Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Why liberalism is turning into a joke in India

Faced with the threat of the fascist predator, the liberal ostrich burying its head in the sand of India's democratic institutions is not a pretty sight

Liberalism has been the dominant intellectual tradition in the political history of independent India. It played a defining role in the rise of Indian nationalism, in the framing of the Indian Constitution, and has been the default setting from where competing ideologies, be they from the Right or from the Left, have sought to make their political arguments.

The so-called “idea of India" that is said to be under threat from the rise of “communal forces" is essentially a liberal one, and is premised on protecting liberal values such as individual freedom, (in particular, freedom of expression), democracy (conceived in narrow empirical terms of free and fair elections), human and property rights, and of course, secularism. This does not mean that these liberal values have not been violated by the Indian state, only that they are the yardstick by which the liberal intelligentsia judges the actions of any given regime in power.

Last Sunday, a leading national daily carried, on facing pages, two interesting articles—a news report titled, Intellectuals ask voters to shun ‘communal’ BJP and an opinion piece, titled Why the intellectuals are running scared of Modi. It was as if the reader was being presented an event on one page and its interpretation on the adjacent page.

When an Indian writes disparagingly about “intellectuals", it is a given that they are referring to liberal or left-liberal intellectuals—not conservative intellectuals, who, presumably, have a direct access to truth, and therefore have no need to tax their intellectual resources. Now, the immediate context of both the intellectuals’ appeal to shun the “communal BJP" and the column purporting to explain why such intellectuals are “running scared" of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was the “revenge speech" delivered by the BJP general secretary and close Modi aide Amit Shah at an election rally in riot-affected western Uttar Pradesh.

It is worth nothing that even before this alleged incitement of communal hatred by Shah, liberal intellectuals, who are also advocates of constitutional secularism, have consistently opposed the BJP—and Modi in particular—on the ground that they promote religious sectarianism. And this despite the fact that Modi’s campaign—judged by his own previous standards—has largely steered clear of the divisive Hindutva agenda, choosing instead to make development/governance its primary electoral plank.

But these liberal/secular voices are becoming more and more isolated today, fading into increasing irrelevance in a climate of political opinion (and opinion polls) where a victory for Modi seems to be a foregone conclusion. Thanks in no small measure to the all-round incompetence of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the widespread contempt for the Congress it has evoked, the traditional binary of communalism versus secularism has today come to be replaced by a new binary: development versus secularism, or growth versus secularism.

Thus, in what must constitute a spectacular ideological victory for the anti-liberal and anti-secular Right, it is now secularism that has become a stand-in for communalism. So the self-proclaimed flag-bearers of secularism such as the Congress stand exposed, and are accused of communalism, while the traditional flag-bearers of communalism (as per the secularist worldview) become harbingers of good governance—which in itself, is of course, a most secular category.

This defeat of liberalism at the hands of political formations that have been branded as fascist is a defeat fully deserved, and perhaps, one foretold by the history of liberalism in India. It follows from a similar parallel defeat of secularism (or “pseudo-secularism") at the hands of so-called communalism.

There are three defining characteristics of Indian liberalism that foredoomed it to failure at the hands of fascist and/or communalist majoritarianism: its elitism, its estrangement from the ideal of equality, and the intellectual bad faith inherent in its conception of secularism.

Nobody can deny that Indian liberalism is an elite phenomenon, marked through and through by all forms of privilege—caste, class, geography, and so on. This necessarily places the liberal atop a vast structure of exclusion, which is bound to create resentment among those excluded from the privileges that the liberal takes for granted. The ironic, and often sarcastic, references to elite urban enclaves such as “Lutyens Delhi" and Sujan Singh Park by right-wing ideologues are nothing if not hostile invocations of liberal privilege (and socio-economic exclusion) symbolized by these proper nouns.

The anger and resentment spawned by this exclusion—which rapidly morphs into deprivation the further you move from the national capital and other metros—is fissile material for demagoguery of all kinds, be it communal or fascist or a combination of both. We can see this logic at work both in the white working class’ support for the neo-conservative Republican Party as well as the Christian Far Right in the US, and in the support of sizeable sections of the backward castes for the predominantly upper caste BJP.

