Hardly a week passes without the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, accusing India of being fascist. Even Indian politicians are not discriminating in their use of the word. The writer has enquired of several students of political science but has not found much luck. “Despotic”, “ruthless” were the off-the-cuff explanations. Textbooks on the science have not thought it necessary to include a chapter on fascism.

As a practitioner of fascism, Adolf Hitler is usually the first name on people’s lips. Benito Mussolini is a poor second. What they do not realize is that the word is not a political abuse that they think it is. Benito Mussolini, who initiated the Fascist movement in March 1919 at Milan and founded the party called Partite Nazionale Fascista in November 1921, eventually died in defeat and disgrace. That is however too farfetched to be abusive. Or, does the very word “Fascist” denote political derogation? Perhaps it does to at least some members of the Indian intelligentsia.

This is reason enough to recapitulate what was fascism. The word fascio means a bundle or a bunch implying unity. The movement was in response to the corruption, unemployment and the virtual economic collapse in Italy after World War I. The socio-economic conditions appeared to be ripe for a socialist revolution and fascism was a nationalist answer to pre-empt a Communist takeover. Marxism was looked upon as depicting “class conflict”. Capitalism still carried the stigma of “class exploitation” and was therefore a non-starter as a popular programme. To be effective, the answer had to be something that would prove attractive to the peasants, to the workers as well as to their unions.

This was discovered in “class collaboration” as represented by fascism. Prof. Alfredo Rocco, the Minister of Justice in the Mussolini cabinet, set forth the gist of this new ideology in the course of a speech at Perugia in 1925. According to him, the society does not exist for the individual; the individual exists for the society. Economic progress is a social interest and all classes of people should combine or collaborate to maximise production. The interests of the employers and the employed are identical. To ensure that this is practised, there must be a system of state discipline over class conflicts.

Strikes and lockouts were alike illegal and punishable by heavy fine and in certain cases by imprisonment. Wherever possible, the employers and workers in each industry, trade or profession were organised together in syndical associates. Where it was not possible to form such syndicates, the unions and the employers’ associations remained but combined to form guilds to coordinate and ensure cordiality. If collective bargaining could not end satisfactorily, the disputes were referred to law courts assisted by experts. This is how class collaboration was conceptualized by the Fascist Party.

In practice, the economy was toned up by rearmament and public works. Soldiers were recruited in large numbers and so were workers in factories to produce arms. This would bring profits to the bourgeoisie who could then pay the proletariat well. Urban prosperity would increase demand for agricultural produce. What was left of the under-employed youth was absorbed by the armed forces. The promise to the whole nation was foreign conquests, which would bring booty.

The Albanian adventure and the invasion of Abyssinia were two efforts to fulfil this promise until of course, World War II took place. Another example of the practice of fascism or class collaboration, albeit on a much more limited scale, was in Spain under Gen. Franco. Neither the Italian nor the Spanish experience is widely known in any great detail in India. What, however, the members of the intelligentsia are familiar with are the exploits of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, whose full name was National Socialist German Workingmen’s Party.

It was founded by Hitler and his six comrades in Munich in 1920. The economic deprivation in Germany was much greater than witnessed in Italy. The country paid an exorbitant price for its defeat in World War I. The runaway inflation as well as the world Depression ignited by the crash in share prices on Wall Street in New York in 1929 made matters worse for Germany. It was widely believed that the charismatic genius of Hitler and his programme of class collaboration more or less on the lines of Mussolini’s Italy, although on a far grander scale, saved the country from utter collapse and a Communist takeover.

Unlike the Italian and Spanish examples, the Nazi Party proposed to exclude Jews from German life. They alleged that the Jewish leadership had betrayed the state during World War I and was to a large extent responsible for the German defeat. In their bid to exterminate the Jews, not only from Germany but also from the rest of Europe, the Nazis were estimated to have killed six million Jews by 1945. While Gen. Franco confined himself to Spain, Benito Mussolini did attempt foreign conquests but his plans were nowhere as grandiose as Adolf Hitler’s.

Which is why he is so well-known not only in India but the world over. So much for fascism and its smaller as well as grander (Spanish and German) variations. But what is its ugly connection with politics in India? India is not Europe. The 2000s are not the 1930s. Socialism is on its deathbed and there is no fear of a Communist takeover in India. There is economic deprivation but there is no financial collapse on the scale of pre-Hitlerite Germany. Indian ethos has no record of imperialism and therefore no promise of foreign conquests would be credible.

If an attempt is being made to compare the Jews of Germany and the Muslims of India, it is ridiculous. No one has accused the Muslims of betraying India, not even the BJP whose only contention is that there has been appeasement of Muslim whims and pampering of the community’s leadership. The Muslim masses, unlike the Jews who were influential, are poor. The exceptions are a few opulent smugglers and bootleggers. All in all, to call anyone a fascist in India is to talk nonsense.

(The writer is an author, thinker and a former Member of Parliament)