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Is India poised on the verge of fascism? While a section of political opinion seems to think so, and has been issuing public warnings both in India and abroad, their fears are being variously, and vigorously, dismissed by influential sections of the commentariat as alarmist, and as nothing more than typical liberal hysteria.
The intelligent people pooh-poohing fears of fascism have deployed a diverse arsenal of counter-arguments. To the charge of Narendra Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, they brandish the so-called clean chit given to Modi by the Supreme Court, while forgetting to add that the same court has also described him as a “modern day Nero”.
To the charge of Modi’s authoritarianism, they have the evergreen counter of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and her repression of dissent during the Emergency rule, which, they point out, India did survive. They also—while remaining supremely oblivious to the hypocrisy involved—profess a new found faith in India’s democratic institutions which, barely a column or two earlier, they had been busy excoriating for being a bottleneck holding up much-needed economic reforms, and which they would gladly see being superseded by “strong governance”.
Finally, the same intellectuals who condemn government policies framed in response to voters’ needs as populist, and charge elected governments with vote-bank politics, have no problem invoking the unparalleled wisdom of the Great Indian Voter, the argument here being: if the electorate chooses Modi, then it must be because there is in him a good that is visible to the ordinary voter’s eye but which is, sadly, beyond the range of vision of the armchair alarmist.
Of all the fascism-sceptics, the most interesting argument has come from Delhi-based academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta. In a column titled Regarding Fascism , Mehta deploys the economic logic of incentives and downsides to argue that it is against the BJP’s and Modi’s self-interest to engage in large-scale communalization because it will damage the prospects for economic growth. Embedded in this argument is the assumption that economic growth is the best medicine for right-wing communalism.
In fact, Mehta actually contends that the Hindu nationalism of the 1990s “dissipated” because of the “confidence that growth provided”. It is not clear, however, whether one should interpret this either as a deliberate obfuscation or a genuine ignorance of the innumerable historical examples of the mutually beneficial partnerships between communal and fascist politics and economic growth—from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa, and, of course, modern-day Gujarat.
There are several other points of engagement between the two sides in the whole fascism debate, and much more to be said for either position. But unfortunately, both sides have been focusing too much on the personality and political history of one man, Narendra Modi. This has ended up obscuring rather than illuminating the real nature of the historical forces that would ultimately determine the trajectory, in Indian politics, of the fascist impulse that has at present found a rallying point in Modi.
Modi as a political phenomenon did not drop from heaven. Nor does he personally supervise every extrusion of violent Hindu identitarianism. Mehta is right when he observes that “invocations of fascism often express a kind of distance from Indian democracy”, for it is a fact—whether the liberals like it or not—that Modi commands a mass following. That he is a darling of the corporate elite does not cancel out his mass appeal. So to locate the “spectre of fascism” in the personality or leadership of Modi is both misleading and self-defeating, for it plays into the hands of right-wing ideologues who then have a field day picking out the authoritarian and communal-fascist skeletons in the liberal-secular cupboard.
If the Indian political landscape is under the dark clouds of fascism, it is not because of what Modi might do if he comes to power but because there could be a mass endorsement of what he might do if he comes to power. The German historian Arthur Rosenberg, in his seminal work, Fascism as a Mass Movement (1934), demonstrates how the catalysing conditions and ideological substrate of fascism remain prevalent among the population for quite some time before a fascist regime formally comes to power. Two of these conditions, among the others that he talks about, are the rise of right-wing nationalism, and the connivance between state authorities and identitarian storm troopers. The recent political ascendancy of Hindutva and the sudden, post-Modi spurt in the numbers of its storm troopers are therefore textbook examples of fascism as a mass movement.
Analogies have been made before between India in 2014 and Germany in 1933, and while these two historical moments are different in many ways, there are structural similarities in the national political imagination between the two which indicate that fascism in India would manifest itself rather differently from the way it did in Nazi Germany. Indeed, many of the constituting elements of a fascist project—militaristic ultra-nationalism, selective, opportune and calibrated targeting of minorities, repression of dissent, and a cultish emotional investment in an all-powerful father figure—are already in evidence, and cannot be missed except by those determined to do so.
But again, fascism-sceptics are correct in pointing out that, right now, more than India’s minorities, it is India’s liberals who are worried about the rise of fascism, and so they should be, for as Rosenberg shows in his history of the rise of fascism in Europe, the first, and most essential, step in fascism’s march to power is the comprehensive defeat of liberalism. Anywhere we care to look in India’s political or cultural landscape, liberalism is in retreat, which is partly its own doing, as I have argued here, and partly to do with the larger historical forces driving the global economy with which India is now more integrated than ever before, thanks to the hegemony of neo-liberal economics.
