A few years ago Pakistan’s ever-glamorous political poster boy said to me with an imperious flamboyance typical of him that “Liberals are the scum of Pakistan”.
I was sitting with Imran Khan in the courtyard of his grandiose mansion in Bani Gala with a vantage view of the Margalla Hills. We had shifted the interview outside because of a prolonged power cut that made setting up lights and cameras inside impossible. As I pressed Khan on why these fundamental issues of development, survival and livelihood were not his priorities instead of remaining caught in a tangled web that had enmeshed religion with politics he lashed back with a broadside against liberals — his fiercest critics.
Backing the religious and political orthodoxy of his country Khan accused Pakistani liberals of supporting America’s military intervention against terrorism. “They have criticised me because I have opposed this war on terror. I oppose this criminal bombing, aerial bombing of villages, these people applaud it. They are not liberals. I call them fascists.” He justified the criticism from liberals of him offering namaz on stage during his political rallies. “This is a Muslim country. Most of the people pray here. Am I not respecting them?”
A few months later the acerbic and irreverent Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif argued that liberal and conservative had come to be identified by shallow social markers among his country’s elite. Short skirts, a western education and drinking wine in defiance of the mandatory prohibition were no guarantees against conservatism, he argued. Audaciously mocking in a way that few others in his country would dare to be he quipped, “One never needs to make fun of religion. It makes fun of itself quite easily.”
I always used to come away from Pakistan thankful for the comfort of our own rambunctious democracy and in the assumption that at least we would never have to debate liberal values unlike countries whose very founding principles may have trapped them forever in an existential dilemma.
Yet here we are in 2015 in an India where ‘liberal’ has joined ‘sickular’ in the lexicon of the neo-Right to mock the class of bleeding hearts increasingly seen by some as deracinated and uprooted from their own cultural context. The top Twitter trend in India this week was a spoof on the Indian Liberal. The hashtag #AdarshLiberal sought to puncture what the Right sees as the sanctimonious double-speak of the Left. The ‘liberals’ hit back with their own army of words and retaliated with #AdarshBhakt to parody those with unquestioning faith in the Hindutva school of politics. At one level some of the jokes were pretty biting. The ‘liberal’ was accused of supporting Maoists, attacking Hindu gods “to become secular” and going on expensive holidays to discuss poverty. The ‘bhakt’ was satirised as topping the class in astrology and Vedic science and portrayed as an anti-creativity, anti-gay rights puritan who would “rather join the RSS than the Army.”
You could laugh out loud at a few of the exchanges, cringe at some others, but for most part non-ideological centrists like me who prefer to choose alignments based on issues rather than set positions were left with a sense of dismay. Not just because nuance just got crushed under the weight of trendy hashtags but because the increasingly polarised politics of India that has Twitter debating today could sharply divide our people tomorrow.
In some ways this could be the next logical step in the Americanisation of our politics. We have mirrored them in moving towards a more presidential, personality-centric election backdrop. Now we seem to be aping them in the over-easy categorisations of people as Liberals or Conservatives, including the scathing backlash there against the L-word. The defensiveness the word still evokes was evident in an interview last year of US President Barack Obama by Bill-O-Reilly.
“Are you the most liberal President in US history?” he asked Obama, not meaning it as a compliment. “In a lot of ways Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was,” Obama said, insisting that “I tend not to think about things in terms of liberal and Democrat — or liberal and Conservative.”
But as the recent culture war that erupted in the US over Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reveals — the country is unable to even watch a movie about the Iraq invasion without taking ideological sides. Closer home — the recent debate over India’s Daughter where seemingly the only two choices presented to you were to blindly support the ban or unquestioningly admire the documentary — was illustrative of how compressed and shrunk our capacity for public debate has become.
The furore over the new government in Jammu and Kashmir is another example of the reductionist nature of a media-driven politics. As Indian liberals and conservatives draw battle-lines on social networking sites apparently you can only see the released Kashmiri separatist Masarat Alam as either a hapless victim or a dreaded militant who must be re-arrested.
No one wants to debate the finer points of the common minimum programme drawn up by the PDP and the BJP; no one wants to reflect on the future of one of our most sensitive states. Social media even went into a frenzy over the state flag’s juxtaposition with the national flag at the swearing in, forgetting that Jammu and Kashmir has always had its own flag (and constitution). But a sense of history is the first casualty of India’s new ideological war.
If Noam Chomsky first analysed how mass media was driving “manufactured consent” the tables have turned on that debate. Today social media, amplified and hysterical TV debates and a strange, trivial need for simplistic political labels have ended up creating manufactured dissent instead. The binaries of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and the forced confrontational dialectics around them may make for good entertainment; but they have also made us a less intelligent, less thoughtful people.
Barkha Dutt is Consulting Editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed by the author are personal