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Can We Really Call Leaders Like Trump And Modi 'Fascists?'

25/11/2016 1:39 PM IST | Updated 29/11/2016 12:22 PM IST
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Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

Donald Trump, the "misogynist fascist", has been elected as the commander-in-chief of the United States of America; Narendra Modi, the "alleged perpetrator of a pogrom in 2002 in the state of Gujarat" and a "fascist" is the Prime Minister of India and Rodrigo Duterte, the "homophobic fascist" is the President of Philippines.

The thing to understand here is that the people are not electing "fascists" but rather they are electing populists.

What is it with democracies flirting with fascism? Have we really regressed to the times of Stalin, Mussolini and Louis XVI, that we are electing such leaders? The thing to understand here is that the people are not electing "fascists" but rather they are electing populists. These right-wing leaders are populists of differing degrees, on a spectrum of making untenable promises to actually fulfilling some of those promises. Many authors would have us believe in the irrefutability of the doctrine that populism and fascism are two sides of the same coin; however the link between populism and fascism remains as tenuous as ever.

Before going further, allow me to pontificate and educate you on the definitions of populism and fascism. Fascism represents everything that is the antithesis of democracy. It is a protest against liberalism and is a natural proclivity; it represents a backlash against the established order— the bourgeois order. It is mostly associated with the inter-war times which wreaked havoc in the European nations. Populism, on the other hand, is the creation of people-centric policies with an aim to alleviate the misfortunes of the masses. Unfortunately, it is often used in a pejorative sense. In fact, populism is deceiving and perfidious only when these people-centric promises segue into being "jumlas" for the ruling establishments.

The relation between populism and fascism is not a two-way causality. This can be seen in India. For instance both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu came roaring to power on a slew of populist promises. The AAP, especially, is an example of populism that, as Fareed Zakaria puts it, is characterised by "a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions." While the AAP's governance is based more on the economic model of a welfare state, the AIADMK's governance is based on the model of a nanny state. But are both of them fascist? Is the rolling on the floor and prostrating before a person of authority undemocratic? Is the AAP's scheme of giving free water to the underprivileged, but with judicious fiscal prudence and a well thought out viability plan, undemocratic?

We can and we should argue whether the BJP government has committed acts which are inimical to democracy, but using the term "fascist" obscures more than it explains.

Sheri Berman is right when she says that fascism is a term thrown around too loosely; even I am guilty of using it (and not a trivial number of times) for people ranging from Trump to Modi and beyond. As noted above, fascism is inherently anti-democratic, but that does not make the present dispensations around the world "fascist." Recently, a government of India minister made an asinine comment on the lines of "you should not question the authorities; it is a bad habit ..." Now, this statement betrays the basic ethos of democracy—the voice of the demos. Should we then call the BJP a fascist regime that is intent on trampling on civil liberties? The fact that this statement was thoroughly debated by people is a democratic act itself. Of course, we can and we should argue whether the BJP-ruled government has committed acts which are inimical to democracy, but using the term "fascist" obscures more than it explains. The mishandling of the economy or the scuttling of the independent fourth estate or the crackdown on JNU or the dismemberment of the AAP-ruled Delhi government are reprehensible and disgusting acts, but unfortunately they are all valid and sanctioned under our democratic setup. What would be correct to say is that the present right-wing governments around the world foster extractive institutions rather than inclusive ones.

This name-calling acts as an enabler rather than a dissuader of all wrong that is perpetuated by the right-wing.

Today, our world is at a crossroads, but more than the hard-nosed conservatives it is we—the liberals—who are responsible for this sorry state. This name-calling acts as an enabler rather than a dissuader of all wrong that is perpetuated by the right-wing. When we decide to look away from the real problems, we are no better than the people we deride.

In the end, for all the cant that populism (right wing or left wing) will lead to fascism, the only thing to be said is that this period of disenchantment with democratic institutions and the outrage against the ruling elite is not going to blow over easily; it portends something darker and more sinister in the future, unless there are sweeping structural and fundamental socio-economic changes. In the near past, it was unthinkable that people like Trump/Modi/Duterte would become a part of mainstream conversation and political discourse... Alas, the times they are a changin'.

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