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How Democracy Turns Autocracy

How Democracy Turns Autocracy

A Trust Deficit

Angela Merkel exclaimed in exasperation  after a meeting with Donald Trump, “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.” (Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright, HarperCollins, London, 2018 pg. 220).  A “trust deficit” is taking over the whole world. When public figures keep constantly changing their positions, go back on their word and merely swear at others when contradictions are pointed out, how can they be considered reliable? What programmes of action can be considered credible when official propaganda is the only source of information and other monitoring agencies are marginalized or silenced? What public institutions can be trusted when they clearly promote only the dominant group’s interests?  Trump himself questioned the reliability of elections, courts, media, even science . Freedom House says, democracy is “under assault” today, and “in retreat” (ibid 4).

Fascism Has Become Fashionable, Ideas are Imposed

Long established democracies are producing leaders whose “statements and actions are totally at odds with democratic ideals,” who degrade political discourse, threaten to lock up people, declare political critics as enemies of the society, and nurture “paranoid bigotry” (ibid 5). Indeed, it looks as though Fascism has become fashionable (ibid 7).

Political observers are sure that the traits of Fascist autocracy are reappearing in many democratic countries, beginning with the US, followed by India, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Thailand... The process of autocratisation is on. The effort to ‘impose ideas’ on others is evident... in India, in addition,  food habits and the devotions of one community. While people were recently recalling Indira’s Emergency days, someone blurted, “For you Emergency is a memory of the past, for us an unconstitutional and undeclared Emergency is an experience of the present!” Independent points of view are “strangulated on a daily basis.” This is the opinion of those who seek to be vocal.

Hitler Learnt from Mussolini

Madeleine Albright speaks of the rise of Fascism in Europe with emotion. Born in Czechoslovakia, she had lived under Nazi regime during her early days.  She says one Fascist teaches the other. It was from Mussolini that Hitler learned how to bring into existence and unaccountable government. The first Fascist manifesto was signed by only 54 people. In a couple of years the Fascists had 2000 chapters. The economic uncertainty of the times was a favouring factor. The Communists divided class against class, but the Fascists brought all the Italians together (like Modiji’s ‘ Sab ke sath, Sab ka vikas’). There was a sense of solidarity, call to dedication, a vision of greatness, general excitement!

Albright says, “This is how twentieth century Fascism began: with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.” They began by organizing “combat leagues,” fighting squads, to beat up and kill opponents (ibid 20). The police with Fascist sympathies closed an eye, as the Indian police have often done after a cow-related mob-lynching, or communal riots. Mussolini, by now known as Il Duce (the leader), excelled in theatrics. Does it sound similar to the dramatization of the Indian leader’s Mann ki Baat?

Mussolini’s initial priority, like Modi’s, was Good Government. He improved infrastructure, upgraded health benefits, organized children’s camps. But soon enough he had abolished all competing political parties, eliminated freedom of the press, neutered the labour movement, and directly appointed the municipal officials (Ibid 24).

Savarkar Learnt from Mussolini

Next, Mussolini took over the control of the police, turned schools into “human factories,” and made boys march with muskets in hand shouting, “Believe, Obey, Fight.” He fiercely affirmed that they were living in a “century of authority... direction, order,” that the road to paradise was war. He urged his fellow-citizens to renounce all comforts and embrace inevitable war. “Live dangerously,” he thundered (Ibid 25).

Our Hindutva patriarch Savarkar learnt much from Il Duce. Many of Mussolini’s Fascist fads would enter into the RSS martial styles: the ‘right hand over the heart’ salute, military uniforms, menacing pose, tempestuous tones. Asked about his programme Mussolini roared, “It is to break the bones of the democrats...” (Ibid  21). He wanted the mild Italians to “horrify the world by their aggressiveness...instead of charming it with their guitars” (Ibid 47). He asked them to imitate the world-conquering Romans, hate the enemy, steel themselves for battle, offer their lives for the nation (Ibid 46). Savarkar adopted the same tone: militarize Hindudom! He knew that Indians too were a gentle-natured people.

An Angry Man for an Angry Age

Hitler, in imitation of Mussolini, tapped into the anger of a Germany defeated in World War I to form truly “fearless Germans.” He emerged on the scene like “an angry man for an angry age,” like Trump or Duterte in our days. Like Mussolini, Hitler too took power through constitutional means. But he confided to his friends “We have no scruples... They regard me as an uneducated barbarian. Yes, we are barbarians. We want to be barbarians” (Ibid 37-38). He himself admitted having used “colossal untruths” (Ibid 33), instilling fear into his rivals, silencing critics, threatening Communists and democrats, eliminating opponents through his violent gangs, sending multitudes into concentration camps under Joseph Goebbels. Heinrich Himmler controlled the secret police (Ibid 30). The Gestapo managed the intelligence department (Ibid 38). 

The Nazis throve amidst discontentment. The Great Economic Depression aggravated the situation and added to the anger. Production declined, unemployment quadrupled. Hitler readily gave jobs to unemployed youth as Nazi muscle men, vigilantes, election agents, blind supporters, lynching chiefs (Ibid 35), as it is happening in India today. After all, Modiji has promised one crore jobs. In Hindutva hands, Nazi anti-Semitism turned into an anti-minority and anti-dalit thrust.

In his own eyes, Hitler was one of the elect, a superior being, a man born to be a dictator . Everybody else was wrong (Ibid 31). His words were forcefully phrased and fiercely worded: Aryans must dominate, Poland must go, Russia and others next....“Smash, destroy, annihilate, kill,” he would cry in fury. “Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right,” he would squeal (Ibid 47). Imitating Mussolini, he began organizing rallies (Ibid 34). They knew what the masses wanted: a Big Show (Ibid 26). Citizens were thrilled, power became visible, plans became credible, boasts became indisputable, claims became infallible.

