How India’s liberals can get their mojo back

Tough times for liberals in India.
Tough times for liberals in India.
Image: P Photo/Rajanish Kakade
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Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected to reference a special law that allowed Muslim men to marry four wives.  

To say that India’s liberals are in disarray in the wake of the phenomenal victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be an understatement. Stronger words are needed to describe what they have been going through: disorientation or dissociation, perhaps, accompanied by an acute need for severe self-examination, followed by bouts of self-flagellation.

Thus we see Shiv Viswanathan, eminent social scientist, columnist and perceptive critic of Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), making this voluntary confession in The Hindu newspaper on May 22 in an article titled “How Modi defeated liberals like me:” “The Left intellectuals and their liberal siblings behaved as a club, snobbish about secularism, treating religion not as a way of life but as a superstition… By overemphasising secularism, they created an empty domain, a coercive milieu where ordinary people practising religion were seen as lesser orders of being.”

Santosh Desai, a leading advertising professional, formidable social commentator and indisputable liberal, was prodded by the singular Modi victory into examining the liberal psyche through the eyes of the non-liberal, and came up with this brutal indictment: “…the liberal worldview has rendered the cultural mainstream not only deeply uncomfortable, but virtually illegitimate. Every natural instinct of this class is subject to being labelled regressive, communal or chauvinistic. The liberal viewpoint accords to itself an implicit moral superiority which it then deployed to pass judgement on the world around it. The liberal hunt for injustice and discrimination is relentless and unsparing, even of itself, and this creates an atmosphere of deep discontent given the fact that injustice and discrimination abound in the country.”

The trauma of May 16

Since it has only been a few weeks since the election results were announced on May 16, it is reasonable to expect more such self-denunciations from the few liberals still standing, after many others decided that the free-market, high-growth elixir that Modi’s BJP was offering was too good to refuse. In the memorable words of author and public commentator Gurcharan Das, one of the liberals who started supporting Modi towards the end of the campaign, India was “taking a calculated risk.” He told Christiane Amanpour of CNN that while he voted for Modi, the decision “took a lot of agonizing.”

It is not surprising that self-doubt and moral hand-wringing has afflicted the Indian liberals at a time when society is going through its most dramatic ideological shift since Independence. In a stunning display of decisiveness, the electorate has taken power away from the Indian National Congress, which muddied up the idea of a liberal democratic polity, and given it to the BJP, which has been trying to impose an alternative based on the religious beliefs and attitudes of the majority. This battle has gone on for nine decades, ever since the ideological forerunner and guardian of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was set up in 1925, but never before has the BJP won in such a determined manner, limiting the Congress to just 44 seats out of 543 in the Lower House of Parliament.

Wrong reasons for a guilt trip

While the self-flagellation is understandable, it can hardly be justified. The liberals of India have many reasons to introspect, but they are not the ones that Viswanathan or Desai have identified. All religions, without exception, accumulate irrational practices and traditions over the centuries because none of them requires scientific evidence as a necessary pre-condition for belief.

Therefore, as rationality and science pervade more and more of human society, religions are likely to see large parts of their belief systems fall by the way side. It has already happened in Europe and much of east Asia, and is happening now in the US, with increasingly large numbers identifying themselves as atheistic, agnostic or non-religious.

This is not something that liberals cause, and this is not something they need to be apologetic about, unlike what Shiv Viswanathan suggests.

What is more, it is disingenuous to suggest that “ordinary people practising religion were seen as lesser orders of being” in a country that celebrates its religious festivals and traditions with rambunctious fervour in both the private and the public spaces;  that has entire television channels devoted to religious discourse; where politicians conspicuously seek the audience of religious gurus with large followings; and where nothing important is ever started without a religious invocation.

The arguments that Santosh Desai put forward on behalf of non-liberals are even more unsupportable. “The liberal hunt for injustice and discrimination is relentless and unsparing…. And this creates an atmosphere of deep discontent,” Desai writes. It’s a statement that condemns itself, because theoretically, this is an argument that any guilty party can justifiably make against any movement for justice—that the “hunt” against injustice is causing “deep discontent” in them.

There are other grounds too why the self-indictments of Viswanathan and Desai distort the legacy of modern Liberalism in India. From Rammohan Roy to Ranade, Gokhale, Naoroji, Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and countless others who used reason to challenge existing assumptions, the modern liberal tradition of India has a lot to credit itself for—from destroying the ethical justification for western colonialism, to eroding the intellectual support system for caste hierarchy,  to starting the process of gender equality, to building a common Indian identity that has assumed superiority over other identities based on religion, caste or language. In fact, the nation-building of India has been a highly successful liberal project, undertaken in the shadow of great looming challenges posed to it by sectarian die-hards of all hues. One only needs to look at some of our next door neighbors to better appreciate the course we took.

