August 8, 2017    9 minute read

Uniting to Divide: Populism and Modern Geopolitics

Us and Them    August 8, 2017    9 minute read

Uniting to Divide: Populism and Modern Geopolitics

There are certain words that usually have negative connotations but usually are rooted in positive words. For instance, communalism in India has some serious negative connotations but is derived from a positive word – community.

Populism is one such concept and now a fully functional political ideology having influence over statecraft, while causing massive ripple effects on the international political economy. Syntactically it means working towards the betterment of the people. Semantically, it means something entirely different to the current geopolitics than ever before.

In the last couple of years or so, we have witnessed a slew of populist governments being installed in crucial countries, being complemented by a host of populist measures. We have witnessed the “Brexit”, a slew of populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi being elevated to power as well as an increased rhetoric and action on inward looking policies by the aforementioned governments as well as others across the globe.

Poverty and Populism

A fact that can’t be ignored is that developing or under-developed countries are usually more prone to populism. It is largely because of the easy manner in which the “enemy” or the outsider can be portrayed in these cases. For instance, in India, there is no state (provincial) government that doesn’t indulge in a populist rhetoric. The run up to the Parliamentary elections (for the central or federal government) is a barrage of populist rhetoric (irrespective of the fact if it transpires into policy or not). That’s what wins these politicos the hearts of the masses, not to mention crucial votes and vote banks as well.

For the West, however, it seems like a fairly recent phenomenon; at least the phenomenon of populists being considered serious political contenders. The portrayals of immigrants as outsiders coupled with an anti-Muslim rhetoric in the backdrop of growing Islamic terrorism are some of the biggest contributors to this phenomenon. For some of the citizens, the immigrants are taking up the jobs while the Muslims are terrorists – at least that is what the populists have led them to believe. That’s the case in US, UK, France (although it narrowly escaped the populist hands of Marie Le Pen), Sweden, Netherlands and probably a lot more.

However, what is skipping the rhetoric is the fact that populism is almost always bad for business. At least, it is the case for “puritan” populists; that is those unlike Narendra Modi. The world as we know today seems to derive pride from the principles of “liberty, equality & fraternity”. Any value eschewed other than this is almost always scrutinised. Populism challenges these liberal values by breeding inward looking policies. The US has long been heralded as an epitome of modern capitalist policies and Protestant values. Now when it starts looking inward, it sends out a wrong signal in the market.

Populist Geopolitics and Business

Trade, economics and business get impacted or rather hurt due to the protectionist policies that usually follow to keep up with the populist rhetoric. Also, from a point of view of ethics and consistency as some of the global leaders in trade output it is wrong for the countries in the West to move to populist ideologies. It’s high time they take responsibility for selling liberal values and economics during the entire second half of the 20th century. They sold Structural Development Plans via the World Bank. They convinced the entire gamut of countries to adopt these values and translate them into policy. Now when a major global shift has taken place towards liberalism and capitalism, the West is largely moving away from it.

Despite all these drawbacks associated with populism a greater number of countries are being drawn towards populism. Why is it so? Are there some benefits that populism has we are probably missing out? Although it is not possible to predict how the economy will work out in the longer run, in the shorter run it does give the political party overseeing or assuring to oversee the populist policies a great degree of political mileage. The conservative section of the country usually buys in to the next set of policies of the political party in charge. For instance, the Narendra Modi government in India undertook a set of well-intentioned economic policy measures that have backfired harshly on the economy.

However, the trust in his government is at an all-time high, even when compared across the governments of the globe. That’s due to the blind trust bred by populism. This in turn leads to a dictatorial style of governance even in the most robust of democracies. The government asserts strength in its position due to the aura of populism backing it, which sometimes translates into arrogant decisions made in its backdrop. Again taking cues from the Indian government, the relations with some of the historical allies like Nepal and Iran are in doldrums now due to this.


We can also make a similar assessment in case of Donald Trump, where the relations with some of the historical allies aren’t as smooth as they were earlier. Similarly, Japan’s Shinzo Abe also had some of the highest ratings for a post war Prime Minister in Japan, which had albeit, reduced to lower levels in July in the backdrop of various scandals hitting the government deck. Since then, it has been on an upsurge however.

What is different in case of Modi and Abe is the vision that they project apart from the populism (Abe’s pitch being the effort at changing the post-war pacifist constitution that has stunted Japan’s attempts at its military overtures)is their economic vision. “Modinomics” and “Abenomics” had become one of the most resolute planks for voter attraction. Although Abe has not had allegations of a dictatorial style of governance till now, Modi and Trump have been regularly accused of such a style. It is an area of concern, certainly for the global markets and economy.

However, history also provides the evidence that dictatorial governments were some of the best managers of economics and oversaw huge economic booms. For instance, the Deutsche Mark went on a huge upsurge during Hitler’s reign after it had fallen to historical lows against the dollar. In the current era, populist governments are possibly the closest that we can find to a dictatorial government of the past.

Hence, the long term impact of these governments is yet to be seen. This combination of “populism and good economics” however does not seem to have any consonance with Trump’s governance, because he does not seem to have any plank other than crude populism. His economic policies and crucial appointments also don’t seem to have gone down well with many.

Populism and Soft Power

One of the prime impacts of this sort of populism backed governance is that the resultant soft power of the country harbours largely at two extremes. The countries that see the opportunity of making profits or resonate with the new ideology emanating from the populist government become instant allies. Countries that want to distant themselves are reluctant to make any major formal statement together.

Hence, it can be safely assumed that populism has an “extreme” impact on the foreign policy, at the least. Economics also gets distorted to factor in the sentiments of the populist majority that voted the government to power. Efforts are made to keep that vote bank active and running so as to not lose their trust. Hence, the economic policies are based on a biased set of notions and are like arrows shot in the dark, targeted at only a certain part of the populace.

It is interesting to note the differences in the populism of Asia versus the populism of Europe. European countries generally have an older population with the average age hovering much higher than their Asian counterparts, barring Japan. Therefore, majority of the population in the European continent has witnessed the horrors of war. That has a huge contribution in exacerbating their skepticism of the “other”. Therefore, it is an externally induced populism.

Asian Populism

On the other hand the Asian populism is different. A projection of “other” is routinely carried out and made into a propaganda which affects the mind of the citizens like a host virus. The prime targets in Asian populism are usually the rich, the minorities and anyone else that is vulnerable to being made the “other”. This is an internally induced populism. Both have significant impacts on the policy level, irrespective of their origin. Say, for instance in both the cases you can’t make beneficial pacts with the party seen as an enemy, without the fear of losing out on the voters plank that you are standing on.

But the current situation necessitates a crucial question before the long term impact of populism on the economy and politics is actually witnessed and observed. Why is populism suddenly on the rise? Is it really that sudden? The answer is that this populism has always inhabited the minds of the people. After all, the same section of people who witnessed the horrors of war was the one who had voted the previous governments to power in countries like UK and US.


Growing dissent with the flaws of democracy and free markets has led to such an upsurge of such political leaders being elevated to figures of national importance than fringe elements. The problem is not much with free market as much as it is with the benefits of free markets not reaching this disgruntled citizenry. It is also about the “other” appropriating a larger share than is meant for “us”, the indigenous people.  It is only now that they have found voices that can take this forward. Because on a serious note, how many people would even consider Trump’s rhetoric as serious political statement some 15 years back?

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