contend that it is PM’s way of populist concentration of power. That is a nagging worry.
What is populism? How and when does it take root? This political terminology is a bit complex to define as the intentions underlying the concept are benevolent in nature, but the method and consequences of actions taken are hurtful to politics and the people. For the sake of brevity, populism has two primary aims: One the people are locked in a fight with ‘outsiders’ who could be from other faiths, immigrants, elites in their respective societies including in the Administration, and second, nothing should constrain the will of the ‘real’ people and they look up to the leader to defend their interest.
Although these two principles define populism across the world, it takes various forms in keeping with the contexts across the countries. Such forms are grouped into three broad categories; cultural populism pandering to nativity, socio-economic populism marked by resistance against capitalism etc and anti-establishment populism that target mainly those conventionally occupying high positions. A leader can use one, two or all three forms in mobilizing people in his country.
Viktor Orban who came to power in Hungary in 2010 was gradually concentrating power in order to repair the broken economy of the country. During the coronavirus, the Parliament had given him emergency powers to deal with the extra-ordinary crisis, but such powers were to be extended every 15 days by the Parliament. Orban perhaps saw an opportunity to institutionalize his autocracy by acquiring these powers forever, like the Chinese President having himself elected for life and Vladimir Putin in Russia dong the same.
Orban got his Parliament with his majority to pass an Enabling Act on 30 March, which grants him unprecedented emergency powers as it allows the executive to rule by decrees for an indefinite period or until the normalcy is restored. Normalcy will be determined by the ruling party, meaning Orban.
The Opposition and observers lament that this new Act hammers the last nail to the coffin of post-1989 democratic system. Let us recall that Hungary had one party communist rule under the Soviet sphere of influence since 1949 to 1989. There was a major resistance to Soviet-led policies in 1956-called Hungarian revolution. The Soviet Army had intervened to quell the revolution. However, with weakening and eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union, the East European countries turned to liberal democracies. Hungary also went through this democratic transition and joined the European Union in 2004, created to promote pluralism, democracy and human rights.
Liberals and progressive Hungarians are anguished and international observers are anxious that Orban has transformed the pandemic to a political weapon, made the government unaccountable and potentially unchallengeable, and pulling the curtain down on liberal democracy in Hungary. It gives him carte blanche to restrict even human rights. This is incompatible with any form of modern constitutional democracy. It is to be critically seen if the complete autocratisation of an European Union member state will be acceptable to the EU institutions. If EU is not able to roll back the tide of autocratisation in Hungary, it will be a sad commentary of its functioning.
One could pontificate that there may be some influence of such actions on other populist leaders. Donald Trump is a facing re-election in November. He has been blowing hot and cold on the fight against corona. USA, as of today, is the worst hit in the world. Trump has moved from a state of initial denial to pulling all stops to battle it. Boris Johnson himself fell prey to the virus and is fighting it. This virus is so contagious and boundary less that it has attacked the high and mighty. So it will be really imprudent on any one’s part to play politics and think of enlarging personal power,
If we read Jane Werner Muller, the author of “What is Populism”, it is ironically evident that leaders use such emergencies to consolidate their individual power base. They tend to conflate the individualist and collective instincts. That is the populist logic. The leaders begin to think that they feel the pulse of the people, and they only can defend their safety, interests and aspirations. They tend to ignore experts, institutions, checks and balances. We saw such tendencies in imposition of Demonetisation, revocation of Article 370, and announcement of lockdown. Consequences of some of these actions may be good, some of us supported the action in J&K, and the whole world is locked down. However, these important decisions are taken in consultation, dialogues and deliberations.
Populist politicians behave like supreme leaders. They will like to represent the people bypassing all democratic processes and even undermining institutions. They will talk directly to the populace, as they seem to have the people’s mandate. We have daunting evidences of such traits in our leadership. We do not know what to expect next. Anything dramatic in terms of a decree or action can happen. People are quite sure that the “Emergency of 1975’ will not be repeated as it cast an indelible blot on our democratic credence, but any radical change in political structure cannot be ruled out. One only hopes that the Pandemic that has put the human existence at stake in the entire world is not used for any political adventurism. We know Indian political culture and civilization is older and more matured than that of Hungary to accommodate such braggadocio in our leaders.