‘Rise of strongmen creating fear of ‘others’ among the majority’

Ananth Krishnan Bengaluru | Updated on February 23, 2020 Published on February 23, 2020

The rise of strongmen leaders in democracies not only challenges their domestic institutions but also changes the way nations conduct foreign policy, said former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao.

“In foreign policy, muscularity has a certain premium today. You are creating this ‘other’ that you somehow need to consolidate public sentiment against, and you see this happening in the foreign policy of many countries ruled today by so-called strongmen,” said Rao, a former ambassador to the US and China.

She cited the example of American politics and the “othering” of Mexicans, for instance, by US President Donald Trump, who as a presidential candidate in June 2015 referred to some Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’.

“What strongmen try to do is create ‘otherisation’ and create fear among the majority,” she said, noting it was creating “a whole [new] concept of how threat is being defined and how you deal with that threat”.

The session discussing the Age of the Strongman also included The New York Times’ South Asia correspondent Maria Abi-Habib, The Economic South Asia bureau chief Max Rodenbeck, and Publisher of The Hindu Group of newspaper N Ravi.

The discussion looked at the specific challenges that the institutions in democratic countries faced in dealing with the rise of strongmen leaders, a phenomenon seen in several populous democracies today including India, the US, Brazil and the Philippines, said Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu, who moderated the session.

The simultaneous rise of strongmen did not have a singular explanation and was in some ways a coincidence, said Rodenbeck. “Sometimes we look too much on personalities and less on the specific conditions that made [their rise] possible, whether it was a vacuum, public anger, or technological change.” The best balance, he suggested, was maintaining strong institutions.

However, N Ravi argued that constitutional checks, work only to a limited degree. “You also need democratic norms to be followed, recognition of the opposition as equally legitimate, and restraint in using instruments of power. The best balance is to follow these unwritten rules and safeguards, as well as to have a diversity of states and political parties so that the writ of no one party runs across the country.”

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Published on February 23, 2020
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