Dispatch #32: What Explains the Rise of a Strongman in a Democracy?

In this dispatch we will look at Paul D Kenny's book 'Populism and Patronage: Why populists win elections in India, Asia and beyond' and his take on populism in India

There seems to be no universal theory that explains the rise of populism and right-winged leaders who thrive on ethnonationalism. But broadly there are two schools of thought that offer frameworks to help us understand this phenomenon.

Let’s call these two schools as ‘Economic Grievance School’ (EGS) and ‘Cultural Backlash School’ (CBS).

The proponents of the EGS are Barry Eichengreen, Dani Rodrik and Branko Milanovic. They argue that because of uneven economic development, globalization and income inequality has created a world of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. And over a period of time the have-nots have started to feel left-out. Some have even gone to an extent to explain this phenomenon using Hirshman’s Tunnel Effect.

Suppose you are in a traffic jam, you are in the left lane and cannot move. Then, you can see that the cars in the right lane start to move gradually. You feel good because you know that good things will come. Start thinking about the beach? Even though you can’t move, you feel better because you expect to move soon. The initial gratification is the tunnel effect. However, suppose that it is only the right lane that can move and yours never starts moving. You feel furious and unfairly treated and want to do something to correct this injustice. Your expectation has not been met.

And off course who can forget the famous Elephant Curve that explains the rise of populism in the West that sees Asia as the biggest beneficiary of the unbridled globalisation.

The proponents of the CBS are scholars like Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart who argue that the support for populist leaders is a backlash from an older generation against the liberal worldviews of the newer generation.

In their paper, they explain, “This argument builds on the ‘silent revolution’ theory of value change, which holds that the unprecedentedly high levels of existential security experienced by the people of developed Western societies during the postwar decades brought an inter-generational shift toward post-materialist values,such as cosmopolitanism (open borders and open societies) and multiculturalism, generating rising support for left-libertarian parties such as the Greens and other progressive movements advocating environmental protection, human rights, and gender equality. A large body of empirical evidence documents these developments, which first became evident in affluent societies during the early-1970s, when the postwar generation first surfaced into political relevance, bringing an era of student protest. This cultural shift has sometimes been depicted as an inexorable cultural escalator moving post-industrial societies steadily in a more progressive direction, as opportunities for college education have expanded to more and more sectors of the population and as younger cohorts have gradually replaced their parents and grandparents in the population. But it has been clear from the start that reactions to these developments triggered a counter revolutionary retro backlash,especially among the older generation, white men, and less educated sectors, who sense decline and actively reject the rising tide of progressive values, resent the displacement of familiar traditional norms, and provide a pool of supporters potentially vulnerable to populist appeals. Sectors once culturally predominant in Western Europe may react angrily to the erosion of their privileges and status.”

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Another scholar, Cas Mudde defines populism as “an ideology that considers society to be 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 volonté générale (general will) of the people.

In his recent essay titled ‘Why strongmen win in weak states?’, Cambridge University scholar, Roberto Stefan Foa argues that contrary to the belief that democratisation and state building went hand in hand in the new democracies, they actually faltered in state building, curbing corruption and bringing in public accountability and transparency. These circumstances, resulting in state fragility, makes for a perfect moment for a strongman to directly connect with the voters and ensure that he can fix things and will be their voice.

The chart, given below, is the one that Foa uses to show how some of the new democracies have not been able to curb corruption in the past two decades, hence leading to a fragile state authority.

One of the reasons why public accountability has declined in these new democracies is the patronage politics. Most of these countries had low per capita income. The political parties with ambitious social reforms agenda had swept to power. They had to depend on brokers who could garner votes for these parties by providing public goods to the voters (clients). While providing public goods, these brokers resort to rent seeking, thus undermining public accountability. This leads to a massive resentment due to inefficiencies in delivery of public goods; sense of unfair treatment since the brokers will cater to their niche voting blocs, thus leaving others and a general sense of yearning of a ‘leader’ who can ‘fix’ these things and listen to their grievance.

It is these combinations of circumstances- left behind, cultural backlash, elite capture, distrust in traditional party systems, that lead to the rise of a strongman.

