Populists use a whole range of social, political and economic phenomena to forge and sustain their populism. One of them is crisis – creating, managing, resolving crisis.

From pre-Cold War Western fascists like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to their modern half-equivalents like Donald Trump and Viktor Orban in Hungary, populists of all shapes and sizes have routinely banked on extraordinary situations to nourish their political cults. Hitler and Mussolini used the grave economic perils and collective morale crisis of post-World War I Europe to rise to power. In fact, Hitler used a very specific mishap – the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933 – to grab power. Trump, Orban, Marine Le Pen in France and others like them have used the 2008 global financial crisis, the European refugee crisis and the so-called Islamisation of Europe to sell their politics to the people. British populists have deployed similar narratives to push for Brexit.

In his 2016 book The Global Rise of Populism, Benjamin Moffat of Sweden’s Uppsala University, , argues that “the use – or manufacture – of a crisis to justify the call to revolt” is a characteristic trait of populist politics. Psychologists such as Scott Lilienfeld and Irwin Waldman of Emory University have found that “bold” populists have a flourishing relationship with crisis management.

By capitalising on crises that they may have triggered themselves, populists project themselves as the “doers” and the “fixers”. The masses, in turn, look to them for consolation, empowerment and salvation. It is a delicate give-and-take relationship. In short, crises are good for populists. It is precisely through the exaltation of their supposed crisis-management or problem-solving skills that such leaders manage to convince or co-opt voters, and eventually push their core agendas into the mainstream.

Beginning of the cult

India, too, has seen a populist upsurge since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. His first victory was premised upon the “crisis of corruption and mismanagement” that the Bharatiya Janata Party attributed to the Congress party, which had been in power for a decade. Modi was pitched by the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine as the antidote to a tottering and ostensibly elite-dominated politico-economic order. He would cure 70 years of political paralysis. He was to redeem the Indian national conscience from meekness, Macaulayism and most certainly, the pro-Pakistanism that the Congress had apparently practiced for seven decades. He was to, in short, protect Indians from a perennial crisis. That was the crux of Modi’s populist cult.

The events and responses that followed Modi’s victory bore the characteristic signs of what may be called a “crisis-management cult”. The first major instance of this was the cross-border surgical strike that the Indian Army conducted against so-called terror launchpads following the 2016 attack on an army camp in Kasmir’s Uri. Modi’s image as a forthright, masculine leader took a major fillip after the operation. It was sold more as Modi’s unsparing revenge and less as a strategic national response. He was immediately christened “the ultimate Chanakya”.

Next came demonetisation, pitched as a daring response to corruption, black money, terror financing and fake currency. Modi’s cult grew some more. Terms from the previous crisis were deployed to hail the move – it was a “surgical strike” within India’s border, according to some. The praise came flowing in like a tsunami.

A woman wearing a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Assam in April 2019. Credit: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

“The victory of 130 crore Indians makes demonetisation arguably one of the greatest economic experiments in modern history and PM Modi will be hailed as the architects of ‘clean India’ for years to come,” argued one political analyst. It is a different matter altogether that the exercise was an epic failure and caused extreme socioeconomic distress.

Next came the Balakot airstrikes in the wake of the February 2019 attack on a security convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama. The unprecedented aerial targeted bombing campaign deep inside Pakistani territory was widely hailed as historic. The then Indian Air Force praised the “resolve of political leadership to punish perpetrators of terrorism”, not-so-subtly crediting it all to Modi. It was all but the ultimate revenge, exacted in blood, that a grieving nation was seeking after a tragedy.

And Modi didn’t disappoint. His cult took on a whole new level, blunting accusations of financial misconduct as part of the Rafale deal to buy fighter planes from France. The results were duly reflected in the national elections few months later, as Modi received a giant second mandate. In the eyes of his supporters, Modi had become the ultimate crisis-manager that India had always needed but never got.

Through this populist upswing, the Modi cult was synonymised with a single leitmotif – “masterstroke”. Modi, the ultimate Chanakya, simply cannot go wrong. Whatever he does, must be right. As the slogan goes, “Modi hai toh mumkin hai.” Modi makes it possible.

Using a pandemic

Once again, we see Modi’s crisis-management cult being fortified as a consequence of the Covid=19 pandemic. In his first address on March 21after the virus began to spread in India, Prime Minister Modi, instead of outlining a specific national strategy, announced a single-day “janata curfew”, a people’s curfew, for March 22, and asked Indians to clap, clank utensils and ring bells from their balconies at 5 pm on that day to thank India’s health, security and sanitation workers who were battling the pandemic from the frontline.

While the intent of the call was benign, and even praiseworthy, the whole thing was umbilically tied to Modi’s cult. Indians were to, on Modi’s “request”, make some noise in a grand show of solidarity. They were to refract Modi’s large-heartedness and sense of gratitude from their own balconies.

