CIRS Faculty Lectures, Dialogue Series, Race & Society

Fascism 2.0: Lessons from Democracy in India

Uday Chandra 1

Uday Chandra, Assistant Professor of Government at GU-Q, presented on “Fascism 2.0: Lessons from Democracy in India” at a CIRS event on February 25, 2020. The talk drew on his book in progress, Fascism 2.0, which traces how and why India’s heterogeneous, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society has been recast under modern democratic conditions as a homogeneous, mono-cultural, mono-religious polity. Since the 1980s, the rights and freedoms of religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims, have eroded steadily with the rise of Hindu nationalism, a movement among the growing middle classes who see Indian society in majoritarian terms as essentially Hindu.

Chandra’s forthcoming book is concerned with what others today call populism. He points to the global rise of fascism, which, he argued, parallels the inter-war period in Europe. Chandra suggested revisiting the “triad of global ideologies—liberalism, socialism, fascism,” which goes back to the contradictory French revolutionary slogan of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” in order to understand the interactions between these ideologies over the past century. By historicizing the politics of the present and using the case of India, he teases out a set of broad comparative generalizations.

The book’s title, Fascism 2.0, reveals both continuities and changes within fascism, particularly its adaptation to our age of “digital capitalism.” One of Chandra’s objectives is to identify the relationship between fascism and democracy. Non-democracies such as China or Saudi Arabia are unlikely to evolve into fascist regimes, he suggests, because popular sovereignty or the rule of the people is not vital to the functioning of these polities. By comparison, it is possible to identify conditions that favor the collapse of the liberal order at home and abroad and triggers the turn towards fascism.

“Fascism seemed more promising to ruling elites because it combined socialism’s antipathy to the old ruling classes with a nationalist vision that promised real change for all.”

The liberal international order, established after World War II, was organized around free markets, multilateral institutions, and liberal democracy. While this project brought economic prosperity and political freedoms to some, especially in the West, it also led to inequalities within these societies and worldwide. Today, we face new political realities with the rise of “a new breed of illiberal politicians” such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, who claim to represent ordinary voters better than career politicians. Chandra argued that there are lessons to be learned from India’s democratic experience under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was first elected in 2014. “These lessons concern how democracy sans liberalism—the new global norm—can be hijacked by ‘fascism 2.0,’ even as we must not lose sight of the ways in which democracy can be restored to a healthy, competitive state.”

Chandra observed that, a century ago, fascism emerged in Europe in response to the failures of Western liberal elites to spread the vast economic benefits of imperialism throughout their societies. Socialism, by contrast, pitted social classes against each other. Fascism seemed more promising to ruling elites because “it combined socialism’s antipathy to the old ruling classes with a nationalist vision that promised real change for all.” Fascism thus combined socialism and ethno-nationalism to offer a modern agenda of mass education, public works, and national rejuvenation. “It is easy to forget today that fascism was astonishingly successful in its own terms,” Chandra said.

In postcolonial India, Chandra explained, democracy began as “a gift of well-meaning upper-caste Hindus to the masses.” The Congress party, which led the anticolonial struggle under Gandhi and Nehru, dominated national politics in India in the 1950s and 1960s. The party reflected the country’s highly diverse polity and emphasized “unity in diversity” within a federal framework. In the mid-1970s, however, “democracy was suspended” by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after global oil shocks and a rising tide of youthful and left-wing protests. Political opponents were imprisoned, elections suspended, and civil liberties curtailed. Although this authoritarian turn lasted just a year and a half, Chandra suggested that the embryo of fascism emerged in Indian politics: personalized rule, militarism, the primacy of the state over the economy, and empty promises of national renewal.

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Chandra explained, the Indian state underwent a crisis of legitimacy, which has been steadily resolved via the rise of Hindu nationalism championed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, literally “Indian People’s Party”). This nationalist ideology, borrowed from Germany and Italy, was explicitly rejected by India’s founding fathers because it was exclusivist, chauvinistic, and socially divisive. The Congress leadership saw India as a mosaic of faiths and cultures, held together by their shared struggle against British imperialism. But, according to Chandra, the BJP has sought to remake India as a Hindu nation out of a vast ensemble of inherited theistic and nontheistic practices and their accompanying philosophies. For the Hindu nationalist elite, he said, these diverse Indic traditions must be replaced by a modern nationalist ideology built around an imaginary majority and pitted against minorities.

“In a digital age, social democracy means fusing together the myriad voices and social fractals that do not share much in common beyond a common antipathy to fascism.”

Under Modi, the BJP has sought to make this ideological fantasy into social reality, online and offline. A new political morality now justifies violence against ideological enemies in pursuit of a national communitas. Social media platforms empower ordinary users to generate words, images, and videos that further the Hindu nationalist project at the expense of minorities and those accused of sympathizing with them.

In a democracy without liberalism, Chandra identified “social democracy” as the main alternative to Hindutva (Hinduness) today. The roots of this challenge lie in caste-based, regionally specific movements for social justice that emerged during the 1980s at the same time as Hindutva. While these regional and caste-based parties allied previously with the Congress party to form national coalition governments, they now offer a distinctive vision of a federal polity committed to the multitude of small voices that make up contemporary India. In state elections over the past two years, this coalition of Opposition parties have, alongside the Congress, outsmarted and defeated the BJP.

Chandra concluded his talk by arguing that India is an ideal case study to understand contemporary fascism. India shows us how fascism, which must be distinguished from the political movements led by the likes of Corbyn and Sanders, has arisen paradoxically out of a long process of democratization. Additionally, it has come at the expense of a small globally oriented and liberal-minded elite at odds with the majority of citizens. Lastly, the antidote to fascism, whether today or in the interwar years, comes less from a return to liberalism than from the tantalizing possibility of social democracy. “In a digital age, social democracy means fusing together the myriad voices and social fractals that do not share much in common beyond a common antipathy to fascism,” he said. Over time, Chandra suggested, we may be cautiously hopeful that social democratic coalitions will succeed at the expense of fascism.

Uday Chandra is Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar. He is interested in state-society relations, power and resistance, political violence, agrarian change, and the philosophy of the social sciences. His work has been published in the Law & Society Review, Critical Sociology, Social Movement Studies, New Political Science, The Journal of Contemporary Asia, Contemporary South Asia, and The Indian Economic & Social History Review. Chandra has co-edited volumes and journal special issues on caste hierarchies, the ethics of self-making, the politics of the poor, and social movements in India. His first book, Resistance as Negotiation: Making States and Tribes in Modern India, is forthcoming with Stanford University Press. For the academic year 2019/2020, he is a CIRS Faculty Fellow.

Article by Chaïmaa Benkermi (Class of 2021), Publications Fellow