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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 43 October 15, 2022

A Discourse on Authoritarian Populism | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 15 October 2022, by Arup Kumar Sen


In his preface to a recent collection of articles on ‘Authoritarian Populism’, Douglas Kellner observed: “Since the Brexit referendum in U. K., the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 U. S. election, and the rise of right-wing populist movements throughout the globe, there has been intense focus on authoritarian populism on a global scale…Trump has neither the well-articulated party apparatus, nor the full-blown ideology of the Nazis, and thus more resembles the phenomena of authoritarian populism or neofascism, which we can use to explain Trump and his supporters” (See Jeremiah Morelock (ed.), Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism, University of Westminster Press, 2018). Jeremiah Morelock, the editor of the book, explained the broad contours of ‘authoritarian populism’ (ibid.):

“The term ‘authoritarian populism’ goes back to Stuart Hall’s work on British Thatcherism in the 1970s…Generally, this involves social movements fuelled by prejudice and led by charismatic leaders that seek to increase governmental force to combat difference. It is commonplace for governments under the direction of authoritarian populists to condense and centralize authority, so that more power rests in the hands of fewer people”.

India under the rule of Narendra Modi does not conform to the paradigm of ‘authoritarian populism’ exemplified by Donald Trump, as Modi’s charismatic rule is backed by the ‘well-articulated party apparatus’ and ‘full-blown ideology’ of Hindutva. Indian political thinkers should enlighten us about the parameters of ‘authoritarian populism’ being practised by Modi under the BJP rule.

It may be mentioned in this connection that in their entry to the Routledge Handbook of Autocratization in South Asia (edited by Sten Widmalm. 2022), bearing the title ‘Hindu Nationalist Statecraft and Modi’s Authoritarian Populism’, two ‘foreign’ scholars, Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, made the following observation:

We see Modi’s authoritarian populism as a form of conservative politics that constructs a contradiction between common people and elites, and then uses this contradiction to justify the imposition of repressive measures by the state. We also see it, crucially, as a populism that draws a line between “true Indians” and their “anti-national” enemies, and subjects the latter to coercion in order, supposedly, to protect the former…the ominous Other that authoritarian populism depends on in order to frame a unitary conception of the nation and national culture is, in Modi’s India, the Muslim.

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