But more importantly, Modi’s call had a ritualistic tenor to it. Not long after his address, even before the clanking and clapping began, pseudo-scientific claims flooded WhatsApp about how “vibrations”, combined with the right planetary configurations, could kill the coronavirus. The prime minister was hailed as a genius for deploying “Indian knowledge” to fight the pandemic.

Worse, in many cities and towns, people thronged the streets in festive fervour – beating drums, blowing conches, clanging cymbals –- and in the process, defeated the whole agenda of social distancing. It was a strange, somewhat paganistic, spectacle that drowned the real concerns of health workers struggling to cope with the rising caseload or the risk of transmissions as a result of large public gatherings.

Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Modi, thereafter, did appeal to the masses to stick to only scientifically-proven solutions, but has not specifically pushed back against the quackery and street-level chaos that accompanied the janata curfew or his balcony show call. He sure does not mind the subterranean attention.

Turkish academic, Bilge Yabanci, talks about how right-wing populists routinely use “symbolic, ritualistic and emotive mobilisation” to “sacralise” politics and build support. When done through a nationwide spectacle, such sacralisation can directly amplify the leader’s cult. Thus, as Suraj Gogoi, a doctoral scholar in sociology at the National University of Singapore, recently noted in an article, the Modi, by calling for a cacophonous balcony show, used the Covid-19 crisis “to create a ‘society of spectacle’ through a ritual”.

But call it by whatever name, the positive response that it received from a large number of Indians means that Modi’s balcony call only nourished his enduring cult.

“When it comes to the pandemic, he made us feel that we can win against it,” wrote Professor Makarand Paranjpe, Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. “He rose to the occasion to be greater than the pandemic. This no other world leader, from Donald Trump to Xi Jinping, has quite managed to do.”

In his next national address on March 24, Modi announced a 21-days nationwide lockdown and the allocation of Rs 15,000 crores towards fighting Covid-19. In his speech, Prime Minister Modi sounded a little more alarmed than usual but maintained a veneer of composure and wisdom, which are integral to crisis-management. Despite all its vagaries that have begun to surface, the lockdown was received well in principle by most, including some seasoned critics of Modi. The World Health Organisation described it as “robust and comprehensive”. Once again, Modi has emerged as a stellar crisis-manager, at least in the eyes of his ardent supporters.

And of course, one commentator, Professor Paranjpe again, called the lockdown Modi’s “surgical strike against coronavirus”.

A Bharatiya Janata Party supporter in Delhi celebrates state election victories in December 2014. Credit: AFP

Finally, Modi, on Sunday, delivered his latest address as part of his Mann Ki Baat radio series, in which he apologised to the people of India for the hardships caused due to the lockdown. “My conscience says you will forgive me,” he said, adding that the crisis is a “battle of life and death”. The address came after the nationwide lockdown triggered intense social and economic distress among ordinary people, particularly migrant workers who, unable to find shelter or work, have embarked on a “long march” of hundreds of kilometres to reach their home villages.

Modi’s ostensibly remorseful appeal has glaring similarities with the speeches he made after demonetisation in which he said the “tough” decision had caused short-term pain, but would offer long-term benefits, and that he would accept any punishment delivered to him if things go wrong. The direct emotional, almost humane, outpouring of apologia mixed with the willingness to take “bold decisions” is another leaf from the populist handbook. Voters are made to feel that while their leader is capable of feeling empathy, he can also take extraordinary decisions when the occasion demands. Needless to say, this hits a general soft spot in most people.

In itself, it is a compelling strategy to package an otherwise frail narrative, and only adds to the leader’s appeal. But ultimately, it is designed to convince people to overlook their own pain, regardless of the fact that timely government response could have allayed it. The government has also launched a special emergency fund to tackle the pandemic, acronymised as PM-CARES Fund. Once again, the idea behind putting the term “PM” in a financial corpus that is supposed to be crowdfunded is to singularly synonymise emergency social welfare with the man of the hour – the prime minister – himself.

Whatever the end game be, there is little doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic will only intensify Modi’s cult-building project. He, with some help from his intellectual subjects, will continue to project himself as a bold problem-solver. If a policy lacks substance, the flattering rhetoric on social media and WhatsApp will compensate for this and sell Modi as an indispensable, singular solution to the pandemic. This is particularly because the fundamental nature of this crisis is non-political: it directly affects the life of every Indian. Hence, more and more people will now be willing to repose faith on Modi.

Thus, while the Covid-19 crisis might have “demonstrated the limits of populism as a method of government” at an international level, as Thomas Wright and Kurt M. Campbell argued in an article for The Atlantic, it is good news for the 8 pm populist in India.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, and former GIBSA Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.