Populism and the African Region: Potential Dangers

J.A. Doma

NDC Rally – Image by Jarreth Merz

Populism has taken flight throughout the world today, and despite an aggressive response primarily in the media, the populist movement has surged on. With recent European Parliamentary elections all but highlighting that far-right populist parties had become a mainstay in Europe as IvanKrastev has highlighted in the New York Times, one is compelled to imagine what a populist Europe means for the rest of the world. With the United States (U.S.) all but lost, except for a much-changed outcome in the 2020 presidential election, the global order and balance of power is most certain to be transformed, with the developing world once again being the greatest losers. Some of the consequences of growing populism throughout the world have been identified, for example, Max Bergmann, Carolyn Kenney, and Trevor Sutton have highlighted the dangers of the rise of far-right populism to global democracy and security. In particular, of concern to me is the potential impact of populism on the African region. While the liberals of the international community have failed to respond adequately to rising populist movements, there has been a subtle and quiet convergence of a coalition of the radicals. This coalition is set to upset the way things are done today, all to the detriment of the most disadvantaged regions of the world.

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Enriching Discourse Theory

Cypriot memorials as an example of the workings of the discursive-material knot

Nico Carpentier

One of the issues where Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory has been struggling with, is its relationship with the material. This struggle is not caused by the lack of acknowledgement of the significance of the material in their discourse theory, on the contrary. From the very beginning, discourse theory has made it clear that the material matters, and that it cannot be equated with, or subsumed by, the discursive. Moreover, for Laclau and Mouffe, discourse is not the same as language, a position that opens up considerable opportunities for acknowledging the communicative capacities of objects and bodies. But that is not where the issue is situated. Even though Laclau and Mouffe emphasize the importance of the material, it remains a bit hidden under the theoretical weight of the discourse-theoretical vocabulary, and receives little specific conceptual attention. If the material matters, then there is also a need to have a vocabulary that allows to think through the role of the material. And if the material and the discursive interact, or, in other words, if the material and discursive are knotted or entangled, then there is a need to think through the knot and to develop a theory (or theories) of entanglement.

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Failure of progressive politics and the rise of a new ‘dangerous’ India

Idreas Khandy 22.05.19

The largest electoral exercise in the world –17th parliamentary elections of India – concluded on the 19th of this month. The mammoth task was carried out over 39 days and in 7 phases to decide the fate of 543 parliamentary seats. At the time of writing, the first post-poll surveys have begun to make rounds in the media. According to these post-poll surveys, the incumbent Narendra Modi led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) is all set to return to power; the accuracy of these surveys remains to be seen. Regardless of which party takes power, it is vital we pay attention to what these elections mean for the world’s largest electoral democracy in times of fake news, and the resurgence of chauvinism in the realm of high politics.

A tale of two manifestos:

To understand any election, a comparison of party manifestos is always a good starting point. Before doing that, a general comment on how Modi’s tenure has been covered is in order. Observers from across the world dubbed these elections as a referendum on Modi’s tenure, and much has been written about the rising intolerance, vigilante violence, and crackdown on dissent during Modi’s tenure. Domestically, Modi was widely criticised for his demonetisation move, which sent the economy into a shock. Modi’s frequent travels abroad received their share of criticism as well for being useless, and also became a template for hilarious internet memes

Coming to the manifestos of the two parties, both sought to cash in on political rhetoric and populist imagination. The manifesto of BJP read like a PR handout for its 5-year long tenure and sought to embellish its supposed tough stance on terrorism as the number one item on the manifesto titled ‘Nation First’. This section of the manifesto aimed to reinforce the rhetoric that India is continuously facing threats, both internal and external, by cashing in on the 14th February suicide attack in Kashmir, stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, and labelling social activists/dissenters as ‘left-wing extremists’. The manifesto also dedicated a whole section to what it calls ‘cultural heritage’, which shows the party’s intention to embark on a homogenisation drive in what is for intents and purposes a multi-national state. Lastly, the manifesto emphasised the aspect of development, and its aspirations to make India a global power by raising the issue of securing a permanent seat at the UNSC.

