The political-social doctrine of liberalism, that once flourished across major parts of the globe, is in troubled waters throughout the world. Once the driving force of western political and social discourse, the basic moral ground of establishment, the fundamental principle of many constitutions, is becoming overshadowed and overtaken. The quintessential example of this being the defeat of liberal political forces across the globe. Congress, who calls itself a liberal political front, losing the battle to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalistic force of BJP in India; Jair Bolsonaro, who has been repeatedly called a ‘fascist’, ‘authoritarian’ by liberartians, winning majority in Brazilian general election; the victory of Boris Johnson in Britain; Increasing threat of trade war between nations all indicate a slide away from liberalism and contradiction from liberal idea of state. Liberalism across the globe seems to be in a crisis and what makes it even complicated is that the liberals are making it even more complicated.
To know why the doctrine of liberals is failing around the world, specifically in India, it is important to grasp what exactly makes liberalism and what are it’s fundamental principles. Liberalism is more than one thing. Maurice Cranston says, “a liberal is a man who believes in liberty” (1967: 459). Liberalism, a social and economical philosophy originating in 17th and 18th century West, is a idea of liberty, freedom and self determination for an individual, less centralised free government, Laissez-fair capitalistic economy and minimal interfering establishment.
Liberalism is the culmination of rationale social thinking in Western society that promoted a sense of the importance of human individuality, a liberation of the individual from complete subservience to the group, and a relaxation of the tight hold of custom, law, and authority. In this context, liberalism stands for the emancipation of the individual from coercion.
Liberalism, significantly earlier ones, was derived from the social ideology of individualism – propagating for individuality and minimum state interference in individual’s pursuit of Socio-cultural-economic goals – and embedded adversarialism. Liberals have maintained that an individual should be left free and at complete liberty to endeavour and pursuit his own goals, without any social or political interventions. As liberalism propagates individualism – the practice of an individual being left at liberty to pursuit his own goals – as a collective good for society and state.
Classic liberalism derived its values and essential characteristics from the early practice of adversariality. Adversarialism cherished contradictions and disagreements as a notion of growing knowledge base and propagating independent thinking.
Classic Liberalism, as a political doctrine, envisaged individualism as a core to all political undertakings. It recognises government and system of governance, but it also recognises the dangers posed by the misuse of political power and loopholes of the system. Libertarians therefore argue for a system of governance where a central government can protect civilians from harm and ensure law and order under the umbrella of justification.
Liberalism has always been very wary of governments. For them regulations is subversion and limitations is coercion in individual pursuit. Liberals have typically maintained that humans are naturally in “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man” (Locke, 1960 : 287). Liberals have also argued that “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…”. Modern liberals such as Joel Finberg, Stanley Benn and John Rawls being few of them. This might be called, as an Stanford University paper makes it, “the Fundamental Liberal Principle (Gerald F. Gaus, 1996: 162–166): freedom is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would use coercion to limit freedom.”
As in the modern world the liberalism’s chief task is to make the society and government remove obstacles or tackle hurdles that prevent individuals from living freely or from fully realising their potential. Such obstacles include warding off terrorism, ensuring security, eradicating poverty, disease, discrimination, and ignorance.
Story of Liberalism in India and its concept of Indian State
India’s liberalism has evolved, through the years, through the multiple stages of materialism, social reforms, political independence, economic liberalisation and social western adaptations. The idea of freedom, liberty and adversariality has always been present in the Indian culture and critical thinking throughout the history in some way or the other. But the modern doctrine of liberalism is not the continuing ancient philosophical thought rather a western adaptation.
The Indian liberalism is a plain adaptation of its western counterpart with little upgradations in the context of vastly multifarious and complex Indian society. This explains why the ideology has seldom fostered in the Indian hoi-polloi as a successful cultural philosophy. The Indian liberal intelligentsia has murky and meagre understanding of classic liberalism and its founding ideals of individualism and adversariality. Fundamental Principles of Liberalism and the social contract theory, propagated by the likes of Thomas Hobbs, remain in the dark shadows of ignorance for majority of liberartians.
There has never been a clear thought and original understanding in India about this western adapted doctrine of liberalism, which has been the driving ideology in the west in the same time frame. The fundamental trait of Indian society has been resistive to any major ideological shift if it does not resonate with the common masses. While it is true, the Indian society has been tolerant of differences, has promoted healthy arguments and contradictions and has propagated all ways of thinking, but it has rarely been what may be called in today’s term as individualist or liberal. It has always, predominantly, held the belief of putting collective social will over individual thought.
Indian society has shown different shades from being surprisingly liberal to being extraordinarily conservative or from incredibly democratic to being unimaginably absolutist, all at the same time at different places. This is what made us extremely diverse and multifarious and labyrinthine to the ones who were unfamiliar with it. The western liberalism was one such – unfamiliar to Indian culture – ideology which was adopted in India with even lesser implications and murky understanding. Without the proper enlightenment about both Liberalism’s Fundamental Principles and Basic values of Indic culture, it was a gordian task for the doctrine to make it to the masses.
Early liberalism in India took roots during the social reform movements of the middle and late nineteenth century. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Gopal Krishna Gokhle and organisations as Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj carried forward the agenda of reforming the orthodox and conservative Indian society. Banning of old social practice of Sati and bringing in new norms of widow remarriage, all were part of the same movement. The movements, though not classically liberal, were proponents of liberty and gathered a huge mass in India, particularly western and eastern India.
