In Narendra Modi’s
India, the polarisation of public discourse is nothing new. But now there is a
real sense that the battle lines are drawn without any neutral territory: that
this is a fight for survival and at stake is the idea of India itself. What was
rhetoric from both sides of the aisle has now become political reality. There
is equally the sense, to continue with military metaphors, that one side is
under siege, and without a sense of direction. The majoritarian right-wing
seems unstoppable, its capture of popular discourse and state institutions
unfettered by anyone.
Part of the reason is the success of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), ideological backbone of the BJP government, in delegitimising the opposition even before the fight started. A new political lexicon of, “liberal”, “anti-national” “pseudo-secular” and “anti-Hindu” has effectively defused opposition to any policy the government seeks to smother in the smokescreen of hyper-nationalism or majoritarian religious sentiment. The attack on liberalism is central to the project of a Hindu Rashtra. This is because the foundation of the Constitution and the fundamental rights it guarantees all citizens irrespective of creed, caste or gender, lies in political liberalism.
This is not merely a philosophical or legalistic matter. The enforcement of constitutional guarantees, which is the essence of democracy, depends on a whole ecosystem of mutually dependent institutions that operate by the structural logic of liberal democracy. A free press, independent judiciary, and free and fair elections are only the most prominent among these: the network encompasses a host of government, regulatory, financial, civil, social and cultural bodies. They not only reinforce each other but also act as counterweights when a part of the system is corrupted or fails in its democratic function.
expanding democracy involves a commitment to liberalism not merely in
principle, but also in the operational sense, in having the ability to leverage
the structural nodes along which the balance of power is distributed in a democracy.
This requires an understanding of the roles of the instrumentalities of liberal
democracy and their mutual relations, freedom of expression, consensus through
public discussion, dissemination of information, a rational public sphere and
so on, not merely in the abstract but in their concrete form. These structural
elements are underpinned by the nature of the democratic social contract, of a
community arriving at shared goals negotiated on the basis of reciprocity of
interests among various social groups.
One of the people to see the connection between democracy and society most clearly was a student of the Americam liberal philosopher John Dewey, and the father of the Indian Constitution. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar writes in “Riddles of Hindusim”: “There cannot be a democratic government unless the society in which it functions is democratic in form and structure...A government for the people can be had only when the attitude of each individual is democratic, which means each individual is prepared to treat every other individual as his equal and is prepared to give him the same liberty which he claims for himself. This democratic attitude of the mind is the result of the socialisation of the individual in a democratic society. Democratic society is therefore a pre-requisite for a democratic government. Democratic governments have toppled down largely due to the fact that the society for which they were set up was not democratic.”
Modern day fascism does not operate by directly attacking democratic institutions,; it surreptitiously undermines the public consensus about democracy. Trump and the “alt-right” in the US cannot censor the media; hence they discredit it as “fake news”. In India, the BJP’s IT cell mounts an all-out campaign to troll journalists questioning the government as “presstitutes” and “paid media”.
Fighting back means identifying and recruiting the natural allies of constitutionality along the diffuse network of socio-economic, cultural and administrative institutions, of activating the sites that sustain the rule of law and effectively marshalling resistance. This is precisely what those who stand for democracy in India have failed to do. In retrospect, this should not surprise us. From differing ideological standpoints, the Hindu right-wing and left-inspired academia and activists share a similar kind of cynicism about the possibilities of liberal democracy. They also share a hostility or apathy towards key sources of its historical, social and cultural legitimacy. These sources include but are not limited to, the national movement, the cultural memory and legacy of figures like Gandhi and Nehru, the emancipatory possibilities of modernity, the value and role of public debate and the history of development of democracy and liberal democratic thought.
The most pertinent
point in the liberalism debate, one that should be blindingly obvious, was
brought out in an article in Scroll by Keshava Guha. It was
occasioned by the latest round of media bashing of India’s “liberals” for
everything from Kashmiri secessionism to Maoist attacks and alleged liberal
“hypocrisy” in protesting the new nationalist hobby of cow-related lynching.
Guha asks, “Who is this liberal? It is not clear who the liberals of these attacks are or what they allegedly believe. The meaning of liberal in any case is context-dependent and especially ill-suited to India. The term in India is typically a label without an ideology. To the extent that there are real, identifiable liberals it is an ideology without a party.” Guha observes that most of the people targeted in these OpEds and TV debates do not identify as liberals.
There is no liberal constituency and no electoral incentive for political parties to run on a platform of liberal or reformist policies. Whether it is the BJP, the Congress or the CPI(M), far more unites these parties in terms of power structures than divides them on the basis of professed ideologies.
Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, for instance, the favourite anti-nationals of screaming right-wing anchors and foaming-at-the mouth columnists, are communists, not liberals. Arundhati Roy, favourite whipping girl of the Right, would consider it nothing less than an insult to be identified politically as a liberal. More importantly, as Guha writes: “No party or politically relevant movement in India professes liberalism or practises it.”
This is the crux of the problem that Indian democracy faces as it enters maturity and is confronted with a diverse set of economic, social and governance challenges. There is no liberal constituency and no electoral incentive for political parties to run on a platform of liberal or reformist policies. Whether it is the BJP, the Congress or the CPI(M), far more unites these parties in terms of power structures than divides them on the basis of professed ideologies. Take off the icing of ideology and all national and regional parties are semi-feudal, casteist, patriarchal formations that mirror and perpetuate the social hierarchies and power relations of Indian society. At the local level, these parties operate by co-opting, or being co-opted by, dominant social groups, strongmen, crony businessmen or downright criminals.
Apart from the fact that the liberal position the right-wing attacks is always a straw-man, it conflates liberals as a class with liberalism as an ideology. As Guha argues: “They associate liberalism with a life of luxury, for instance, references to quinoa, foie gras, the cocktail circuit… the association of liberalism with a disconnected elite is essential to sustaining a rhetorical approach that is ad hominem and refuses intellectual engagement.” This conflation of liberalism as class and liberalism as political ideology is precisely what the left also does most of the time when it criticises “liberals”.
Why does the right
wing rant and rave against liberals who do not even exist as a politically
relevant force? In Hindutva’s double-speak, the “liberal” is a stand- in for
the constitutional values of the Indian state. Denouncing an elite liberal
class disconnected from the real India is an indirect way to attack the liberal
state and the Constitution, which it cannot challenge directly. This is not
merely tactical. It comes from the subjective lived experience of a
conservative upper caste Hindu elite.
The enactment of the Constitution is a watershed in the Sangh’s history of victimisation of Hindus by foreign races from the Mughals to the British. Ambedkar feared for the durability of Indian democracy, saying in the Constituent Assembly that “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”. The RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha saw the same phenomenon in inverted terms, as an ideology of foreign origin being imposed by fiat on a country whose social and cultural assumptions were in opposition to it.
Unlike the evolution of western constitutional democracy from bottom-up on the backs of the rising economic fortunes of the bourgeoisie, India’s was basically a democratic revolution from above. From Independence to the Nineties, the state was the major driver of social and economic change, rather than the reverse. Thus the Constitution was a deeply disruptive social document. It put the might of the state behind a set of political and social ideals (including the concepts of secularism and individual liberty) held by an English-educated elite. The earliest and perhaps greatest example of the dynamics of reform by legislative coercion in India is the violent opposition to the Hindu Code Bills in the Fifties from those who stood to lose most: conservative elites.
There are many strands that run through this conservative reaction which have threaded their way to the present and been given renewed life by the dramatic economic and social changes ushered in after the Nineties. A primary strand often not stressed enough in favour of the Sangh’s communal ideology, is that at its core Hindutva is an aggressive rejection of modernity and its tendency to flatten social hierarchies. The strongest impulse behind this tendency is economic: modernity is a process of economic rationalisation where economically unproductive privileges of guilds and castes gradually give way to a more rational economic order based on the work of the individual.
This is a point Ambedkar makes in his essay the “Annihilation of Caste”, where he observes how segregation of social groups is predicated on a pre-modern economic arrangement and vice-versa.
In other words, economic modernity is the very condition of the possibility of democracy. Equally, modernity is also the condition of possibility of its opposite, fascism. Whether it is Stalinist USSR or Nazi Germany, their anti-democratic character was of a different nature from the feudal or semi-feudal monarchies they replaced. The massive propaganda efforts, incessant surveillance of private life and political opinions, omnipotent censorship, the creation of a homogeneous and regulated public sphere, were attempts to tame the disruptive conditions of modernity while operating within the rationalised economic infrastructure of a modern state. Authoritarianism appears to be a viable or desirable alternative when societies in social and economic transition are unable to develop representative political institutions that can effectively manage the chaos of this transition. It is a shortcut to stability and functionality at the price of liberty and justice, and if historical experience be a guide, doomed to failure in the long-run.
In 1991, India’s
economic journey took a revolutionary U-turn with market liberalistion
precipitated by a balance of payments crisis. In 1992, a mob of VHP volunteers
demolished the Babri Masjid, bringing communalism and Hindutva to the national
stage. To understand what has happened since is essential if one is to arrest
the regress of Indian democracy past a point of no return. The Indian left (I
use the term ‘left’ in the admittedly inadequate but conventional sense) has
explained both in terms of each other; tracing the rise of what it calls
“fascism” to the neo-liberal economic policies of globalisation.
