Karela Fry

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Hai muscular, hai populist

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A very interesting opinion piece by Tariq Thachil in IE discusses the meaning of an overused word:

In the writings of corporate analysts, populism is most often defined in terms of a preference for redistribution over growth. … For other observers, populism is used to indicate any policy driven by narrow political calculations rather than the broader wellbeing of the nation.

Yet, within the study of global politics, populism has meant something entirely different, and far more conceptually specific. First, it refers to mobilisations led by a political outsider, someone who was not previously a major player within the existing party system. Second, populist leaders would use their outsider status to craft appeals that attacked the existing political establishment for being self-serving and deaf to the needs of the ordinary citizen. Finally, populist figures would deploy these anti-elite appeals in the service of establishing direct links with voters, favouring the development of a personalistic cult over a party brand. This conceptualisation was developed most thoroughly within the context of Latin America, which produced iconic examples such as Chavez in Venezuela, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and, more recently, Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Of the major players in Indian politics, Mayawati probably comes closest to earning the populist label, as a relative outsider who used vociferous anti-elite appeals to craft a significant (and jealously guarded) cult of personality.

Interestingly, the article goes on to discuss a central issue: why is it necessary to use a word in its accepted meaning?

How does any of this matter for everyday political discussion? Isn’t this just a semantic discussion for stuffy academics? I do not think so. Using terms whose meanings are neither well understood nor consistent leads us to talk past each other, or worse.

Instead, the use of specific, appropriate and clearly understood terms is essential for transparent and responsible policy debates, which surely we all agree are needed. Thus, if we mean to say a policy is redistributive, we should simply say so. Doing so will force analysts to explain why they oppose redistribution specifically. It will also force them to clarify and defend the broader implication of this position, which is often that there is an inevitable trade-off between democratic politics (which they see as creating incentives for privileging redistribution) and a robust economy (which they see as needing to be freed from such electoral shackles): the so-called “democracy penalty” for growth. For the record, the numerous global studies on this subject continue to disagree on whether such a penalty exists.

Similarly, if we mean to say a policy is electorally driven, we should state this explicitly. Doing so would force us to explain why that is an undesirable quality for a policy to have. After all, the idea of a ruling party crafting policies that voters will reward it for is a sign of democracy working exactly as intended.

Refreshing to find a daily newspaper actually publishing such an article.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 5, 2013 at 4:08 pm

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