It is, of course, technically correct that fascism refers to certain historical conditions those present in post-World War I Italy, for example that cannot be found in 21st century India. What many refer to as fascism in India cannot be said to be the spectre that terrorised early 20th century Europe. The problem is that by this logic, we would not be able to use terms such as democracy, civil society and citizenship for societies beyond the West. Non-Western democracies, civil societies and citizenship are, surely, quite different in both their past and present manifestations when compared to the models on which they are based.
And yet, we do use these terms in India, and a large amount of public discussion is based on them. We dont use them to measure how well we approximate to their source, but rather to express an entire range of aspirations, hopes and anxieties. When democratic rights are threatened, we dont say, We shouldnt really be using this term because it belongs to a different historical context. Similarly, the use of fascism cant be subject to an inflexible law of historical verification: it is the flip side of an equally imprecise use of and concern for democracy. It reflects the characterisation of certain styles of leadership and the strategic use of identity politics for the purposes of power.
Is the carping on fascism the particular characteristic of an old elite in its death throes A yes to this question suggests we are clearly able to recognise the differences between the old elite and newer groups. A great deal of social analysis flounders on the rocks of easy differentiations. Irrespective of whether the old elite means culturally or economically privileged classes, different sections within them provide support to fascist and anti-fascist forces. This makes it impossible to sustain the notion of a homogenous old elite standing against the ideas of newly emerging groups. There is, in this way, a great overlap of ideas between the historically privileged and the newly prospering (and those on the way) groups. To cast criticism of Narendra Modi in old and new terms is to introduce a red herring into the discussion. We already know what the old stands for, the real question is about the nature of the new we are promised.
A key new promise is economic growth, which, the argument goes, will blunt the edges of violent identitarianism. But there is no straightforward answer to whether economic prosperity leads to greater or lesser inclinations towards identity-based politics and violence. The events in Delhi in 1984, Mumbai in 1992 and Godhra in 2002 occurred within some of the most prosperous cities and states in India. On the other hand, some of the poorest areas do not witness similar kinds of violence.
Further afield, the considerable prosperity of white South Africans did not make them less interested in Apartheid. Economic growth is important, but growth by itself does not create the conditions for harmonious relations between groups. That is dependent upon a number of factors, including the kind of political leadership we have. The latter can either subscribe to or inhibit chauvinism. That is the question being asked about Modi. Given that Hindu nationalism has been more popular among urban and hence generally better-off groups than rural populations, the equation between economic prosperity and violent identity politics is perplexing.
It is true there is widespread disillusionment with the established landscape of power. However, the choice in Indian politics has rarely been between the pure and the impure. Rather, it has mostly been about making the best of a bad system. It is here that serious concerns about the qualifications of a prime ministerial candidate whose political career has been built upon violent identity politics lie. It is not enough to dismiss Hindutva as a caricature of religious identity when it has real implications for the way we live. This is why it is inadequate to frame the argument primarily in terms of whether it is historically accurate to call Modi a fascist.
This is not to suggest that other political parties do not resort to self-serving identity politics for electoral benefit, or that secular parties are, indeed, just that. The perspective that those who voice anti-Modi opinions do not, similarly, recognise the communalism practised by, say, the Samajwadi Party is unfair to the large body of public opinion that has been critical of both Modi and Mulayam Singh Yadav. However, Yadav has not been put forward as a prime ministerial candidate.
Mehta rightly asks for a critical examination of the kind of political culture we have nurtured. At the heart of it may be a deep-rooted psychological desire for an all-powerful father figure as national leader. This is where Manmohan Singh does not make the grade. In any case, it is proper to question irrespective of the inadequacy of our vocabulary whether the dawn that is promised is the one we have been waiting for.
The writer is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University