It plots a set of transformations stemming from market liberalisation in favour of this thesis; loss of media independence due to corporatisation, a crackdown on freedom of expression by authorities, increasing economic inequality, agricultural crisis, corporate land grab against adivasis and other connected phenomena. The appealing aspect of such an explanation is that it is an analysis at the level of the system; these events cover the entire post-Nineties period irrespective of which government was in power. Nevertheless, it is a muddle-headed one.
I had earlier remarked how the Indian left has a marked tendency to confuse liberals as a class (to which interestingly they themselves belong) with liberalism as an ideology. This is a hold-over from classical Marxism, which in the historical context of the 19th century justifiably treated liberalism as synonymous with the political aspirations of the bourgeoisie. But such a position became simply untenable with the expansion of the middle classes in the west to include professions and trades previously considered part of the working class. This intellectual confusion, (which adds a presumed set of social and cultural values to the imagined liberal), is part of the wider problem that the left in India has no coherent economic critique of free market capitalism. The official left parties exist in a state of self-induced schizophrenia, aggressively pursuing crony capitalism when they are in power in a state, while sticking intellectually to traditional Marxist theory.
The alternative left has brought to light innumerable instances of livelihood deprivation and economic exploitation that the new economic policies have created. Its critique however, draws together market liberalisation in toto, specific policy routes liberalisation took, administrative failure and instances of crony capitalism or venality in a confused way without differentiating between them. What is offered in the final instance is moral criticism masquerading as economic theory. It is unclear if they have any conception of how the “neo-liberalism” they criticise differs at all from Keynesian liberalism which it replaced in the Reagan-Thatcher era.
This mixing up is apparent in the way Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders are admired as left icons. The first is a European Union free market integrationist; the second a Roosevelt-style “New Dealer”. In the strictest sense of the term, both are “liberals”, social democrats and believers in the overall framework of open markets and liberal democracy. The result is that while the instances of economic deprivation or crony capitalism are genuine enough, dissenting voices are not listened to because they are attacking the general consensus for open markets along with them. In terms of policy, Indian privatisation has not reached even a Keynesian level, let alone the Alan Greenspan type neo-liberal levels criticised by the European left. In its current form, the Indian left’s critique doesn’t make sense.
Added to this blindness to economic reality is ignorance of how other post-World War II democracies have developed systems of accountability, through civil society initiatives, mass movements and social change. The result? A skewed understanding of how Indian democracy has changed.
The current phase of the Hindutva project did not begin with the victory of NDA-2, or even with Babri Masjid. It goes further back, to the beginnings of the ’80s. Thrust into the political sphere and politically rehabilitated by opposing the emergency, the RSS under its third Sarsanghchalak Bala Saheb Deoras confronted an India transformed by the redemption of many constitutional guarantees through state power.
The RSS confronted a society where Nehru’s scientific materialism and secularism had become dominant intellectual values, as well as part of the social fabric of India. The path of progress was indicated exclusively along lines of modernisation, whichever Cold War superpower or political philosophy one looked to. The world was moving towards what looked like a secular age and no pundit could have predicted a revival of religion any more than they could the end of the Cold War.
Under Deoras, the RSS
plunged with indefatigable energy into social activism, spawning innumerable
sister organisations and creating a country-wide network of loosely affiliated
cultural organisations, all united by the vision it provided. It was grassroots
work aimed at turning the clock back, reconfiguring a polity on track to
secular modernity along atavistic lines. The project had two interconnected but
One was the grab for political power via the BJP and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the creation of a pan-Hindu identity. The second was more silent work, building a subterranean culture of Hindutva motifs presented initially as cultural or religious, rather than communal and identitarian. That, of course, is the best kind of propaganda. But it went beyond that. It was based on the Sangh’s insight that the foundation of the secular democratic state was top-heavy and wobbly, not grounded in the culture of the society it regulated. The liberal infrastructure of the secular democratic order, including the press, intellectuals and NGOs, was punching above its weight. These efforts started to bear fruit in the new millennium, breaking out as ugly rashes in various parts of the country and subsiding before it grabbed too much attention. It would finally break into the mainstream in the last years of UPA-2.
The immediate aftermath of the emergency was a wake-up call for a completely different section, the liberal-left complex. Any state led by an enlightened elite was a paternalistic entity whose benign exercise of power over citizens was conditional upon the goodwill of the guardians. The liberal minded Constitution still operated through the apparatus of the colonial state with a largely intact Indian Penal Code (IPC), and was capable of immense brutality against its own citizens, usually the poor and the marginalised.
