With political parties dominating policies, there has been greater emphasis on winning elections. This concern has become the priority for research. This obviously meant conducting studies that cater to the populist appeal which included election studies and poll surveys meant to influence voters while change measurement and long-term implications became secondary (2010-20). But this has not yet sensitised the political leaders nor the concerned agencies in the government.

Good governance and populism

The government’s recent campaigns such as Swachh Bharat or Smart Cities has brought about a new kind of research. “Endorsement research” or supportive research or justifying studies has garnered more preference recently. Whether research is independent is no longer the preferred criteria. Even the credibility of independent institutions, which have been the primary sources for the country’s statistics, have come under questioning. There has been more reliance on audit- based methodology than evaluative research (2015-20).

Despite “national policy” becoming the latest craze among leaders in power, primary or independent research remains ignored. Instead, there is more reliance on the “consultation route”. Although the consultation process is overall effective for policies, it is necessary to question whether this process should be used to get “endorsement”.

Today, every ministry claims to be developing a “national policy”. In fact, every time there is a new minister, there is a call for a new policy. I recall how some ministries like the I & B were against a national policy until a few years ago as it also meant restrains, controls, and centralisation.

These trends are not distinct points as there is an overlap in their implications. They also reflect what the country is prioritising in its public policies and research opportunities.

A retrospective analysis or reverse tracking of these developments indicates two trends with implications on the kind of research being conducted in the country. First, the idea of “public policies” is getting diluted in the extent of concern for the “public”. As these policies focus more on voters, they are becoming increasingly politically oriented.

Second, public policies are being driven more by fewer groups or individuals. This trend is becoming more evident with every election. Third, as populism suits the rhetoric, a populist scheme has become the pursuit, even in research. One result of this trend is “supportive research” or endorsement.

Is populism a safer bet?

Populism is an outlook of leaders, and a methodology and strategy of those in power to control, command, and exert their authority. What we are witnessing today is an altogether new populism where ideology has little importance. The new instruments of communication and network have changed the course to such an extent that populism is being made to appear or sound synonymous to democracy and development, when in fact it can turn out to be a countervailing phenomenon.

What is being regarded as a boom may turn out to be a bubble. This depends on the leaders’ grip or control over the instruments of administrative authority or political power. In populism, the difference between ends and means becomes blurred.

The new wave of populism sweeping across the nation is rhetoric-centred. That is, it purports people as masses but is led by a few who are masters of rhetoric. Here, institutions matter less, as do future implications and research and feedback. Populism depends on revisiting the past rather than focusing on the future beyond three-five years. Polarising people through destabilisation is part of the strategy. Perpetuating hate, anger, and resentment form the core of populism and help sustain the phenomena. Doubletalk also comes handy in this process.

Citizen activism, debates, deliberations, and checks and balances are no longer virtues, and may even be snubbed. Populism does not care so much for self-correctives or plurality. Populism needs an imaginary or a virtual villain or an enemy to prompt realignments. It submits a polarisation that thrives in terms of “We of now and They of the past”.

Populism implies making people dependent on the government and reducing them to being “beneficiary citizens”. Introducing new tools (Aadhar, bank account, etc) provides an even easier grip over the masses. Homogenising people with other emotional issues also maintains populism (one nation, one language; or one nation, one election; or one nation, one market; or one nation, one policy). Political leaders think such methods are far more reliable to control and command than transparency, feedback, and research. (The National Register of Citizens is a new found measure along these lines.)

When concern for consequences is no longer a priority, the scope for feedback and research, scientific basis, or logical rationale gets marginalised. As do ethical responsibilities. In fact, even public opinions become less important while surveys matter more. Populism propels new alignments that surpass ideologies. Increased income in equalities has added to populism and added support to populist parties. Economic insecurity is another aspect that drives voters to populist parties and sustains populism.

Fantasy of populism, perils of over-promising

Populism is a global phenomenon today. As a political phenomenon, it includes two streams. The first stream is economic that is based more on the anxieties and expectations of people, including jobs and means to fulfil basic needs, as well as the lure of attractive-sounding schemes and sops which may exist only on paper. Shortages and crisis situations become the stimulus for, and sustain, populism. More often, this stream is based on positive inducements.

The second stream is emotional populism which is euphoria and rhetoric-based, often giving negative signals. Emotional populism often promotes and exploits majoritarian prejudice and has no concern for long- term consequences at all.

Both these streams of populism are short-sighted, cynical, and not really concerned with sustaining fair governance, democracy, or even development.

Populism is a fantasy, a mirage. It does not necessarily imply welfare, as is being claimed across the world today, particularly by those in political power. A common belief is that populism wins votes, and hence the power to govern. It is a mirage because it has no end. Populism is not the same as being popular or being liked or making oneself interesting to people. It has different meanings in different contexts.

In India, populism refers to the phenomena of appealing to the base interests or emotions or the lower instincts of people. It is not an ideology of any political party. There cannot be one consistent view of populism. In recent years, however, populism in terms of elections has become all-pervasive and has been driven more by competitive compulsions for polls.

Populism often involves promises unconcerned with budget or their feasibility. For example, despite the Supreme Court striking caste/community-based reservations, promises continue to be made. Populism is believing something that is temporary and is not an honourable or ethical way of seeking support for a productive or sustainable cause.

Populism is a lure, a bait for short-term advantage. Such populism has become a tactful strategy intended to induce or tempt people to support a leader or the government. Politics has become an art in populism, as an election-time tact. In this process, populism can very well be deceptive.

Considerable research has been undertaken on how or what should be done to create a populist course or to sustain support. Populism may also work as a trap when promises are not kept and cannot be explained to the concerned public. Populism is a tricky affair. It can sometimes be rewarding in temporarily and sometimes in a lasting manner.

Someone concerned with long-term interest may not find populism the preferred method despite its immediate benefits. There are examples where populist moves by governments have not found popular support. A 2016 referendum in Switzerland that granted basic income to every family was a populist move, but the motion was rejected by an overwhelming majority as people were against dependence on the government and were concerned about the government’s sustainability and productivity. But such examples are rare.

Recently, in Telangana as well as Andhra Pradesh, there were demands that every household be given one million rupees for their household expense. It should not be a surprise if this demand becomes a manifesto promise of parties just before the next elections in 2023.

That populism is becoming the norm in India has been too obvious in recent decades. The more this trend grows, the bleaker the chances for evaluative research and independent data and statistics.

Excerpted with permission from The Third Eye of Governance: Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research, N Bhaskara Rao, Speaking Tiger.