The dictionary defines a "populist" as "a politician who wants to appeal to or represent the interests and views of ordinary people". Clearly, the word has a very positive connotation, associated as it is with the aspirations of ordinary folk, ie, aam aadmi, besides being respectful of the one resorting to
Yet, today, "populist" and "populism" are derogatory words, used in dismissive tones to describe the utterances or deeds of a political adversary. The fall from grace of these terms which is in direct proportion to the character and conduct of politicos over the years is also about the complete eclipse of the "interests and views of the ordinary people". And the populist today is not a statesman but a panderer.
The fault lies as much with the people as with the politicians. The concept of common good is all but dead, and what is beneficial to one group may not necessarily be so for another. Rather, almost always, every group thinks it can grow only at the expense of the other. The proverbial tale of two cats and a monkey is a truism now with the wily monkey being played to perfection by the politicos.
And populism is the sure-fire weapon to hit the bull's eye, namely power, by pampering to the most vocal and politically organised of the groups, alternately. Little wonder that in every sphere of national activity from economics to social issues to religion to even foreign policy, it is only groups and vested interest that gain while the nation loses. And there is always an underlying core of unfortunates that is left out of these creamy bargains.
There are no takers for the ordinary man, only fakers!
Quite a few recent developments are pointers to the fact that the onslaught of populism is all set to overwhelm and sap every ounce of national interest. Take for instance the setting up of the Sixth Pay Commission (SPC) by the current UPA regime. The nation is yet to recover from the economic shock of the Fifth Pay Commission (FPC) itself. It was widely reported then that P Chidambaram who was the FM at that time too, walked out of a meeting with Leftists on the subject in a huff, aghast at the crippling economic impact if the FPC were to be implemented.
Yet he is now a willing party to the Sixth, which in the reckoning of pundits and people alike will sound the death knell for public finances.
And with states too following suit, as happened earlier, an irrevocable spiral of fiscal disaster will be set in motion. It is a matter of minor detail that the SPC is likely to be out by 2008, in time for the next LS polls! And few would dare challenge it because the government 'servants' constitute a vociferous and powerful lobby, backed by the Left, Right and the Centre.
A chosen twenty million is all set to benefit at the expense of over 400 million who slog it out with neither life security nor job security, just because the former could be easily mobilised to browbeat any dispensation!
The continuing drama over OBC reservations is another case in point. After tying itself up in political and constitutional knots, thanks to Arjun Singh's unreserved populist passions, the government is now indulging in all kinds of arithmetic jugglery to ensure that the percentages fall in place so that social justice reigns.
Even assuming that meritocracy is elitist as the "quotaists" claim, these champions of social justice would not bat an eyelid about the gross economic injustice the scheme would still entail as huge swathes of people below poverty line would be left out. But such a larger picture would not serve the purpose of vote bank politics.
Populism of the current genre is as tunnel-visioned as it is short sighted.
Tamil Nadu is a class apart. Here competitive populism is not just a game of political roulette but a perfectly rational exercise too. After all, how can one watch a TV if there is no power? So it is free power for free TVs (no word about a free remote). So what if people starve for cereals, the daily diet of serials would suffice. In a film-crazed state where CMs routinely pass through Kollywood to reach the Fort, the obvious next on the populist priority list is the big screen.
The people too would prefer their favourite stars to thrive rather than their own kith and kin. A Tamil title is all that is necessary to be entitled to a share of the taxpayer's money, no matter if the film itself goes against the much-touted Tamil culture. A "Dravidian" touch can yield more.
For example, the subsidy for a movie on Periyar covers the fee for a steamy cabaret item number by a scantily covered nymphet. Tamil fans would love it, and that's all that matters for "rational" populism to prevail. For that matter, even Madonna can claim a tax rebate here if she chooses to call herself Muniamma!
Populism is generally deemed a safe camouflage by politicians of all hues to hide their own undoings and misdeeds. In this era of globalisation, it is also construed as some kind of a penance by guilty consciences for reforms. But even that could be forgiven if at least reforms proceed parallel with populism. But the Indian experience is that they are mutually exclusive. As we saw in the case of NLC divestment, while reforms could easily be reversed, populism is a genie that can never be bottled.
Rationalists or reformists, Karunanidhi, Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, etc. are politicians first. If they can rewrite the rules for running the country to suit their political conveniences, is it not rational to first reform the dictionary? So here is the new "populist": a politician who wants to appeal to or represent his own interests and views in the name of ordinary people!
This may not make populism popular, but it sure is in keeping with the current populists' spirit.
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