Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Friendship is one of the things about India that 2014 changed

All of us know that something changed in India in 2014 when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. The sheer volume of books and opinion pieces trying to explain that change is overwhelming—though very often a felicity with language cloaks pure bile, and the analysis is hardly ever neutral. And this is unlikely to end anytime soon. Nowadays, writers begin their diatribes with “When we look back 20 years from now…" or “When we tell the next generation…"

Yes, India is more polarized than ever in living memory, but I don’t wish to harp on the obvious. My concerns have to do with a trait that has helped us survive and thrive physically and emotionally since the dawn of mankind—friendship.

Nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago, Aristotle defined three types of friendship. In utility friendships, people come together for instrumental benefits, like business partnerships or strategic alliances. Pleasure friendships are based on mutual enjoyment of a hobby or sport, like members of a cine club where one doesn’t care to know about others’ personal lives, or men who meet every Friday night to play bridge. Aristotle termed them “incomplete" friendships, being characterized by self-interest. Once those interests are served, the incentive for keeping up the relationship vanishes.

The third type, what the Greek philosopher called “friendship of the good", is rare and precious. It’s based upon mutual goodwill, and an unselfish desire to help the other person be her best possible self. You’re comfortable being honest and open with her and can criticize her without causing offence. She knows you’re always looking out for her best interests and will not be judged. This is “true" friendship.

In post-2014 India, many friendships that had appeared “true" are breaking up. And strangely enough, it is the so-called “liberals", the ones supposed to be more open to diverse viewpoints and less closed-minded than the “right wing", who are more likely to end these relationships. People tell me how their “liberal" friends started forgetting to return calls, kept declining dinner invitations on flimsy excuses, then stopped calling them over. Of course, it took some time for the poor sods to realize what was happening. That they were now “bhakts", “sanghis", “fascists".

The branding is quick and easy. A friend, let’s call him Siddharth, whose “sanghi-ness" and Hindu fundamentalism extends only to a deep study of the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, recounts how a decades-old friend was nonplussed when Siddharth walked in, uninvited, at his mother’s funeral. He had quietly unfriended Siddharth, and thought that the feeling was mutual—surely Siddharth too now hated him because he was “liberal"? A cousin, a long-time Bharatiya Janata Party supporter, tells me how some “liberal" friends have cut him out. “They think I’ve changed, but it’s actually them," he said. “What I’ve felt for them for years remains the same, but suddenly I’m judged on the basis of my vote." He says with a laugh, “I’m low-class now."

This is not an India-specific phenomenon. A Pew Research Center study carried out in the US in 2017, six months after Donald Trump took over as president, found nearly half of liberal Democrats—47%—saying that if a friend supported Trump, it would put a strain on their friendship. Only 13% of Republicans said a friend’s support of Hillary Clinton would similarly affect their relationship. In fact, 68% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters said they found it “stressful and frustrating" to talk to people who have a different opinion of Trump. About 50% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said the same. So who exactly are liberal and tolerant?

While the 2016 presidential campaign was on, another Pew study showed that 47% of people who planned to vote for Clinton didn’t have any close friends who were Trump supporters. The corresponding figure for Trump voters was 31%. Is there a bubble here, a seeking of homogeneity that the “right wing" is routinely accused of?

But if someone is losing friends because she supports Modi, were they ever really her Aristotelian “true" friends? One of my dearest pals is a professor at a US university, a left-liberal Muslim, who has signed many anti-Modi petitions, including one asking Silicon Valley bosses not to meet him. We know each other’s political leanings, but we respect each other and have many things to talk about and share. I was one of his first readers when he started writing a mystery novel set in Delhi in the three days leading up to the 1857 uprising, featuring a most unusual detective. When it is published later this year, I expect a few reviewers to mention Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.

Last month, I was in Kolkata for a few days. I spent the evenings with my oldest friend—we have been buddies since we were six. We had not been in touch for four years, but on the first evening, when I rang his doorbell, he opened the door, and said, “Oh, long time no see," and we repaired to his study. We spoke of many things, like how Kolkata has changed, and people, and politics, but none of it actually mattered. What mattered was that some good things stay true and never change.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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