Is Indian politics populist?

Not really. The charge of populism only enables obfuscation.

Populism" has increasingly become a staple of the Indian news media's diet. Most recently, the term has become a firm favourite within the commentary on the food security bill. The "populist" label is particularly favoured by critics of both the bill and the UPA government that promulgated it. But what exactly these observers mean when they call the policy populist is either unclear or widely varying, and at odds with how the term has been historically conceptualised.

In the writings of corporate analysts, populism is most often defined in terms of a preference for redistribution over growth (setting aside the contentious claim that there is a necessary trade-off between these objectives). It is in this spirit that the UPA has been accused of being "more populist than [the late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez". For other observers, populism is used to indicate any policy driven by narrow political calculations rather than the broader wellbeing of the nation. Here it is the timing of the food security bill, during an election year, that makes it a "populist" move by the UPA government. For some analyses written from this perspective, even non-economic election-year agendas, such as the BJP's revival of Ayodhya, qualify as populist.

Yet, within the study of global politics, populism has meant something entirely different, and far more conceptually specific. First, it refers to mobilisations led by a political outsider, someone who was not previously a major player within the existing party system. Second, populist leaders would use their outsider status to craft appeals that attacked the existing political establishment for being self-serving and deaf to the needs of the ordinary citizen. Finally, populist figures would deploy these anti-elite appeals in the service of establishing direct links with voters, favouring the development of a personalistic cult over a party brand. This conceptualisation was developed most thoroughly within the context of Latin America, which produced iconic examples such as Chavez in Venezuela, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and, more recently, Evo Morales in Bolivia.

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