Economic & Political Weekly, Vol – XLIX No. 18, May 03, 2014 | Sumanta Banerjee


A rereading of Bertolt Brecht‘s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and Sinclair Lewis‘s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) is helpful in understanding the social psyche in India today that is being moulded by Narendra Modi and is greasing his – and his party’s – path to power. It can happen here.

Sumanta Banerjee ([email protected]) is a long-time contributor to EPW and is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

A rereading of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) is helpful in understanding the social psyche in India today that is being moulded by Narendra Modi and is greasing his – and his party’s – path to power.

It can happen here. It takes a great deal of optimism to imagine the next government at the centre without the disquietingly looming presence of Narendra Modi. Yet, such an eventuality could have been prevented, and its onward rush can still be resisted. We are paying the price for forgetting a not too distant past.

The heading of this article is a rephrasing of the title of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Bertolt wrote it in 1941 after escaping from Germany, and while in exile in Helsinki, waiting for a visa to enter the United States (US). Curiously enough, during Brecht’s stay in the US (1941-47), the play was never staged there. Another work of fiction – this time by a famous American author – shared a similar fate of boycott by the establishment in his country. This was the novel, It Can’t Happen Here,written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935. Both the play and the novel were written during a period which saw the rise of Nazism and its consolidation as a ruling power in Germany.

A rereading of the two may help us today to understand the social psyche in India that is being moulded by Narendra Modi, and which in its turn is greasing his – and his party’s – path to power. The rereading should also awaken us to the need for resisting in India the repetition of a political experiment that gained currency in Germany and Italy during 1930-40, but which ultimately ended up in a global disaster. Thankfully, the Hindu right has not yet been able to assume that monstrous global dimension.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

To come back to Brecht’s play, significantly enough, he chose for his hero an American gangster. He situated his story in Chicago of the 1930s, and moulded the character Arturo Ui on the model of a typical small-time mobster who takes over the city’s grocery trade, by aligning with a corrupt local administration and by ruthlessly destroying all opposition. We also discover shades of the well-known contemporary mafia don Al Capone. It was a satirical allegory of Hitler’s rise to power, which was taking place in Germany at the same time. But the message of Brecht’s play moves beyond the contemporaneity of his days. We recognise in Arturo Ui the all too familiar local gangster-cum-politician who gets elected to today’s Indian Parliament. We discern today the same fears and compulsions among the common citizens, whom Brecht portrayed as victims of economic recession, who were either frightened into submission to Arturo Ui, or lured by money to join his gang.

Brecht probes into this mass psychology that bolsters fascism, by pointing to the propensity among the underprivileged to respect and worship the local gangster, who enjoys power at the micro level thanks to the support that he gets from those in power at the macro level. Yet, Brecht reminds us, the rise of Arturo Ui (alias Hitler) could not have been possible without the connivance of the common people and their local politicians. All that is necessary for the triumph of such creatures is that the majority of people hesitate to oppose them, and thereby acquiesce in their rise.

But it is not popular opposition alone that can resist the rise of the types of Arturo Ui. It is also the responsibility of states which swear by democracy, to oppose fascism. When Bertolt Brecht wrote this play on his way to the US, he had the American audience in mind, and expected them to understand what was happening in Germany. He tried to present it in terms of the American experience of mobster politics, so that they could pressurise their government to resist Hitler. The US till then had remained a silent spectator to Hitler’s genocide of Jews within Germany, and increasing territorial ambitions abroad – in the surreptitious hope that Hitler would destroy its main enemy, the Soviet Union. It was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 that the US joined the war. Not surprisingly therefore, as mentioned earlier, this play of Brecht’s was never staged in the US during the 1940s. It cut too close to the bones of the ruling syndicate of US senators and the mafia.

It Can’t Happen Here

The next work of fiction that I am taking up was written by the American author Sinclair Lewis who won the Nobel Prize in 1930. Five years later – in 1935 – he wrote this semi-satirical novel, against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in the international arena, and the simultaneous consolidation of the mafia-politician nexus within the US. It is significant that the locale chosen by both Bertolt Brecht and Sinclair Lewis for the operations of their respective heroes/villains is the US.

