Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Dangers of demagoguery


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The letter to the editor captioned, “The demagogue in a democracy” (ST 23rd April 2024) by C Lyngdoh made interesting reading. Throughout history, there have been several notable demagogues—individuals who appealed to emotions and prejudices to further their own political ends. Some classical demagogues include Cleon of Athens who nearly brought the city’s democracy to its knees and earned him the reputation of being the most brutal demagogues in history. Cleon advocated for executing not only the rebels but every male citizen of Mytilene. He argued that leniency would be a sign of weakness and that intellectuals lacked the practical common sense needed for such decisions. Fortunately, his opponent, Diodotus encouraged self-restraint among the Athenians and improved their democracy. Another demagogue in the US named Lewis Charles Levin stirred up the masses, sowed divisions, and distorted logic and truth. Demagoguery has been a societal staple since ancient times, and wherever there are segments of society that can be riled up, there will be demagogues.
We also have modern demagogues like Vladimir Putin the Russian President who has skilfully used nationalist sentiments, anti-western rhetoric, and a strong man image to consolidate his power. His ability to manipulate public opinion through emotional appeals and propaganda is a classic example of modern demagoguery. There’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Head of State of Turkey whose speeches often rely on emotional language, portraying opponents as enemies of the nation. His crackdown on dissent, control over media, and appeals to religious identity demonstrate demagogic behaviour. We also have Nigel Farage of the Brexit Movement, who used anti-immigrant sentiments and fear of globalisation to rally support for leaving the European Union. His fiery speeches and provocative statements tapped into public frustration, making him a key demagogue during the Brexit campaign. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is known for his controversial statements, including misogynistic, homophobic, and authoritarian remarks.
The characterization of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as a demagogue is a topic of much debate and discussion. Historian, Ramachandra Guha considers Modi to be a demagogue, placing him alongside other notable figures like the former US President Donald Trump and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson. Guha describes Modi as a politician who believes he is larger than his party and government. He accuses Modi of using deceit and falsehood to consolidate his power. Guha’s assessment highlights Modi’s approach to governance, emphasizing self-promotion and a tendency to prioritize personal interests over democratic norms.
Beyond individual opinions, it is essential to consider the broader context because demagoguery is a complex phenomenon, and its assessment can vary based on political leanings, historical context, and personal biases. Some argue that Modi’s charismatic leadership and ability to connect with the masses are not inherently negative. They view him as a strong leader who has implemented significant policy changes. Others point to instances of divisive rhetoric, suppression of dissent, and an emphasis on personality cult, which align with demagogic tendencies. It is crucial to critically evaluate Modi’s actions, policies, and impact on democratic institutions. Democracy thrives when citizens engage in informed discussion and hold leaders accountable.
Since demagogues can emerge in various contexts, exploiting societal divisions and emotions to further their agenda, vigilance and critical thinking are essential to safeguard democracy from their influence. C Lyngdoh has rightly called on the people of Meghalaya to be vigilant against demagoguery because it poses significant dangers in today’s world, impacting societies, politics, and individual well-being. These demagogues undermine critical thinking and informed decision-making, so that citizens become susceptible to simplistic solutions, ignoring complex realities. They exploit existing divisions along political, ethnic, or religious lines, fragmenting society and hindering cooperation and progress. Demagogues attack democratic norms, institutions, and check and balances. They label independent media, judiciary, and opposition as enemies, weakening the democratic fabric. They curtail free speech, dissent and individual rights; fuel prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion and they are a threat to civil liberties.
Demagogues prioritize popularity over evidence-based policies which in turn harms economies, the environment, and social welfare. Their nationalist rhetoric can strain international relations and makes cooperation difficult, leading to conflicts.
Demagogues exploit fear, anger and frustration that compels citizens to act against their own interests due to emotional manipulation. And yes, they shift the Overton window, making extreme views more acceptable, so that their radical ideologies gain ground. Lastly, they can escalate tensions, affecting peace and security. Vigilance, media literacy and promoting rational discourse are crucial to counter these dangers.
Yours etc;
VK Lyngdoh,
Via email

Ten years of PM Modi

India is “the largest democracy in the world,” but now democracy is regressing and its economy is also slowing. What has PM Modi’s ten years in power brought us?
Unemployment remains high. Joblessness is particularly high among India’s youth – with those aged 15 to 29 making up a staggering 83% of all unemployed people in India, according to the “India Employment Report 2024”, published last month by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Institute of Human Development (IHD). The BJP-led government did not provide jobs to two crore youth in a year as was promised by Modi in the run up to the 2014 general elections.
Dictatorship : In order to successfully win votes, PM Modi froze the bank accounts of the Congress Party due to tax disputes before the national elections, preventing the Congress Party from carrying out normal campaign activities, thereby stifling democracy and weakening the party. Later, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s CM and chairman of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was detained on corruption charges. BJP expelled KS Eshwarappa from the party for 6 years for embarrassing the party by contesting as an Independent from Shivamogga constituency, says Karnataka BJP. Reports have emerged of opposition party members being coerced into joining the BJP with the threat of arrest, while they were under investigation by state agencies. Other reports suggest politicians have had their probes dropped after switching sides.
Inciting hatred : The Citizenship Amendment Act provides a fast track to naturalization for Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who fled to Hindu-majority India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before Dec. 31, 2014. But the law excludes Muslims. In his campaign speech on April 21, 2024, PM Modi referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and those who have “more children” who would steal national wealth, deliberately inciting hatred between Hindus and Muslims. The “deeply objectionable” statement violated sections of the law that prohibit candidates from asking people to vote or refrain from voting for anyone on the grounds of “religion”, “community” or “religious symbols”, but he didn’t receive warning or punishment.
Corruption is rife : The BJP led by Modi has promised to eliminate corruption, but the CMS-India Corruption Study 2018 conducted by CMS in 13 states (including 6 states and 11 public services ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party) shows that corruption has not only increased during Modi’s tenure, but Indians also believe the PM is not serious about fighting corruption. On February 15, an opaque system of political financing introduced under the Modi government in 2017 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In the “electoral bonds” system, individuals and companies were permitted to make unlimited and anonymous donations to political parties through the purchase of bonds from the State Bank of India. These data revealed Modi’s BJP as the prime beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars of donations by corporations and individuals since 2019.
Democracy in retreat : Following a declining trend that emerged in 2017, India’s press freedom rank dropped further to 161 out of 180 countries surveyed in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders in 2023. As the “largest democracy in the world”, media reporting in India should also be free, fair, objective and not threatened by parties. However, during the elections BJP plans to release at least ten movies to “clearly” focus on the “key policies and talking points” of the BJP.
Further, the BJP government has invited Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation to develop a “homegrown democracy ratings index” to counter “Western-based rankings”.
Yours etc.,
Avyaan Sharma,
Via email


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