3 years

Open Essay

Look who's romancing the autocrat

Priyamvada Gopal is a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge
Page 1 of 1
Think before you dismiss those who see the intimations of fascism as alarmists
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Criticising an influential political leader is not evidence of disrespect for India and Indians. Since I happen to live and work in the United Kingdom at the moment, I’ve been turned into a ‘desh drohi’ (traitor) at the receiving end of vitriolic denunciations for having voiced grave disquiet that a professed adherent of Hindutva might lead the proudly plural country in which I was born and educated and for which I continue to have great affection. Ironically, much of the hostility—often couched in violent and misogynist terms—has come from other NRIs, keyboard warriors sitting in Salford or San Jose, giving themselves sobriquets such as ‘Atheist Hindu’ or ‘Internet Hindu’ (no actual spiritual concerns appear to trouble them) and pretending that shrill support for Narendra Modi’s candidacy somehow makes them better Indians and truer Hindus than others. Modi campaigners reject criticism as ‘foreign’ but welcome the uncritical support for Modi which has come from NRIs like the British peer, Lord Meghnad Desai, and the American economist, Jagdish Bhagwati. Similarly, dissenting from what is presented as a majority view is not anti-democratic: democracy would be a pretty pointless endeavour if dominant trends were not subjected to robust challenge. India has long been a country of dissenters however much Modi’s adherents might wish it otherwise; to be or remain proudly Indian is surely to not allow oneself to be cowed—or bamboozled—into acquiescence.

What should worry us is the prospect of a regime that will create and enforce a culture of such acquiescence to narrow conceptions of India, in both social and economic terms. Such compliance can be ensured through a combination of intimidation, familiar to many in Gujarat already, as the Padmashri-awardee, Ganesh Devy recently noted, and consent produced by an obliging media, happy to purvey disinformation or blithely ignore the unpalatable. Most recently, a critical article containing myth-busting points about Modi was deleted by the website of the newspaper DNA: how much worse will this kind of repressive complicity get should he get the top job? Some have argued that we should separate Modi’s Hindutva ideology and RSS affiliations from his claims to being a man of development and progenitor of the so-called ‘Gujarat Model’ to be launched on a national scale, and focus on the latter. This is to conveniently separate two integrally connected parts of Modi’s appeal to many, including those who are not religious zealots but eager for strong rule: together, hardcore Hindutva adherent and Vikas Purush hold out the promise of all-encompassing ideological certainty, no room for doubt, diversity or flexibility, razing to the ground whatever stands in its way, regardless of human cost. It makes no sense to think that a neoliberal Hindu extremist will remain extreme on the economy but go soft on his cultural nationalist ideology whatever ‘moderate’ face is currently being put on for electoral consumption. For all the ‘anti-commie’ rhetoric of his most devoted followers, Modi and ‘Modinomics’ are actually in thrall to the Chinese model—capitalism on steroids combined with Stalinist autocracy, no pesky democratic processes, popular protests or sub-nationalisms allowed to get in the way. Democracy is an idol that will be worshipped only to the point where electoral majorities swing in Modi’s direction. After that, any criticism or popular resistance will be managed and contained, dissent turned into sedition. Note the suggestion already made by a Modi ally that his critics, frequently vilified as ‘Hindu-haters’, will need to leave India.

This scenario is one that some in the liberal intelligentsia, such as historian Ramachandra Guha, have dismissed as ‘alarmist’. Like political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, Guha touts the resilience of Indian democratic institutions which will automatically forestall any such repressive scenario. While India’s democratic institutions remain hugely valuable, they are not invariably robust—not everyone at all times has been a beneficiary of impartial administration or justice— and as Indira Gandhi in dictatorial mode proved, they can also be suspended by Emergency powers. Blind faith in their invulnerability will, perversely, undermine them. In days to come, the defence of democratic institutions will require less romanticism and greater courage than some in the Indian commentariat are showing, even as several brave voices continue to speak out against the dangers of simply turning India over to the Hindutva brigade and hoping for the best. It is wrong, too, to suggest that all of Modi’s critics overlook the cronyism and dynastic culture of the Congress and endorse it as ‘the last bulwark against fascism’ (Guha). The venerable anthropologist Andre Beteille has been quoted as saying that because the Congress has become too complacent and caught up with a single family, the BJP, which he doesn’t like, should now come to power; we must live with the choice of ‘unsavoury’ Modi as leader. That pragmatic attitude would be fine if we could somehow overlook not only the autocracy and unrepentant communalism of the man who is being posited as the only alternative in a bad situation, but also Modi’s own cosy relationships with the Adanis, Ambanis and Tatas of the world—the sweetheart deals he struck with them bear a striking resemblance to cronyism. Even a hard-headed magazine like The Economist finally shied away from amoral pragmatism noting that while change is desperately needed—and no one can deny that it is, given the Congress’ abysmal failures— it simply cannot come from someone so unapologetically ‘associated with sectarian hatred’ and resultant violence.