In many countries, bureaucratic structures inherited from authoritarian regimes have been subject to attrition and clientelism. Elected politicians have used public-sector jobs as a form of patronage, engaged in partisan vetting and lustration of civil servants, tolerated corruption among party allies, and politicized formerly autonomous government agencies. Meanwhile, persistent challenges of organized criminality and violence have beset new democracies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. These shortcomings have not only eroded support for the first generation of post transition political elites, but also led to fraying confidence in liberal democracy among the growing urban middle class. For this reason, authoritarian politicians promising to cut through the gridlock and “make tough decisions” have acquired a mass base of political support. In many cases, they have managed to gain elected office, and from that position have begun eroding democratic rights and freedoms—by pursuing authoritarian approaches to law and justice or to fighting ethnic insurgency, and by removing legislative checks and balances while consolidating their own power.

- Roberto Stefan Foa

Paul D Kenny, from the Australian National University, has written a book titled ‘Populism and patronage-Why populists win elections in India, Asia and Beyond’. His book, in my view, has come very close to highlight a universal theory on the rise of populism in India that always has a patronage based politics.

Paul defines populism as a political movement where a populist leader directly connects with the masses without any intermediaries through mass media and public rallies. He adds that populist leaders redefine party-voter linkages by bypassing autonomous brokers (federal leaders and other non-state actors) and establishing a direct link with the voters through their charisma and with the help of issues such as ethnonationalism, immigrants, minorities, elites, economic downturn etc.

I conceive of populism as a distinct way of linking political leaders and supporters. Populist movements are ones in which personalistic leaders seek to establish unmediated links with mass constituencies, who are otherwise relatively free of existing party and institutional ties, in their quest to gain and retain power. In seeking to mobilize a diverse support base of unattached voters, populists may make rhetorical appeals to a virtuous ‘people’ in opposition to a corrupt ‘establishment’.

Populist mobilization thrives where ties between voters and non-populist parties do not exist or have decayed, as populists’ ability to mobilize voters directly depends on the latter not being deeply embedded in existing party networks.

- Paul D Kenny

The politics in any democracy is based on party-voter linkages. These linkages play a very important role in explaining the rise of populist leaders. Once these linkages are ruptured, it gives space for demagogues to establish a direct connect with the people. There are broadly 3 types of party-voter linkages:

1) Programmatic: Key features include ‘recruitment of mass party membership, mobilization of civil society interest groups’.

Paul adds, “The defining feature of programmatic parties is that they are based on stable institutionalized relationships with supporters. the linkages between programmatic parties and voters primarily occur through party membership and membership of aligned civil society organisations. Parties’ policy platforms are consistent with the interests-both economic and cultural-of its supporting groups. Programmatic parties embody a range of ideological commitments”.

2) Patronage: Key features include ‘a quid pro quo in which votes are exchanged for material benefits’.

Paul further describes,"What is distinctive about patronage as a form of exchange is its particularistic nature. Patronage parties link voters and parties through the reciprocal exchange of votes for the particularistic provision of public resources”.

3) Populist: Key features include ‘a personalistic or charismatic leader who looks to gain or retain power based on direct,unmediated and un-institutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers’.

Paul adds that populists “rely more heavily on ad hoc, centripetal, and weakly institutionalized direct links with voters established through the mass media and mass rallies.”

This is a good framework to understand populism in India.

Paul argues that Modi is not the first populist leader that India has seen. Indira Gandhi was the first populist leader and her regime ended with the repressive act of emergency.

The susceptibility of democracies with patronage politics slipping into populism is high because of the very design of patronage politics.

In a patronage democracy, the central leadership is connected to the masses through intermediaries called sub-national brokers who distribute public goods in return of political support and rents in return for the services. These brokers consolidate political support and give give it back to the central leadership, up in the chain.

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In Indian scenario, brokers can be state level elites, state level ministers, legislators etc. The patronage based politics is vulnerable to populism because of the inherent principal-agent bug. The central leadership depends upon these brokers to lend the political support in blocks. The brokers are the face of delivering public services to the voters. The benefit of attribution in case of an efficient public service delivery goes to these brokers. If the brokers decide to use the support, which they get from the voters, to enhance their political reputation rather than sending the support up to the central leadership, then they tend to become ‘autonomous brokers’. These autonomous brokers have their own support base and retain power at state level even without central leadership’s benevolence.

