That our politics is swiftly getting Americanized is evident: personality-centric presidential-style campaigns, ideologically-polarised debates and media-mediated perceptions are the New Normal. A less-noticed but interesting illustration of this Americanisation is how ‘Liberal’—like in the West, has come to be a hotly-disputed construct in India, used almost as a cuss-word by those on the Right of the spectrum.
Because isms of any kind can be constricting and narrowly defined, India’s conservatives and the neo-right want to make ‘Liberal’ the new F-word — so that when someone asks, “Are you a Liberal?” much like the answer to “Are you a Feminist?” — the response is one of Ifs & Buts and a million qualifications and disclaimers. It reminds me of the time that Fox News Television host Bill O’Reilly asked Obama if he was the most liberal President the US had ever had. He meant it of course as an insult. Obama retorted that “what used to be considered sensible is now labelled Liberal.”
American politicians have since used for alternative words as self-descriptive adjectives: ‘Progressive’, for instance, is now considered less loaded than its country cousin, Liberal. Ironically the Liberal corner was once occupied by the American Right, who used it to define their opposition to Big Government; over the years it became a word to demonise those whom Republicans claimed were soft on crime, dismissive of tradition and advocated liberty for all the ‘wrong’ kind of people. The US media, much like what we are going through here, was repeatedly accused of a ‘liberal bias.’
Indian politicians on the Centre-Left have not yet reached the point where they would officially shrug off the ‘liberal’ tag but the divisive disputes over words and ideas that we once took for granted have long reached our shores as well. Till recently, the two words we could use almost reflexively and without much fuss or fury — were “Secularism’ and ‘Nationalism’; now competitive and corrosive politics — by both the BJP and the Congress — have taken both away from us. In the 1990s, LK Advani and others put forward the idea of ‘Pseudo-secularists’ to describe the hypocrisy of the liberal-Left political parties and thought leaders. In 2016, we have seen the advent of ‘Pseudo-Patriots’— a reasonable description of those use nationalism as a camouflage for narrow-mindedness. It could be argued that just like the Congress subverted ‘Secularism’ and reduced it to a hollow political slogan; the BJP has reduced nationalism to nothing more than an electoral war cry. It brings home the need for the citizenry — all of us — to reclaim these ideals back from the politics and the politicians who have defiled them. Especially since the sad truth is that there is no genuinely ‘liberal’ party in India.
The Congress may have wanted to occupy that place and possibly did at the time of Independence but their weak-willed defence of liberal values was exemplified in the position they took on the ‘Mahishasura’ debate in Parliament. As minister Smriti Irani read out what was supposedly ominous about JNU students who worshipped demons the Congress shouted her down. Not one among their ranks mentioned that Mysore derives its name from the mythological villain or that there may be alternative Dalit readings of mythology; instead they claimed that in her repeating what some students were ‘guilty’ of, she was insulting Goddess Durga. From where I sat the Congress only reinforced the Minister’s argument instead of opposing it.
More recently, Himachal Pradesh played a game called ‘Spot-the-Anti-National’ where in a strange reversal of roles the Congress chief minister of the state refused to allow an India- Pakistan cricket match citing the sentiments of military martyrs in the area. On the other side of the trenches was BJP leader Anurag Thakur, otherwise an impassioned and articulate spokesperson for the BJP version of nationalism; but here he was arguing in favour of the Pakistanis visiting. Rahul Gandhi who has spoken out in favour of the JNU students charged with sedition did not reveal whether he agreed with Virbhadra Singh’s diktat. The BJP which has balked at allowing a bilateral cricket series with Pakistan was perhaps stumped by its contradictions. The ‘Patriot Games’ that both played best encapsulated the irony and the doublespeak around liberal politics in India-positions that can be swapped as and when needed and compromised on at will.
Just as the decision by Rajiv Gandhi to unlock the Babri masjid complex and first allow a Shilanyas ceremony there or his move to reverse the Supreme Court decision on alimony for divorced Muslim women would forever haunt the Congress claim to secular politics, so too the BJP’s twisting of nationalism into political contortions will come back to bite it. Already, there are questions over why a ‘nationalistic’ government agreed to deploy the Army to build bridges for a private event hosted by the Art of Living Foundation in Delhi. Similarly, the BJP will have to answer why a hate speech by Raj Thackeray against migrant workers who are fellow Indians doesn’t qualify as anti-national? Or why a robust nationalist government has allowed Vijay Mallya to leave the country? Or how it’s in the nation’s interest to announce quotas after arsonists and looters openly defied the law in Haryana?
In the meanwhile, we the people wait for a political party that will stand up unequivocally for the right to eat what we want (Notice the muted Congress position on Beef politics), love whom we want (No party has moved to legislate on gay rights), dress as we wish, go out when we like and have the space, as proud Indians, to define our patriotism and our relationship with our State on our own terms. Like the Americans, our political right is getting shriller by the day and our Centre-Left opposition is putting up an unconvincing and tentative fight, ridden by its own contradictions and pulled down by the weight of its historical baggage.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective.
The views expressed are personal.