In recent years, a number of countries around the world have given rise to strongmen political leaders who many consider to be very similar to each another. Some of them include President Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in Europe, and heads of state such as Presidents Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez in Latin America. All of these figures have been described as populist leaders by their opponents, often based on the manner in which they appealed to their base and the rhetoric they used while campaigning. While the label of “populist” is indeed applicable to many current political figures, it sometimes seems to have become an oversimplified criticism tossed around based on a surface-level analysis of a particular campaign or individual leader.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one political figure who has faced charges of campaigning on and winning elections based off of a populist agenda. In fact, many have gone as far as to compare his meteoric rise to the highest office in his country to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign which eventually landed him in the Oval Office. At first glance, there are obvious similarities between the two. Both leaders rose in popularity as outsiders promising to bring change to the status quo. For Trump, this meant raging against the Washington establishment politicians. Modi, the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), presented himself as the opposition to the Congress party which had long held power in the Indian parliamentary system.
This sort of anti-elitist rhetoric is an element which is seen consistently among populist leaders, according to Jan-Werner Müller in his book titled “What is Populism?” However, it is essential to note that Müller’s argument that “it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be critical of elitesin order to count as a populist.”If it was a sufficient condition, of course, anyone who wanted change in the established system could be written off as a threat to liberal democracy.
The other, perhaps more important component of being a populist is anti-pluralism, according to Müller. This means that the leader in question claims to be the sole voice of the people and refuses to recognize any opposition as a valid idea. And before declaring Trump and Modi to be the same type of right-wing, nationalistic heads-of-state, it seems that it would be worthwhile to further examine this aspect of Modi’s rhetoric and leadership.
One major difference between the two leaders actually can be seen through something they share: an incredibly strong social media presence. As long as one is looking at easily noticeable parallels, it would be remiss not to point out that with forty-seven million people subscribed to his Twitter activity, Modi has a considerable social media following even though it does not quite measure up to Trump’s account which boasts fifty-nine million followers. The two are among the most popular politicians on the social media platform.
While a high level of Twitter activity can actually represent a populist leader’s desire to cut-out the middle man—namely, the media—in order to reach the people directly through their own words, Trump’s tweets seem to show a very different type of personality than his so-called Indian counterpart’s. While Trump’s feed often consists of personalized attacks on individuals who do not agree with him and on deflecting substantial policy discussions, some of Modi’s recent posts have been encouraging Indian citizens to go out and vote to maintain a vibrant democracy, and feature videos of him discussing his party’s policy initiatives.
Of course, it seems laughable to even suggest that the content of a Twitter account is a better way to determine whether or not someone is populist than the other surface-level similarities that were mentioned earlier. It is essential to critically examine various aspects of political figure (from campaign strategy, to speeches, to actual policy actions—and yes, social media activity) before labelling them as a populist, a term which holds a largely negative connotation in today’s political dialogue. It is even more important to do so before comparing someone to Trump, an almost textbook populist who is largely seen as a threat to liberal democracy. This is not in any way to suggest that Modi is the anti-Trump, that his policies and actions are beyond reproach, or even that he is not in fact a populist. However, by comparing Modi to Trump without proper research or understanding of his place in the Indian political world, one runs the risk of misdirecting the thoughts and opinions of countless people who may not be familiar with Modi or Indian politics in general by leading them to unfairly judge a figure who has not been presented in an appropriately nuanced manner.
Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? Penguin Books, 2017.