In the figure above, the brokers in the patronage politics have a very limited autonomy and are tightly controlled by the central leadership. Paul writes that “they serve at the pleasure of their government patrons in the center”.

Centrally controlled patronage network means that the central leaders have powers of sanction and removal over brokers that mitigate the principal-agent problem inherent in the patronage network. Lower level brokers are thus compelled to deliver votes to political leaders at the national level in order to continue benefiting from intermediating between state and society in the delivery of goods and services. Where central control is very high, such as when mayors and governors are directly appointed, even if the latter are from different parties to those of the central government, the degree to which they can undermine the center is strictly limited.

-Paul D Kenny

In case of autonomous brokers, Paul writes, “ The brokers are no longer incentivized to serve the interest of the central leadership. Instead they serve only their own and their clients’ (voters) interests”. He further adds, “Brokers will seek to retain the loyalty of their clientele, regardless of the interests of the national leadership. In this context, subnational governing units are likely to develop into independent arenas of political contestation, and intra-party factionalism may spill over inter-party competition. This is because brokers no longer need the support of national party structures to retain their positions.

It is this patron client relationship between the subnational autonomous brokers and the voters that leads to inter-party competition; resentment among the voter groups who feel that they have been left out; anger because a certain voter block gets more privilege form the subnational brokers as compared to other block. This creates an open ground for a populist leader to establish an unmediated link with the voters bypassing the subnational brokers.

Paul writes, “Populists promise to circumvent the brokers and thus proffer a resolution to the legitimacy crisis of the old order. Populism is a boundedly rational form of mobilization against a system that is perceived to be failing, given the constraints on social organization inherent to a patronage democracy. If voters are not attached to a national party through ties of patronage or through membership in parties or affiliated organizations, this leaves them available for alternative forms of mobilization in national level elections”.

The passage below from the book is the most important one to understand populism in India:

Populists vary in the framing they use to give a collective identity to their movements, which are in practice quite diverse from a sociological perspective. Populist mobilization is consistent with the use of nativist or other identity-based rhetoric as it can function as an efficient marker for the mobilization of an electoral majority of those who feel alienated from the existing party system. Such ethnonationalist appeals are consistent with attempts to forge a multi-class base of support. Other anti-elite or anti-institutional appeals function in a similar way in populist mobilization. This is in large part because of the socioeconomic fragmentation of patronage systems, which makes vague moralistic appeals to the people have such resonance. There is notable little organization along class lines in patronage democracies, which means that programmatic alternatives to a failing patronage-based democracy are unlikely to emerge.

-Paul D Kenny

In other chapters of his book, Paul uses this framework to persuade the readers that the rise of populism in India was a phenomenon in the making.

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From 1952, after the first general election upto his death in 1964, Nehru was in full control of what is also called as the ‘Congress System’. This system was based on patronage based arrangement with regional state level elite who were an integral part of the party without much autonomy. They would deliver public services to their support base in return of political support which they would pass on to the central leadership during general elections. After Nehru’s demise, this arrangement started getting fractured. 1967 was the year when Congress lost Tamil Nadu to DMK. After that the local satraps turned out to be autonomous subnational brokers. To counter this Indira Gandhi turned to populism with her clarion call ‘gareebi hatao’ in 1971.

The deinstitutionalisation of the Congress; rise of strong regional mass leaders; resentment among the masses on inefficiencies in public service delivery were some of the key factors that led to the rise of India’s first populist leader, Indira Gandhi.

Go back to 2010 and you will find similar set of circumstances, that led to 2014:

1) Corruption and massive decline in public accountability

2) Coalition government with strong regional leaders. Thus giving an impression that governance in India is difficult because of varied interests. The image of India took a hit because of ‘policy paralysis’

3) Patronage politics is akin to appeasing a certain community

On top of this, if you add a dash of ethnonationalism, frequent dog whistles against a community and criminalize dissent or disagreement, then you will have a perfect recipe of a populist leader.

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