Did Somebody Say Indian Fascism?

On 6 September 2016, the former CPI(M) General Secretary and politburo member Prakash Karat interrogated the current debate on “Indian fascism”. He analyzed the current Indian political climate since the rise of the BJP. However, the only threat to Indian democracy for Karat is in the form of authoritarianism which, according to him, is only semi-fascist in character at the moment. For Karat, there is no sign of a fully developed fascist rule in India. Instead of recognizing the fascism of the paramilitary party RSS in particular and the Sangh Parivar in general, that helped BJP win the elections, Karat merely acknowledged the capacity of RSS to develop into an authoritarian political entity and that there is a chance for a fascist political party to gain control of the Indian state. He defined fascism using the examples of the classical modern cases of Germany, Japan and Italy. Karat says :” Fascism as an ideology and as a form of political rule emerged in between the two World Wars in the 20th century. When capitalism was engulfed in deep crisis and faced with the threat from a revolutionary movement of the working class, the ruling classes in Germany opted for an extreme form of rule that abolished bourgeois democracy. Mussolini’s Italy and Japan were also fascist regimes”. In other words, for Karat, fascism is the re-entrenchment of the ruling capitalist class when the capitalist order is threatened by the organized working class movement. According to Karat, unlike the situation in inter-war Europe, there is an absence these classical conditions in India that would give rise to fascism. The comparative analysis provided by Karat would recognize fascist tendencies only if they are similar to the classical European cases. Karat ignores any other forms of connection between Indian case and fascist ideology.

What makes the current Indian government authoritarian for Karat? He argues that the real threat is neo-liberalism–which controls all the social developments in India-as it works with the help of the ruling authoritarian party. Karat says: “The impact of neo-liberalism on the political system has led to the narrowing of democracy”. This for him is not particular to the Indian situation but is a global phenomenon. The rise and growth of right wing parties around the world is the direct result of growing neo-liberalism globally. Therefore, according to Karat, it is neoliberalism that needs be challenged and the rhetoric on Indian fascism is a distraction from the required focus on neoliberalism.

For that purpose, Karat provides a trans-historical argument by comparing Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyib Erdogan. However, the conflation of the Turkish AK Party and the Indian BJP is an example of Karat’s historical analysis of the Indian social struggle and a lack of appreciation for its situatedness in a particular context. Discussions that equate Islamism with Indian fascism are analytically weak and reject the possibility of engaging with the questions of Islamic politics, including its totalitarian impulses, especially in the formation of political Islam after the abolition of Ottoman caliphate. Karat made his analogy as if there is an obvious trans-regional and meta-historical connection between the Hindu nationalism of Modi and the Islamism of Erdogan, as if this supposed connection does not need a proper justification.

The way forward to defeat the “semi-fascist” regime in India, according to Karat, is to fight against neoliberalism by forming a larger coalition of the working class parties throughout India. He rejects the possibilities of any alliances with liberal/radical forces that are democratic in character but may pose challenges for his party at the parliamentary level. He argues that the fight against the “semi-fascist” and “authoritarian” regime should be at the level of electoral democracy. Yet, for him, there are forms of secondary struggles- especially in the context of attacks against religious minorities and Dalits- which can be carried out with the active participation of what he calls other democratic forces. In other words, though he rejects the parliamentary democratic forces, he has no problem in developing a common front with non-parliamentary democratic forces, that is organizations that have no interest contesting elections. Karat expects that in this alliance it is the working class interest that will always determine the nature of the political struggle and not that of the non-parliamentary democratic organization. In this way, the vanguard of the party can be secured and the scientific leadership of his party remains intact.

Interestingly, there is a similarity between Slavoj Žižek’s argument on totalitarianism and Karat’s argument on fascism. Karat seems to be saying that current debates on fascism are an obstacle to political thought. Similarly, Žižek argues in one of his famous essay on totalitarianism, that the term totalitarianism is an obstacle to political thinking since it does not perform any explanatory function. Karat seems to view the debate over fascism in India in a similar manner, since it only leads to an unending debate about the definition of term. Albeit, when he speaks about semi-fascism , it is not clear, whether he agrees with the continuation of the debate on fascism or would he rather replace this altogether with a discussion on global neoliberalism.

