This story was first published in The Wire on January 29, 2020 and is being republished today because of the news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s sudden resignation from Ashoka University.
New Delhi: In an outspoken and hard-hitting interview to The Wire, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former vice chancellor of Ashoka University and one of contemporary India’s most highly regarded political thinkers, has said the Narendra Modi government, “colloquially speaking, is fascist”.
Mehta said even though the government is committed to winning elections to secure power, “in every other way it ticks the checklist of fascist qualities”. After specifying in detail what these are, Mehta concludes that “colloquially speaking, this is a fascist government and it is, therefore, not incorrect to use that term”.
Asked whether it was justified or exaggerated to compare the Modi government with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Mehta said that in many ways this government is “more insidious” than Indira Gandhi’s government of 1975-77. He said this was clearly discernible when you look at the intent behind the behaviour of the two governments. In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi’s intent was to secure her position and consolidate her individual authority. Today, Modi’s intent is to push his majoritarian and authoritarian agenda as well as Hindutva.
In a 60-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, his first for television in recent years, Mehta spoke at length about the second Modi government.
He said: “India is governed by a regime whose sole raison d’etre is to find an adversarial rallying point and crush it by brute force… It now legitimises itself, not by its positive accomplishments, but by using the enemy as a rallying point. Three consequences flow from this. First, the government’s strategy is to divide people and remain in power. The government’s strategy is not to solve old issues; it is to divert attention by bringing in new adversaries in the hope that we remain divided.”
“The second consequence is the government’s intolerance of those who disagree with it or oppose it. “All that matters is the crushing of real and imaginary enemies, by hook or by crook… The state will… encourage violence against anyone who is not in tune with it,” he said. “Finally, the third consequence is the impact such a government has on the people of the country. It annihilates our will, our reason, our spirit, so that we all become willing supplicants in its ideological project.”
Mehta said that he feared that the clear and obvious majoritarian and authoritarian agenda of the Modi government would change the sort of people we are and he was not sure that it would be easy or even possible for some future governments to reverse the process and return India to what it used to be.
Asked what India would look and feel like two-three years down the road if things continue like this, Mehta said that he believed we are going back to the 1970s. India is exhibiting the same divisiveness, the same protests and the same lack of confidence in our future. At another point in the interview he said that for the first time after decades he couldn’t say with confidence that younger generations would lead a better life than our generation.
Mehta said that at this critical point, India’s elite are letting down the country. They are either complicit in what is happening or unwilling to stand up, possibly out of cowardice. He first spoke broadly about the middle class but then, specifically, about the Courts and business leaders whose silence was emboldening the government. Speaking about the Supreme Court, Mehta said that it has simply failed to stand up for the constitutional values and principles that it’s committed to uphold. In particular he spoke about the court’s failure to hear habeas corpus cases which he said define the core of a democracy. He said this is “inexplicable”.
Questioned about the de-operationalisation of Article 370 and the division and demotion of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, Mehta said that this had happened after a long history of deliberate denial and betrayal of democracy and other civil rights to the Kashmiri people.
Speaking about the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, he said the government was “pulling the wool over our eyes” when it claims this will not target muslims and threaten their citizenship. He said the very fact detention centres are being built establishes that the government knows that this process will strip thousands of people off their citizenship (and not necessarily all muslims) but won’t admit it.
On the nationwide protests by young Indians as well as protests like Shaheen Bagh, which are occurring in several cities, Mehta said they represent a clear challenge to Modi’s “apocalyptic vision”.
He said it was remarkable that the protestors were using the constitution, the flag and Ambedkar to challenge and confront the government. He does not believe that these protests will fizzle out but he’s not certain that they can change the direction of the government.
For that to happen the protests need to blend with an opposition electoral strategy and that shows no sign of happening. He says India’s opposition parties and Congress, in particular, are squandering this moment.
Asked if he thought Rahul Gandhi would ever become prime minister, Mehta said “circumstances may make him” and that it was hard to predict. As he put it, who could have foreseen that Rajiv Gandhi would become prime minister or, after winning over 400 seats, and that his authority would collapse so rapidly and his term end badly.
Finally, speaking about the dire economic situation the country is facing, Mehta said it was hard to accept the government’s claim this is cyclical because the cycle has gone on for so long. He says right up till four years ago the 21st century had been characterised by optimism and the belief that India was moving in the right direction. In the last four years that seems to have reversed. Earlier, the country expected a growth rate between 6% and 8%. Now, he said, we would be lucky if we could end between “3% and 5%”.
Asked if he thought the government has the economic understanding and resolve to handle the problem or is in denial and, therefore, unlikely to do so, he said the real issue was that the government doesn’t seem to be concerned about the economic crisis. It isn’t a matter of priority. The government’s focus is on its political agenda i.e. majoritarianism, authoritarianism and Hindutva.
The above is a paraphrase of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s interview except, of course, where things are placed in quotation marks. Please see the full interview for accurate details of what he has said. Here is the link to the full interview: