New Year 2018 Double Issue: Editor's Note

Populism and Storytelling

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Why Modi is still compelling

LAST WEEK in Goa, I was among those invited for the India Ideas Conclave, now in its fourth edition. Conceived and curated by Ram Madhav, BJP’s in-house philosopher, the event brings together an interesting mix: ministers, academics, yogis, writers, diplomats, activists, media types, internet evangelists, establishment veterans and a sprinkle of dignitaries from the near abroad. It was my first time, and the topic this year was: ‘Leadership in the 21st Century’, and Bambolim beach provided the ideal backdrop, even as Gujarat loomed. I was in conversation with Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a state like no other in India, one that waits for the finest instincts of leadership to intervene. It’s where the ‘idea of India’—in spite of the seminar fatigue this term evokes—continues to be contested by street fighters who have come to identify with the larger idea of jihad. Still, it must be said, the Kashmir story continues to be told through the platitudinous patois of development and reconciliation. In the new clash of ideas, whose abiding images include the man in balaclava holding a knife over the kneeling victim in Guantanamo orange and the young Kashmiri enacting a pastiche of intifada against Indian security forces in the Valley, gods add to the divisions, and difference is destiny. It’s not geographical affinity but an emotional covenant that can reduce the distance between Delhi and Srinagar, and this awareness alone can turn a good leader into a great leader.

Leaders are storytellers, and the best of them carry the art beyond the usual stump poetry. When we look back from the last days of 2017, we see the remains of bad stories, the afterglow of exaggerated stories, and a pause in skilful narrations. In the story that captivated the democratic world a year ago, the protagonist was a stereotype: the populist feeding on the fears and insecurities of people left behind by globalisation but who still cared about faith and community, people who still wanted to see neighbours of the same colour and language when they stepped out into their garden. For the most effective storytellers among the populists, the future was a fantasy, the past was greatness. Their narrative power swayed the resentful class, which included not just ghetto-dwellers but blue-blooded nationalists who were fed up with the liberal biases of the establishment, and its obsession with the world at the expense of home. The populist came from the extreme ends of the Left and the Right, tapping into the frustrations of abandoned constituencies. As John B Judis writes in The Populist Explosion, ‘Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. There is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Leftwing populism is dyadic. Rightwing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down upon an out group.’

All those headline-grabbing populists are fantasists, and their tomorrow is a lost yesterday, a greater yesterday. For the originals, the story of tomorrow is a shared struggle in social realism

Every ism, in the end, is a story badly told—horribly or bloodily might be a better word. And it takes a while before it becomes a bad memory, a bad joke. Populism’s most successful storyteller is today the world’s most powerful politician of bad taste, and you may even come across desperate Trumpistas writing about the historical need to save Trumpism from Trump, maybe with the same degree of desperation with which some British conservatives want to save the spirit of Brexit from Theresa May, who was not a Leaver in the first place. The desperation—and the disappointment—vindicates the power of the story when it was told. In the US, it was a difficult story to tell after the bestselling romance of Obama, in which the aura of the protagonist made the socialist banalities he espoused irrelevant. The story Trump told was more compelling, certainly for Middle America, than the storyteller, a crotch-grabbing parvenu. The story drew its characters and morals from the deepest recesses of resentment, left untouched by traditional Democrats and Republicans. His tax reforms may have appeased Reaganites, but the story has begun to stink, and the storyteller remains an anomaly of democracy.

In the history of isms, this is perhaps the fastest transformation, from the bearable to the despicable. There is an honourable exception, though Narendra Modi cannot be categorised as a populist, say, in the mould of those who sprang up in affluent democracies of the West. He didn’t emerge overnight from the collective impatience of India. He may have become the country’s choice in spite of his party, but he has a backstory, unlike populists elsewhere, that is made of struggle, aloneness, and faith. He is one of politics’ longest campaigners, and even while being in power, he remains an outsider. This overwhelming sense of singularity comes from his confidence in the humaneness of the stories he tells. Stories in which there is no separation of the personal and the public. There is only this man, a flamboyant ascetic, for whom power is a quest verging on the spiritual. Unlike other populists, whose lives are hardly exemplary, Modi mostly tells stories with an autobiographical touch. They are also moral fables, and seldom does he cite great men from history to make a point. He is his own finest moral example. And it has become the bestselling, and most enduring, story in politics today. He is perhaps the only leader in a democracy today whose legitimacy is matched by his popularity. It just shows that in politics no story without authenticity sells, and no storyteller without individual aesthetics can hold our attention for long. A section of India may hate to accept it, but the storyteller who redeemed democracy in 2017 was an Indian. He always keeps the best for the next season. He is not your textbook populist, but the most popular in power today.

In literature, a good story, to paraphrase one of its greatest practitioners, is an ice axe that breaks the sea frozen within. In politics, storytelling is all about engaging with the future. All those headline-grabbing populists are fantasists, and their tomorrow is a lost yesterday, a greater yesterday. For the originals, the rooted ones, the story of tomorrow is a shared struggle in social realism. Leaders like Modi make it fast paced, action packed.

We at Open love stories—and storytellers. We take an effort to tell them differently, and the following pages are a celebration and a revelation.

Happy Holidays. Happy Reading.