The rise of populism


Growing up in post independence India (India got independence in 1947),  this is my world view from that formative period. At that time, India had a population of 487 million with China at 698 million and USA at 192 million. Our first prime minister had embraced a planned economy and the government decided to allocate resources to sectors as per its plan. India was still a poor country and would go through economic crisis.

At that time, India was in a bubble and the population was low and states were created based on language. It was a time when people used to thirst to see a different culture. It was a time when each country had a distinct landscape and culture. Tourism was a luxury in India and foreign tourism was for the upper crust. The foreign countries we saw was through the English and few Indian movies shot abroad. One such movie was Raj Kapoor’s – Around the world in 8 Dollars” and his brother’s “An evening in Paris”. These movies showcased to the Indian masses, the landscape, sights and sounds of the world and the higher standard of living, infrastructure and amenities those populations enjoyed.

Meanwhile in India still under planned economy, we had to book and wait for 10 years to get a scooter, 12 years for a car, 10 years for a telephone and foreign travel did not allow more than $250 in foreign currency in a year.  Villages and cities still had horse and bullock carts and bicycles for transport along side two staple models of cars for taxi. India had only those two models of cars for a very long time. This was the sturdy Ambassador and the much petite Fiat Premier – two models of cars that would last a generation. Television was black and white and content was broadcast only on certain time during the day and included agricultural content.

Mumbai was the financial capital of India after the British left behind a railway system with good infrastructure for the times at Mumbai. People from other parts of the country started coming to Mumbai for economic and job prospects and transformation of the demographics of Mumbai began. The state language was Marathi but Hindi slowly became equally predominant. This was the first sign of things to come. The locals in Mumbai were o.k with this at first. It was hunky dory until unemployment and lack of accommodation and poor infrastructure started creating resentment in the mind of locals. They felt that people from other states were taking away their jobs. The politicians used this theme to win elections but nothing changed except national integration programs that were launched to foster integration of cultures.

Today Mumbai is congested, a melting pot of cultures, a seat of business enterprise and cacophony. Infrastructure has been improved significantly but still does not suffice to cater to the burgeoning population. The government is making serious efforts to inculcate a sense of civic responsibility to keep the city clean and making some progress but not fast enough.

Similarly, in the 50’s Europe and USA were enjoying great economic boom and improvement in quality of life. Industrialization provided the creation of a strong middle class. Capitalism sought new frontiers to sell products and entered into trade agreements with other countries and the withdrawal of imperial forces was followed by immigration into the homeland by some of their subjects. This immigration was not based on altruism but based on the need of cheap labor by the capitalists. Elsewhere, segregation was being ended in USA. Meanwhile in Middle East, it was the start of dominating the world market for Oil and the start of an economic boom.

This is when population from poorer Asian countries started to move to Middle East to work on oil rigs while Expats from the West worked as managers helping the Gulf rulers set up oil companies. The Indian workers  returning home for vacation bought with them shiny Stereo players and consumer goods that were not available in India. They displayed their new found wealth and this inspired a generation of Indians to seek overseas employment and the Middle East welcomed them with open arms.

With liberalization India ended the planned economy and reduced controls. The computer age helped catapult India  to a new era because India started with PC instead of legacy main frames. The Information Technology industry grew quickly while Indian students went abroad to study and ended up working in the West. The business now found cheap labor and the population from India wanting better opportunities was more than happy to work hard and move to the land of opportunity. They sent money home that improved the standard of living of their parents. The term Non Resident Indian (NRI) became institutionalized and the government allowed tax breaks to encourage the NRI to repatriate money.

Similar movement of population happened from East Europe to West Europe, from across the world into USA. People from poorer and mismanaged economies migrated. Just like in Mumbai, at first it was all good but then as local culture got diluted and the landscapes changed the seeds of Xenophobia emerged. Locals were afraid of losing their culture and identity. Subsequent liberal regimes tried to foster integration but the fact that capitalistic lobbying of government leading to top 2% owning 98% of world wealth surely helped create a great sense of injustice. This dangerous cocktail of circumstances is what led to Brexit as well as the recent victory of Trump. The Republican party as it was is no longer intact and the future looks murky at best. Now political success emanates from populist attitudes, Xenophobia and protectionism. Time will tell if this is for better or worse.


  1. The roots of populism are a feeling of being disenfranchised by a large section of a population. This can happen even where a population do not have a franchise such as Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, Ireland in the 1910’same and perhaps even Rwanda in the period leading to there genocidal war.
    This sense arises from a feeling that the individual is powerless to influence the way their life is evolving and a feeling (real or not) that others have it ‘better’ and often a sense they have it better at ‘our’ expense.
    While such feelings are common, even in stable democracies, they are mostly transient. There are always populist politicians who try to take advantage of this feeling by proposing simplistic solutions. However, when a population is under pressure, often due to economic downturn or environmental pressures, this sense is heightened and can lead to a feedback loop where populist leaders reinforce the message for their own ends.
    This is what happened in Germany in the 1930’s with the rise of Nazism. The vote for Donald Trump has the same roots, a population which is feeling the pressure of globalisation moving traditional employments to cheaper countries, a lack of freely available education the allow them to take jobs in emerging economies and emigrates from poorer countries who are prepared to work for low wages seeming to take the only available jobs. Trump proportion to ‘be one of them’ and or represent them and proposes simplistic solutions. As with all such politicians, even if he believes his own statements and thinks he will right some perceived wrong, he is surrounded by by vested interests who have there own agenda and don’t give a dam for the people who voted their leader to power.
    How this plays out in the USA remains to be seen, all we can hope for is that it does not follow the same path as Germany did.


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