What do Narendra Modi, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Arvind Kejriwal, to name but a few, have in common? They are all politicians (or in one case, a potential politician) who have emerged recently because of voters’ disenchantment with the way that their predecessors have run broadly consensus politics supported by establishments controlled by vested interests.
All of them are populists who have inspired voters with the prospect of a change, and their emergence has shocked and horrified the old establishments.
The cozy courtiers and generations of supporters of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India can’t accept that Modi, an arch Hindu nationalist with a controversial past as chief minister of Gujarat, can be trusted as prime minister to run their country.
The cozy mainstream politicians of the UK can’t come to terms with the fact that Corbyn, a 66-year old outsider who has been a Labour Party far-left rebel for most of his life, is a credible leader of Britain’s main opposition party, even though he won 59 percent of the votes in a election for the post two weeks ago, defeating three more conventional candidates.
There was similar shock horror when Kejriwal, a 47-year old social activist-turned politician, won a landslide victory to become chief minister of Delhi in February at the head of his new Aam Aadmi Party, defeating Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose fresh popularity, won just a few months earlier, was already waning.
There is similar amazement and concern around the world that Trump, an egotistical business tycoon who grabs headlines with insults and other extravagant remarks, has cashed in on disenchantment and emerged as the Republican Party’s leading contender for next year’s US presidential election.
At last year’s general election, Modi offered India’s aspirational youth more hope for the future than the subsidy-oriented backward-looking Gandhis. Kejriwal then offered Delhi voters the prospect of clean and more honest politics in a deeply corrupt country, and now Corbyn has miraculously boosted the Labour Party with thousands of mostly young and prospective members who had tired of previous remote middle-of-the road leaders and want more involvement, debate and honesty.
Modi and Corbyn come with baggage of the far right and far left of their country’s politics, which they will both have to overcome if they are to succeed. For Modi, that means not only showing he can change the way that India is governed but, almost more importantly, controlling the anti-Muslim nationalistic rhetoric of many of his colleagues so that he is re-elected at India’s next general election. He also needs his BJP to win state assembly elections in the intervening years, starting with Bihar in a few weeks’ time.
For Corbyn it means surviving as party leader for longer than the couple of years that he is being given by a skeptical verging-on-hostile British media, and by most of his shell-shocked MPs who fear losing their seats at a general election under his leadership. To do that, he needs to show, as he is doing, that he is prepared to debate and trim his anti-war, anti-nuclear lines and then find a way to turn debates into firm policies, though he would risk alienating his more extreme ideologues.
Both men have been on stage in the past few days. Modi has been doing what he does best, wowing thousands of overseas Indians at pop-star type events in San Jose in California. He has also been appealing to the young during a session with Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has met Barack Obama, and lectured United Nations and other conferences on climate change and security. His next mega event will be wowing some 70,000 overseas Indians in London’s Wembley Stadium in mid-November.
Modi must be the first prime minister or president in history frequently to invade his hosts’ territories by staging such spectacles. He started a year ago with some 18,000 cheering and screaming overseas Indians at New York’s Madison Square Gardens (where the Pope blessed thousands at a mass last weekend). Since then he has done the same thing in Sydney, Toronto, Dubai and even Shanghai. What his hosts really think of such politically inspired ego-trips is not recorded.
Corbyn made his first speech as Labour leader yesterday at his party’s annual conference in Brighton. He won the standing ovations and constant applause that any leader would expect, even though he almost failed to be nominated for the leadership election because of a lack of support from Labour MPs. He wears boring brown jackets and has a chatty style of answering interviews’ questions, both of which are easily mocked but are a refreshing change from the slick suits and the bland dodging-the-issue spins of David Cameron and Labour’s Tony Blair.
His theme in Brighton was that he would introduce “kinder more inclusive” politics. He was primarily against the Cameron government’s austerity program, preferring to tackle economic problems with (ill-defined) growth. He is intent on gradually re-nationalizing the railways, which it is no bad thing to debate because the privatization craze has romped out of control to such an extent over the past 35 years that the Post Office was recently sold off way below its market prices. He wants to change the balance of tax to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich, which is an inevitable old Labour policy. He harks back to Labour governments of 40 years ago with talk of a national investment bank, and he has horrified people by favoring a united Ireland, which could stir up motions and hostilities that are best avoided.
He is also in favor of abandoning the £100 billion renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile, a possibly laudable aim, but one which rakes up decades-old arguments about nuclear disarmament. Abandoning Trident is also opposed by trade unions and MPs who, fearing job losses in naval shipyards, stopped Corbyn having it debated at the conference.
Even The Economist magazine, which greeted his election with the headline Backwards Comrades and an illustration of him in a Vladimir Lenin pose, had to admit however that Corbyn would “at least enrich Britain by injecting fresh ideas into a stale debate.”
Voters who “felt uninspired by the say-anything, spin-everything candidates who dominate modern politics have been energized by Corbyn’s willingness to speak his mind and condemn the sterile compromises of the center left.”
That comment also applies in broad terms to Modi and Kejriwal, who have changed the tone of India’s political debate, awakened political interest among the young, and tried (so far with little success) to improve the way that their governments operate.
Few people think Corbyn has any chance of becoming prime minister at Britain’s next general election in 2020 because of his Leftist past, but his leadership appeal will be tested before that in local council elections beginning next year, and he has to try to win over the masses lot Labour MPs and the party’s Blairite supporters who are speaking out against him.
Aside from that, what he can and should do is to change his party’s style so that it becomes a firm constructive left-of-center alternative in policy and approach to the Conservatives, distinctly different from the Blair style.
Modi did that with the BJP, making it a nationwide alternative to the Gandhis’ Congress, even though he had been an outsider till a year or so before he was elected. And Kejriwal, whose party was even more of an outsider, has shown that voters are ready for new ideas and new faces.
So outsiders can wreak surprising change. Maybe one can write off Trump, but watch Corbyn, Modi and Kejriwal because they all have the potential to bring new life and meaning to their countries’ politics – and maybe, hopefully, their governments.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the bottom right of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.