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Flamboyant 'demagogues' adjust politics, personality in shadow of democracy

Modi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro

By Ajit Singh

The terms dictators and demagogues are used interchangeably in various contexts, but there is a difference. The former rule over a totalitarian states where governments are able to exercise complete influence over every aspect of citizens’ life, whereas the latter are a "wannabe dictators" but due to the system of checks and balances they are are not fully capable to create police states.
In the 21st century flamboyant demagogues have adjusted their personality and politics in such a way that they successfully hide their intent and action in the shadows of democratic system. Unlike Hitler's fascist regime or North Korea's Communist dictatorship, it's difficult to hold them accountable because they will try to justify their hasty and unreasonable decision in the name of Constitution and larger public good.
There are some common qualities shared by populist demagogues in democratic countries that need to be checked in all seasons to protect people from potential benevolent dictators.

Compromising constitutional bodies

Rabble-rousers of modern era have smartly learnt from their predecessors, that to stay in power for eternity, it's important to curb and limit the functions of independent institutions like courts, the central bank, auditory bodies, investigation agencies etc.
For instance, President of Turkey Recep Erdogan has almost destroyed judicial independence, and the recent news about the call of his political ally to shut down Turkey's Constitutional courts is not just alarming but also a cause of concern in a country where a record number of journalists are serving jail sentence under false charges.
The decision if taken will not just compromise the press freedom which is already at its nadir in Turkey but it will also weaken the capacity of judicial system to guarantee the protection of people's rights.

Invoking ‘glorious’ past

Demagogues keep reminding us about ancient prosperity and push the narrative to portray their country as the leading force. It can be done via two ways, either by promoting the soft power like culture, tradition, civilization and spirituality, or use of nasty tricks to pull out the blinded nationalism that includes portraying one's country as the leading colonizer, telling people about invaders and portraying them as protector of native civilization.
They use the race theory to create a class divide in society like Hitler did by invoking the Aryan identity that made some people into believing that they are superior to others. By inciting this false hope of regaining the past glory and branding slogans like "Make America Great Again", "For us, Hungary First", and "Abki Bar, Modi Sarkar", they manipulate people into voting for their parties without doing any substantive work on the ground.

Undermining dissent and human rights

Dissent or criticism of leaders and their establishment is part of a healthy democratic society where people are fundamentally free to express their views regarding government policies. While delivering a lecture on “The Hues That Make India: From Plurality to Pluralism” Justice DY Chandrachud noted, "Dissent is the safety valve of a democracy." But sadly the modern day Niro of India has left no stone unturned to deliberately cut this valve into pieces.
Critics and human rights activists are put behind bars for raising their voice against the atrocities and crime inflicted on tribals, minorities and other vulnerable sections of society. They are mercilessly beaten, tortured, thrashed and maimed in solitary confinements, making no exceptions for maintaining basic human decency that is expected from the world's largest democracy.

Polarisation for winning elections

The gruesome killing of George Floyd by a white male police officer sparked global outrage and protests against racial inequality and hate crime that is at its highest level in more than a decade. People demanded accountability and change to stop institutionalised and systemic racism against the people of colour in the United States.
Ex-president Donald Trump instead of calling out and condemning white supremacism defended and even embraced this far right radical ideology of hate.
As per a report by V-Dem, there is an upsurge in political polarisation in India since 2014 when BJP seized power at the Centre, and this is evident by frequent incidents of mob-lynching, riots and attacks on minorities, especially Muslims and Dalits. 
The report states that freedom of religion has seen a considerable decline under the current regime. The reason behind the precipitous decline is the rise of Hindutva politics to sway elections at the cost of people who want to live a peaceful life in a non-hostile environment.

Violation of established rules of political conduct

Politics was always a dirty business but populist leaders in most democracies have stooped to a new low, ruining it further. They never shy away from using homophobic and sexist slurs or passing derogatory remarks against their counterparts in other parties.
Take for instance Brazilian president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who revokes popular prejudices in his campaign rhetoric by passing offensive and distasteful comments against women, gays, environmentalists and minorities.
The rise of retro-macho politics has left no space for political sobriety, and if unchecked, the tumor of hypermasculinity will not be just limited to hate speeches and jibes but translate into formidable action against humanity.
That's how Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu turned his political rhetoric into dystopian reality. Under his dictatorship, birth control was banned, abortion was outlawed and fetus was declared the "property of society", so women were tested for pregnancy and monitored to make sure that they give birth, and punished if they failed.

Refusal to accept migrants from war-torn countries

Western states have for decades waged war, supported regime change, imposed economic sanctions and trade barriers, sold weapons to militants in Middle-Eastern and African countries. But when refugees and immigrants began arriving at their borders from destabilized countries where anarchy, civil war and complete chaos ruled, they were detained and locked up under inhuman conditions.
In Hungary under ultra-right wing leader Viktor Orbán they were confined in shipping containers. Only after the European Union Court ruling last year, it shut down illegal migrant transit zones situated on the border with Serbia, even as tightening rules which will effectively bar future migration prospects in EU member states.

Undermining climate change

Climate change is the biggest threat to human existence in the 21st century. Earth's climate is now changing faster than at any point in modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. Climate change is a policy issue, yet in countries where demagogues are in-charge a destructive and anti-science view is taken to show that effects of climate change are not destructive for the planet.
Environmental policies of Bolsonaro in Brazil have put the Amazon rainforest on the verge of extinction. Regarded as the "lungs of the earth", Amazon acts as a giant carbon sink and is also responsible for driving rain patterns across South America and Africa.
Leaked documents revealed that Bolsonaro has cynical plans for Amazon rainforest that includes hydroelectric plants, construction of bridges on Amazon river & a proposed highway through the dense forest to integrate Amazon basin with the rest of the national territory.
Under pressure from the Biden government, Bolsonaro is now promising to make Brazil carbon neutral by 2050, but his environmental minister has asserted that his country is ready to cut 40 percent of deforestation in Amazon only if the international community provides $1 billion as assistance.
It is highly unlikely that the Brazilian government will take any steps against the influential farming lobby that played an important role in the victory of Bolsonaro in 2018 and to whom he promised to dismantle existing environmental protection to make way for agricultural land expansion and intensify production.
Indeed, the rise of populist leaders in democratic countries is not sudden. Before seizing power they boastfully promise to set their country free from corruption, crime and socio-economic inequality. But after winning election they shift their goal post to achieve sinister objectives. Electoral political system in a democracy needs an urgent overhaul to include an educated perspective rather than simply representing the will of majority.

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