Populist Autocracy and India

Before we discuss Populist Autocracy and if India can achieve it we need to understand what is Populism. In 1967, the London School of Economics held a conference to define “populism”. Their general conclusion was that “everyone agreed that the subject is too vast not merely to be contained in one ‘definition’ but to be exhausted in one discussion.

What is popular sovereignty?


Popular sovereignty is the ‘Rule by the People’ in crude sense. Enlightenment notion of popular sovereignty is the legitimising principle of all political authority. It became the accepted norm with the American Revolution and French Revolutions, which ushered in the modern state.

  • The first based on English foundations was provided by the American constitution based on representative, not direct democracy, and with all sorts of checks and balances.
  • The second was an antithetical form as advocated by Rousseau (a form of representative democracy) which held that “the sovereignty of the people could never and should never be abridged”.

What is populism as per the above consideration?

A demagogic experience which promises to rise above the three organs of the state to secure his/her populist agenda of fulfilling the aspirations of the masses, most probably the majority of the masses.

Till the time all the three powers of the state are conjoined in one person who incarnates the “Voice of the people” i.e. popular sovereignty being supreme, it is not populism’s success.

It has been witnessed in ‘totalitarian democracy’, taken by Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It is populist authoritarianism.

Are we moving towards populism / Populist Autocracy?

imagesCalling the current scenario in the world politics, a populist authoritarianism would be quite an exaggeration because of the presence of effective checks and balances by the institutional structures of the state. This explains why labelling the Brexit and the US election outcomes as populist is quite awkward.

Most probably, it is in continental countries – particularly some of the east European countries – where there is a growing dysfunction of the EU, the threat of populist authoritarianism lies.

What exactly is this pattern of change in politics worldwide?

Populist Autocracy 3

We might have to move a little backwards to understand this change. One of the consequences of the secularism promoted by the Enlightenment was “the disenchantment of the world” with the supremacy of religion. This led to the deep human desire for cosmological beliefs which give meaning and purpose to their lives and relationships to others.

These cosmological beliefs were threatened by the rise of progressive cultural agenda of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism of the left-libertarian parties and other progressive movements advocating non-traditional values and causes.

Therefore, Harvard Kennedy School finds that it is the “CULTURAL BACKLASH” rather than economic distress which is fuelling this populism like situation.

Is it possible that India will become a populist democracy if not Populist Autocracy?

Populist Autocracy 1

With by and large entrenched liberal democracy, Indian ‘populism’ has taken two major forms -:

  • The first which still retains is the intellectual dominance of ‘socialist’ ideas which is by and large fuel ‘redistribution’ of resources. It views the majority of the citizens as being dependent on the state for their material needs.
  • The second view is to ‘empower’ the people who are fully capable, autonomous beings held back by various impediments caused by state’s failure to provide the basic public goods of law and order and the merit goods of health and education.

There are of course who fear that, despite espousing the second form of classically liberal populism, the current government is likely to follow Rousseau’s recommendations of popular sovereignty under the garb of ‘majoritarianism’ and create a populist autocracy. It is doubtful, because it depends upon a robust judiciary which may cave in as it did under Indira Gandhi to prevent her Napoleonic instincts.


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

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