In recent times, the term ‘fascism’ has become so widely used that it has become difficult to define it precisely. It is often used as a metaphor by the fiercest critics of any politics. Historically, however, fascism refers to extreme right-wing, anti-democratic, ultranationalism that spread rapidly through Europe between the two world wars. Though it is commonly associated with Adolf Hitler, fascism took its form first as a paramilitary and political movement under Benito Mussolini in 1919. The name of Mussolini’s party is derived from the Latin word “fascis”. The word “fascis” means a bound bundle of wooden rods, often with an exposed blade of an axe, which symbolises power in ancient Rome. Bringing back that symbol of ancient Rome, Mussolini represented the Italiansbound by the authority of the state.
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University, a noted historian on authoritarianism, defines a fascist government as one who“has only one party, led by a dictator who through violence has shut down all opposition, including from the judiciary, the press and so-called enemies of the state.”. If we accept this definition, then the government led by the Prime Minister of India NarendraModicannot be called a fascist government! The coalition government of NDA is an elected government. In this country, voting is held every five years in accordance with the constitution. Six national parties and fourteen provincial parties, recognised by the election commission, regularly participate in elections. Issues such as corruption in the electoral process and inconsistencies in the Representation of the People Act are not the subject of this article. Our topic is the analysis of the activities of the central government based on the definition of fascism. While criticising the NDA government at the Center, some say it is a fascist government while some others term it an authoritarian government. In the light of these two statements, a question arises about how can one distinguish between fascism and authoritarianism? According to Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of the book “How Fascism Works”, there are several notable features of fascism. Fascism appeals to an imaginary and glorious past destroyed by the forces of liberalism, cosmopolitanism and globalism. The fantasy of a uniform past can take on multiple dimensions — racial, cultural, religious”. That is, a state based on one race, one culture, or one religion, and it is always patriarchal. This combination of traditional patriarchal roles gives the strong man in power the moral authority to impose his will on the present. Fascism uses the application of the mythical past to establish a hierarchy of authority or priesthood among the people. Fascism, through its appeal to the mythic past, tries to create distinctions among people based on a false sense of worthiness. For example, the worth of law-abiding people more than the criminals, hard-working people over the lazy, racially purer people over the impure people, heterosexuals over homosexuals, etc. Those considered worthy by these yardsticks are deemed to be the actual people of the nation. People who are considered to be incompetent are identified as a threat to the deserving people. Thus a division is created in the form of “Us” versus “Them”. False distinctions between the so-called qualified and unqualified populations, spread through propaganda and anti-intellectualism,create a fertile ground for the development of conspiratorial theories. The imagery of partial realities and degenerate language act as vehicles of the propaganda. As the American-German philosopher, Hannah Arendt writes, “the hallmark of fascist propaganda is not just that it promotes lies, which is characteristic of propaganda in general, but that it promotes lies in service of policy that seeks to make them true.” If we look at the actions of the current rulers of the country and their propaganda based on this analysis, then we can see the reflection of fascism in the mythical past.
According to historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a party government led by a dictator may not exist in our country at the moment, but the standard features of fascism are fully present in the ruling political party and its leadership. They want to reorganise the country based on the Hindutva nationalism, Hindu culture and Hinduism. And to implement this core agenda, they constantly fuel the ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ fight in every stratum of society. Tagging any anti-government statement as an anti-nationalist activity has now become a daily occurrence. Sometimes the government or members of the ruling party also identify the opposition as agents of the enemy state. All these are reflections of the fascist mentality of identifying the “worthy” and the “unworthy”as per the mythical past.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that a common feature of all fascist propaganda is falsehood. Over the past decade, we have seen and continue to see the vital role of false propaganda, false promises, in the massive rise of the rightists in Indian politics. Since the time of election campaign before the general election in 2014, we have become accustomed to the false messages like ‘deposition of Rs 15 lakh in every citizen’s bank account’ spread in 2014 to‘No one has occupied an inch of Indian and told to us recently in 2020. The incessant false, misleading propaganda of the IT cell of the BJP or Sangh family has now become the subject of research. In other words, the propaganda strategy of the ruler is being formulated and implemented in our country in accordance with the basic principles of fascism.
Professor Jason Stanley in his book, “How Fascism Works”,writes that fascist movements, while emphasising specific collective identities (such as Hindi, Hindu, Hinduism in the Indian context), promote a social Darwinian morality. This morality says that people have to fight with each other to acquire power, money and resources in this free-market system. In the process, fascism attempts to weaken the theory of class division or conflict by breaking up labour movements and unions. Fascism tries to crush any solidarity call for unifying exploited people as well as the call to end all inequality created in society. In times of severe economic depression, fascism seeks to strike at trade unions most effectively. Taking advantage of the worldwide corona pandemic, we have seen attempts to take away the rights of the working class in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Even before this, Indian citizens have witnessed a two-pronged attack by the factory owners and the administration to crush the existing trade unions and to prevent the formation of new trade unions in Gurgaon or Manesar areas of Haryana. After coming to power in 2014, the present NDA government had decided to dilute the existing labour laws of the country through extensive amendment. The government has decided to trim forty-four central labour laws to suit the needs of the industrialists in the present time and has planned to document four labour laws or codes of conduct. The process has already begun. The code of conduct has greatly reduced the rights of trade unions and has increased the power of the owner.
Thus the basic features of the fascist ideology of a mythical past and modern history are fully present in the present rulers of the country, albeit under the veil of a democratic system of governance. There is no direct similarity between the fascist methods of Benito Mussolini or Hitler and the fascist methods used in today’s India. In our country, institutions like elections, judiciary, media still survive, and oppositions have not yet been liquidated. However, everything is there to fulfil the wishes of the ruler. And this situation has been created under the guise of democracy and not in a crude imitation of Hitler’s violent actions. Opposition leaders are controlled using government investigative or anti-corruption agencies or through the distribution of a meagre share of power. An invisible thread of the ruler controls the majority of the media. Allegations of secret collusion between the judiciary and the government are now often heard in social life. Culture is being moulded mimicking the style of the mythical past embellished with various interpretations. Hence, it needs careful observation and analysis to understand this subtle way of imposing fascism, and we all should be aware of its threat before it becomes too late!
Asish Gupta is a senior journalist