Sinclair Lewis’s novel describes the rise of Berzelius Windrip (popularly known as “Buzz”), a fictional US senator who during his election speeches promises drastic economic and social reforms, while promoting a return to chauvinist patriotism and traditional conservative values (anticipatory echoes of Narendra Modi?). Once he gets elected as the president, Windrip takes complete control of the administration, and imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force. Although fictional, the character of Windrip was based on a real life politician – Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president at the time when Lewis was writing the novel.

The title of the novel reflected the mood of complacency of the American liberal-minded voters at that time, who felt that such authoritarianism could never be possible in a democracy like the US. While it did not indeed happen then, a little over a decade later, Lewis’s nightmare turned out to be true, when under the rule of a president that they had elected – Harry Truman – Americans had a taste of authoritarianism. In 1947, Truman introduced a number of measures that destroyed civil liberties, leading up to the virtual control of the administration by the House Committee on Un-American Activities which inaugurated the notorious McCarthy era of the 1950s (named after the Republican senator who unleashed a ruthless campaign against communists and liberals, and persecuted eminent writers like Lillian Hellman and film personalities like Charles Chaplin).

Sinclair Lewis, when writing his novel in 1935, had a premonition of the things that were coming. Observing from close quarters his contemporary American middle classes, he could discern their smug self-contentedness and indifference in the face of the growth of corruption and gangsterism among their own politicians – tendencies that were to fertilise the seeds of the McCarthy type fascist order that emerged in the US in the 1950s.

These two literary works, in their respective ways, reawaken us to our responsibilities today in resisting the rise of a new ruling dispensation in India that threatens the secular fabric of our Constitution and the pluralistic culture of our society. We can go on quibbling over the question whether “fascism” is the appropriate term to describe it – an exercise which certain intellectuals are fond of indulging in. But the stark reality is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders by their announcements, and their cadres by their acts, demonstrate the same personality-based political strategy of combining populist rhetoric from public platforms at the macro level, and intimidation and terrorisation of the citizens at the micro level that Hitler and Mussolini followed in the 1930s.

Neo-Hindutva in the Era of Neo-liberalism

Narendra Modi, who has been chosen by the Sangh parivar as the prime ministerial candidate, has turned out to be the best exponent of this strategy. Following in the footsteps of those two notorious global personalities, he has managed to project himself as the man for all seasons and all classes. He uses the harangue of Hindutva when wooing voters in the cow-belt (where he berates against the enemies of go-mata), the rhetoric of economic development (a la the Gujarat model) when addressing the corporate sector, the discourse of governance to assure the middle-class voters of efficiency in administration, the militarist bombast of defending the nation to draw support from the armed forces and their top brass, and invokes his childhood memories as a chai-walato solicit votes from the poor. Like his German and Italian predecessors, he also uses his foot soldiers – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-Bajrang Dal goons – to bulldoze into submission those who oppose him. He eminently fits the standards laid down in an ancient Sanskrit proverb: “Manasya-anyad, bachasya-anyat, karmanya-anyad, duratma-nam” (A villain’s thoughts, utterances and actions differ from each other).

But there is a method in this contradiction in Modi’s strategy and tactics, by which he had built up an image that has elevated him from a villain (of the 2002 Gujarat genocide) to a hero (of economic development) in the popular psyche. The mainstream media, bankrolled by the corporate sector, are fostering his electoral potentialities, picking upon only those aspects of his party’s agenda that suit them (like promises of industrial growth) while ignoring the other controversial aspects (like his promise to build a temple on the disputed site of Babri masjid, abrogate Article 370, and impose a uniform civil code). The media hype around Modi is reminiscent of the role of the European press in the 1930s, when it continued to depict Hitler and Mussolini as amiable guys who were expected to defeat the communists, till the Axis powers reached right on the doorstep of the Western capitalist states.

But while recalling the past and identifying the similarities, we should take a more astute view of the Hindu right in India today. It is not an exact replica of the fascist forces of the past. As its most powerful representative, Narendra Modi is refashioning the strategy and tactics of a populist chauvinist nationalism (the ideology that was followed by the Axis powers in their respective states in the 1930-40 period – and by the Hindu right in India) within the present order of globalisation. He has developed a concept of neo-Hindutva to suit the demands of the neo-liberal economy. While remaining loyal to the Sangh parivar’s basic strategy of establishing a Hindu theocratic state of Ram rajya (a parallel to the contemporary Islamic project of creating a sharia-based political order), Modi is coming up with tactics to accommodate foreign multinationals and the indigenous corporate sector. Under his leadership, the Hindu right is thus attempting a mix between Reliance and Ram Janmabhoomi. It is adopting the neo-liberal order in economy, while retaining its core ideology of Hindutva to establish its hegemony in the sociocultural scene. By occupying a leading position in the institutions of power, it plans to reinforce its values and norms all over society.

