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The spirit of India will re-assert itself

One problem with the word ‘liberal’ is that it means too many different things.

In the United States, liberals are distinguished from conservatives on the basis of their stands on current political issues. Conservatives tend to be more in favour of capitalism, less enamoured of big government or welfare schemes and happier with the status quo than with rapid change.

 

Liberals, on the other hand, are seen as being pro-welfare, in favour of regulation of business and believe in the idea of government as a force for good.

 

   These are not necessarily valid distinctions but like the terms left wing and right wing, have come to be used as a convenient (if sometimes misleading) way of characterising different kinds of political opinion.

 

   To use ‘liberal’ in this sense, however, is to obscure the origins of the term. As Rudrangshu Mukherjee points out in this short and readable primer, liberal values are at the root of most prevailing philosophies in Western politics today.

 

   At its heart, classic liberalism is about the individual and about protecting his rights from oppression whether by the state or anyone else. Even American conservatives are liberals in that sense. Donald Trump may rail against ‘liberals’ but he would not seriously dispute that the liberal notion of the freedom of the individual and the rights that flow from it (such as free speech, for instance) is at the heart of American democracy.

 

   It is the same in most of Western Europe. At its most extreme, democracy gives 51 per cent of the population the right to oppress the other 49 per cent. It is liberalism and the values associated with it that protect the minority; hence the term ‘liberal democracy’ for most Western countries.

 

   There are many powerful political philosophies --- Fascism and Communism, to name two – that do not enshrine the notion of individual freedom. Such philosophies place greater emphasis on the state, arguing that individual rights can be sacrificed for the greater good or even that they are often worthless. (The argument “what good is freedom of speech to a hungry man” is a classic example of this; it is advanced by communists, fascists and authoritarian regimes of all kinds.)

 

   Even within societies that claim to protect individual freedom, a certain amount of hypocrisy has always been prevalent. For instance, the US Declaration of Independence begins with a bald-faced lie: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights...”

 

   In fact, many of the men who wrote this and the US Constitution were slave-owners. They clearly did not believe that their slaves were equal to them or that they had unalienable rights. A particularly offensive clause in the US Constitution (later removed) suggests that one slave is equal three-fifths of a white man.

 

   The British were as hypocritical. John Stuart Mill, one of the fathers of liberal thought, advocated liberal values in Britain. But when it came to India, Mill saw it as a stagnant and unprogressive society to be redeemed through imperialism. Hardly any liberal values characterised British rule in India. Laws based on race were common (an Englishman had the right to demand a judge of his own race if he was ever tried) and, as Mill wrote, the imperialists were “qualified by their genius to anticipate all that experience has taught to the more advanced nation.”

 

   The Indian freedom struggle and the American civil rights movement, later that century, were led by educated people who recognised the contradictions between the liberal values that were talked about in such glowing terms and the systemic racism that denied the benefit of these values to non-whites.

 

   Under Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who, like Sardar Patel, had been partly educated in England, the idea of an independent Indian nation was based on Western Liberalism shorn of racial prejudice. They chose universal suffrage on the grounds that when it came to electing governments, all Indians were equal and they took care to provide liberal protection for the rights of all individuals, no matter what their race or religion was.

 

 "This may sound like overkill but the book does make out a case for the view that the Modi-era is the beginning of the end of an enlightened, liberal age."

   In doing so, they overturned some of the prevailing opinions of that era. Many opposed universal suffrage (it is worth remembering that, till his death in 2002, Nani Palkhivala, hailed as a great liberal in the press, believed that universal suffrage had been a mistake). Others opposed the notion of equality arguing that in a Hindu country, it was wrong to treat Hindus on par with minorities.

 

   If Nehru, Patel and the founding fathers of India deviated from traditional liberal principles, it was in their emphasis on groups over individuals. The notion of reservation, for instance, mitigated against the equality principle but it was argued that certain castes and communities had been so discriminated against over the ages that some redressal was required.

 

   That may have been a valid argument but it set the tone for later generations where the governing principle of Indian politics became the stitching together of coalitions of castes and communities; a process that reached a new height after VP Singh implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990. Since then North Indian politics at least, has been dominated by considerations of caste and community.

 

   Where does Narendra Modi fit into all this?

 

   Well, it is clear which side Mukherjee is on: “The violent suppression of dissent and the imposition of Hindutva culture are essential parts of Modi’s core ideology.” There is more in a similar vein till we get to the parallels with Hitler Youth and his conclusion that what is happening in India is similar to Europe in the 1930s, or to the rise of Nazism.

 

   This may sound like overkill but the book does make out a case for the view that the Modi-era is the beginning of the end of an enlightened, liberal age. (After all, ‘liberal’ is an abuse for BJP-trolls on social media.)

 

   Mukherjee believes that the BJP and its supporters are trying to end a consensus that Nehru-Patel-Gandhi built: the view that all Indians are equal and that Hindus have no special status in India. If the BJP does get a second term then it is possible that this battle will go a different way and that the vision of 1947 will be overturned. India will become a more assertively Hindu country.

 

   But there is another sense in which modern liberalism may be entering, what Mukherjee calls its twilight years. The essence of liberalism is liberty. At a time when the right to free speech, the right to dissent and even the right to eat the food of your choice all seem to be on shakier foundations, the importance of individual liberty may be downgraded.

 

   It will be replaced by a sense of muscular nationalism. Everyone must work for the glory of the motherland. To hold a view contrary to those of the rulers becomes an anti-national act.

 

   Is this too gloomy a view? Never mind the passion with which Mukherjee argues it, there is always the possibility that he is underestimating the strength of liberal values.

 

   As racist as the slave-owners who wrote the US Constitution were, the country they created ultimately rejected their racism and adopted their professed liberalism. As hypocritical as JS Mill may have been in his dismissal of the rights of colonial people, ultimately British society respects him for his writings on liberty, which have stood the test of time, while his bigotry has been thrown away and forgotten.

 

   Will that be the case in India?

 

   I believe it will. During the dark days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency when individual liberties were suspended, much of the world wrote off India’s liberal tradition and argued that our democracy was dead.

 

   They were wrong. Ultimately Indian liberalism triumphs because it is the only way that this vast disparate country can be governed. Despotism and authoritarianism may work in the short term. But as we saw in 1977, the spirit of India will re-assert itself.

 

   Twilight of liberalism? Not quite. A partial eclipse perhaps.

 

   But eventually, the world moves, the shadow lifts and the light returns.

 


 

Posted On: 02 Jun 2018 12:00 AM
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