The erosion of economic sovereignty occasioned by globalization has led to a scenario where the voter waiting anxiously at the door of democracy is left with no real choice in the economic realm, with all the major parties in the fray, from the Congress and the BJP to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), offering the same prescriptions—save for minor cosmetic differentiators—laid down by the influential voices of finance capital.
When the decision-making power vested by democracy in political leadership is ceded to the faceless forces of global capital, the resultant loss in the legitimacy of the political leadership is then cloaked by an excessively muscular and virile nationalism whose symbolic surplus works its magic by displacing the anxieties caused by widespread economic insecurity—a natural outcome of extended periods of jobless growth —on to a chosen minority.
The uses of minorities
Social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai maps this interplay between economic globalization and the targeting of national minorities in Fear of Small Numbers (2006), where he notes, contextualizing the rise of the Hindu Right with the political ascendancy of the backward castes, that “a Hindu majority is demonstrably a project, not a fact, and like all racialised categories… it requires mobilization through the discourses of crisis and the practices of violence.”
Be it Sri Lanka or Thailand or Chechnya or India—we are not as exceptional a nation-state as we like to imagine—the targeting of minorities is very much a part of the standard repertoire of responses from a nation-state facing a crisis of legitimacy. Seen from the perspective of the larger, world historical dynamic, the debate about fascism on the Indian political scene ought not to be about whether or if but about how and what.
With regard to the how and the what, three factors stand out. First, concomitant with the rise of fascism would be the ideological project of presenting it as the new normal, whose inaugural manoeuvre, already in full swing, is a refusal to name it as such—a denial that fascism is fascism. This is followed apace by the normalization of evil wherein, as the political scientist Nissim Mannathukkaren points out, “great human crimes are reduced to numbers” and “no moral universe exists beyond the one of ‘legally admissible evidence’”.
The second factor is the permanent residence of an intimate enemy, which operates through the ever-present narrative of terrorism and national security. This makes it imperative that, no matter how much resources are invested in battling terrorism, how many agencies are dedicated to combating it or how vast the surveillance apparatus becomes—terrorism shall never be conquered.
In India, terrorism plays an essential role in the fascist project of keeping the pot of identitarian politics boiling, as evidenced by the hundreds of innocent Muslim youths who are picked up at will by the police, thanks to draconian laws such as the UAPA, or the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and languish in jails for years on end. Substitute terrorism with Maoism or Naxalism and there is a ready dragnet for all manner of dissenters who may oppose a fascist regime. For instance, the Modi-fied BJP’s description of AAP leaders as Naxals, the increasing frequency with which BJP storm troopers violently attack their political rivals , and the rising impunity with which affiliates of the Sangh Parivar engage in acts of media and cultural censorship, not to mention the popular endorsement they receive for such interventions, are all evidence of the onward march of the fascist project, and the attendant normalization of it as anything but fascism.
The third factor, which has been repeatedly invoked by those who would dismiss any talk of fascism, is India’s federal structure, which, we are told, would make it rather difficult for a centralized fascist regime to impose its will across the nation. This is a valid argument, and fascism in India is unlikely to follow the German model. Rather, if it comes to pass, it is more likely to take the form of what the economist Prabhat Patnaik calls “federated fascism”. As Patnaik puts it, “If perchance the communal-fascist elements, who are backed by the corporate-financial elite, come to power after the next elections, they would have to depend upon the support of local power centres thriving on the muscle power of lumpenized elements… These local power centres are not directly linked to the corporate-financial elite and therefore cannot be directly called fascist; but they can help in sustaining a fascist system at the top.”
In the ultimate analysis, the danger posed by fascism to India’s parliamentary democracy is not so much about one man as about the masses that currently favour him with their support. It is this self-same political reality that drove the ever-pragmatic Congress to adopt what has been called “soft Hindutva” in Gujarat—which entailed not challenging what he represents at the core. This also partly explains why the BJP’s biggest rival on the national stage often comes across as listless, as if they’ve already given up before the electoral battle had even begun.
It should, therefore, not surprise us that a dynastic Congress full of parallel political entrants with little grassroot connect should prove incapable of stopping Modi, for fascism is essentially a political programme designed to protect the traditional elites from the dangers of democracy. In an India riven by growing economic disparity on the one hand, and on the other, by the rising tide of political contestations from groups hitherto marginalized by a system that is formally but not substantively democratic, the only way to shut the door on the fearful (to the elites) possibility of social transformation is by whipping up patriotic rage—a rage that is all too palpable in the way proponents of Moditva engage with their opponents. The rage of the masses, as the sub-continent knows too well, can wreak terrible havoc. We disregard the cynical cultivation of this rage—and the accumulation of the power to manipulate it in one man—at our peril.