The manifestos appeared to have been written for the consumption of India’s tech-savvy Anglophone middle-class

On the other hand, the manifesto of the Congress party appeared radical in contrast to its rival. The key pledges the manifesto emphasised were a jobs revolution, universal healthcare, end to hate crimes, increasing defence spending, among other things. However, a closer reading of the party manifestos reveals that they are more similar than they appeared, as Irfan Ahmad had also pointed out in his Al Jazeera article in 2014. Things have not changed on that front; both manifestos raved about the discourse of development, the need to counter cross border terrorism and promise to acquire a permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). On the disputed and politically rebellious region of Kashmir, both parties have pledged to take an assimilationist approach, albeit these approaches are phrased differently. The manifestos appeared to have been written for the consumption of India’s tech-savvy Anglophone middle-class, which over the years has become a site for the ideological fight between the right and the centre in Indian politics represented by the invocation of Ram Temple by the BJP and a hat-tip to tolerance by the Congress party.

Most of the pledges and promises the manifestos spoke of were absent from the speeches delivered by the politicians of the respective parties while on the campaign trail. The tenor of the election campaign appeared to be entirely divorced from the manifestos, more so from the Congress side. BJP, on its part, left no chance of polarising the electorate go begging.

Campaigning in the age of social media:

Political parties spent a staggering £3.8 billion in the 2014 parliamentary elections on election campaigning and other related activities. The amount spent during the recently concluded elections was almost double that and stood at £5.42 billion. A significant chunk of these funds was dedicated to digital campaigning over social media platforms, especially Facebook and Google ads. The massive spending on campaigning points towards the fact that elections in India revolve more around the spectacle of campaigns and are less dependent on what the parties have pledged in their respective election manifestos. Election campaigns in India are designed not only to entertain the audience, but also informally known to be opportunities to make a quick buck as audiences/voters are lured with promises of cash, liquor, and even food. It is hardly surprising that issues of critical importance for public policy are barely discussed on the campaign trail by the politicians in India. The recently concluded elections were no different.

Pressing matters of public policy were conveniently elided over by politicians in their campaigning and by the media in their coverage of the elections. Matters of public policy such as environmental pollution, rising inequality amongst different social classes, farmer crisis,   dispossession of tribal people from their lands were either wholly pushed out of the conversation or at best given half-hearted and short-lived attention. The issues that were highlighted by the media as the core issues of the elections were jobs and economic slowdown, and national security. Additionally, BJP’s muscular nationalism and its links to corruption have also been thrown in the mix by the sections of media sympathetic to the Congressi vision of India.

The move sought to project Modi as a politician with a clean image, with the interests of the poor at heart.

The discourse and rhetoric on the campaign trail from all sides was shrill vitriol and a public mudslinging competition. Election campaigning of the incumbent BJP revolved around a spectacle of securitisation and hyperbole. ‘Sacrifices’ of soldiers, surgical strikes inside Pakistani territory, and a right-wing brand of national loyalty were some of the continuously invoked themes throughout BJP’s election campaign. A BJP candidate even praised and hailed the assassin of Gandhi as a patriot. The polarising character of BJP’s campaign was further enhanced by a massively potent campaign of misinformation, primarily carried out through the messaging app WhatsApp. The party also undertook an ingenious PR campaign – led by Modi himself, when he added the prefix ‘Chowkidar’ (Watchman) to his Twitter handle. The move sought to project Modi as a politician with a clean image, with the interests of the poor at heart. While the move may not have succeeded in achieving that objective, it, however, succeeded in a far more significant way. The ‘Chowkidar’ move succeeded in shifting the focus of political discourse from serious political and economic issues to trivial matters of self-adorned labels; a trap Indian National Congress (INC) willingly walked into and remained caged in throughout the elections.

