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26 May 2016, Gateway House

Has nationalism made a global comeback?

Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in India's 2014 general elections, despite his hardline nationalist image, was viewed as a localised phenomenon. But two years later, voters across the world from Europe to Philippines seem to be tilting towards leaders with the same nationalist tag.

Director, Gateway House

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Exactly two years ago, when Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in India’s general elections—the biggest democratic exercise on the globe—analysts sought to explain Modi’s rise to power despite his hardliner image. They called it a localised phenomenon.

Some experts even referred to the outcome as a “mistake”: that India’s voters had erred in electing a “nationalist” leader at a time when the world’s fastest-growing economy needed a leader with more globally acceptable credentials. By this yardstick, however, voters across the world seem to be committing the same mistake in the last two years.

Political discourse around the world has turned increasingly fractious: the old definitions of nationalist, right wing, left wing, and the boundaries that separate them, have become blurred, causing them to be used frequently in an interchangeable fashion. This article uses them in the same contemporary sense.

In the United States, the most powerful democracy, Donald Trump has gone from being seen as a loud, foul-mouthed billionaire businessman with political ambitions to being poised to win the Republican Party candidature for the 2016 presidential election.

Simultaneously across Europe, fringe nationalist parties have risen, or are rising to the forefront in the political landscape. There are three variants in this surge:

  • In the first category are European countries where the right wing, or nationalist parties are already in power. For instance, in Hungary, a right-wing government lead by the Fidesz party is looking to turn even more extreme to answer the challenge of the far-right Jobbik party that emerged as the second-largest party despite, or perhaps because of its virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic stance.
  • Poland, too, has recently elected itself a government led by the Law & Justice party that is openly eurosceptic and rejects the EU-determined quotas for member countries to accept Syrian refugees.
  • A second category is where such nationalist parties garnered enough support to become members of governing coalitions by virtue of holding the balance between mainstream contenders. Finland falls into this box as anti-immigrant Finns Party leader Timo Soini is now not only the foreign minister but also the deputy prime minister. Likewise, in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party secured the second-highest vote share in the 2015 elections, and the incumbent government was cobbled together with its support.
  • The third category includes the likes of France, Britain, and Germany—where right wing, or nationalistic parties are growing in strength. France’s anti-immigration National Front led by Marine Le Pen was the biggest vote-getter in the 2014 European Parliament elections while the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage has forced a referendum in the country to push the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU—Brexit—while demanding a halt to “uncontrolled immigration”.
  • Germany, whose chancellor led the welcome and espoused the cause of Syrian refugees, has seen the anti-EU, anti-Muslim stance of the three-year old Alternative for Germany (AfD) find wide resonance. It is slowly but surely eroding the chancellor’s long-standing dominance of German politics at a crucial juncture for Europe.

The tide of nationalism has surged in the Pacific too. In China, President Xi Jinping is trying to recreate a Mao-style personality cult, taking the title of commander-in- chief and making the military directly answerable to him. The state, on the other hand, has stepped  up military modernisation and aggressively pushes territorial claims on islands claimed by half-a-dozen neighbouring countries.

Not surprisingly, China’s nemesis in the region—Japan—is resiling from the pacifist constitution it was forced to adopt after its World War II defeat. Prime Minister Abe secured the passing, last year, of controversial legislation that allows Japanese Self-Defense Forces to protect civilians and allies in overseas combat. Analysts say it is in contravention of the existing constitution that prohibits Japan from waging “war” as a sovereign right.

Meanwhile, the Philippines chose a president who wants to re-enter the death penalty in the country’s law books. He appears to believe the extra-judicial killing of criminals is an acceptable way of restoring law and order.

The most important reason for the shift from broadly left-wing dispensation is the disillusionment amongst people about globalisation—in terms of its promises of prosperity which were supposedly the rationale for pushing down trade barriers— that appears instead to have yielded jobless growth and high corporate profits. Consequently, it has prompted a return to leaders or parties with nationalist credentials.

  • It is a perfect storm aided by: a global economy that not only seems to be increasingly incapable of returning to the pre-2008 growth track despite the accommodative monetary policies followed by major central banks. It also displays the deleterious consequences of the slowdown— unemployment and rising inequality—across developed and developing countries.
  • The slowdown in China magnifies the unrest brought about by falling commodity prices in regions dependent on the export of these products to sustain their budgets. The monarchies of the oil-based kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are struggling to retain power and sustain social peace as oil prices remain depressed. The fiscal situation of oil and mineral exporting nations like Nigeria and Brazil are similarly affected.

In Europe, sluggish economic growth is mixing with a refugee crisis born out of the violent disintegration of Syria and Iraq in the Middle East. This is rekindling Islamophobia and creating a maelstrom that threatens the European Union’s two greatest institutional creations: the common currency (Euro) and the open borders agreement (Schengen).

What is really pushing voters towards nationalist leaders across continents is the perception that the institutions of democracy—such as political parties and the parliament—-no longer work in the way they were envisaged to at the time of their establishment. This is true whether it be the 250-year old U.S. congress or the nearly 65-year old Indian parliament, which seem to be trapped in archaic procedures as and  in hock to special interest groups.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had cast this young and aspirational constituency as the neo-middle class and crafted his victorious 2014 election campaign around them. Along with economic dynamism, India needs a radical shake-up in the decades-old status quo of its polity that has degenerated into dynastic politics.

However, Modi has found big-ticket reforms to be beyond his grasp as he lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house of the Indian parliament.  Although the economy shows signs of revival—with programmes like Make in India, Skill India and Digital India—large scale job creation remains elusive, partly because the investment appetite of corporates remains low and technological changes no longer favour the labour-intensive production model.

So, what was supposed to be a quick turnaround from economic gloom and paralysed polity has turned into a long haul for Modi.  Presumably, the same gap between expectations and reality will confront other nationalist leaders.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

Aditya Phatak is a senior researcher at Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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