Of course, the elitism of the liberal goes hand in hand with their indifference to equality as a value, which is natural, given liberalism’s congenital ties with laissez-faire capitalism. But forget economic equality; in the Indian context, the discourse of liberalism could not engage meaningfully even with the social inequality/exploitation of caste. This failure, in combination with the devious logic of secularism, ensured that it was only a matter of time before liberalism—which was hardly a mass phenomenon to begin with—began to retreat further from the real world of politics/bureaucracy, and into the ideological bunker of the law and the Constitution.

Back when the Constitution was being drafted, the founding fathers did not want a separate electorate for Dalits. They preferred, instead, to officially “abolish untouchability" in the Constitution, thereby leaving the Dalits at the mercy of the Hindu majority. In a parallel cynical manoeuvre, an abstract ideal of secularism—to be upheld by a Hindu majority Indian state -- was deemed an adequate substitute for any substantive provision (such as, say, a separate electorate for minorities) for the protection of minority interests. A key player in all this was Mahatma Gandhi.

In The Indian Ideology, the British historian Perry Anderson writes of “Gandhi’s transformation of Congress from an elite into a mass organization by saturating its appeal with a Hindu imaginary," adding, “Here, unambiguously, was the origin of the political process that would eventually lead to Partition."

Of course, according to “the Indian ideology" propagated by the liberal cheerleaders of the righteous Republic, it was the personal ambition of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (in tandem with Hindu supremacist elements) and not the Congress leadership that sowed the seeds of religious sectarianism which eventually led to Partition. As the political scientist Saroj Giri argues in his essay, “Hegemonic Secularism, Dominant Communalism: Imagining Social Transformation in India" (2010), it is precisely this externalization of communalism as some kind of a deviant phenomenon alien to the otherwise secular fabric of the Indian state that is at the heart of the liberal failure.

Instead of acknowledging the essentially communal nature of India’s social order—a reality that the “Indian ideology" seeks to obscure, as Anderson convincingly demonstrates—the liberal Indian has consistently chosen to propagate the myth of the Indian state as some kind of a secular Santa Claus that can be relied upon to turn up with gifts of security and law and order (or the assorted provisions that have been characterized as “minority appeasement") if ever a minority is under threat from the majority community.

It is this self-serving liberal fairy tale that has ensured that secularism would become, for the Indian state, what Giri calls a “legitimizing principle, a progressive plank". And it has served the Congress well. Not only is communalism necessary for secularism, secularism is necessary for the continuation of a communal order. In other words, the political/electoral choice between communalism and secularism that is posited by liberals—almost, it would appear, in consumerist terms—is a false one, its real agenda being to foreclose the possibility of social transformation. We see the ideological function of secularism most clearly in liberal discourses about Kashmir—where the issues concerning the rights and lives of real people, even when they are acknowledged, are still framed as secondary to the far more significant project of preserving the idea of India, and specifically, the idea of India as a “secular democracy".

With the looming ascendancy of Modi to India’s highest democratic office, this secular logic has come full circle, with the liberal’s appeal to vote “for secularism" or “against communalism" rendered meaningless by the prospect of continued denial of access to liberal privileges—which are actually basic human entitlements—within the so-called secular order. That is why Modi has been able to successfully play the “outsider card" even though, from many standpoints, say, that of an adivasi or a Dalit or an LGBT person, he is hardly an outsider. If anything, going by the backing he has received from powerful corporate interests, he is the quintessential insider.

But Indian liberals, when push comes to shove, would rather protect the privileges inscribed in their liberal grandstanding than confront their own complicity in the creation of the “fascist monster" they hasten to condemn. That is the reason why more and more of them, one after another, are now beginning to find some means of accommodation with the “monster" they have been busy excoriating. So far, the preferred route to this reconciliation has been “governance/growth"—a rhetorical dead-end that almost all the liberals take as a given, not bothering to unpack or interrogate the term.

More recently, another avenue of accommodation has opened up: a touching faith in India’s democratic institutions, which, of course, can withstand any fascist assault. Faced with the threat of the fascist predator, the liberal ostrich burying its head in the sand of India’s democratic institutions is not a pretty sight. Is it any wonder then that they are turning into objects of ridicule?

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