Nazi-Fascist Rallies, Hindutva Big Events

There is an amazing similarity between these Nazi-Fascist models and RSS rallies, frequent yatras, yajnas, Kumbh Mela in non-traditional places like the Dang district, non-traditional worship of  the Brahmaputra and the Barak rivers, rabble rousing, destruction of Babri Masjid, threatening to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya no matter what the Supreme Court will say! This similarity is not by mere chance, it is on design. Mixing religion with politics gives it an additional elusiveness that the Nazis did not have.  Any critic is told “Touch me not! Keep away! It is a matter of faith!” What is not said is that this is a way of enslaving religion to the political interests of a small group.

The masses have an aptitude for spectacle, mass gatherings, music. They are susceptible to be influenced by “incendiary rhetoric, loud cheers, arm-lifting salutes,” aggressive tones, militaristic postures. Disasters follow. We need psychological experts to tell us how such events shape the ‘collective mind’ of a people before they are led into absolute destruction. Revolutions and World Wars have not been sufficiently studied from this point of view alone. The recent tragic death of 11 members of a family at Burari (Delhi) as a result of “shared psychotic disorder” is a little image of what can happen to India’s enraged millions if they are guided by people who deliberately refuse to draw a line between ‘superstition’ and ‘faith,’ and who have become indefatigable promoters of ‘obscurantist thinking’ for their own advantage.

A Return of Fascism in Our Own Days

Many feel today that there is a return to the climate of 1920s and 30s. Others would consider it an exaggeration. But Albright reminds us that Fascism begins with “small aggressions” which are bound to grow, if uncritically accepted (ibid 229). In India the new avatar of Fascism is this undeclared Emergency, when independent opinions are “strangulated on a daily basis,” when the educational system is turned “into seminaries for true believers,” when information is controlled, self-censorship demanded, institutions are weakened, culture is imposed, national greatness is given a warped understanding, media is used to divide, manipulate and enslave people; when lies are spread on phony websites and Facebook, and cases are (innocently!’) brought up against critics.

Indira’s Gandhi’s Emergency was imposed from above; it respected the constitution. Hindutva Emergency is imposed from below by lynching mobs and chaotic crowds on yatras, which recognise neither the constitution, nor the Indian Penal Code, nor Indian dharmic norms...but only an unwritten, self-defined ethic of a self-interested elite...all, in the name of rabid nationalism. Nitin Gadkari ridiculed the Opposition for not having a consistent ideology. They certainly don’t have the single ideology of Hinduising the nation like the BJP, nor have they caught up with the Ruling Party in offering a 100 crores to defectors (as reported). The speculation is that this strategy will stop only when those who remained faithful will ask for 200 crores each for their unshaken fidelity. Venality is not a high ideology in any case.

The Leader is Supreme

Mussolini complained that Hitler always presented him with an ‘accomplished fact’ (Ibid 48). Modiji follows the same pedagogy: demonetisation, GST, and many other major decisions. The leader decides. He decrees in the name of the people. He alone. Vajpayee has become feeble, Advani is repentant, Shourie is marginalized, Naidu is promoted, Jaswant Singh is a spent force, Jaitley in on the sick list, Sushma Swaraj is drowned in criticism. Modiji stands alone. There is a planned elimination of all other stalwarts.

Recently it was claimed that there was a threat to Modiji’s life, and that therefore even ministers and senior officers would not be allowed to come near. That is exactly the position of the Fascist leader, distant even from close colleagues. His supporters’ loyalty is not to the Indian constitution, but to the ‘Indian Fuhrer.’ He said that the Opposition is united only in their hatred of him. He is happy to claim victimhood in order to elicit sympathy, and emerge a hero. Hitler often referred to himself as a workingman, with no bank account, no investment income, “I was born a son of the people” (Ibid 40). Modiji claims to have been a humble ‘chaiwala.’ Similarities multiply.

One Strong Man Teaches Another in Our Days

Albright admits that a herd mentality is powerful in international affairs. She herself was in the midst of them. Leaders around the world watch, learn from, and mimic one another. They walk in one another’s footsteps, as Hitler did Mussolini’s. She feels that today the herd is moving in a Fascist direction (Ibid 248). Modi and Putin keep close to Xi, all keep watching Erdogan and Duterte. But, of course, Trump remains the master of all, though none has been able to develop his unbeatable skill of using immoderate language and issuing ill-conceived threats.

Albright makes several suggestions to measure how far advanced a leader is on the Fascist path. Here are a few.  Does the leader concerned stir up prejudice in people with regard to ethnicity, race, creed, or party? Does he nurture their anger? Does he exploit religious/cultural/national symbols? What does he do to his critics? (Albright 253). I pause here for a moment of reflection.

Good People Lose for Lack of Unity and Motivation

Everything passes. So will Fascist regimes and earthshaking dictators. Charlie Chaplin made a film in the Fascist days in which a character expresses his resentment against the merciless dictators of his times, “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.” But he is sure that “the hate of men will pass, and dictators will die, and the power they took from the people will return the people” (Ibid 78).

But the danger remains that they return. And they seem to be returning in our own days! Albright explains why: “Good guys don’t always win, especially when they are divided and less determined than their adversaries.” And moreover, the good sentiments of good people are often mixed with complacency, opportunism and competitive self-interest. But we must always remember, “Losing has a price” (Albright 87), to us and to the nation!

(Published on 16th July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 29)