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We, the devil & the deep sea

There is no real debate in this country, caught as it is between extreme positions, writes Arnab Mitra.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2009 15:48 IST
Arnab Mitra

Most people will fight shy of casting former US President George W. Bush as a liberal. As clinching evidence, they will cite his “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror” statement.

In India, most people who hold this view consider themselves ‘liberals’. They take great pride in it and wear the label on their sleeves as a badge of intellectual and social superiority. All of them hold very strong views on communalism (they find the idea abhorrent), casteism (only slightly less so) and the identity politics that flows from these. Communal politics should be banned, is their unanimous opinion. They’re ambivalent about, and divided over, caste-based politics and the social justice that it, at least theoretically, promises to usher in.

And most of them are intolerant of any debate on these issues. Try and tell them that while they’re perfectly within their rights to hold the views they do (especially the bit about banning communal politics), others, who may hold diametrically opposite views, also enjoy the same right, and they will break into animated and indignant socio-political explanations. About why they’re right and how the country, poised at the inflexion point between projected greatness and inherited mediocrity, cannot afford the luxury of such pointless political and social fractiousness.

A caveat will be in order here. This is my personal experience based on a small sample — of people I associate with. But my hunch is that it holds true for a majority of ‘liberals’. Voltaire is said to have stated: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But not even the political correctness that liberals take so much pride in will make them concede that the ‘other’ side may also have an argument, however flawed or repugnant that may be.

These have to be met head on — and defeated. Rationally, and on merit. It cannot be anybody’s case that every BJP voter is a potential mosque-breaker and Muslim-baiter. Yet, the party is finding significant support among people who remain firmly in the middle of the political road.

A nuanced argument, accepting that some positions adopted by the liberal-secular camp are flawed, is needed. For example, there can be no questions about the fact that Muslims can legitimately claim to be offended about cartoons on the Prophet. Equally then, Hindus should also be given the right to protest nude depictions of their gods and goddesses. You cannot argue that while one is preposterous, wrong and unacceptable, the other is an expression of artistic freedom and, therefore, permissible. This is just one of several such examples of double standards that are weakening the liberal argument and emasculating the liberal space in the country.

The entire debate, and most of the debaters, seem to be more keen on winning the applause of audiences in TV studios, the admiration of their fellow travellers, and, hopefully, a Rajya Sabha nomination from this or that party than on convincingly winning the argument.

But why blame the liberals alone? They’re only reflecting the intellectual climate of the day. Absolutist, exclusivist positions, aimed solely at winning the loyalty and votes of precisely targeted special interest groups, have become the hallmark of Indian public life, especially as exemplified by our politics.

Nudge. Wink. Abuse. Defame. Incite. And win. That, unfortunately, has become the political credo of our times.

The communist parties, which, ironically, have produced some of the best parliamentarians in India, initiated the slide in standards. In an era when genteel manners were still the order of the day, they often scored political brownie points by hurling vile, if somewhat incomprehensible, abuses at their opponents.

Reactionary (what’s that?), revisionist (huh?) CIA agent (clear enough), running dog of capitalism (whoa there), counter-revolutionary (that’s an abuse?) and thief (ah, clarity at last), were some of their favourite invectives.

The end result? They drove all ‘revisionist’ intellectuals and ideas out of their home base in Kolkata and over the last four decades, turned the city, once the intellectual crucible of India, into a moribund metropolis where failed intellectuals continue to disseminate a sterile political philosophy to an unquestioning and captive audience.

The two Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu (probably the first to successfully market identity politics in independent India) and their various intellectual clones across north India, too, followed down the same path.

Just look around. So much has happened over the last year — the nuclear deal, the economic crisis, the 26/11 attacks and moral policing, to name just a few. How many instances can you recall of the subtle thrust and parry that is the hallmark of a nuanced and mature public debate? Sweeping generalisations, clichéd rhetoric and unbridled name-calling have replaced the clash of rival Big Ideas.

The intent seemed to be on drowning opposing points of view under the din of orchestrated opprobrium rather than on slicing them with the sharp edge of intellectual merit. But most liberals remain oblivious to this requirement. Questions on any part of their argument, or the pointing out of logical flaws in their reasoning, is treated as same-side goals. The battle lines are clearly etched on the ground. You can either be on this side or that. Maybe, just maybe, George W. Bush may yet become an icon of the Indian liberal establishment.

Meanwhile, the debate, and Indian public life, will continue to meander “through the dreary sands of dead habit”.