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Why populist leaders are shunning the pundits

The scorn for experts is not just a refusal to be impressed by fancy degrees.

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Updated: May 24, 2019, 10.41 PM IST
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The scorn for experts is not just a refusal to be impressed by fancy degrees.
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi explained how he cut through the dilemma of defence experts, declaring that the time was right to attack Balakot because the clouds would cover Indian aircraft from Pakistani radar. Another day, another example of how his homegrown wisdom won over all the timid calculations of specialists.

Whether it was demonetisation or foreign policy, the prime minister has walked his own unpredictable path — ignoring, and often confounding, the experts. Early in his government, he said he believed in “hard work, not Harvard”, putting his trust in noncredentialed wisdom, and his own ability to channel the people’s will.

This is a signature move of populist leaders. Remember Donald Trump’s advice when the Notre Dame fire was raging, to use flying water tankers: ‘must act quickly!’ They have a sunny confidence in their own instincts, and fully believe that their rough-and-ready opinion is more important than any careful expert consensus. Trump has done his own thing on climate change and trade policy, walked out of multilateral agreements, and bucked expert consensus on Iran and North Korea.

The last Modi government had not entirely disregarded expertise — it brought in civil servants with specialised experience and opened up positions at the joint secretary level for lateral entry of specialists. It has also brought in boldface names like Arvind Panagariya and thrown its weight behind people like Nandan Nilekani. But it did not defer to experts, and was not led by them.

Meanwhile, the Congress manifesto had made a point about tapping professionals in defence, foreign policy, economics, the environment and so on. It had positioned itself as the party of experience, one that gives expertise its due, and takes decisions based on wide consultation. Clearly, that did not sway voters. Now, with fresh electoral endorsement, Narendra Modi is even more likely to chart his own unpredictable path.

The scorn for experts is not just a refusal to be impressed by fancy degrees. It is a war on expertise, a larger crisis of trust — the media, the academic world, policy specialists, the possibility of authoritative knowledge is itself cast in doubt. Everywhere in the world, ideological polarisation and a personalised media environment have made it harder to share the same reality, even the same facts.

In India, the Sangh Parivar’s version of events has clashed with the mainstream narrative, but now it commands power. And so, friction is inevitable. Certainly, the left-liberal academic world may have scotched legitimate scholarly investigations that might have shored up the right. But now, when the Science Congress casually discredits Newton and Einstein and the union minister for science claims that Stephen Hawking endorsed the superiority of the Vedas, it is not about charting a new course of inquiry — it is simply wishfulfilment and fantasy.

When a group of 108 economists wrote a letter questioning the credibility of the government’s data, it was countered by a group of 131 chartered accountants, who accused them of choreographing a drama before an election, rather than engaging with the substance of the criticism. The fact that the letter-writers were chartered accountants was just about invoking an alternative authority, and putting across the message that those who dealt with the real economy knew more about it than the theoreticians.

The collapsing faith in expertise has been in the works for a long time. A decade ago, the global financial crisis blindsided everyone, and the failure of economists to forecast the event was widely noticed. In recent years, as a wave of populist movements has swept much of the world, experts have been lumped with establishment elites, as a class of over-educated wafflers who lack contact with reality and have no ‘skin in the game’, and who thwart the popular will as expressed through the leader. Brexit rhetoric, for instance, was full of disdain for the institutions and experts that warned against leaving the EU.

Whether or not most Indians have deep resentment against experts, they have been swept up in the fervour around Modi and his portrayal of his opponents as the Delhi sultanate, the Lutyens elite, the Khan Market consensus, and so on.

In a democracy, decisions are always meant to reflect the popular will — and elected politicians have to be the direction-setters. In a populist system, the chief executive, the pied piper of a supposedly united “people”, is the decider. In a liberal democracy, these decisions are supposedly taken with the advice of experts, who know the specifics of a policy, and can explain the stakes involved in an impartial way so that pressure-groups do not tilt the decision.

Populist leaders like Modi, Trump, Orban, Duterte, Erdogan and others claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. In circular logic, those who don’t support them are not the real people, they are irritants, outsiders, enemies. Populist movements on the left and right share the indignation against a system designed for the few at the expense of the many. It can be an expression of economic insecurity and rage against elites, and it can also mean a jingoistic turning on immigrants and minorities. Populism is by no means a new phenomenon in India — Indira Gandhi could be described as a classic left-populist, as could Arvind Kejriwal.

But as Modi heads into a triumphant new term, defying the pundits, we can brace for some more surprises.
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