Fascism and Liberal Democracy

Pothik Ghosh

There can be nothing more precarious in the life of a liberal-democracy than the evacuation of politics from law. India currently faces precisely such a crisis, evident in the alleged emergence of Hindutva terror, its insidious denial by mainstream ‘social’ and political outfits of the Hindu Right and, ironically, even the terms in which the secularist camp has sought to counter their propaganda. It is, in fact, the liberal-secular aspect of the problem that is, at once, most interesting and disturbing.

A sizeable section of Indian liberals has, in ascribing double standard to the sangh parivar that has been maligning the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad’s investigation into the September 29 Malegaon blasts, unwittingly come to share the political-ideological assumptions of Hindutva. Sangh parivar outfits, after having viciously opposed all attempts to call into question the fairness and neutrality of police-investigative procedures into acts of what they call “jehadi terror”, have suddenly done a U-turn to accuse the Maharashtra ATS of being politically pliable and its line of probe into the Malegaon explosions ideologically compromised. Even the BJP has, as is its equivocal wont, carefully allowed only some of its senior leaders to lend their voices to this pernicious cultural-nationalist chorus.

Yet, accusing Hindutva groups of hypocrisy and double standard would close more democratic doors than open them. Such accusation may or may not help the anti-BJP forces score electoral brownie points now. But they would certainly discredit, in advance, all criticism and questioning of state institutions for all times to come. To get caught in debates about the desirablity of interrogating and criticising state institutions is to miss the point.

What matters is whether critical interrogation of state instrumentalities, or the criticism of such criticism, has been prompted by the political desire to render the state and its institutions accountable to a people who embody the values of our Constitution. That would be democracy. The politics of Hindutva, which seeks to make state institutions amenable to the will of a mass at odds with the constitutional principles of liberalism, is majoritarianism. And yet in the absence of a politics that would enable people to make that distinction, democracy and majoritarianism are easily conflated. Sangh parivar organisations have accomplished precisely that with great success.

In such circumstances, direct organisational links between the Malegaon accused and the sangh parivar, even if they do exist, are of little consequence. What is both important and indisputable is their ideological kinship. That, more than any organisational tie, is a characteristic feature of fascism.

Fascism cannot, however, be effectively battled as long as its opponents remain unaware of the gaps in the legalistic discourse and practice of liberal democracy. It is in those fissures that the pestilence of fascism, irrespective of whether it takes the form of Islamism or Hindutva, silently breeds. That said, it would be ideologically troublesome and politically perilous for us here in India to tar the two forms of fascism – Hindutva and Islamism – with the same brush. If anything, such an equation would only reinforce the problematic legal, anti-political praxis of liberal democracy.

We need to distinguish one from the other, even at the risk of appearing undesirably divisive. For, in the long run, more harm than good would be done if this difference is obscured now for some tenuous gains on the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood front. The point of this comparison is not to legitimise the idea of ‘lesser evil’. The point is to recognise the difference in political structures and processes constitutive of each of those strains of terror, if only to come up with a composite solution to the larger problem of civic violence of which both Islamism and Hindutva have become indivisible halves. There is absolutely no doubt that both the Islamists and the footsoldiers of Hindutva seek to close the liberal space through their terroristic campaigns, both covert and overt. But what is more germane is that while the former seeks to subvert liberal democracy by challenging it from the vantage point of opposition and resistance, the latter strives towards the same goal by using the language of liberal democracy and manipulating its institutions.

The recognition of this difference in methods is crucial because it serves to illuminate a rather intractable problem posed by demographics that liberal democracy cannot discern, leave alone resolve, as long as it posits itself in legal-ethical terms. The right to life of a citizen – the foundational liberty on which the edifice of liberal democracy stands – has implicit in its conception the idea of protecting a particular form of material and cultural life from elements that endanger it. The legal-ethical paradigm of liberal democracy entirely precludes the political-agnostic approach, which historicises the the normative liberal-democratic idea of citizen and his eligibility of rights as an abstraction of a certain (insurgent bourgeois) moment of transformative politics seeking real human autonomy. Such historicised engagement with liberal democracy would leave us with no choice but to seek to break with its ethical-legal framework if only to remain true to its impulse (read logic) of continuously seeking concrete human autonomy. The absence of such a reading – which is the default position to which the ethical-legal paradigm of liberal democracy inevitably obtains to – ends up upholding and defending the sovereignty of a certain form of life that is created solely by the majority community and accessed either only by its members or those among others who accept the ideological hegemony of such a qualified form of life, which constitutes the biopolitical horizon of the liberal-democratic polity. All others become, on this terrain of biopolitics, bearers of a form of bare life – as opposed and inferior to the qualified life form – whose sovereignty a liberal democratic state is not only not obliged to defend but is actually also tasked to hold at bay through repression because it threatens the sovereignty of the life of the citizen.

In such circumstances, a citizen eligible for his rights is one who enjoys the entitlements that enables him to the qualified form of cultural and material life, which comes to characterise the national mainstream. Those who cannot, or do not, access such entitlements are obviously not eligible to be rightful citizens. The paradox is that such biopolitical entitlements can be accessed by those who do not have it by invoking rights, even as those rights are denied to them precisely because they do not have the entitlements to that would qualify them as citizens. This problem cannot, clearly, be resolved within the ethical-legal and status quoist paradigm that liberal democracy posits but only through a politics that seeks to break/reconfigure/redistribute the status quo of entitlements by replacing legislation with a political movement of socio-economic transformation.

The absence of such a political imaginary – of which the hegemonic establishment of the ethical-legal discourse of liberal democracy is the other dialectical half – virtually legitimises majoritarianism, even as it frames the opposition of social groups either excluded or repressed in that status quo in some kind of minoritarian idiom, which is simultaneously rendered illegitimate. That is the reason why fascism, when it is manifest through Hindutva in our country, is seen by a whole clutch of committed liberal democrats through a prism tinged with partial, if not total, acceptability. The same bunch, not surprisingly, displays no such ambivalence while characterising Islamist fascism as the greatest evil of our times. There is a desperate need for a more agnostic (read political) approach to liberal democracy. Nothing short of that would help us transcend our fascist status quo and the liberal democratic discourse that makes this enormity possible.

(An abridged version of the article was published in The Economic Times)

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