The Economist—much to the chagrin of Modibhakts and unusually for such a conservative journal—was bracingly plain- spoken. It is the slow death of precisely such vital plain-speaking within a largely acquiescent, indeed fawningly pro-Modi Indian media, that we have to worry about in days to come, the token acknowledgment of dissenting views notwithstanding. Quite apart from the overblown support for a candidate whose claims to exceptional growth in the state of Gujarat are, at best, questionable, we must assess the increasingly evasive nature of criticism of Modi as dissenters prepare to come to terms with a shift in power. The danger to the Indian public sphere may come less from direct repression— though we should certainly not underestimate that possibility, given how it has already been exercised in places like Kashmir and Chhattisgarh—than a quiet accommodation of an ideological status quo. As erstwhile naysayers become emollient, they start legitimising the claims of extremists to having become more moderate overnight, like that leopard which went for zebra stripes, but with no real evidence of such a profound change of heart. Thus we have Swami Agnivesh, stern critic of the 2002 Gujarat massacres, fawningly insist that ‘he can see a new face of Modi ji’. Where? In election campaign ‘speeches and interviews’. Naturally.

Then we have true Liberal Guha, ‘a Hindu and a patriot’, as he insists, opine condescendingly that ‘alarmist critics’ worry too much about the advent of Hit- ler or Mussolini-style Fascism. He goes on to generously concede that such ‘fears are not entirely invalid’ since Modi is, in fact, quite intolerant of dissent and has intimidated artists and writers in Gujarat. We will set aside for now the matter of Haren Pandya, the BJP dissenter who turned up mysteriously, to use a non-alarmist phrase, lacking in vital signs, or the serving police officers now paying the price of whistleblowing. It is worth recalling that many Liberal European commentators in the 1930s also insisted that German democratic institutions would withstand totalitarianism.

Just to be clear: no one who evokes Germany or Hitler in the context of Modi and Hindutva—easily sneered at as ‘scare-mongering’ by the terminally complacent—is saying that Modi is a carbon copy of Hitler. We are clearly at a different historical moment and in another cultural context. Those who invoke the dangers of fascism are, however, noting that deeply authoritarian regimes often emerge from perfectly democratic processes in tandem with long years of demonising minorities and valourising both strongmen and growth rates. If these warnings are overdoing it, then those who blithely insist that fascism has no currency in the current context are culpable of wilfully minimising danger signs. However much we wish it were so, India hasn’t been issued a special get-out clause that renders it peculiarly immune to the possibilities of fascism—defined broadly as militarised authoritarian rule in the name of the majority community at the expense of minorities, both religious and political, accompanied by a personality cult. The showmanship and spectacle that have accompanied Modi electoral rallies are entirely familiar to a fascist ethos and should elicit deep dismay, not grudging aesthetic admiration. As the political analyst Dilip Simeon notes in his excellent blog, while it is counter- productive to shout ‘fascism’ at every opportunity, it is also ‘dangerously misleading’ and, frankly, simplistic, to suggest ‘that Fascism may be properly recognised only when it seizes absolute power.’ By that point, it might be too late to abandon the supercilious postures of mild concern. Unlike disarmingly honest internet Modibots who openly insist that a ‘benevolent dictator is better than ignorant democracy’, liberal purveyors of moderation and nuance will only admit blandly that there are ‘troubled communal waters’ or, to use Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s unflappable phrase, there ‘should be no complacency over the communal question’. That suggestion quickly morphs into advice to the BJP to simply ‘act reassuringly’.

Since much attention has been paid to the habit of hyperbole that ‘alarmists’ are ostensibly given to, let’s assess Liberal moderation or hypo-bole. In a recent op-ed, Mehta deprecates something he calls ‘The Indian Left’ (presumably not just the electoral parties) and seeks to hoist it on its own petard. ‘The Left’, he pronounces damningly, ‘are incapable of dialectical thinking’. By ‘dialectics’, Mehta appears to mean a mishmash of factors that which have gone into the making of Hindu nationalism, including a larger culture of the ‘political construction of identities’ in which other parties have also played the communal game. (Chances are that neither Hegel nor Marx would recognise this version of dialectics, but let that pass). Including an uncertain economic future and various secessionist movements, these ‘dialectics’ can only be overcome by the transcendence provided by ‘a growth narrative that can restore India’s confidence’. Curiously, then, for Mehta, Hindu nationalism can only be defeated by that rather undialectical formula offered by Modi himself: the triumph of the neoliberal economic will.

I’m not saying that all this talk about the need for intellectual ‘complexity’ combined with denunciations of ‘alarmism’ is so much sophistry which simply feeds the so-called Modi wave. Or at least, that’s not all I am saying. I am asking what will happen to old-fashioned plain speaking, if throat-clearing and fudging become the order of the day at a time when India faces the very real prospect of rule by a man who is known for an authoritarian style of governance, cosy relations with large powerful corporations, a willingness to run roughshod over whatever comes in his way, be they protesting farmers or dissenting police officers, and a profound commitment to an organisation which is founded on the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, turning India into a Hindu Pakistan. It’s all very well to bang on, as Mehta does, about ‘a complicated country feeling its way through difficult times’, but should such banal observations be allowed to obscure the dawning reality of majoritarian rule? If alarmism is unhelpful (to whom?), who is helped by equivocation and waffling which render authoritarianism, described euphemistically by Guha as ‘a tendency to centralise and self-aggrandise’, a matter of ‘unbecoming’ bad manners rather than a lethal political problem? In a typically palliative manner, Mehta suggests that we must now proceed ‘on a wing and a prayer’. A less romantic if more difficult approach may well lie in disavowing all this obfuscation, embracing honesty, and, as so many already are in the towns and villages of India, putting up some quite outright and courageous resistance.

(Priyamvada Gopal is a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge)
disqus