By D Raja
“Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers — who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps”, wrote Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
This aptly describes the situation that prevails in India today. As per the prime architect of the Indian Constitution Dr Ambedkar, Parliament is the supreme institution. It is a platform to discuss, debate, and enact legislations in the best interest of people and nation. Parliament has several instruments to ensure good governance and make the government and executive accountable to Parliament and thereby to the people of the country.
Ever since the BJP-RSS combine captured power, it is subverting the Constitution and democracy. Parliament is increasingly becoming redundant. The very recent examples show how the ruling dispensation is undermining all constitutional democratic practices. In the wake of the three Farm Bills, the farmers of the country rose up in opposition and held sustained agitation against the laws for past one year. These laws were introduced and institutionalised without any discussion in Parliament and ironically so, the repeal of these laws too was without any debate or discussion in the Parliament.
Any opposition and challenge to the government and its myopic and dangerous vision is met with criminalisation and repression by invoking laws such as the UAPA, which in itself is an anomaly to democracy. Within the parliamentary democratic set up, Parliament, which is the medium for collective policy making, is witnessing a reign of vengeance, the latest being the suspension of 12 opposition MPs belonging to various parties.
It is imperative to draw lessons from what had happened in Germany under Hitler’s fascist regime. The analogy of the Reichstag fire may seem a bit overstretched to compare with what is happening in democratic India today. However, the premise remains the same —the undermining of democracy and democratic institutions by leaders who were elected by the people. The RSS-BJP’s steps towards authoritarianism are gradual but nevertheless, very visible. We can briefly survey Hitler’s death knell to the Weimar Republic in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire as a yardstick to better appreciate the cracks appearing on our own democracy.
Adolf Hitler, a demoralised arsonist after his failed coup d’état attempt at the Beer Hall Putsch, Munich in 1923, started focusing his energies into coming to power through legal electoral means. He came to head the Nazi Party and worked on increasing its membership through fiery speeches and rhetoric. By 1928, the group’s membership exceeded 100,000. Hitler continuously blamed the ‘November Criminals’ in his rhetoric for the woes of Germany. He kept digging the past to justify arson and extra-legal methods of his SS forces. The politicians who signed the Treaty of Versailles were regularly vilified by Hitler as he centered his agenda on revising the past instead of fixing the future.
The growth of the Nazi party was considerable in this period but they could only get 2.6 percent of the vote in the 1928 election. The Great Depression of the late20s and early 30s came as a boon to Hitler. The economies of US and Europe were in shambles with skyrocketing unemployment and deprivation. In Germany alone, the number of unemployed swelled to six million, which was around 30 percent of the population.
Downward spiralling of the economy, unemployment, destitution and uncertainty about the future, all common in a capitalist economy, became the fertile ground for Hitler to recruit more and more people as his millenarian rhetoric and aggressive stance became more and more pronounced. Hitler’s influence rose but even after aligning with other right-leaning factions, they could muster only about 33 percent of the vote, still short of a majority. Uncertain political scenario allowed Hitler to reach the Chancellorship. It should be recalled here that he entered office through constitutional means as President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him chancellor under the Weimar Constitution on January 30, 1933. Merely four weeks in office, the incident that consolidated Hitler’s position and allowed him to crush all opposition took place and that was the Reichstag Fire.
On the night of February 27, 1933, the building of the German Parliament — the Reichstag — caught fire. It took hours for the firefighters to quell the flames which had already caused severe damage to the building. City police arrested Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch construction worker on the scene and soon, the Nazis dubbed him a communist sympathiser. Around 4,000 people were arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the swollen ranks of the SS that night alone, most of them communists. This fire was the ‘God-given signal’ for Hitler. On February 28, Hitler made President Hindenburg invoke Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution and the cabinet came up with the ‘Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State.’
The Act abolished freedom of speech, assembly and allowed for phone tapping and interception of correspondence and suspended the autonomy of federated states. There was opposition inside the House itself as the Communist Party had won 17 percent of votes in the Reichstag elections of 1932 and had 81 elected communist deputies in the March elections but using that crucial night as an excuse, many were detained indefinitely after the fire. Empty seats in the House left the Nazis free to do as they pleased. Hitler immediately started using the event to justify emergency decrees that dismantled civil liberties and opposition. Coupling these emergency powers with the Enabling Act that came a month later, Hitler destroyed all opposition and consolidated Nazi power till the end of the Second World War.
The RSS-BJP’s ascendancy to power seems less spectacular in comparison to the Nazi way of grabbing state power. Nevertheless, there are uncanny similarities between both the anti-democracy ideologies. De-legitimising deliberative institutions is one of them. In the Nazi case, it was a fire that damaged the building and the institution but democratic spirit flourished again after Hitler. In our country, the process is more subtle. A new building is being built to house the Parliament, supposedly with more members, while the democratic foundations and spirit of debate in the country are struggling to exist, unfortunately under attack from the rulers themselves.
This gradualism in establishing Hindutva as the de facto ideology of the state instead of a tolerant and secular democracy is not by accident but by design. As Christophe Jaffrelot noted that in comparison with the Nazis “the RSS, by contrast, is not a putschistorganisation and Golwalkar considered that Hitler’s capture of the state was a mistake”. As stated by Golwalkar himself “it is many times found that many are gathered for political purpose. But when that purpose fails, unity is lost. We do not want any temporary achievement but an abiding oneness.” This ‘abiding oneness’ is merely another name for a Hindu Rashtra, maintaining the doctrines of Manu and the rigidities of caste, religion and gender. Using the parliamentary majority to subvert the Parliament and all democratic conventions is setting the tradition of debates and dissents on fire, the building of Reichstag was repaired but the spirit of democracy, once crushed will be difficult to revive. The people of the country should understand this danger.
This year happens to be the 75th year of independence. Even though RSS and its offshoots had no role in the freedom struggle, they are trying to celebrate with their own designs. It is worthy to recall what Dr Ambedkar forewarned in his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly: “By gaining independence we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong.” (IPA Service)
The author is General Secretary, Communist Party of India (CPI).