Friday, June 30, 2017

Liberals in disarray, but is it the bigots’ last hurrah?

Religious bigotry as an instrument of politics made its presence felt during the final stages of India’s struggle for freedom. Jinnah, a liberal and non-practicing Muslim, injected the virus of bigotry into politics, resulting in India’s partition. While religious bigotry assumed monstrous proportions in Pakistan, India remained a shining example of secular co-existence for almost six decades. But gradually the virus started infecting our body politic too. Caste and language based chauvinism has been buffeting our polity ever since 1947, but the Khalistan movement marked the advent of religious bigotry in a big way. Immediately thereafter the Babri Masjid violence heralded the Hindu bigot’s arrival in the country’s political mainstream.

Is Liberal India now heading towards its grave or will it return rejuvenated in all its pristine glory? Are we witnessing Hindu bigotry’s nascent stages or is the sudden spike in communal violence in recent months bigotry’s last hurrah?   

It all began with assaults on JNU and other prominent educational institutions. The purpose was to carve out a niche for the hitherto marginalised ideology in crucial opinion-making sectors of our polity, and wipe out rival ideologies from the campuses. If, in the bargain, anarchy prevails, so be it.

Of late, attacks on persons belonging to minority communities, especially Muslims, have become endemic – rivalled only by the violence against Dalits. Not that these were absent during the pre-Modi era, but now its character has changed. Be it flogging of Dalits in Una or killing of Ikhlaq, Junaid and several others – excesses are being committed by a new breed of criminals who can only be described as “non-state actors” or “deniable associates”. They appear to have blessings of powerful elements within the current political establishment.

Fortunately, India’s liberal DNA is irreplaceable and indestructible. Whenever aberrations in the form of illiberal practices, coercion and violence marred our polity, its strong liberal-democratic ethos took corrective actions to set things right. Witness the post-Emergency ouster of Indira Gandhi’s regime. This ethos dates back to our hoary past when interaction between the temporal and the spiritual generated enduring, deep-rooted liberal values. In modern times, common Indians instinctively understand that liberalism is vital for regulating the competing aspirations in such a manner that individual self-interest becomes compatible with the larger social good. But, various regimes since independence have been unable to meet these aspirations in full.

After our independence, the reformist culture, first introduced and nurtured by the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar etc, gained greater traction, leading to introduction of universal franchise and genuine egalitarianism. Our constitution made strong provisions for the protection of minorities, deprived classes and other vulnerable sections of the society. During its nascent stages, the Indian democracy was fortunate to have a liberal visionary like Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister. He ensured that the fruits of vision and hard work of the Indian Constitution’s architects were not only preserved but also turned into the polity’s enduring salient features.

Nehru’s socialist inclinations were in harmony with his democratic and liberal beliefs – despite his admiration for the Soviet model of economic planning and development. However, his Fabian Socialism had its limitations. It is true that he was able to build enduring and invaluable infrastructure that provided powerful underpinnings to subsequent economic growth; but, it is equally true that he failed to nurture private enterprise. Consequently, when India’s economic growth began to stagnate, the state infrastructure failed to meet the challenges of fashioning new roadmaps or innovative developmental models. This failure was compounded by the absence of truly worthy successors to his legacy. The next generation of political leadership could not meet the economic, political and social challenges confronting the country. Nehru’s Centrist-Left-Liberal political narrative was subverted by a more inflexible leftist politico-economic narrative.  

The leftist policies too failed to meet popular aspirations, leading to wistful, almost romantic, allusions to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s nationalist persona. However, there has been lack of clarity regarding the essentials of his ideology. Was Netaji a fascist, as some political observers have been asserting? That seems hardly believable, given his political DNA as a Congressman. It is true that Netaji was impatient with the slow deliberative and chaotic democratic processes as exemplified at the 1939 Congress session in Tripuri, near Jabalpur in the modern Madhya Pradesh, where he called for revolution if the party’s six-month ultimatum to the British bore no results. Indeed, he was a great admirer of the more orderly and authoritarian attributes of Nazi Germany and Italy. But there is no evidence that he himself was a racist or a fascist. Was he a pragmatist and a visionary? Even that is doubtful, given the fact that he had put all his eggs in the Axis basket – an inadvisable move, given the propensity of these powers for annexing whatever they conquered and treating the locals as subhuman species. All we can say is that Netaji was an ideologue imbued with patriotism without any distinct ideology. Those who claim that he was a better alternative to Nehru would do well to ponder over this aspect. His love for authoritarianism would not have worked in the post-independence India, given the huge web of fault-lines across the subcontinent. And, no, he could not have prevented the emergence of Pakistan either, because the Hindu-Muslim divide was historically deep and unbridgeable, contrary to what our secular ideologues are fond of asserting. As for his social and economic philosophy, we have hardly any inkling.

Communists in India could have become a powerful ideological alternative to the Indian National Congress, if only they had Indianised their worldview. They toed the Soviet line throughout India’s freedom struggle. When the Soviet Union joined the Allies, the communists’ anti-imperialist ardour cooled down perceptibly. Their ideology of violence too was antithetical to the predominant Gandhian narrative of peaceful, nonviolent struggle for freedom. They further damaged their credibility when they called Netaji a traitor and openly condemned Satyagraha and Ahimsa – the twin weapons deployed by Gandhiji to gain freedom for the country.

