We are now deep in the era of political shocks. One electorate after another has expressed its anger with mainstream parties and technocratic elites by favoring political outsiders and know-nothing anti-incumbents. But what explains the appeal of demagogues once they start governing and reveal themselves to be exponents of chaos?
The widespread disorder predicted last November, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly withdrew 86 percent of the cash in circulation, has come to pass. This poorly conceived and ineptly executed demonetization damaged above all the toilers in India’s large informal economy.
Yet voters in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, rewarded Modi last week with an overwhelming victory in elections to the local legislature, making him the country’s most powerful politicians in decades.
For those who predicted that Modi had committed political suicide with demonetization, the results may look like another example of voters acting against their rational self-interest. Certainly, any impartial analysis of Modi’s performance in office since 2014 would have to conclude that he hasn’t delivered on most of his promises, especially the most electorally profitable of them — the creation of jobs for the one million Indians entering the workforce each month. Formal job growth under Modi is the weakest in seven years.
But those who seek to correlate voter choices with political and economic outcomes don’t quite grasp the emotional and psychological allure of a figure like Modi, a leader with a repertoire of masks and costumes. On the day of his election victory in 2014, I described Modi as “India’s canniest artist,” who knew that “resonant sentiments, images and symbols rather than rational argument or accurate history galvanize individuals.” In other words, Modi is someone who creates his own reality with powerful rhetoric and imagery, and then, using his mastery of digital communications, seduces many people into believing it.
He’s offered his followers a fantastical vision of making India great again. Furthermore, for the angry and frustrated among them, he’s gratifyingly identified a range of enemies that stand in their way: unreliable minorities, liberal elites and other rootless cosmopolitans.
No invocation of hard facts, it seems, can dent Modi’s make-believe world. Indeed, one can be counterproductive. The Harvard-based economist Amartya Sen may be right to point to the multifaceted harm inflicted by demonetization. But Modi has primed many struggling and aspiring Indians to distrust such cosmopolitan bearers of bad news, and to repose their faith in him, the authentic man of the soil. He clarified this us-versus-them opposition in a campaign speech in Uttar Pradesh: “On the one hand, there are those who talk of what people at Harvard say and on the other is a poor man’s son, who, through his hard work is trying to improve the economy.”
Contrasting his “hard work” to Harvard critiques, Modi has successfully persuaded many of those who feel left or pushed behind by uneven economic growth that he shares their resentment of the economically and culturally privileged. He shrewdly presented demonetization as a revolutionary cull of India’s rich, dynastic, venal and unaccountable elites. The poor, who stood in queues before banks and ATMs for hours, seemed to bear their suffering with equanimity since, in their view, the rich were suffering a lot more.
Like many political Svengalis, Modi has understood that, as Tocqueville pointed out, people in a democracy “have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion” for equality, and that “they will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.” Having grasped the political potency of ressentiment, Modi can continue to repeat his unfulfilled and unfulfillable promises by presenting himself as a relentless scourge of elites and sentinel of the upwardly mobile.
Donald Trump’s white, working-class voters don’t seem to mind his cabinet of plutocrats. Likewise, Modi’s poor supporters don’t seem to have noticed that their loudest champion came to power with the help of the richest people in India, and remains closely allied to them.
In fact, dwelling on such apparent inconsistencies makes us badly prepared for the political upheavals of our time. We must grasp that mass politics is often irrational rather than a negotiation between rational interests. Far from being a logical affair, it is “magic,” as the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who lived through the first great onslaught of demagogues in modern history, wrote. Certainly, Modi’s victory against all odds confirms von Hofmannsthal’s prediction that “he who can summon the forces from the deep, him will they follow.”