 The cardinal mistake

The real issue that liberals need to confront is the fact that for many decades now, existing political formations have been inadequate and broken vehicles to carry the principles they uphold. Until now, liberals had opted to deal with this situation by making a wholesale political choice based on which political formation was the lesser evil , rather than by taking retail decisions based on the merits of each issue at hand.

Since liberals have traditionally viewed the threat from religio-political parties to be far more pernicious than that from run-of-the-mill opportunistic ones, they found themselves on the side of the Congress even on issues that should not have received their support. Over time, this has weakened the moral authority of the liberals, and some of the copious slime that the Congress has accumulated over its years in power has rubbed off on the liberals as well.

To understand this problem better, one first needs to list the six principles and one attitude of Liberalism:

  1. The individual, not religious or racial or linguistic communities, as the basic organising unit of society.
  2. Freedom as the most basic and inalienable right of every individual, whether it be for professing a religion, following a trade or business, leading a political movement, or questioning established societal or cultural norms.
  3. Rule of law and equality before law, without consideration of a person’s race, religion, caste, gender or any other attributes.
  4. Separation of religion from governance.
  5. Acceptance of dissent, differences and alternative perspectives.
  6. Primacy of reason and evidence over received belief, custom and practice.

The essential liberal attitude is that our best days yet are in the future, not in the past, because it is possible to improve the human condition by constant effort. Therefore, change is something to be looked forward to, not feared.

At the time of Independence, the Indian National Congress was indeed an almost perfect vehicle to carry these ideals and it was right on the part of the liberals to identify themselves with its agenda and ideology as it fought off the challenge posed by sectarian, revivalist organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. But by the late 1960s, especially after Indira Gandhi brought the party under her absolute control and intensified the oppressive nature of the licence-permit raj, it was clear that liberals could not take the Congress for granted as its ideological sibling.

Moreover, as she came under increasing political pressure, Mrs Gandhi began pandering to the demands of the Muslim fundamentalists, a trend that her son Rajiv took to full fruition. By the mid-1980s, it was clear that, for the Congress, liberalism and secularism were just dead letters used to coin meaningless slogans.

The cardinal mistake that liberals made, therefore, was their failure to distance themselves from the Congress at that time. For instance, the BJP may have had the political motive of stigmatising Muslims in asking for a Uniform Civil Code that did away with the special personal laws allowing Muslim men to marry up to four wives, but irrespective of motives, the Liberals needed to support that demand, because the principle of equal treatment under law for every individual is a higher order principle than the one of allowing a minority community to maintain its own laws regardless of the individual rights it infringes.

The liberals made similar mistakes again in the 1980s and 1990s, in not standing up to Congress as virulently as they should have as it attacked fundamental liberal principles in such matters as banning books, films and other cultural products that offended one community or another, and in providing succour to the perpetrators of anti-Sikh violence in 1984.

In a way, the liberals who joined the Modi bandwagon in recent months are making a mistake which is a mirror image of the mistake made by those who supported the Congress: they are taking a wholesale decision to stand with the BJP, on the argument that a lower growth rate is a higher evil than an illiberal social agenda.

A contest of ideas

As they stand on the rubble left behind by the electoral results, those Liberals who have not sold out their freedom agenda need to find a new voice, realise that there are no political parties today worthy of their unstinted support and weigh each issue on its own merit without regard to which political side their decision may strengthen.

Politicians need to fashion their stances with an eye on next month’s or next year’s election, but liberal thought leaders don’t. They have the luxury of setting their eyes on more distant horizons, and can ensure that the liberal principles that have deep roots in the soil of India are not uprooted in the Modi storm. They would do well to bear in mind what Sri Krishna told Arjuna on the battlefield: “Karmanye Vadhikaraste; Ma Phaleshu Kada Chana” (“Action should be untainted by the desire for its fruits”).

It is not yet clear how Modi will manage his twin mandate—one from the general electorate to deliver on development, and the other from the BJP and the rest of the Sangh parivar to deliver on the Hindutva agenda. He could decide to focus on building a legacy as the leader who took India farthest along the road to prosperity without the distractions of a socially divisive agenda. Or, he could decide that the mandate is strong enough for him to deliver on both agendas.

What we do know is that this Parliament is likely to have an ineffective, divided opposition, so the contest of ideas that happen outside of Parliament will assume greater importance than ever, and liberals will need to step up to the task of defending individual freedoms if they are put at risk while the country changes course. That would be in line with Indian culture that puts a high premium on individuality. As the Suta says in the Brihaspati Niti Sara: One should sacrifice oneself to save the family; sacrifice one’s family to save the village; sacrifice one’s village to save the land; and sacrifice the land to save one’s soul.