Political scientists and democracy watchers have made extensive studies on the performance of populists and elected autocrats — terms used by V-Dem to describe Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the first Covid surge. They concluded that countries led by all right-wing ‘cultural’ populists, including Modi, were worse performers in tackling the pandemic.
Western analysts usually categorise elected authoritarians as right-wing populists who thrive on culturally divisive issues and left-wing or anti-establishment groups who take up socio-economic agendas. As per the western narrative, the anti-US governments of South America like Venezuela and Cuba are led by ‘charismatic strong leaders’.
Recent studies by western analysts found that the left-wing populists, by and large, have a good track record in tackling the pandemic. Most of them acted quite fast and took prompt measures. As against this, all right-wing populists, including Modi, failed badly in containing Covid-19.
In a 2020 study of the responses to Covid-19 by 17 populist leaders, Brett Mayer from Tony Blair Institute in the United States brackets Narendra Modi with Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines and Victor Orban of Hungary. Five of the 17 populist leaders leaders studied are right-wing cultural populists, including divisive Hindutva in Modi’s case. All the five have downplayed the crisis while the anti-establishment populists have taken the pandemic seriously and adopted prompt measures, the study says.
Brown University professor Patric Heller finds that countries led by elected autocrats like the US (under former President Donald Trump), Brazil and India are the most dismal performers in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi are ‘surrounded by yes-men’. The toxic combination of messianic populism, social (communal) polarisation, sense of insecurity and centralisation has made the pandemic worse under them, he says.
Jonatan A. Lasso and Miranda Booth of Charles Darwin University finds certain common qualities among the populists leaders. These are their optimistic bias, complacency, ambiguity and ignorance towards science. This renders the populist strong men unfit to manage emerging crises. Populist governments are ‘infamous for silencing science. This is because evidence-based policy is not compatible with their approach to public policy, the study says.
Further, a survey by the Associated Press (AP) said that countries that ranked top in Covid-19 death toll are all led by ‘populist, mold-breaking’ leaders. “Populists by nature have disdain for experts and science that are seen as part of establishment,” the survey said quoting Michael Shifter, president of Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.
All studies except that by Patric Heller, as discussed above, pertain to the first Covid surge of 2020 when India’s performance was considered better. It was a time when Narendra Modi and his aides were in an exuberant mood with their vaccine maitri and vishwaguru bluster. An evaluation of the second surge when India reported the highest daily death toll of all countries is bound to be still worse.
P. Raman is a senior journalist and is the author of Tryst with Strong Leader Populism: How Modi’s Hybrid Regime Model is Changing Political Narratives, Ecosystem and Symbols. TViews expressed are personal.)