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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Conditions in India are ripe for a retreat from democracy

History has a propensity to prove people wrong. In spite of this, historians and observers of current events take the risk of discerning trends in the way events unfold and then suggest directions towards which the future is headed. The fulfilment of those predictions is dependent on a range of other factors but this should not invalidate the exercise of analysing trends and what they portend.

It has been evident over the last one year or more that there is a growing disillusionment with the present government. It is perceived as being too passive and indecisive. One consequence of this is a clamour for a political leadership that is more assertive, more performance-driven and perhaps even more charismatic.

Another wider function of the disillusionment has been manifested in the discontent voiced on the streets of Delhi off and on since last year. Prominent features of those demonstrations were a marked enthusiasm to bypass established democratic protocol and conventions and an impatience with the due processes of law. Corruption among officials and among members of the political class provided the occasion to articulate such demands. The most notorious of these was the attempt made by Anna Hazare and his cohorts to impose their will on Parliament and its conventions. Such protests gained a certain amount of credibility among sections of the urban populace because many politicians pay scant regard to the proprieties of parliamentary behaviour.

Ironically, the government that is often flayed for being inactive and indecisive has a track record of infringing upon the liberties and the rights of individuals. The imprisonment of Binayak Sen, the charge of sedition against Arundhati Roy, the growing number of undertrial prisoners across the country (the numbers are so large in Manipur that a judge of the Supreme Court asked if there was a civil war on in that state), the reports of encounter deaths, the activities of vigilante groups in Chhattisgarh — these are all various instances in which the State has either violated the rights of individuals or has subverted the rule of law.

The challenge to democracy and its institutions has thus come from both within and without the State, even though that same State is perceived by most people as being bereft of effective leadership. This infringement of democratic rights by the State has its complement in the growing culture of intolerance in various parts of India. Witness the treatment meted out to Ashis Nandy and Salman Rushdie, to take the two most notorious examples. But ordinary citizens have also been victims of intolerance on the part of the State, political parties and sections of society.

The clamour for a strong State, not surprisingly, has found an exemplar in the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. He has been held up as the political leader who epitomizes economic development and is known for taking swift decisions. Industrialists have flocked to Gujarat and have unanimously sung the praises of Modi. His electoral successes appear to be the testimony of his popularity. Many see Modi as a future prime minister of India. That Modi has a history of intolerance and communal violence behind him seems to his admirers and the proponents of economic development something that can be brushed aside or a small price to pay for a leader who is committed to economic development, is decisive and charismatic.

A demand for a more effective leadership, a pronounced propensity on the part of the State to transgress democratic rights, a growing culture of intolerance, an impatience with the institutions of democracy and the presence of a leader in one part of India who, in spite of his track record of promoting religious violence, is seen by many as a powerful leader who promotes economic development and the regeneration of India — these are some of the noticeable features of the contemporary scene. There are others, of course, but for the sake of the argument being made in this essay, the importance of these features needs to be kept in mind.

Their significance becomes apparent if the focus for a moment is shifted away from India and the features are placed in the context of comparative history. The comparison that springs to mind to most students of history is with the twilight years of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the late 1920s. Germany after the First World War was at the nadir of its humiliation. At this critical juncture, when economic recovery and the restoration of national pride seemed paramount, the Weimar leadership was found to be wanting — it was perceived as weak and ineffective. Among important sections of the population, especially the old landowning elite, the army, industrialists and among common people who were devastated by unemployment and inflation, there was a growing hatred for the Weimar State, for the ‘system’ as it was often referred to. The republic survived on a very fine balance, and this balance was upset by the economic crash of 1929. Divergent sections of the population driven by their own interests and aspirations actively sought a non-democratic and, therefore, an authoritarian solution to the growing and overwhelming crisis manifest in economic collapse and lawlessness on the streets. These groups found in the ideology of National Socialism — with its unique blend of extreme nationalism, anti-semitism and the building of a national community — a vision and an agenda that appealed and seemed to provide a viable solution. They found in Adolf Hitler a leader who was charismatic, powerful and capable of rousing the masses. From this cauldron emerged the monster of Nazism that altered in a span of a few years the destiny of Germany, Europe and even of other parts of the world.

This brief excursus into German history throws up some alarming parallels with the present situation in India. First, the suspicion of the system expressed most notably in the protests against corruption and also in the demand that the existing institutions of democracy are not adequate to meet the emerging problems; second, a lack of faith in the present government, which is perceived as weak and incapable not only of governance but also of delivering on its own declared agenda; third, a general decline of law and order; and fourth, the growing demand among important and articulate sections of the population for a strong leader and a strong State; and fifth, the success in Gujarat of precisely such a strong leader, albeit with a dubious track record on sectarian strife, who is obviously positioning himself for a greater role at the national level.

The point of drawing out these parallels is to argue that the conditions that facilitated the emergence of fascism in Germany all exist in India. This is not to suggest that fascism is around the corner in India. Indian democracy, in spite of its many lacunae and weaknesses, still retains enough robustness to resist a turn towards authoritarianism. Those committed to democracy and the freedoms enshrined in it need to be always aware of the dangers threatening it.

The reminder about the threats acquires an urgency given the noticeable rise in illiberal tendencies in politics and the escalation of violence in society. The assault on intellectual freedoms in many parts of India from various quarters — the State, political parties and their cadre — is a particularly ominous sign, as is the escalation of violence against women. The spectre of authoritarianism is inevitably accompanied by an erosion of democratic rights and a degradation of moral and ethical standards. India, for more reasons than one, stands at a critical conjuncture.