Righting the Left

The Left needs to balance its own cosmopolitan world view with that of the masses, which is more local and basic

As the Right triumphantly marches on through the wasteland left behind following the destruction of the political Left’s support base, there is much to learn from the tilt. The Left was left behind as it excluded and derided contrarian views. Not only were such ideas ostracised, people who espoused them were labelled as ‘antediluvian’ and self-centred. The Left, while claiming to represent the silent masses, ended up creating an entire population that felt disenfranchised. When their issues got hushed aside, their fears increased.

To hunker down when threatened by an enemy is animal instinct. To convert the threat into an opportunity, to use it as a magnet to draw the dispossessed, is political instinct, one that came naturally to the Right. It appealed to the people’s fears with ramped-up rhetoric. The Left’s tactic — of playing down the fear element and appealing to the brotherhood and humanity within individuals — did not find currency among the electorate. However, there were also other common elements in the Right’s approach, across different countries where it gained popularity.

Tunes of the Pied Pipers

The Pied Pipers of the Right, be it in India, the United States, Turkey, or European countries, had the following tunes in their repertoire.

The first involved an unrelenting appeal to the baser instincts of the electorate, which included fear of the ‘other’. For Donald Trump, this included Muslims, for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it was the Gulenists. All this played to the gallery in making them believe that it was this ‘other’ that was taking away their jobs, their social and economic entitlements.

The next tune included the projection of a leader who the dispossessed could identify with. Narendra Modi projected himself as India’s ‘macho man’ and the initial few months of his tenure as Prime Minister were filled with newspaper reports extolling his strength vis-à-vis the weakness of his predecessors. Mr. Modi became the face, the image of a confident and resurgent India. Filipinos liked and voted for Rodrigo Duterte because they believed that he was honest and could get things done. Mr. Trump sold himself to the American electorate as an astute businessman, an image attribute he has retained.

The third tune among the Right’s leaders is their ability to be both inward-looking and international, simultaneously. One of the first things Mr. Modi did after becoming the Prime Minister was pay a visit to the Indian diaspora in different countries, even as he spoke of bringing back India’s ‘glory days’. Mr. Erdogan has a major fan following among the Turkish diaspora across Europe. Mr. Trump, in his efforts to protect America, is influencing policymaking in Mexico, China and Europe. Mr. Duterte has threatened to leave the United Nations and has been making overtures to the Chinese.

The fourth tune is ‘keeping it simple’. Whenever Mr. Trump, during his campaigning, mentioned his rival candidate Hillary Clinton, the halls reverberated with cries of ‘lock her up’. When Mr. Modi vowed to create a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (an India free of Congress), the crowds knew he was assuring them of a country that will be free from corruption and sycophancy.

The tunes of these Pied Pipers relied on a common emphasis: ‘Messages need not be factual to strike a chord with the people’. When Mr. Modi, a few months after his election, spoke of plastic surgery having been present in ancient India, it appealed to a section of people desperate to seek solace in ancient pride. Mr. Trump and his administration have been instrumental in the coinage of the term ‘post-truth’.

The inherent DNA of the Left makes it difficult for it to copy these tunes. This DNA is about freeing people, about emancipating the masses, about bringing up thinking and empowered citizens capable of making decisions on their own. However, it has ignored a consequence of such liberation — the weakening of the foundation on which an individual society is built. Further, the Left assumes that everyone wants the freedom it offers and also agrees with it on the manner in which it needs to be achieved. This assumption leads to a let-down when society refuses to embrace such an emancipation. Is it any wonder that internationalism and cosmopolitanism are crumbling under the desire to protect an identity?

A large section of the population, across the world, consists of people whose world view begins and ends with the fulfilment of their basic needs. Could this explain why messages that are simple, despite not being factual, are easily digested because they pander to this ‘world view’? How will the Left — whose beliefs are premised on truth, logic and a perspective that is global — ever deal with this? The Left can surely learn a thing or two from the Right about simplicity. It needs to tackle the fears that internationalism generates and has to find a balance between its cosmopolitan world view and one that is more local. The answer is not to ape the Right but to reimagine the role the Left needs to play in today’s society.

Samir Nazareth works in the development sector. He is the author of ‘1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People’

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