On the other hand, the election campaign of the Congress party from the beginning and throughout the election appeared to be interested in replicating the spectacular and entertaining model of campaigning, something the BJP seems to have perfected. The Congress party instead of sticking to discussing its manifesto pledges and making a persuasive argument as to why the voters should consider its manifesto succumbed to the tactics of the blitz, name-calling, and petty sloganeering. The President of the INC Rahul Gandhi repeatedly pointed fingers at the alleged connivance of Modi’s office in the mishandling of the Rafale fighter jet deal. Gandhi almost ritualistically dared Modi to debate him on the Rafale issue, beyond that Gandhi had no potent critique of BJP’s planned implementation of The Citizenship Bill and the National Register of Citizens, or its planned homogenisation drive at a national level. Gandhi appeared to be immensely pleased with himself for coming up with the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai (Watchman is the Thief) slogan, which may have improved the acoustics of Congress election rallies, but miserably failed to project the Congress party as a viable alternative to the BJP – a development with far-reaching consequences for Indian polity in general..

A new ‘dangerous’ India?

An explanation of why Congress chose to ape BJP’s campaigning strategy, instead of forcefully putting forth its supposed ‘radical manifesto’ is that the policies that both these parties have pursued when in power since the early 1990s are qualitatively no different and are rooted in a neoliberal logic, which transcends the supposed divide of right and centre in Indian politics. Indian politics appears to have become a prisoner of what Marcuse called ‘liberal totalitarianism’, where the logic of neoliberal economic development has become the only acceptable and imaginable way to move forward. Neoliberal policies are unironically prescribed as the solution for problems whose roots lie in neoliberal thinking.

The failure of the Congress party and its allies to truly put progressive policies on the table and demonstrate the political will to pursue them forcefully has made a significant contribution in pushing Indian politics towards a dangerous trajectory. The legitimacy crisis of Congress has deepened in recent years to such an extent that the rhetoric of ‘If not Modi, then who?’ no longer sounds absurd, regardless of how frightening it is as a prospect. They call this the TINA; There is No Alternative.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that India is not a democracy in the truest sense of the word; it is a ‘quasi-democracy’ at best if I am to use Larry Diamond’s terminology, i.e., India is neither clearly democratic nor [overtly] authoritarian. The rise of BJP in such a ‘quasi-democracy’ makes the prospect of a ‘reverse wave of democracy’ in India very real. Snapping of internet services, curbs on press freedom, vigilante violence, systematic undermining of educational institutions all in the name of protecting the ‘national interest’ appear to confirm the trend of reversal in India.

Idreas Khandy is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University’s Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion

Catalonia: Challenging the Notions of Nationalism

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere

Nationalism has been one of the determining forces of modern history. After the fall of the Ancient Empires, it represented something to be proud of: the defence of one’s citizenship, traditions, language and culture-with Hans Kohn being one of the major historians of the old nationalism. The fascist movements of the Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, caused the term to develop many negative connotations. Today, it is often related to authoritative regimes and political ideas of exclusion rather than inclusion. It is even used as an insult in some political and cultural magazines. In terms of language also, a huge effort has been made to debate differences between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, concluding that the latter contains all the good will that the former supposedly lacks.

The truth is, however, that nationalism is an evolving term with a rich history and many footnotes, depending on which type we are discussing. The many theories under which academics have been studying and defining most of the nationalist movements that there have been in contemporary history derive from the works of Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, John Breuilly and Elie Kedourie to name a few. Kedourie takes a hostile stance towards nationalism and defines it as a form of politics that is unrelated to reality. He labels it a new form of romanticism and cites Fichte and Herder as examples of intellectuals who have been seduced. In a similar way, Smith claims that nationalism is nothing but an exaggeration of history combined with mythology. Breuilly is equally critical, suggesting that nationalist leaders aim for total control of the masses. Nairn also shares the idea that nationalism is an elite movement that seeks to spread throughout the masses. Most, if not all of the 20th century scholars describe nationalism negatively.

