The general elections are barely a week away and voters must consider how they will vote and with what consequences. The frontrunner in the campaign is BJP, led by Narendra Modi. With its allies, the party may well have enough support for a majority government. What does the rise of Modi represent, and if he becomes prime minister what kind of India will we get?
There is every danger that a Modi-led India will be an India marked by soft fascism. At its core, fascism stands for state authoritarianism, intimidation by conservative-minded extra-legal groups, national chauvinism, submission of individuals and groups to a larger-than-life leader, and a Darwinian view of social life (the strong must prevail). A society living under soft fascism is simply a society marked by less extreme levels of authoritarianism, intimidation, chauvinism, submission and social Darwinism.
India, at least in the first instance, will feature soft rather than hard fascism because it is big, diverse, and argumentative, and the administrative arm of the government remains weak. Those who want a harder fascism will not be able to exert their will immediately over the length and breadth of the country. But to the extent that the various state governments feature soft fascism as well (many do) and to the extent that the Modi-led elements of BJP prevail in the states, a harder fascism may not be far away.
What accounts for the rise of soft fascism? The short answer is: Modi-ology, the preferences of the market (big and small business), middle class disaffection and media.
Modi-ology is the view that only Modi can "save" India, that Modi is the only decisive, effective, clean, visionary and astute leader in the country, and that he has a record in Gujarat which "proves" he can "deliver". In Modi-ology, Modi has delivered human development, economic growth, social stability and good governance, unmatched anywhere else in the land. Many Indians who do not particularly like Modi, BJP or soft fascism increasingly think that Modi is the saviour. It is another thing that virtually every claim of Modi-ology is open to argument and rebuttal.
The second force in the rise of soft fascism is the market — big and small business, especially corporate India. Fascism everywhere depends on the coffers and cooperation of big business. It is no different in India. The uncritical cheerleading of Modi by big business is tactical and rather shameful but is an existential reality. Small businesses are pro-BJP anyway, so it is no surprise that they are backing him. Big and small business are fed up with costly social programmes, ramshackle infrastructure, suffocating regulatory structures (including environmental ones) and interminable procedures; and they think Modi is the medicine for all these ills.
Behind the rise of Modi-ology is also disaffection of the middle classes. They are disaffected because they are pinned between the upper classes and the lower classes and for 10 years they were ignored by Congress. The upper classes have done well in a globalising India. The lower classes have either given up on the possibility of doing well or have had some help from various UPA programmes (NREGA etc.). The middle classes therefore hate Congress as well as corruption and the chaos of urban and semi-urban India, and they seek redemption in Modi.
Big business and middle classes are helping line up media behind soft fascism. Media is influenced by big business, which funds it through its advertising, and by the middle classes, who work in it. Today, both stand behind Modi and together they have helped rally millions of Indians behind Modi-ology. It is another matter that media may well come to regret its role. Those who were in the media when BJP was last in power seem to have forgotten that this is a party that is not particularly interested in, or indulgent of, journalistic independence.
Soft fascism rises, establishes itself and consolidates its hold through the structures and systems of democracy. Even as we celebrate our elections and openness, we should be worried about right-wing opportunism and political exasperation leading to political suicide.