This is as close to fascism as you can get: Prabhat Patnaik

May 28, 2019
One of India's brightest minds and economist Prabhat Patnaik, analyses the 2019 election results with Teesta Setalvad. He touches upon the need for a messiah, a strong man among masses and warns us about the impending economic downturn. He talks about the decrease in tolerance, relevance of the left and the way ahead.



Q. We are meeting a day after the stunning election results which have kind of second saffron wave sweeping this country. Thirteen states, 50% vote, what does this mean for the future of Indian Politics and the progressive forces in the country?
A. I feel that a vote like this cannot be explained in terms of ordinary factors or in terms of the usual discourse. I think this is symptomatic of the fact that people need someone who would provide the figure of a strong man, a leader, messiah so on and so forth. In other words it’s not what Modi has done, it is not a vote for Modi the concrete person, it’s a vote for a person whose need the people feel at this juncture and who they feel is Modi. There is a feeling that “agar koi kar sakta hai toh Modi ji he kar sakte hai” (only Modi can do it). So everybody is really looking at him in that sense. Thus it is not a vote for a man who is there, it’s a vote for a man that never was. In that sense I think these are important factors that one has to go into the mass psychology of fascism, how, at certain points, people need these big messianic figures and then invest some concrete individual with those kinds of qualities.

Q. Psychology of mass fascism you said and you wrote ‘Shadows of Fascism’ earlier, where you actually say that Hitler had managed to isolate the jobless youth of Germany by getting jobs or giving some kind of jobs and employment. That’s not been the case in India. I have seen a spiral of unemployment, so is it something else?  Is it a different form of Fascism? What is it?
A. Exactly. Contemporary fascism will have to be very different from what it was earlier because I think this fascism is quite incapable of providing any answers to the economic problems. As a matter of fact, the more people talk about economic problems, the less would be the appeal of Modi and his crowd. One of the advantages he has had in this election is that he steered it clear of any discussion of unemployment, poverty, agrarian distress and things of that kind. As a result, this fascism is quite different, the earlier fascism also addressed at least up to a point the material conditions of people’s lives which was afflicted by unemployment. So, there is a big difference between that fascism and now.

Q. I remember you saying that we have a proto-fascist in power today, we have an ideology that governs, which does not believe in the Constitution and therefore you called it proto-fascist at a conference. What then are the markers that we see of this brand of fascism, because one of the things I’ve been reading and maybe resisting as many of us did is, young and very good journalists, who’ve gone into the heartlands, who’ve been actually reporting back about the fact that in the far reaches of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh they found a very deep-rooted anti-Muslim hatred which has penetrated. So, what we are looking at is the use of technology, use of communications, use of organization because apart from the traditional RSS and it’s mammoth machinery, post 2014 Amit Shah invited Indians to become the members of the BJP and 6 or 7 people enrolled and all of them sort of have been connected up to the ballot box and the booth. How does one look at all of this before we talk of resistance?
A. You know this is not simply RSS. In other words I think it would be a complete mistake to think of it as RSS. Of course RSS is there, I mean this is a basic infrastructure on which everything is built, but this is something very different. There is a difference between 2019 and 2014. In 2014 at least Modi engaged on a discourse in which everybody was also engaged. He talked about material problems of life and so on, this time he is completely avoided all of that and nonetheless he has got thumping majority and this is because, as I said, people are looking for somebody and they invest in him with those qualities they are looking for, even though he doesn’t have them. Now I think this is a very different situation. I think proto-fascism is something I was using that time. I would say this is as close to fascism as you can get. Of course in contemporary conditions its not a fascist state we are going to have, but it will be as close to a fascist state. But on the other hand, you are not going to have concentration camps and such things but you will probably continue to have elections but the Election Commission will be their man who would do all kinds of skulduggery. Similarly you are going to have all the trappings of a democratic order but the essence of the order would be missing because of the fact that the Supreme Court will be theirs, they would capture all the institutions and use for their own purposes. It may not nominally be a Hindu Rashtra but on the other hand in so far you have the NRC and so on. Effectively there would be two kinds of citizens. So we are going to have fascism in that sense, in contemporary times, without actually having a replica of the 1930s, which in any case is not possible today and also would arouse a lot of international comment and opposition. So this is really the kind of road to fascism that we are seeing in our country. Now I think this is also going to then imply that it is going to be far more authoritarian, far more repressive, far more intolerant because the other thing I want to say is that there is a looming economic crisis and when that economic crisis hits the country the intolerance would be greatly increased.

Q: Today we are already getting news of parts of around Calcutta having riots which is the working-class areas, areas where the BJP has swept to power. How do people resist? How do citizens do this and how does the Left rebuild itself?
A. Yes, I think the basic thing is to change people’s discourse, from the kind of things that they see in Modi to bread and butter problems of life, to material conditions of life. I think the more we move towards that discourse, the better it is, as far as any progressive cause is concerned. I think the Congress came up with the NYAY scheme, whatever you may think of it, but the point is that they did not push it sufficiently. They should have gone hammer and tongs with it, instead of getting caught up saying ‘Modi chor hai’ so on and so forth, which in any case did not cut much ice with the people.