More recently, however, writers such as Taras Kuzio, Rogers Brubaker, Will Kymlicka and Montserrat Guibernau have challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that the new nationalisms’ characteristics are too varied to fit under a single, negatively- connotated umbrella. For instance, Guibernau describes Catalan nationalism as a form of nationalism without a state, tearing apart the premise that the ideology needs a state to survive. Guibernau’s definition seems quite appropriate if we consider that most Catalans are nowadays in favour of a new state. Yet how exactly is Catalan nationalism different from other types?

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements.

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements. In this case, the masses convinced the elite to pursue a Catalan state, not the other way around. In fact, the leading political party in Catalonia for the majority of the last twenty years, CiU (Convergència i Unió), always denied the possibility of a new state. It was not until after 11th September 2012 that this idea was even considered by its then-leader, Artur Mas, after millions went out onto the streets of Barcelona demanding independence. Since then, the party has been reformed under the name JxC (Junts per Catalunya) and is now led by Carles Puigdemont. He is currently exiled in Brussels, however, due to the Spanish state prosecution of those Catalan leaders who declared independence in 2017, even though this declaration never had a legal impact on either Spanish or Catalan politics.

Another major pillar of nationalism that is challenged by Catalan nationalism is that of romanticism. While it does have its own fair dose of mythology and idolized history, these are not at this nationalism’s core. The growth of this nationalism in the past two decades -and thus the growth in the number of supporters of independence- stems mainly from economic interest, rather than from a sentimental or mythological ideology. Different studies carried out by some of the most prominent economists have revealed that Catalonia would benefit more from being a new state than from remaining as part of Spain; Catalan GDP is actually one of Europe’s highest. To many Catalans out there, independence is, in fact, a rather pragmatic matter of survival.

In 2015, a newly formed political coalition aiming for independence won the Catalan elections. In 2017, after the failed declaration of independence, the pro-independence parties formed a government once again, only this time as two separate parties: JxC and ERC. Additionally, in the 2019 Spanish General Election, the pro-independence parties won more seats in the Spanish Congress than ever before. The Spanish answer to the ever-growing support for independence has drifted between feigned dialogue (always within the limits of the Spanish Constitution) and a legal-criminal response that witnesses several of the old leaders of Catalan independentism behind bars at this time.


It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism.

It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism. The more social networks’ popularity has spread among Catalans, the more supporters of independence there have been. Many arguments and reasons to support independence have been shared by Catalan activists on social networks, with effective results. Catalan nationalism also benefits from a huge pool of supporters based in academia thanks to a pacifying tone and well-researched arguments regarding the formation of a new state in Europe. The two most recent Spanish foreign ministers, Alfonso Dastis and Josep Borrell, have acknowledged that the international empathy, even sympathy, expressed towards the Catalan pro-independence movement stems, in part, from academia-related efforts to sustain Catalan claims. International attention was also drawn by the referenda of 9th November 2014 and 1st October 2017, both organized without the Spanish government’s approval and also by the terrific police charges that followed the second.

Could Catalan nationalism ultimately lead to the creation of a new Catalan state? Such an idea should not surprise anyone in Europe-over 20 new states came to be during the 20th and 21st centuries. However, while the Yes to independence leads most surveys on this issue, the Spanish state is not even considering such a possibility. While some far-right and conservative politicians (from the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and VOX) fantasize about the possibility of erasing Catalan autonomy, currently under a pro-independence government, the centre-left and left parties (PSOE, Podemos) aim for a political solution within the limits of the Spanish Constitution. This would, however, exclude the chance for a referendum like the one held in Scotland in 2014. With the Catalan pro-independence supporters gaining power in Catalonia and the two major political forces in Spain not allowing a referendum (let alone an eventual secession) for both sides, engaging in sincere dialogue will, sooner or later, be a necessity.

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere holds a PhD in Communications (Universitat Ramon Llull – URL).

Marc is Professor at Universitat International de Catalunya (UIC) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Former Visiting Researcher at City University London and at the University of Copenhagen.

Marc’s research focuses on digital communication and political activism, especially massive social networks and its social-political use.