Shekhar Gupta

The only point on which the entire commentariat agrees is that Donald Trump’s victory fully confirms a trend seen worldwide, of the political Right returning to power, sweeping away the Left and along with it a lot of the liberal ideas which, we had begun to believe, had bipartisan acceptance now. In America, it was free markets, trade and immigration, in Europe it was the decline of nationalism, and for us in India, that religion was a purely personal thing, and once elected to power, every leader spoke to each community as its own and political correctness defined all public discourse so far. This is the change voters across the voting world like now, what the Russians and the Chinese think of Putin and Xi, we don’t really know.

It isn’t, however, as linear in ideological terms as we might think at first glance. India, Britain(Brexit), USA, Argentina and Brazil conform to the rightward surge which, it is widely presumed, will shortly consume Italy, France and maybe even Venezuela where Chavez’s successor deals with rebellion against soon-to-be four-figure inflation. Most of southern and Latin America, as Ruchir Sharma notes in his latest The Rise and Fall of Nations, has shifted from Left to Right. Colombia’s referendum has rejected a peace deal with FARC guerrillas, finding their own Right wing government not Right enough. Abe’s popularity continues to surge in Japan, as does the still rising popularity and power of Erdogan on Asia’s western edge.

A Right surge sweeping out old Left, and in fact even centrist Right, therefore, is a persuasive line. But then how do you explain the rise of a most Left-Liberal Justin Trudeau in Canada, nutty, supposedly Leftist Duterte in the Philippines, rising discontent and defiance of the reign of the Right in South Korea in the same geography, even the rise of the socialist Tsipras in Greece, defying what would otherwise be seen an unarguable pan-European trend.

Young voters exercising their franchise in the recently held US Presidential polls.
Young voters exercising their franchise in the recently held US Presidential polls.

Having surveyed the world, it is also interesting to see how this has played out in India post-2014. The states BJP won immediately after general elections, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand confirmed the same trend. But what happened then in Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala? The first two, BJP (or Indian Right) fancied winning on form, but were routed instead. In the next two, they failed to make any impact, unable to even repeat their parliament election vote share. In West Bengal, in fact Mamata’s TMC, a party in most ways Left of CPM, won. And in the last, while the BJP didn’t matter, and the Congress (UDF) was itself deeply Left-of-centre, the real Communists won. So where does this leave us?

Is the voter bored with old politics?

It leaves us all very mixed up and confused, truth to tell. What is the voter telling us she likes? It is change, of course, but not change in the old-fashioned sense which we used to call anti-incumbency where her default choice was voting out the one in power. If that were the case, why would the Right-wing governments of Britain and Colombia lose out in referendums while there is no counter-surge of the Left? Similarly, if it is unstoppable rise of the Right, how does Arvind Kejriwal’s very juvenile (literally, in vintage, not as a value judgement) party break this momentum in Delhi, threatens to do so in Punjab and looms large in Goa and Gujarat, all states with old histories of polarization and ossified, loyal vote banks of well-established parties? Similarly, how does Trump then succeed in hijacking the Republican Party and win an election at a time when the party establishment itself had seen its prospects as hopeless and Democrats all set to keep power?

Indian voters display their voter ID card at a polling station in India
Indian voters display their voter ID card at a polling station in India

We might be tempted, therefore, to look for answers beyond the familiar ideological constructs. First of all, it is evident that the change the voter wants isn’t just of the government, but a change of established ideas, ideals and thought processes. It doesn’t matter whether it goes left to right, the other way around, or a swing further away in the same direction. The voter wants a complete change in the manifesto probably because of three reasons. One, she feels confident enough to take a few risks, try something adventurous. Second, a quarter century of growth, globalization and hyper-connectivity have raised aspiration levels everywhere, and those in small towns or villages now don’t just aspire to migrate to the booming cities they envy but also want the boom to come to where they are. And finally, and in my view, most importantly, they are simply bored with old politics. They want to check out something new, new ideas, leaders, and yet revive some old, fading passions.

Nationalism is the most dominant of these. A quarter century of globalization, the most visible metaphor for which has been how loyalty to club has surpassed that to the national team in European football, has seen nationalism fade and it’s so far been celebrated on both moderate sides of the ideological divide. But, just like religion, nationalism is among the oldest passions of mankind and nostalgia is powering it back. Smart leaders—Trump is the latest—have seen this. Packaged with ultra-populism and the appeal of a domineering individual at the top who lives by his own rules rather than established ones, even of his own party, it is an unbeatable force. An insurgent leader, who has to be an outsider, is just the change that a bored, insurgent voter wants.

Moving into an aspirational future

As results of the April-May 2014 elections came in, I had written that this is the verdict of a new, youthful, post-ideological, I-don’t-owe-you-nothing electorate. There was a reasonable counter to this: how can you say this when India has voted in its first government of the Right with its own majority? The answer then, with a leap of faith, was that probably India wasn’t voting for ideological change but rebelling against Congress party’s cynical, patronising povertarianism, as also the hypocrisy of its ruling family to not wield power directly or even let their appointee function. Nobody voted at that point for gau-raksha, end of strategic restraint with Pakistan, or against triple-talaq. None of these was on the BJP’s agenda. Now we have evidence in global trends.

People breaking out of old loyalties is explained in countries like India by the rise of a youth that’s dumping politics rooted in grievances of the past and moving into an aspirational future. In developed countries where the population, contrarily, is ageing, there is a new grievance: over what seems to be lost because of globalization and growth, bulk of whose benefits seem to have gone to the “undeserving and wrong” people, especially the immigrants. The response in both cases, is the same: radical change, and a defiance of everything that reeks of old establishment. This is why Modi rules the BJP as no one has ever done, Kejriwal is vacuum-cleaning Congress party’s vote and, of course, Trump voters are probably more thrilled he has trounced the Republican establishment, even more than his Democratic rival.