The angst of the ‘liberal’ Left reverberates across the globe. The Right is in the ascendant, either in power or powerful enough to influence policy, and Left-leaning pundits are making dire prophecies of doom. The rise of nationalism, nativism, protectionism and other ‘isms’, we are told, will be the death of liberalism and democracy-as-we-know-it and all noble virtues will be interred with their bones.
So it is with India. The ‘liberals’, confronted with a decisive mandate to a right-wing party, reacted with a gamut of emotions, from disbelief to horror, outrage and grief. The response was visceral to the point of being illiberal. The new dispensation was seen as illegitimate, by the very fact of being BJP-led, never mind that it had won a free and fair election. The Left-leaning ‘liberals’ defined themselves as pluralist, multi-cultural, universalist and egalitarian and, therefore, the Right had to be characterized as the opposite pole.
Indian liberalism tends to be black or white, with little room for the many variants of liberal thought. A conservative liberal is automatically clubbed with the Right and a centrist liberal with the Left. The result is a schism between the ‘liberal’ Left and the ‘non-liberal’ Right.
This is, of course, a mirage. The centrist Congress supports the far Right when it suits the party, as in the Shah Bano case. The Centre-Left and Left have joined forces with the Right from time to time. The ‘liberal’ Left routinely prioritizes minority rights over concerns of gender, caste and class. Political stances are dictated by interest groups, not by philosophy. In fact, no party or ideologue displays a liberal temperament. The liberalism of the Left is as much a construct as the manufactured nationalism of the Right.
Who is a liberal? Someone who supports democracy, freedoms, civil rights and equality. No political party, left or right, will say otherwise. Yet, there is no middle ground, because the right-left polarisation leaves no room for debate. It must be noted here that we are referring to liberalism in terms of political tradition, not economic views. Sections of the Right are far to the left in economic stance and vice-versa.
The ‘liberal’ Left has been excruciatingly self-righteous in its conviction of the rightness and efficacy of its values and no less prescriptive than the Right. Its disconnect with the common man arises from a lack of empathy with his very real concerns. Pulling out statistics and moral arguments on accommodating illegal migrants does not make them any more acceptable to the Assamese. Airily dismissing fears of cultural dilution, loss of jobs, lowering of wages and stress on public infrastructure has served to annoy the voting public. Borders are not impediments to trade or cultural exchange; they are drawn as safeguards against physical infiltration. Either dissolve them outright or enforce them.
The liberal elite’s supercilious “the voter is an ass” narrative first raised its ugly head in 2014. Small wonder its outcry over growing intolerance, denial of free speech, civil rights and freedoms found no traction whatsoever. In its contemptuous disregard for disruption of public life in service of interest groups, it has lost credibility.
The Right is following the same trajectory. Deploying instruments of State to facilitate the rambunctious ‘kawariyas’, closing off highways and turning a blind eye to their rampant goondagardi, all in the name of pious regard for majoritarian sentiment, will not endear it to the citizenry. Likewise, the feeling of forests to build highways to places of pilgrimage, pandering to religious leaders and the absurd rules governing transport of cattle. It displays a contempt and intolerance for alternative viewpoints and the same arrogance of power that the centre-left once did.
Walter Lippman observed that “that there is a deep disorder in our society which comes not from the machinations of our enemies and from the adversaries of the human condition but from within ourselves.” Left to itself, society will resolve its contradictions and embrace the values of modern liberalism. Already, we see changes in the way society perceives the individual and the collective. Alternative lifestyles are tolerated, women are stepping confidently into male-dominated spheres and youngsters are transgressing boundaries of caste and class to forge new identities for themselves. A gay pride parade in the capital passes off without incident, patriarchal societies celebrate their women wrestlers and Dalits become successful entrepreneurs heading multi-crore corporations.
Liberalism does not represent a coherent body of thought. It is flexible and adaptive, with many diverse currents. Supporting the death penalty for child rapists does not necessarily make one illiberal. The very same individual may insist that women and Dalits be allowed access to places of worship from which they were banned. A Uniform Civil Code is a liberal idea, but a willingness to listen to those who oppose it, denotes a liberal temperament.
As Betrand Russel said, “The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”