Dance of the demagoguesThe lockdown may be easy for some to bear, but daily wage workers are suffering.
Life under lockdown in Kathmandu isn’t so bad, at least for those who don't have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from. Prices have substantially gone up, but the availability of daily necessities in the market hasn’t yet dwindled. Electric supply is dependable. Phone lines are functional. Internet speed has significantly slowed, but it’s still possible to watch Bollywood flicks on YouTube. Stay-at-home cyber warriors of the middle class spend their time deriding each other and everyone else on social media.
It’s even better for the upper crust ensconced in their guarded villas or gated ghettos of security and comfort. Bougainvillea bushes are bent with the load of papery bracts along the high walls of standalone mansions. The view from well-appointed serviced apartments is stunning. Sun shines bright in the morning as daily supplies are delivered by authorised grocers to the doorstep in sanitised packets. Noon is for the asparagus and brown rice lunch followed by mid-day jazz or a siesta on the couch.
The Himalayan peaks peek from behind the veil of stray clouds in the windy afternoon. Come evening and the fragrance of tiny white jasmine begins to waft. As soon as the darkness descends, the spring moon rises in the company of stars to glow soothingly in the clear sky. Skyline of the city at midnight in the undulating terrain of Kathmandu valley is inviting and intriguing at the same time.
But it’s a different story altogether for those who have to work for their livelihood on a day-to-day basis. Social distancing is impossible when one has to share a room with more than four or five people. Frequent hand-washing is out of question as a bucket of water fetched from the neighbourhood shallow well has to last till the next morning. Wage-work has all but disappeared for most porters and construction labour. The self-employed that used to peddle this and that from door to door on a pushcart have been asked to stay indoors.
Buses back to the village have ceased to operate. It’s going to be a long journey back home huddled inside a milk van. The trek to the hills and valleys will be even more arduous. Whosoever says that calamities and pandemics strike the rich and poor alike is just making up a feel-good story. Positivity in times of crisis is the privilege of the comfortably placed.
The allure of the demagogues, however, seems to transcend class boundaries. Pandemics fail to dent the image of populists. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson botched the coronavirus crisis big time, so much so that he has caught the contagion himself. And yet, his approval rating has soared to 72 percent, a record unequalled since the early years of Tony Blair’s premiership. With an average rating of 47 percent, the score of US President Donald Trump is relatively lower, but it’s still highest since he acquired the presidency.
The Chinese aren’t too well known for conducting approval ratings of their thought leaders, but there are credible reports that President Xi Jinping will emerge even more powerful once the crisis is over. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, justifiably called the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, is a confirmed coronavirus-denier. The approval rating of the Bolsonaro government has fallen, but 30 percent of those surveyed still think that his administration is ‘good’ or even ‘great’. Perplexing as it may seem, demagogues seem to ride out of crises with relative ease.
In South Asia, no leader exemplifies the enduring appeal of majoritarian populism than the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He likes to spring surprises on his supporters and critics alike. Through a fateful televised address on 8 November 2016, he demonetised 86 percent of all currency in circulation.
The drastic move failed to meet any of its three stated objectives. It couldn’t reduce the unaccounted wealth—the so-called black money—from the Indian economy. Despite the hype, the scourge of fake currency remains to be eliminated. And yes, it had almost no effect in curbing terrorism.
The Indian economy slowed down. Joblessness grew to unprecedented levels. Social cohesion was torn apart. India’s potential as the next economic powerhouse after China came crashing down. One would have thought that the ‘divider-in-chief’ will end up paying a heavy price for his political blunders. He was rewarded with historic victory in subsequent elections. The establishment wasted considerable time in propagating the supposed qualities of cow excreta in fighting the pandemic. It sprung a surprise by announcing a long lockdown without any preparation.
But what is it that makes demagogic populists such as Trump and Modi tick in democracies despite their failures on most fronts?
Elaborating upon ideas of Eric Hoffer from The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, political historian Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College posits that supporters of a demagogue are beholden to their leader due to the power of hatred.
Philosopher Hoffer had clearly identified the power of loathing in mobilising classes and masses together. He postulates, ‘Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.’ Perhaps that also explains the popularity of conspiracy theories behind the Covid-19 pandemic.
Patriotism is all about striving for unity through creation of political commonalities of welfare policies, more effective social security, just and fair governance and an economy that prioritises employment creation over profits. Nationalism fans fears of the ‘other’ and aspires to maintain homogeneous ‘self’. Nationalists are more concerned with myths and symbols than laws or institutions.
Despite the stark reality of the world being together in its fight against the invisible enemy in the form of a new virus, xenophobia is on an upswing even within the border of a country. Jingoism rises when the virus is sought to be named after a country. Chauvinism makes political leaders take care of their constituents and let others flee: panic over joblessness and poverty in the wake of nation-wide lockdown in India has led to the largest movement of people since the Partition.
The bumper rabi crop in South Asia this year will somehow be harvested and stored. The mango trees will bear fruit. Humankind will survive the pandemic of the century just as it has always done. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be politics as usual afterwards. While individual rationality is an acquired ability, group irrationality is the norm that xenophobic, jingoistic and nationalistic demagogues exploit to gain and retain power.
The best that can be said about the politics of the world after the Covid-19 crisis is that it wouldn’t be much better. Crises usually benefit the incumbent everywhere. Governance in Nepal will continue to be on ‘auto-pilot’ powered by its PEON—the permanent establishment—engine with Khas-Arya supremacists providing the control panel with ‘cloud intelligence’.
In a recently released album Gigaton, Pearl Jam vocalist intones: “When the past is the present / And the future's no more / When every tomorrow / Is the same as before / Numbers keep falling off the calendar's floor / We're stuck in our boxes / Windows open no more.’
On that resigned note, greetings of the All Fools’ Day!