After independence, too, the communists remained dependent upon the Soviet Union and Maoist China for their ideological inspiration and material sustenance. They miserably failed to grow roots in the Indian economy’s unorganised sectors. Thus, the farm labourer remained exploited and mired in poverty. Our communists were happy to run trade unions related to banks and public-sector industries. They remained archetypal ‘bhadralok’ petty bourgeoisie. The two states they ruled predominantly – Kerala and West Bengal – became graveyards of economic enterprise. However, post-Nehru India saw them gain strategic influence over India’s economic policymaking as evidenced by nationalisation of banks, virtual throttling of private entrepreneurship and state interference in almost every aspect of human life and endeavour – even deciding what one could watch on television or hear on the radio.

What about the Hindu Right? Interestingly, the RSS founder was himself a former Congressman. Hedgewar participated in the Khilafat movement (1919-24) and went to jail during his days as a Congress worker. He founded the RSS in 1925 and kept his organisation away from the freedom movement. A few individuals from the RSS who went to jail as freedom fighters had a mission, viz., recruit Congress workers in the jail for promoting the RSS agenda. Something similar was being done by the Muslim League too. In fact, these outfits had frequently collaborated with the British for disrupting the Congress-led freedom movement, which was gaining mass popularity. How RSS or any of its allied outfits could ever be trusted to run the country on modern, progressive lines?

Thus, befittingly, the Indian National Congress won popular mandate to steer India out of dire straits during its first six decades of existence. If the Congress lost out to the Hindu Right eventually it has more to blame itself than any extraneous factor. Lethal blows rendered to liberal values during Indira Gandhi’s era sowed the seeds for the BJP’s eventual rise. First signs of this appeared during her tenure’s initial years when the 1967 general elections resulted in Swatantra Party becoming main opposition party in the parliament. This experiment failed, but the seeds remained – waiting for the right clime for germination.

The Indira Gandhi brand of populist economic policies had pushed India towards the brink of economic bankruptcy. This was when Prime Minister Narsimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh arrived on the scene. They began the process of opening up the Indian economy, necessitating its integration with the larger processes of globalisation. By embracing the market economy, privatisation of PSUs became necessary. Reforms in governance too were initiated subsequently. Since populist policies were being put on the back burner, politicians had to cede the policymaking space to technocrats – something they were loathe to do earlier.

Although AB Vajpayee’s NDA carried forward the Rao-Singh formula, economic reforms gained momentum during Manmohan Singh’s UPA regime. But, inexplicably, things veered back to the old ways, most probably because the Congress High Command lost nerve at the prospect of losing its traditional vote banks which were emigrating to casteist outfits like SP, BSP, JDU etc. Communists regained influence over policy making, especially in the UPA’s second term. Corruption scandals burst forth like pestilence and the left-liberal intellectualism began to plummet in public esteem.

This decline was accompanied by the decay of left-liberal intellectualism. Faced with the challenges of 21st Century and the aspirations of the Indian youth, the leftists just turned into witless spectators mouthing obsolete shibboleths that had no relevance to the emerging social, economic and political realities. This opened up space for the Rightist ideological narrative. But they too appear mired in medievalism.

Luckily, thanks to the push by India Inc., Narendra Modi’s government is exerting itself to modernise governance-related structures and systems. It is trying to implement its election eve promises of providing less government, less bureaucracy, easier rules and providing primacy to citizens’ needs and aspirations. But the obstacles are daunting, given our bureaucrats’ colonial mindset, and the vested interests – both in the opposition and BJP – who prefer status quo that ensures them privileges that would make even the authoritarian Putin green with envy. And this is where original ideas based on indigenous ideology could have become handy.

The BJP has yet to develop a coherent ideological narrative for ensuring regular streaming in of new ideas for development and governance. With the relaunching of C. Rajagopalachari’s Swarajya magazine a hope is kindled that we may witness the arrival of Liberal-Right intellectualism. Rajaji was much respected for his liberal and progressive ideas. He believed in a liberal democratic welfare state, secularism, cultural pluralism, religious tolerance and coexistence. Wary of leftists, he was a liberal democrat with progressive and pro-people worldview. Clearly, his idea of economic developmental model had to be markedly different from that of Nehru’s. Rajaji’s Swatantra Party could have become a credible alternative to the Indian National Congress, but the extant political environment was hostile to his worldview. He must be smiling with satisfaction now that India is moving away from povertarian leftism.

Our universities and intellectuals, dominated by the left, have been stagnating for too long. When was the last time a genuinely constructive original idea was formulated by our leftist intellectuals? Your guess is as good as mine. But will the Liberal-Right be any better? Or will it become a prisoner of cultural-religious Hindutva politics? Only time will tell.

However, one thing is for certain. The current rule of the bigot cannot go on indefinitely. While India can do with Rightist economic policies, accommodate and assimilate some of its cultural philosophy, it shall and must reject the bigotry that is presently a dangerously burdensome part of the Modi regime’s baggage. And the onus is on our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi.

Postscript: - Often, on TV debates, one is amused by the seriousness with which some of the news channels’ anchors take themselves. As if they are arbitrators of India’s destiny. The media has been substantially growing in India since 1990s. The print media, television, websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc should have ensured development of quality public opinion-making narratives. But, neither our media nor the intellectuals favoured by them inspire much confidence, thanks to the issues of reputation and credibility. What was ethical commitment earlier has now metamorphosed into a profession, a career and, in some cases, a mercenary enterprise. There are honourable exceptions, which not only prove the rule but also highlight it in stark political-propagandist colours.

And that has been the Liberal-Democratic-India’s abiding tragedy.

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