The Asian Voice

Populist tragedy in India, Brazil and the Philippines: Inquirer columnist

The writer says that populist leaders represented a new and distinct brand of politics - "subaltern populism" or "emerging market populism."

The writer says that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi skilfully painted their reformist-liberal rivals as exemplars of the deracinated elite and questioned constitutional democracy as a desiccated po
The writer says that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi skilfully painted their reformist-liberal rivals as exemplars of the deracinated elite and questioned constitutional democracy as a desiccated political system in need of major overhaul.PHOTOS: REUTERS

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Over the past years, from Brazil to India and the Philippines, millions of voters have placed their faith in charismatic strongmen who thrive on apocalyptic rhetoric and who promised to single-handedly address complex 21st-century challenges.

Recently, however, the three countries have been confronting some of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks and economic recessions in the world. So, what went wrong? And why are populists so incompetent in actual governance?

Not long ago, India, Brazil, and the Philippines were hailed as unlikely "success stories" where reformist leaders managed to simultaneously oversee economic growth as well as democratic reforms.

Under Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004-2014), a renowned economist, the Asian giant became a business process outsourcing superpower.

During his term, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva (2003-2011) maintained rapid economic growth, implemented extensive poverty-alleviation programs (Bolsa Família), and became a global advocate for democracy and peace.

The Philippines' Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016), meanwhile, oversaw macroeconomic stability, above-average growth rates, his own version of conditional cash transfers for the poor, and "good governance" initiatives.

The Economist magazine, no fan of progressives such as Mr Lula, couldn't help gushing over Brazil as an "economic superpower." It also constantly praised Mr Aquino for ending the Philippines' status as the "Sick man of Asia."

Both Mr Lula and Mr Aquino, unsurprisingly, stepped down from office with high approval ratings.

All along, however, cracks had begun to appear in the façade of reformist success. First, there were the iconic corruption scandals - Brazil's Operation Carwash (Operação Lava Jato), India's Telecom Scandal, the Napoles pork barrel scam in the Philippines - which tarnished not only incumbent reformists but even the democratic system as a whole.

Second, all three reformist regimes invited widespread public criticism, especially among the newly mobile middle class, for their notoriously slow infrastructure development program.

Exhibit A was the suffocating traffic in Mumbai, Manila, and Rio de Janeiro.

And third, all three countries failed to create inclusive growth with their overreliance on either services (India and the Philippines) or resource exports (Brazil) without meaningful industrialisation, which is the sine qua non to sustained development.

Soon, ambitious populists saw a historic opportunity for ultimate power. Almost overnight, Narendra Modi (India), Rodrigo Duterte (the Philippines), and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) went from political outcasts to the ultimate expression of resurgent nationalism and strongman triumphalism in their countries.

Masters of performative politics, they skilfully painted their reformist-liberal rivals as exemplars of the deracinated elite and, with authoritarian bravado, even questioned constitutional democracy as a desiccated political system in need of major overhaul.

Crucially, they represented a new and distinct brand of politics, which I have termed "subaltern populism" or "emerging market populism."

Populists in the West, from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, tapped into the grievances of the working classes and rural populace against globalisation and migrant labour.

In contrast, populists in India, Brazil, and the Philippines have largely appealed to the newly mobilised middle classes in urban areas, who benefited from a decade or more of rapid economic growth yet lamented the fecklessness of liberal elites.

Once in office, these subaltern populists managed to quickly consolidate power and deftly exploit the absence of robust institutional checks and balances.

The problem, however, is that they celebrated and largely relied on, to use Theodor Adorno's distinctions, a politics of mythos (mythology) rather than logos (reason).

So when real-life challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, they were in no position to institute and sustain the kind of sophisticated, systematic, and empirically-driven public policy responses that allowed the likes of Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea to so effectively manage the crisis.

Instead, Mr Duterte and Mr Modi responded with an odd mixture of overstrict early lockdowns and subsequent complacency, while Mr Bolsonaro stubbornly ignored basic science altogether.

Neither poor nor helpless after decades of economic progress, the three countries surely could have done much better.

But as philosophers Adorno and Max Horkheimer once lamented, "Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity."

  • The writer is columnist with the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.