The Incendiary Appeal of Demagoguery in Our Time

Like Donald Trump, Mr. Modi rose to power demonizing ethnic-religious minorities, immigrants and the establishment media, and boasting about the size of a body part.

.. Arguments over what precisely is to blame for Mr. Trump’s apotheosis —

  • inequality,
  • callous globalized elites,
  • corruptible local legislators,
  • zealous ideologues,
  • a news media either toxic or complaisant — will only intensify in the coming months.

.. In the case of India, the role of institutional rot — venal legislators, a mendacious media — and the elites’ moral and intellectual truancy is clear. To see it one only has to remember that Mr. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, was accused of

  • supervising mass murder and
  • gang rapes of Muslims — and
  • consequently was barred from travel to the United States for nearly a decade

— and that none of that prevented him from being elected to India’s highest office.

.. Americans are, as Mr. Frank writes, “a population brought up expecting to enjoy life in what it is often told is the richest country in the world.” In India, one of the poorest countries in the world, “the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite” — to borrow from Ross Douthat, describing America — spawned a much more extravagant sense of entitlement.

.. Suave technocrats, economists and publicists (mostly U.S.-trained) endlessly regurgitated free-market nostrums (imported from America) — what Mr. Frank calls the “liberalism of the rich.”

.. The fervent rhetoric about private wealth-creation and its trickle-down benefits openly mocked, and eventually stigmatized, India’s founding ideals of egalitarian and collective welfare. It is this extraordinary historical reversal, and its slick agents, that must be investigated in order to understand the incendiary appeal of demagoguery in our time.

.. Karl Polanyi described in his 1944 book “The Great Transformation” how civil society and individual liberty are threatened as never before when a society has to reconfigure itself to serve the “utopian experiment of a self-regulating market.”

.. In recent years, smooth-tongued “policy entrepreneurs” (Paul Krugman’s term) advocating free-market reforms and a heavily armed security-state have dominated India’s public sphere.

.. Arvind Panagariya, a colleague of Mr. Bhagwati’s who now works for the Indian government’s economic policy think-tank, took to arguing that Indian children were genetically underweight, and not really as malnourished as the World Health Organization had claimed. The 2015 Nobel laureate Angus Deaton rightly calls such positions “poverty denialism.”

.. economic growth, of the uneven and jobless kind, was creating what the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have called “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”

.. All the while they stoked hatred against such enemies of rising India as Kashmiri separatists and their Pakistani supporters.

.. Mr. Modi and his hawkish Twitter account emerged into national politics just as growth faltered

.. “Mein Kampf” is a perennial bestseller in India, Hitler being seen as an exemplary nationalist-cum-people-manager.

.. More important, Mr. Modi grasped then, as astutely as Mr. Trump does now, the terrible political potency of ressentiment. Positioning himself in the gap between the self-righteous beneficiaries of globalization and irascible masses, he claimed to be the son of a modest tea-vendor who had dared to challenge the corrupt old dynasties of quasi-foreign liberals.

.. One of Mr. Modi’s most loyal fan bases was rich Indian-American businesspeople, who were naturally attracted to the promise of a wealthy India allied with the United States.

.. Mr. Trump sought their support, and hailing India’s prime minister as a “great man,”

.. Silicon Valley lined up to hail Mr. Modi’s vision of “Digital India.”

.. B.R. Ambedkar, the main framer of India’s constitution, warned in the 1950s that democracy in India was “only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”

.. India’s press, fearfully self-censoring, if not barefacedly mendacious, has become, as The Economist reported last month, “more craven than Pakistan’s.”

.. Fewer jobs are being created on Mr. Modi’s watch than under the previous government of quasi-foreign liberals.

.. Mr. Modi appears to be an opportunistic manipulator of disaffection with little to offer apart from the pornography of power and a bogus fantasy of machismo. Mr. Trump looks set to follow his lead.

.. In our own time, a global network of elites has tried to restart the discredited utopian experiment of a self-regulating market. The experiment failed, and again the rage of cheated masses has spawned demagogues who simultaneously promise to avenge the left-behinds and to rewire their alliances with the elites.