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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 50-51, December 3, December 10 2022 [Double issue]

Book Review: Raza on Kenny’s Populism and Patronage

Friday 2 December 2022


Reviewed by Aamir Raza

Populism and Patronage: Why Populist win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond

by Paul D. Kenny

Oxford University Press
Pages 234
Price Rs 545

Populism has been a recurrent feature of Global politics since last century. Despite having hostile views about liberal democratic institutions, Populist party across the world have gained astonishing electoral success. Although Populism can persist across the ideological spectrum, Populist threats to liberal democracy in the west and south have largely come from the right. The Right- wing Populism tends to be far more exclusive drawing support from voters who hold hyper-nationalist and anti-minority attitude. However Populist movement whether it is left or right generally succeed when the institutionalized ties between established ruling parties and voters become weak and then Populist leaders mobilizes the voters by triggering perceptions about the existing unjust order and a strong promise for the ’ reconstruction’ of a truly democratic order. Populist rule is grave danger for democracy, yet across the world populist are being elected with an extraordinary participatory upsergence.

In the light of this paradoxical moment in liberal democracy, the book under review ’ Populism and Patronage: Why Populist wins elections in India, Asia and Beyond written by Paul D. Kenny, Research fellow in Political and social change, Australian National University published in 2017 by Oxford University Press offers a nuanced understanding of how and why Populist gain supports. The book suggest that Populist exploits the breakdown in national patronage networks by connecting directly with the people through the media and mass rallies, avoiding or minimizing the use of deeply institutionalized party structures. Building upon this theoretical framework with the use of Qualitative and Quantitative data, this study offers an explanation for the rise and emergences of Populist movements in India and around the world, including Japan, Peru, Venezuela and Indonesia.

Many remarkable and scholarly books have been written which explores the Populist success in Latin America and Western Europe. However there is considerably less comparative research on other parts of the world in which patronage predominates. ‘ Populism and Patronage ’ by Paul D. Kenny tries to move beyond the traditional understanding of Populism. Rather than conceive of Populism exclusively as a type of thin ideology the book characterize Populist movements as ones in which personalistic leaders seeks to establish unmediated links with mass constituencies, who are other wise relatively free of existing party and institutional ties, in their quest to gain and retain power. It rivetingly engages and deliberates on multi- method approach to explain the cause of Populist success in Patronage – based democracies such as India.

The book heavily dwells on Principal agent theory and social network theory and makes strong claims that an increase in broker’s autonomy would leads to successful mobilization of a disorganised populace by the Populism against a system that no longer effectively link voters and center. This argument has broad applicibality because in Asia and Latin America Patronage is the predominant form of party-voter linkage. However Africa and most of the Middle East are excluded from the analysis because the main independent variable- broker autonomy- is measured using the Regional Authority index, which does not yet cover these regions. The finding of this book supports and builds on the growing consensus in the literature finding a connection between decentralisation and de-nationalization of party systems. It has attempted to demystify populism by reducing it to a type of party- voter linkage in much the same way as we understand programmatic and patronage-based parties.

Explaining the case of Populism in India the author examined the connection between the regionalisation of Indian Politics, collapse in the national network of congress and the emergences of Populist movements of far rights. Looking the tenure of Indira Gandhi in late 70’s and Modi’s capture of power in 2014 and 2019 through the prism of Populism open up new avenues for interpreting and understanding the political system and structure of Indian society as a whole in comparative perspective. Behind the success of both the leaders prevailing conditions of weakened institutionalised relationship between center and subnational unit are common. Both sought to refashion the parties they inherited in a highly personalistic way and appeal directly to the people as strong leader who could resolve this incoherence. Both touted their nationalistic credentials, their affinity for the common man , and their determination to fight the corruption of the political elite. Perhaps most troublingly, both have demonstrated a willingness to value the prerogatives of a popular mandate above legal niceties.( P-140).

The findings of the book suggest caution in the decentralisation of Political authority in countries of the developing world where patronage remains central to the party system. Decentralization of Political authority are generally perceived as remedy for democratic underperformance in patronage- based democracies. Rather than assuring the accountability of Government it may exacerbate principal – agent conflicts both between center and periphery and between voters and their governments. ( P-181). The author also argue that governance appears to be more effective, more equitable, more stable in more centralised democracies . However this tends to be contested proposition. Many centralized democracy has also witnessed the rise, emergences and election of Populist leaders. The recent wave of Populist mobilization has exposed the fragile nature of liberal democracy.

This book has generally focused on the decay of party- voter linkage in patronage democracies but has established a new methodological approach to conduct the further research on the Populist success in non patronage party systems such as western Europe and North America where Programmatic party systems exists. The books immediate relevance lies in the fact that since last few years a larger part of the world has seen the extraordinary electoral impact of Populist and in this context it becomes prudent to read this book to understand how and why Populist movements gain support

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