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Why not populism?

THE intrinsic aim of populism, as understood in the US where it had its origins in the latter part of 19th century, is to support the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite. However, over a period, it came to signal, as the Readers Companion for American History says, "a politics of resentment — mean-spirited and incipiently violent (and became) a term of condescension, vague and formless, but no less evocative in the disdain it projects."

Further, it was taken to be a reflection of deep-seated prejudices and "status anxieties", and not accepted as a sensible way of correcting unbalanced or generally exploitative economic practices pervading American society. Somehow, in the Indian context too, commentators on economic policies and Budget proposals view populism as a dirty word. All that they need to do to express their strongest condemnation of a measure is to call it populist. Thus, free water or electricity for farmers, sale of foodgrains at subsidised prices, credit with little or no interest, supply of free text-books, saris, or any concession or facility provided without realisation of commensurate charges fall within this objectionable category in their opinion.

If you look carefully at the things they rubbish as populist, you will notice that they all relate to benefits meant for the poorer sections of the population.

As the reason for their self-righteous stand, they trot out the old and stale Americanism: There should be no free lunches! If you look still closer, you will find that they never apply the pejorative description to things that line the pockets of the well-to-do. For instance, in the eyes of the affluent, a reduction in, or waiver of, Customs duty or excise leviable on any product or industry, any tax exemption or prospect of increased dividend, or any other avenue for making a fast buck, anything at all that enables them to enjoy "free lunches" at somebody else's cost is not populist, but to be welcomed with both arms as just and necessary. A little introspection is all that is needed to avoid conditioned reflexes of this kind and develop a balanced perspective.

B. S. Raghavan

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