Indian liberals are adrift today. Here is a way out
Liberals have become over-reliant on State institutions. That mechanism is gone. They must work with societyUpdated: Oct 21, 2019 20:26 IST
There is confusion on the way forward among Indian liberals. While there are internal differences among those who self-identify as liberals in the Indian polity, the manner of working over the years came to be defined by working through the institutions of the State to influence State policy. This modus operandi is no longer viable under this regime and, hence, the confusion on the way forward.
This modus operandi presupposes a State which is receptive, creating space not just for direct intervention but also fostering a responsive ecosystem through allied institutions such as the judiciary, media, and Parliament. The nature of the electoral mandate since the 1990s — fractured nationally and distributed at the state level — was also favourable. Many levers of the State with varying proclivities and at different levels were available for influence and interference. There was thus a range of liberal activity — mediated and amplified through institutions — directed at influencing State policy. The judiciary supported liberal activism through public interest litigations leading to important advances such the right to food, redress against sexual harassment, among other issues. The National Advisory Council under the United Progressive Alliance governments created institutional space for liberal intervention in national policymaking leading to path-breaking legislations like the Right to Information, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and Forest Rights Act.
While important advances were made, this method of working has made it difficult for Indian liberals to regroup after 2014. The reliance on institutional intermediaries to influence the State has led to poor organisational strength on the ground. As a result, Indian liberals are entirely dependent on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime for space in decision-making. However, since the regime is itself ideologically ranged against liberalism, there is no question of it being responsive. The BJP’s hegemonic presence has squeezed out almost all space for liberal intervention.
At the same time, countervailing institutions have been bypassed, browbeaten, co-opted, or have capitulated. Indian liberals have been thus disarmed of their main arsenal in the political arena. The biggest blow though is self-inflicted. Indian liberalism has so confined itself to the instruments of the State that it is unable to regroup around an alternate agenda in the social sphere.
In fact, it is because Indian liberalism (including liberal political parties) vacated the social sphere that we are unable to counter the Right. On the two basic social needs — identity and community — which have been mobilised by the Right to construct its political majority, Indian liberalism has no mass narrative. At lower levels of politicisation, caste and religion offer the most accessible form of identity and community. The Right has been able to construct potent politics by fusing majority religion (consolidating caste) with nationalism for the electoral majority.
On the other hand, pure liberalism can offer a sense of identity and community only to a rarefied set because it pursues an ever-higher level of actualisation for the individual. However, not only have liberals not attempted to construct an alternative source of identity and community for the masses, they have explicitly ranged themselves against the majority. To the extent that liberals have engaged with the question of identity, it has always been with respect to state policy to protect or advance minority interest: minority/weaker groups vis-à-vis majority/dominant groups or individual vis-à-vis group. Culture is one area where Indian liberalism could construct an accessible mass identity and community, but instead Indian liberals are often found nitpicking cultural practices. It is true that many cultural practices are flawed but they also provide engagement for the masses. Similarly, nationalism fused with majority community provides a heady mix of power, purpose, and virtue. If Indian liberalism is to be electorally sustainable, it will have to engage with these issues instead of ignoring or dismissing them.
In the run-up to the 2019 election, Indian liberalism attempted to construct a majority by amplifying and aggregating various discontents with the State. Majority social mobilisation was acknowledged but not countered. The scale of BJP’s victory showed that social needs trumped economic grievances. Yet there is still one section, which believes that an unremitting focus on economic issues like employment and financial distress is the way forward to oust this regime. This strategy again stems from Indian liberal proclivity to concentrate on the State and is in stark contrast to Gandhi’s liberalism, which played on the dialectic between the social and political spheres. Nor did Gandhi diminish the role of religion in people’s lives constructing instead a more plural national identity. Gandhi’s overt religiosity even if pluralistic, may now seem outmoded; however, with the question of national identity squarely at the centre of our discourse, Indian liberalism must find a response which appeals to the majority.