The US Left and Indian democracy | Analysis
The nullification of Article 370 has prompted the Left-Liberal segment of the American establishment to denounce Indian democracy as “majoritarian”. The charge is fascinating because it says more about the motives and fate of American “progressivism” than it does about Indian democracy.
For much of the 20th century, Left-Liberals believed that social norms and economic inequalities had left individuals powerless in spite of the individual and political liberty granted by law. Hence, they sought to foster human capabilities through education and redistribution, with a view to making individuals “truly” free.
When electorates preferred markets and individual choice, Left-Liberals shifted focus to a different kind of powerlessness. Now, the concern is for groups whose identity and interests are endangered by virtue of their being “powerless” minorities. Thus, to take a well-known example, “Happy Holidays” is preferable to “Merry Christmas” as the traditional greeting “alienates” non-Christian minorities in America.
Ideas do not gain traction unless they speak to some aspect of the human condition. To wit, contemporary progressivism is to be lauded for sensitising majorities to the ways in which they may injure minorities. At the same time, its single-minded focus on minorities has some troubling implications.
One is that progressives are prepared to shout down as illegitimate any law that affects a minority — even if that law has democratic backing and legal sanction. But if democratic procedures and institutions are rejected, then how to settle disputes over what is a legitimate course of action? Will The Washington Post issue decrees?
Another implication is the valourisation of those identities and interests better able to articulate their victimhood. Thus, the abrogation of Article 370 is vigorously criticised as “erasing” Kashmir, but little concern is shown for iniquities that sheltered under the benign term, for instance the ethnic cleansing of Pandits, discrimination against women and Dalits, gross corruption, and the blight of dynastism.
The third implication is more worrying still. Because they wish to “ally” with “powerless” minorities, Left-Liberals confront an uphill battle against majorities. They respond by seeking to divide or delegitimise the majority. Thus, the fervent cry that a Hindu is a member of a caste, class, community, ethnicity, region — anything but a Hindu. Thus, the charge that Hindus that bring religion into politics are “fundamentalists”, but minorities that do the same are “expressing” themselves.
These shortcomings are why Indians, who are instinctively moderate, should be wary of the Left-Liberal critique of our democracy. To sweepingly declare every grievance of the majority as illegitimate and unworthy will not foster peaceful co-existence. It will only redouble those grievances, and set the stage for the rejection of democracy itself, as the rise of the Far Right in Europe makes it evident.
Challenging this American Left-Liberal narrative will incur two costs. The relationship with the diaspora will suffer. At universities, where Left-Liberals dominate, Indian-Americans learn about Godse and Godhra, but the grievances that motivate Hindu nationalism — for instance, the Moplah Rebellion or the destruction of temples — are ignored or even ridiculed as the pet peeves of a rabid fringe. Thus, it is that an Indian American becomes a “South Asian” and then a “person of colour” who denounces “Islamophobia” but is barely aware of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits.
This breach may heal itself. As in England, where British-Indians have drifted away from the Labour Party, Indian-Americans may have second thoughts when they realise what progressivism means for them in practice. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in the West is the canary in the coalmine.
One subset of the diaspora poses a more intractable problem. Indian-Americans comprise a tiny fraction of the American population, and they cluster along the coasts, where the Democrats dominate. For the foreseeable future, then, we should expect that Indian-American politicians wishing to climb the ranks in the Democratic Party will be only too keen to prove their distaste for “majoritarian” India. India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar’s ambushing in Congress is an indication of what is to come.
The graver problem, then, is that Indian diplomacy, especially under the Bharatiya Janata Party, will have to wade into partisan politics. ‘Howdy Modi’ is a harbinger in this respect. Critics worry that Democrats will respond by punishing India. But recall the sanctions and vilification that Democrats unleased in 1998 after the nuclear tests. Two years later, Bill Clinton was high-fiving members of the Lok Sabha. Why? Because India too has cards to play. It can widen its base of support in the US by pressing ahead with economic reform. It can also complicate the US’ efforts to contain China by supporting Asian solidarity against a meddling West.
Hopefully, none of this will come to pass. An ideology that ranges itself against issues that a majority of citizens feel strongly about will always struggle in a democracy. The Labour party’s recent crushing defeat ought to give American progressives pause. But should they seek continued confrontation then, for the reasons indicated earlier, we should not shy away from replying that, when there are disagreements over minority rights, it is for our procedures and institutions, and not The New York Times, to arbitrate what is and is not a legitimate course of action. How we, in India, should assess the health of these checks and balances will be the subject of a subsequent essay.