Hemant Mishra/Mint
Hemant Mishra/Mint

Is India about to turn fascist?

Indian voters are too sophisticated for such alarmism and will vote based on the genuine issues of the day

As the prospect of an election victory for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears increasingly likely—at least if one believes pre-election opinion polls and the sense on the street—political opponents and critics have sharpened their attacks on the putative Prime Minister of India in-waiting.

Attacks on Modi, if one sieves them, distil down into two principal arguments: that he’s a bigoted Hindu chauvinist, and he harbours authoritarian instincts which bode ill for India’s democracy in the event that he wins the election.

On the first, the principal piece of evidence brought to bear by Modi’s critics is, of course, the events of 2002 in Gujarat. At this juncture, 12 years after the events and with a Supreme Court-anointed clean bill of health in the bag, most Indians have made up their minds on his culpability—political, moral, or otherwise—for what he did, or did not do.

There appears to be a sharp divide on the salience of 2002 for the current election. According both to formal surveys and to informal conversations, the issues animating voters are corruption, governance, and the state of the economy; on all of these, the incumbent Congress-led government stands on a sticky wicket, and many voters seem to believe that a Modi-led BJP will do better on all counts.

Yet, for the commenting class—both writers on the Left in India, and many foreigners observing this election from perches in New York, London, and elsewhere—the burning issue remains the ghost of 2002. For those who are convinced that Modi is guilty of something—perhaps of not doing enough—no legal exoneration is going to be satisfactory.

Still, with the niggling fact that India’s democratic institutions have cleared Modi, it proves convenient for some critics to change tacks, and find other pieces of evidence for Modi’s alleged bigotry and presumed Hindu fundamentalist agenda: which brings us to the manufactured topi controversy, an issue, which like Banquo’s ghost, refused to leave the table when asked politely.

Even the normally sensible The Economist newspaper cited Modi’s refusal to wear a Muslim skull cap, when offered one, as evidence of his unsuitability to be India’s Prime Minister. Our friends on St. James’s Street might do well to watch this past weekend’s appearance by their bête noire on Aap ki Adalat. When asked about the topi affair, Modi quite sensibly replied that he had little interest in a staged photo opportunity wearing a skull cup, and that he would rather work for the betterment of all Indians—including Muslims—than engage in meaningless tokenism.

Critics who flog the topi issue might also do well to ponder the ethics of politicians, such as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who will happily don a skull cap one day and the next will cynically exploit communal tensions within his state for electoral gain.

How about the second claim, that a vote for Modi is, in effect, a vote for a saffron brand of fascism? Critics of this ilk, and they are the more hysterical of the lot, turn, invariably, to Weimar Germany as a point of reference, raising the spectre of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 as emblematic of what will befall India in the event that Modi ascends to the prime minister’s chair.

This is both tendentious and meretricious.

India today is very different from Germany in 1933. India has been democratic—apart from the interregnum of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency—for the past 67 years. Germany was a fledgling democracy when Hitler came to power, barely 15 years after the dissolution of the German empire. Germany, too, was in the grips of the economic crisis of hyperinflation, which wiped out the savings of the middle class and thus radicalized them.

While India’s economy today is certainly in the doldrums, it would be risible to suggest that we have lived through a crisis anywhere approaching that which paved the way for Hitler’s ascent.

A more apt comparison, indeed, is the Emergency, a constitutional coup validated by pliant institutions of the state that Indira Gandhi had bent to her will, but even this does not really support the alarmist scenario. If we accept for the sake of argument that Modi harbours aspirations to would-be dictatorship, as evidenced, say, by his autocratic style in Gujarat, exactly how is he going to repeat Gandhi’s trick of subverting Indian democracy? She presided over a Congress party, in thrall to her, that was all but hegemonic, and she commanded a parliamentary majority.

The febrile fantasies of Modi’s most fervid detractors may conjure conspiracy theories in which he manages to repeat Gandhi’s feat, but none of them explain quite how he is likely to accomplish this when hemmed in by coalition partners, recalcitrant senior leaders within his own party, and a civil society which is infinitely more vibrant than in 1975.

The good news is that Indian voters are too sophisticated for such sophistry and alarmism, and will decide for whom to cast their vote based on the genuine issues of the day—corruption, governance, and the economy. We shall await their verdict in a month’s time.

Vivek Dehejia is a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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