Why does a popular politician’s base like to overlook the negatives in their leaders?

by Jan 30, 2024Blogs0 comments

Every populist charismatic leader has a base that doesn’t normally question its leaders. However, there are always voters on the margins who observe, determine likability of the leaders, examine what their party platforms have to say and then vote


A comparison has been made in the past between a populist leader in Bihar (India), Lalu Yadav and Donald Trump of the USA. Despite court conviction, corruption cases, jail sentence, Lalu’s popularity among his caste-base, the Yadavs, never diminished. He successfully accredited his legal troubles to his hostile upper-caste machinations many other political forces allegedly engineered against him. In fact, on the strength of the unquestioning loyalty of his base, he was able to pass on his legacy to his eminently undeserving son, Tajaswi Yadav, who became the Deputy Chief Minister of the province. Lalu’s dream was to see him as the Chief Minister of Bihar in his life time.

Donald Trump, likewise, was known for his corrupt Real Estate deals, numerous other questionable financial scandals and social engagements since his young New York years. And yet, his popularity among his base didn’t shrink. His supporters across the country still believed his defeat at the 2020 presidential election was because it was stolen. There were committed elected Republican officials in the US who identified themselves as “Election Deniers.”

In the current ongoing Republican presidential primary too where Trump is having a spectacularly runaway success, the first surge in his popularity began with his first indictment by a law court. It doesn’t matter much to his base that he’s now involved in 91 court cases against him. In a recent verdict, he was ordered by the court to pay $83.3 million for defaming a former author.

You can also see the leadership of the BJP, the current federal Indian ruling party, in the same light. They also resort to all kinds of unsavory methods available in the playbook to trounce their political opponents. The base of the BJP either accepts their leaders’ political moves either grudgingly or without vocally questioning them. In the name of party discipline, there’s no inner-party democracy; centralization of political authority equals that of the Congress party of the Indira period.

The shamelessness with which the BJP is, now at this moment, embracing Nitish Kumar, the most unprincipled self-centered CM of Bihar, goes to show as if ethics and morality even for a pro-Hindutva party have no place in politics. Great Hindu statesmen and leaders who advocated “Ram Rajya” never endorsed separation of politics from ethical and moral values.

One common running thread observable through all the democratically elected leaders like Lalu Yadav, Donald Trump or Narendra Modi appears to be like this: As a result of the dynamics of the time, once you have created a following and earned the loyalty of your supporters, you emerge almost like a cult figure; your steps or missteps aren’t questioned or debated; you have a smooth ride in your establishment because you have eliminated all those who could be inconvenient. You get to decide every thing, your entire rank and file is beholden to you.

To my mind, this is one of the puzzles of politics of the current generation. The political philosophy we all grew up with was that all of the above point to an authoritarian trend. JP, a great Democratic Socialist statesman of India, used to call it “Democratic Centralization,” whereas there should be “Democratic Decentralization.” Centralization of the democratic process gives birth to authoritarianism and dictatorship, as we have witnessed in independent India when a democratically elected Indira Gandhi morphed into a dictator.

It’s important to keep the inner-party democracy, the practice of debate, discussion, transparency and free and fair referendum to keep check on the authoritarian traits of a leader. Otherwise, we will have leaders like Putin of Russia or Xi of China.

As the disaster of October 7th at the Gaza-Israel border suggested, excessive trust in a popular democratically elected strong leader like Benjamin Netanyahu could also be risky. As the Israelis were appalled to know that their strong Prime Minister had all the information of a Hamas build up along the Gaza border, yet he sat over them. Lack of transparency and openness in the decision making agencies of the country led to the worst Jewish carnage after the holocaust.

When the ruthlessly strong leaders of the world – democratically elected – like, Erdogan of Turkey or Orban of Hungary are clubbed together and studied, some people argue that the traditional electoral process or coalition making couldn’t produce a strong and decisive leader with a firm agenda. We needed leaders like Donald Trump who could tackle the southern border or immigration problem of the USA or a Narendra Modi who could shield the country from demographic invasion, Islamic terrorism or subversion from the neighboring countries. That may be a reason the Right-wing parties in many countries are on the rise.

To conclude with a discussion on voters of India and the USA (from where this essay started), an important distinction is that every populist charismatic leader has a base that doesn’t normally question its leaders. However, there are always voters on the margins who observe, determine likability of the leaders, examine what their party platforms have to say and then vote. The floating, independent, non-committed voters as they are called may shift any time.

While the building up of the political momentum matters in all elections, the micro-level study of non-committed voters become very interesting because theirs are eventually the decisive votes. Only a small number of the Hindus whom the BJP trusted as their voters in the Delhi elections were disgruntled with the BJP for the last three elections. They sat at home on the election day and facilitated the victory of the Aam Aadmi party. In Himachal Pradesh also, a slight shift in the BJP base caused their defeat. In the USA too, it appears Donald Trump is surging because of the allegiance of his followers. However, there are segments like college-educated, women or never-Trump Republican voters who could make a difference in a closely contested election.

It will be interesting to watch more than 50 countries, home to half the planet’s population, holding national elections this year (2024). With Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Lalu Yadav’s dynast included, the results will set the nature of the future democracy and relationships between the places and the people.

[Originally from Darbhanga, Bihar (India), Dr Binoy Shanker Prasad lives in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). He is a former UGC teacher fellow at JNU in India and a Fulbright Scholar in the USA. Author of scholarly works including a book, “Violence Against Minorities”, “Gandhi in the Age of Globalization” (a monograph) and a collection of poems”, Dr Prasad has taught at Ryerson University, Centennial College and McMaster University. He has also been the president of Hamilton based India-Canada Society (2006-08 and 2018-20)]

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