By the Sixties, paternalism was shading into authoritarianism and under Indira Gandhi, the suspension of fundamental rights, censorship of the press, illegal detentions and police brutality, exposed the fragility of Indian democracy vis a vis the government.
The result was a landmark shift in the relationship between state, citizen and judiciary, starting with the Supreme Court’s reassertion of judicial supremacy and limitations of Parliament’s powers to amend the Constitution in 1980. The activism of volunteer groups and agencies was taken over by professional NGOs which worked on public issues in both rural and urban areas, expanding the network of civil society. Citizens started approaching courts through PILs to hold the state accountable and citizen activism and the judiciary joined forces. This led to a series of judgments over the next three decades that enshrined rights in areas ranging from environmental protection to human rights to guidelines on sexual harassment.
The opening up of the economy, however, introduced powerful external forces altering these relationships. As India entered the new millennium, economic change altered the material conditions that determined the limits of democracy. These tectonic changes, unanticipated by both sides, set the stage for the violent and strangely dialectical confrontation we are witnessing now.
and globalisation created economic imperatives that are prying apart the
segregated structures that Ambedkar correctly pinpointed as the basic feature
of an undemocratic society. New sites of education, business and commerce are
corroding the structure and logic of exclusion behind India’s semi-feudal
order: segregation by sex, by religion, by class and to a smaller degree, even
segregation by caste. Even as the Hindutva project strengthened itself through
the Nineties, the socioeconomic conditions that made that project and its
cultural conservatism feasible started disintegrating. The mushrooming of news
channels and spread of the Internet created a national public sphere and a flow
of information that disrupted the information silos over which a local elite
could maintain hierarchical control.
This is the reason for the acts of sociopathic violence, spontaneous and organised, that have disrupted public life since at least the early years of the last decade. Honour killing, moral and communal policing, mob attacks and the enforcement of a religious orthodoxy have all been animated by a fanaticism fighting for survival against change.
The state, too, the bureaucracy as well as the political parties that run it, found itself facing challenges it was not able or willing to meet. On one side it faced increasing demands from a civil society and media that it could not meet. On the other, the trajectory of economic growth hit a ceiling beyond which it could not proceed without structural reforms in the state apparatus itself. Large complex economic systems usually require a corresponding degree of rationalisation, transparency and openness. There can be no economic growth in isolation. India urgently requires reform in areas that indirectly support economic activity: the police, judiciary, administration, banking, archaic laws, and so on. But these are changes the political elite cannot allow as they would undermine its authority. This is where UPA-2 floundered.
Post-liberalisation economic growth created opportunities as well as aspiration. But when a system that allows choice and discussion cannot meet the demands of governance the ensuing chaos and lack of purpose can make freedom and complexity suspect to a frustrated populace.
The idea of a “strong leader” and simple solutions start to become appealing. This is where the BJP offered an alternative. But this precisely is the weakness of the current dispensation. Power centralised in the hands of a single person and the opaque systems of an authoritarian state is far less equipped to deal with a globalised economy, let alone one that wants cultural superstition to substitute for science and fantasy for the scientific spirit. Taken too far it can only portend disaster, because eventually the success of propaganda ends up making economic failure invisible even to those in power.
There are both material and cultural conditions that make democracy possible. Modernity has economic, technological and cultural components. While democracy and fascism can share in most aspects of the former, they differ sharply in the cultural conditions that enable them to emerge as political systems. The democratic culture is about the individual’s potential to exercise her powers of reason and creativity to the utmost. A democratic culture fosters a critical spirit where all claims, historical and social, are checked against the claims of reason and evidence. Fascist regimes grow out of authoritarian cultures whose collective consciousness is constituted more by myth than reason, where tradition stands in opposition to knowledge and limits areas of enquiry. Indian society has all these characteristics in varying degree.
The only way to fight back is to create a culture of constitutionality. This involves not only spreading the values associated with democracy, but also creating awareness about systems and tools that support and constitute the democratic state. The progressive response to the assault on freedom of expression has been limited to moral indictment. But this will not have any effect beyond the circle of those already converted to the virtue of free expression. One should be able to convince a wider section about the functional value of expression in a democracy as well as for economic growth. This is long-term work of the kind the RSS did over the years, but in the reverse direction. It would be slow work that will have to be done without immediate expectation of political results. It will succeed only if those who believe India’s democracy is worth fighting for are guided by the faith that beneath the ossified structures of repression and divisive identities that pervade of our society, there are still reservoirs of fraternity, rationality and good-will.