It is clear that the hegemony of Indian fascists rule is completed after the rise to power of BJP in 2015. While arguing for an Indian case of fascism, Christopher Jaffrelot pointed out that : “An important difference between this totalitarianism and fascism in its various forms or Nazism is that the Indian version chose to work patiently on society over a long period rather than seizing power and constraining society from ‘above’ .The RSS, by contrast, is not a putschist organization and Golwalkar considered that Hitler’s capture of the state was a mistake. It is true that it concentrates on long-term programmes rather than on the immediate capture of the state”. There is an establishment of the social universal not only through electoral politics but on the level of society as a whole. The social means society is by nature divided and it does not cohere around a single set of values. Therefore a society divides itself into antagonistic positions and an analysis of the ontology of the social says that totalitarianism cannot work in the long run. The process of establishment of the social universal in India – using culture and other forms of social particulars – even prior to the most recent election is neglected in the analysis of Karat. There is no analysis of the social struggle and the construction of hegemony prior to the last election in the analysis of Karat. Can the closure of the “social” and the establishment of totalitarianism happen only through state power? This is what Karat seems to suggests in his essay.

The Indian case of fascism shows that the rise of fascism in India was a gradual process and there was a stronger presence of fascism in Indian society even before the BJP captured state power. This is an argument developed by Dalit Bahujan thinkers such as Kancha Ilaiah using the concept of spiritual fascism. Ilaiah argues that the Hindu upper caste regime in the form of Brahmanism tries to displace the alternative organic communities of Dalit Bahujans into the fold of the caste regime. This attempt to close the gap of the social particulars using the ideology of the caste regime is the problematic space of spiritual fascism or the ideology of Indian totalitarianism. The aim of the Hindu caste regime is actually to erase the difference of the social particulars to form a homogenous Hindu society , which is based on the hegemony of the upper caste social universal.

The problem of social hegemony in the form of the caste regime is absent in Karat’s analysis because of his inadequate engagement with the ontology of the social in the formation of totalitarianism. Totalitarian forces in Indian society establishes itself by eliminating antagonism in the realm of the social by projecting itself outside of the social. The myth of Aryan race theory in the imagination of the RSS is quite central in displacing the problem of the social by concentrating on the myth of Aryan supremacy. The figure of the Muslim enemy as an external other – the eternal Muslim enemy that tries to attack and destroy the so called Indian society and the pure Aryan race for the last thousand years – is central to the consolidation of the Hindu society as a nation. The purpose of mobilizing this Muslim enemy figure is to reject the internal division of Hindu society in terms of the caste. This is where Karat fails to understand the logic of the hegemonic notion of social in India and its relationship with the RSS.

Karat’s reduction of the multiple antagonisms in the realm of the social to a global anti-neoliberal class struggle reduces the contingency of the social in India into a universal/ ahistorical class analysis. However, the social in the form of the caste delimits any attempts of totalitarian organization of the Indian society. The social is not a harmonious whole and there is no universal social that determines the social as a whole. Society does not come to a universal identity without a loss. There is no higher synthesis to integrate the antagonistic particulars. The caste divisions that actually threatens the organic unity of a universal Hindu society is a threat that delimits the RSS projects of the totalitarian organization of the society. There is no possibility of the formation of Hindu society without the loss of anti-caste politics. The last Bihar election and the ongoing Dalit Bahujan movements in Gujarat shows that the ontology of the social does destabilize the totalitarian caste regime and pure Hindu social order. The problem for totalitarianism is that it cannot accommodate antagonism. The idea of a totalitarian society is that it believes in self sufficiency and the purity of the social. It cannot acknowledge the other and there is no possibility of a self that is in conflict with the other. Unfortunately Karat does not see the problem of the Hindu social universal RSS as totalitarian project that needs analysis in its own terms.

The counter-hegemonic forces that helps the democratization of India happens not primarily through the rise of the working class parties. Karat could not see the presence of new social movements- such as Dalit Bahujan social and political movements, regional movements, subaltern student movements after the institutional murder of Rohit Vemula, various instances of Muslims and other religious minority movements, multiple positions within the feminist movements, new social movements of all varieties that criticize the centralized state and the social hegemony which is the radical present of the democratization of India. There is no successful possibility of a counter-hegemonic struggle in Indian politics- in the analytical horizon of Karat- beyond the centrality of the working class and the capture of state power from the hands of the BJP.



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Ashraf Kunnummal Written by:

Ashraf Kunnummal is a PhD candidate at Department of Religion Studies at University of Johannesburg, South Africa. His research focuses on the history and politics of Islamic liberation theology in Iran, India and South Africa

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