‘It Can Happen Here’

To take the cue from Sinclair Lewis’s novel, if a Narendra Modi-led BJP comes to power, we can be sure that the following things “can happen here” – (i) the imposition of a Hindutva-based curriculum in educational institutions (signs of which were evident during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime); (ii) clamping down on cultural works that may be deemed offensive to the Sangh parivar’s ideology of Hindutva (like banning of books, vandalising of art exhibitions, suppression of historical research – policies and practices followed by the BJP in states which it rules, and by its foot soldiers in other states); (iii) infliction of patriarchal diktats on all expressions of female self-assertion, and deprecation of women’s rights (remember Modi’s infamous statement that women in Gujarat were malnourished because they chose to be slim!); and (iv) most dangerously – the intimidation of the minority communities into total subjugation (the notorious example being the “final solution” type experiment carried out against Muslims in Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat in 2002, which by threatening them has compelled their leaders to accept Modi as their protector).

Despite this horrendous record of the BJP, and Narendra Modi in particular, certain sections of the Indian intellectual milieu are veering towards Modi – some openly joining his party, and some through specious arguments in newspaper columns. One such argument is that once Modi comes to power, he will be chastened by the rules of the Indian Constitution by which he will have to operate within a democratic structure. These commentators suffer from a self-induced amnesia by conveniently forgetting that Modi and his party had always got away by violating the rules of the Constitution – whether by demolishing the Babri masjid, or by presiding over the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.

The delusion (or opportunism?) of these liberal sections reminds us of the same American middle-class complacency that Sinclair Lewis exposed in his novel. In India today, given the tottering and corruptible base of the institutions that prop up the democratic structure – the legislature, the bureaucracy and the judiciary – would it not be a cake walk for Narendra Modi, if he comes to power, to bend them to serve both his megalomaniac ambitions and his party’s ideological goals?

Past Misdeeds and Future Responsibilities

In fact, the rise of the BJP and the legitimisation of its ideology of Hindutva and politics of violence in the 1980-90 period, were made possible by a series of misdeeds of a professedly secular Congress government at the centre, beginning from the opening of the doors of the Babri masjid to the Hindu religionists. It then allowed the BJP-RSS-VHP axis to drum up Hindu sentiments over the Ram Janmabhoomi issue under their pilot L K Advani, whose ratha-yatra left a bloody trail of communal riots in its wake. Even after having witnessed the murderous consequences of such public demonstration by the forces of Hindutva, the Congress government in New Delhi accepted at face value their assurances of peaceful behaviour, and allowed their leaders and goons to assemble in Ayodhya, demolish the Babri masjid, and reopen the wounds of Indian history’s most shameful chapter of bloody Hindu-Muslim conflict in colours of mass violence not seen since the days of the 1947 Partition. The left and other democratic forces also failed to mount a counter-offensive against this march of the Sangh parivar’s juggernaut that was taking place under the benevolent auspices of the Congress regime’s policy of soft-Hindutva.

It is an uphill task now to make amends for the wrongs and failures of the past, and reverse the process of distortion of the Indian polity by a class of criminals who have risen to positions of atrocious eminence – whether from the BJP, the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, or the various regional formations. To suit their interests, and bereft of any ideological commitment, they tend to join any national formation – the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the NDA – or flirt with other national alternatives like the “third front”, or the newly floated idea of a “federal front”. The next Lok Sabha thus may become a choice terrain for intrigues among these abominable effluvia of self-serving, criminal and corrupt politicians which will flow from the ongoing polls.

The handful of honest and courageous individuals who may get elected to the Lok Sabha, will stick out as sore thumbs from the midst of this cesspool. But they can make a difference if they are sincere in their commitment to the secular and democratic values embedded in our Constitution. They will have to combine their debating skills on the floors of the legislature with their ability to mobilise the masses in the streets, in order to resist the domination and criminalisation of society by religio-political groups like the Sangh parivar, as well as the corruption of our political system by the corporate boss-politician-bureaucrat nexus. Sumanta Banerjee ([email protected]) is a long-time contributor to EPW and is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).


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