A lesson in history: Why India 2014 isn't Hitler's Germany | analysis | Hindustan Times
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A lesson in history: Why India 2014 isn't Hitler's Germany

Modi is yet to take centre stage. But like masked, wailing choruses in Greek tragedies, liberal intellectuals have already begun invoking the ghost of Adolf Hitler, write Marcus Pindur and Padma Rao Sundarji.

analysis Updated: May 23, 2014 18:31 IST

Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi is yet to take centre stage. But like masked, wailing choruses in Greek tragedies, liberal intellectuals have already begun invoking the ghost of Adolf Hitler, the greatest criminal in the history of mankind.

In one essay, writer Pankaj Mishra suggests that Indians have voluntarily chosen xenophobic dictatorship. The election, writes the author of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, signals a turbulent phase for India — “arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947.”

While the opening paragraph almost sounds like an absurd yearning for the Raj (ironically, on the eve of the rabidly Right-wing UKIP’s expected triumph in the European and other local polls in Britain), the article’s near-Biblical sanctimoniousness (“They know not what they do”: Luke 23:34) essentially insults the intelligence of the millions who chose Modi.

In short: It tells the world that India’s democracy, its Supreme Court (which dismissed charges against Modi) and its voters need not be taken seriously.

Discarding historical facts to declare an absolute similitude between the PM-designate and the evil brain behind the gas chambers diverts attention from the most urgent problems facing the incoming government. It also turns what ought to be scholarly debate into arbitrary defamation.

Modi came to power in a democratic election in which 550 million people made their choices. Overwhelmingly, for his BJP.

Hitler did so only after several chaotic cabinets which did not have a majority in Reichstag (Parliament).

From 1932 onwards, Germany’s Chancellor began to be appointed by its President (Paul von Hindenburg), a former imperial field marshal, who made no bones about his hatred for parliamentary democracy. A series of emergency laws, enabled by the weak German constitution of the time, had made it possible to bypass a parliamentary majority at will.

The National Socialists (NSDAP) — Nazis — never got more than 30% of the vote share in free elections before Hitler was appointed chancellor.

While few skirmishes marked the recent Lok Sabha polls, the political climate in the Germany of the time was fraught with violence and hatred.

Consequently, Hitler’s electoral victory, 10 years after his botched coup attempt, did not, in any measure, meet the basic free-and-fair criteria that marked the Indian elections.

Both Hitler’s NSDAP as well as the Communists spared no efforts to destroy Germany’s first parliamentary democracy. It is for this reason that historians often describe the Weimar Republic as a ‘democracy sans democrats’.

To the Germans, the Treaty of Versailles after World War 1 was a great ignominy. Its demand for costly reparations from them only strengthened public resentment against social democrats, liberals, centrists — in short, all those who were expected to execute the conditions laid down by the Treaty.

Consequently, the 14 years of weak democracy before Hitler was sworn in were marked by widespread public hostility towards democracy, the political leadership and the judiciary. Germans of the time either sympathised with the extreme nationalism of the Nazis or yearned for a return to monarchy.

Right-wing extremists could count on mild punishment for acts of violence. For his failed coup, Hitler himself was awarded a five-year prison term but pardoned after merely eight months.

Meanwhile, the country faced its worst economic crisis that the world had seen up to then: The Great Depression, which brought unemployment and disillusionment with the future. All these developments were decried as the results of democracy.

Hitler’s national-socialist propaganda exploited precisely this public anger and drew a destructive picture of democracy as a trap to enslave Germans: By the victors of the war, by ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, by ‘Jewish capital economics’, by the ‘shameful Diktat of Versailles’ and finally, by all politicians extolling democracy.

Concern over the more rabid components of the BJP, which frequently make their presence felt, is justified. But a will to decimate India’s democracy altogether cannot be attributed to either Modi or the BJP.

In the nearly 70 years that India has been a functioning democratic republic of raucous and free public debate, the only notable exception remains Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

While the last four years were undoubtedly marked by frustration over a stagnated economy, the Lok Sabha polls did not take place amidst a crisis even remotely similar to the Depression.

Despite persistent poverty and other social problems, Indians are optimistic about their future and see themselves as a nation on the move. Modi voters essentially opted for less corruption, and better infrastructure, education and prospects for the future.

Since the economic reforms of the early 1990s, millions of Indians did see an elevation from below the poverty line to the ranks of the middle class. Many of those left behind viewed the outgoing coalition government as an impediment to their dreams and were pragmatic, rather than dogmatic, in their choice of the BJP as an alternative.

Fulfilling their hopes will be the prime challenge for Narendra Modi and the BJP.

The new PM’s victory undoubtedly throws up questions.

Will he invoke Hindu nationalism at the expense of the Muslim minority?

Will Right-wing Hindus feel empowered to use violence against political opponents and other religious groups?

But an evocation of Hitler is a fallacious response to those questions.

Already in the 1920s and before he came to power, most Germans could easily discern Adolf Hitler’s rabid desire for ‘elimination’ and mass genocide. His anti-Semitic ideology, his hatred for Jews and all dissenters, his abhorrence of democracy were already well-known and espoused in his book Mein Kampf.

An equally destructive and well-publicised urge for mass destruction can hardly be attributed to Modi.

But though it is farcical to harp on an “apology” for alleged crimes that the Supreme Court has already cleared him of, it may help alleviate some of the uneasiness if Modi periodically vocalised his determination to protect all minorities.

The overwhelming majority of Indians revel in democracy and are proud of the judiciary. There is pluralism in the media and an active civil society: Assets which Germans in the Hitler-era were not blessed with.

But is India of 2014 the Germany of the 1930s? Far from it. There is no Third Reich. And there will never be another Hitler.

(Marcus Pindur is an India observer and currently the Washington correspondent for National German Public Radio.
Padma Rao Sundarji is a senior Delhi-based correspondent for Germany’s leading media houses.
The views expressed by the authors are personal.)