So, I think it is very important for the left to actually emphasize the discourse of deprivation which people are facing and as I said the economic crisis is looming so I think the left also must get its priorities right in terms of what is the main enemy and who is the main enemy. I think in Bengal this equidistance between TMC as well as Modi is something that really did not work out because effectively it meant that willy-nilly a part of your own vote bank actually went over to the BJP. I think they should actually have made it very clear that they are against Modi, they are more against Modi than Mamata is and if Mamata is against Modi then she must create conditions for the left to be able to function, they should have demanded that.

Q. That’s a very interesting point to make because it’s not just Bengal, we are also looking at Kerala and there’s this whole question about whatever Congress has lost, everywhere else it has picked up, in Kerala at the cost of the left. So, there is also that inherent conflict and contradiction among the non-authoritarian parties, the non-RSS parties and with the shrinking space in the Parliament the misunderstandings can grow. So how do they cope, politically and of course structurally?
A. You know, I don’t think, because we haven’t got enough seats, that the left’s influence in the country has gone down proportionately, not at all. I mean obviously they are still powerful trade unions, kisan movements and so on which they must build upon but on the other hand obviously Parliament counts, the number of seats you have in the Parliament counts. I think the left did a very good thing in Kerala, even though it has lost seats by doing the Sabarimala verdict.

In other words, I think the left’s role is not just to win seats in Parliament, it’s to carry forward the social revolution in the country and to that extent it did a very good role, because of that, between the left and the Congress, I suppose the main difference was this. I think the Congress actually played an opportunistic role on Sabarimala. So, after all fundamentally the left has to be a thinking entity and as a result it cannot just do all kinds of opportunistic things so from that point of view it is fine. I’m not unduly depressed about it.

I think in Bengal they did a very serious miscalculation, they should have focused on taking on the BJP as the main enemy. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee made the statement about that towards the end but it was too late. I think that’s the position they should have taken right from the beginning but I think for the left this fight against fascism is not just a fight for more seats. This fight against fascism is actually to mobilize all the forces in a proactive way, in order to really put up a resistance.

Q. Will there be any greater physical threat and insecurity of the “enemies of the emerging Hindu Rashtra”? I mean, there have been so many attacks in the last few years and I’m not just talking about the rationalists but about the ordinary Muslims being lynched. So, apart from the economic crisis and stuff we see, I think the physical insecurity that sections of people will experience would be quite frightening. How do we cope with that?
A. Yes, you know in fact I think there are two looming dangers. One of course as I mentioned is the economic crisis, the other is the danger that this kind of movement towards Hindu Rashtra might actually provoke ISIS and other Muslim organizations to come into the country and really to further polarize communally the entire population. That would be disastrous. When that happens India would have joined the ranks of the failed states. Till now we had avoided it, but the BJP is taking us in that direction. You already find a lot of opposition to India in Kashmir and I think that is going to grow all over because if everybody cannot relate to this country then of course they are going to now take the law into their hands and look after themselves in any way that they like. Now I think for the left both these are very serious challenges. The problem in the looming economic crisis is that by the time the economic crisis hits us, the BJP would have left the economy in such a state where the degree of freedom for doing anything else would be less.

As far as this is concerned, the moment you actually have some kind of  communal fascism of the Muslim variety, which also begins to grow once you get caught in this kind of intra fascist state kinds of conflict, it becomes very difficult for the left to intervene as you find in lots of middle eastern countries where the left used to be very powerful but now really reduced to a shadow of itself. So I think they just have to move right now.

Q. Because today the attacks are happening against the Muslims.
A. Exactly and lots of their youth are now going to be drawn towards self-defence of some kind which means harming themselves as Muslims. I think it is very important for the left to intervene there itself for peace but additionally also intervene for raising issues of people’s livelihood. I think the more we do that the more we would be able to mobilize everybody together.

Q. The left, the organized left, rightly boasts of mass organization, the unions, the funds, etc. Totally a membership of a crore and above is what we are told and that’s a very significant number. Should we also not be asking the question that where this one crore votes? What is its social consciousness, apart from the fact that it’s a member of this mass organization, because we’ve seen in the past, dichotomy sometimes emerge when we don’t have a strong enough ideological fight?
A. I completely agree. In fact a lot of the people who would be members of the mass organizations would not only not vote for the left, they might even vote for the BJP, they might even vote for communal parties and so on. So, I think from that point of view also it is very important to step up the ideological work against the BJP. I think one of the past failures of the left in more recent times has been this, namely that you know our own front organizations do not vote for the left. That’s partly because sometimes we make tactical mistakes and they themselves implicitly rectify this tactical mistake. But if we make such mistakes, then we must not have a situation where they rectify it by voting for BJP. We have to strengthen our ideological preparations against this BJP in a very big way. In other words I think even though we have lost the election, now we have to join the war, you know there is a big war against the BJP and we have to join it

But you know I would just like to say one thing that the phenomenon of the emergence of fascism are not confined to India. In fact it is an international phenomenon, there is a movement towards the right all over the world. In some places the left has stemmed it or prevented it, very few places, Mexico being the latest example, but where it has done so, it has done so by using novel methods.

Q. What are these unconventional methods?
A. So I think, for a start, of course, I don’t feel the left should ever give up Marxism. I am completely opposed to all that because Marxism is what provides a solid theoretical understanding. But I think organisationally a lot of the young people are not drawn to the left. My son for instance is a Marxist , I mean he does philosophy, so he is drawn to philosophy of Marxism, he’s drawn to the left perspective and vision but on the other hand he is not drawn to the traditional communist parties. Now I think that is something that has to be overcome and how we do so is something which would be a real challenge.