History does not exactly repeat, but it shows a pattern that is useful to discern. The pattern that is perilous to ignore is a series of twists in the body politic that seem unimportant or harmless, but end in a disastrous slide to misrule and tyranny.
Plato talked about the shrewd demagogues who subvert a polity by using its freedoms and institutions. The twentieth century provides some chilling lessons in how a society can be shanghaied into a tyrannical one.
Those lessons seem to be gaining relevance in India.
Lesson One: A Constitution, even a written one, is a poor guarantee. The Weimar Constitution of Germany was a superb one; the Indian Constitution used many of its features. It was totally subverted, and on its ruins Hitler built his regime cowing the press, corrupting the institutions and destroying leftists, socialists, feminists, liberals and Jews. One remembers how easily the Indian Constitution itself was undermined in the name of a spurious Emergency, despite the explicit provision that the federal system could be converted into a unitary rule only in the case where the country’s integrity was threatened.
Lesson Two: Corrupting the fourth estate is a key component. The mantra is: muzzle the free press, misuse the media. As newspaper business gets less lucrative, to withhold advertising revenue, not just from the government and public enterprises but also from friendly or subservient private companies, becomes a potent weapon to bring press barons and journalists in line.
As social media gains a bigger footprint, hiring an army of publicists, techies and language mavens on public payroll, becomes a powerful means of telling the people all and only that you want them to hear. Worst come to worst, faceless thugs can always be hired to quiet the fearless voice, as Duterte seems to be doing in the Philippines.
Lesson Three: Splendid goals and catchphrases are powerful instruments. Fast economic growth is a golden promise, black money elimination is a charming dream. Belarus to Venezuela power-seeking leaders are assuring these, as Mussolini and Marcos used to promise regular trains and disappearing poverty. These promises are not meant to be fulfilled, those are just steps to guide willing voters and votaries to the controlled Valhalla of a Brave New Society.
Lesson Four: Funds are a centerpiece of all scams. The military junta that scuttled Haiti’s first democratic election did so in connivance with its five leading business groups, promising them full exemption from taxes. Trump in the US has slashed $14 billion in corporate taxes and predictably gotten the business titans on his side. The payoff is twofold: you get the business community, and their myriad dependents, to sing your hosannas, and you fill your party and private coffers with money that can be used to buy ballots or stashed in offshore accounts.
Lesson Five: Social institutions that stand in the way will be steadily corrupted. The police and civil administration are two principal targets. Turkey’s Erdogan gained the trust of western and NATO allies as the progressive leader of a Muslim nation and amassed power steadily, and then took advantage of a coup attempt to do a massive purge of the entire administration, especially the police and military. None remains save an Erdogan fan. There is no illusion left in India that law enforcement is free of partisan bias or that the bureaucracy dare not play footsie with the leader in power.
Lesson Six: There must be an external enemy, clear and present. Nothing unites a people better than the fear and hate of a foe abroad, and unscrupulous leaders fabricate such a foe, to have unthinking ranks line up behind them and forget their problem of daily bread. Think of George Bush’s fiction of weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq or Donald Trump’s lie of rapists and murderers to build a wall against Hispanic immigrants. In effect, Osama bin Laden became the true fount of the Patriot Act in the US, a law that flew in the face of America’s liberal tradition.
Lesson Seven: Better still, if there is an internal enemy to identify, and link with the external foe. Nazis identified Jews as rapacious traitors and gays as vicious perverts, accounting for Germany’s woes, and Hitler built his empire on their corpses. Muslims in India today are viewed askance, treacherously ready to support Pakistan’s cricket team, kill and eat cows and seduce gullible Hindu women. An atmosphere of intolerance is encouraged to better achieve cohesion of the groups that support the dominant leadership.
Lesson Eight: To usurp power is easier if a single party can achieve unmatched dominance. In four years, 1928 to 1932, the Nazis took their share of votes from 3 to 37 per cent, and six months later Hitler grabbed total power. Fascist groups have replicated this strategy in several countries, and we see at close range how, even in a federal system, a dominant party can use its resources to undercut all other parties and make their return to power difficult or improbable.
Lesson Nine: To get to legitimate power, a useful step is to have illegitimate power at the very start. Whether in Franco’s Spain or Hitler’s Third Reich, well before Nazis cornered state power, martial groups were assiduously fostered, to act as strong-armed persuaders and enforcers. The doctrines of these gangs may be spurious and their outfit comical, but there is no denying the weight at the grassroots level of the quasi-military groups that are festering in India. Given surreptitious help and resources, they may work havoc and help usher in a regime of terror for recalcitrant citizens and politicians.
Lesson Ten: It helps, as Orwell said, to assassinate history. Given the needs of a demagogue, the entire history of a country can be mutilated, rewritten and given the twist that the rising leader needs. Stalin’s closest colleagues, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky and many others, all became “non-persons” ~ not even mentioned anywhere ~ the moment they fell out of favour. Gandhi may have led the freedom struggle, Nehru may have shaped modern India, but their statues can be wrecked and pictures removed.
New idols, however false and ahistorical, may be created to support the cause of the present leadership. New myths may be energetically propagated to make sure that people have the correct beliefs and right allegiances. The demagogue would have then met his coveted target and achieved his intended victory: he would have successfully converted the polity into his personal fiefdom.
The writer is a Washington-based international development adviser and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]