True liberalism has been the dominant intellectual tradition in the freedom struggle and has been the default setting, an en masse social ideology, sprayed across the vast canvas throughout the independence movement. The essential values of liberty, freedom, self determination, became the essential values of almost each ideology during the years of freedom struggle. But the problem was gathering mass support for the ideology as a one, this seldom happened. Almost everyone espoused the basic ideals of liberalism, it was sprayed across a vast canvas, but it was never able gather or unite itself and become a go to force, as with the nationalism. And hence despite being valued and respected, liberalism failed in converting itself into a one powerful political force.
The political influence or reach of liberalism in India has been meagre. With only party that associated itself tooth and nail with it, Swatantra Party, suffering an untimely death. The party reached its zenith when it became the main opposition in 1967 and the very next election it was crushed by Indira’s populist socialist Congress. Communism and Socialism, surfing with the wave of populistic measures, was the go to ideologies till 1991, but there has never been a fundamentally liberal political front ruling the country or even a state.
Post 1991 economic liberalisation, we have theoretically removed socialism from most of our system. Communism is dying its own way, falling in its own grave. And political parties who ruled the country post 1991, have been the most liberal ones. But still liberalism was not able to make its ground. In fact in past 5 years, it has suffered a deep cut with the rise of nationalism. Clouds of uncertainty surrounds the basic values and identity of liberalism in India. It has, as an working social philosophy, degraded and deprecated even further in past years. What explains this fall of liberalism in 21st century India?
What Ails Liberalism in India?
Hypocrisy, one of tangled feather in the enmeshed hat of liberartians, the expert art of deceit, is the one of the biggest driving force behind depreciation of liberals in India. Double standards and contrasting stance involving same issue but different groups and excessive outrage over one crisis but numb silence over the other, has been the trait of liberals. This selective trait and uncontrolled practice of favouritism, has gone under the skin of Indian masses hurting their sentiments. Religious hate crimes, however unfortunate they may be, brings the show time with itself for liberals as they exercise their power of selection wether to outrage or to ignore. Whenever a Muslim was lynched by a Hindu, liberartians transformed into canon guns blasting the fortress of an entire religion of Hinduism. But whenever a Hindu suffered in the hands of Muslim, was lynched on grounds of religion, as in the case of Ankit Saxena, Chandan Gupta, TN Ramalingam, Bharat Yadav, Dr Narang, Dhruv Tyagi, the liberals remained silent and activism was put to rest for those moments. Faced with the need of showing true liberalism over favouritism, the liberal ostrich burying its head under the sand of silence is an unsurprisingly common sight for majority of the people in India.
Entitlement, an unambiguously identifiable character of a liberal in India is his/her elitist nature. Elitism, despite being fundamentally illiberal and undemocratic, has become a consistent preference of liberals. G. Sampat puts elitism as one of “three defining characteristics of Indian liberalism that foredoomed it to failure”, estrangement from the ideal of equality, and the intellectual bad faith inherent in its conception of secularism, being the other two. Subscription to idea of equality, freedom and equal opportunity was supposed to be the essential prerequisites for becoming a liberal, but in India this essentiality was not entertained. Liberals, through their elitism, created a system of exclusion. Liberals camps over a institution of favouritism and elitism, which rightfully creates a feeling of resentment in the hearts of those excluded. The feeling of resentment spawned by this elitism and exclusion —which rapidly morphs into deprivation and injustice the further you move from the urbanite culture – is a fissile material for demagoguery of all kinds. The entitlement also forces or inspires conformity in the social circle, harming the fundamental liberal ideas of adversariality. The supposed harbingers of freedom, the galloping horses of liberty, turned out to be a unconventional fallacy.
Liberartians in India also, surprisingly, espouses and exercises a buffed up form of authoritarianism – the advocacy of strict obedience to authority (in this case the liberal elitist’s collective will) at the expense of personal freedom. They, in sharp contrast to liberalism, promote subversion and artful coercion to any individual, idea or institution challenging their ‘set of rules’. Liberals have made it pellucid on multiple occasions that they don’t, predominantly, promote healthy critique, argumentative behaviour and prudent discussions as they threaten their set rules. And hence this tendency to hide the liberally illicit realities, they go on to exercise authoritarianism, trying to subvert, sledge or change the outcome of social undertakings through quite the illiberal means.
One more ailing limb in the gangrenous body of Indian liberartians is the mindful chicanery – the wanton sabre made from the mendacious metal of spuriousness – that has turned the majority of Indian populace away from believing in liberalism. The mix of chicanery is the artful bending of character and fundamental principles with a little added salt of verbal deception. As in the case of humanising terrorism. When the liberals justified stone pelting by rioters as ‘peaceful protests’, when they hounded the policemen on duty for stopping them, when they used the vulnerabilities of some as the feeding for mobs, and when they coddled to unnecessary humanising verbose in order to legitimise a communal hegemonic poem from Pakistan; their chicanery remained on full display. When the liberals chose to defend the Islamic veiling practice of hijab or burqa, while at the same time ruthlessly attacking the Hindu veiling practice of ghoonghat; they display their mix of hypocritical chicanery and dishonesty to the cause of true liberalism. No matter how much the club of liberals attempt to rationalise it, the fact of the matter is those verbose did more harm to the nation than good. They were prime reasons why a huge majority of people choose not to side with them – essentially choosing other socio-political doctrines. This duplicitousness of liberal club in India has forced many liberal minded people to stay away.
But the biggest reason behind the fall of liberalism in today’s India is their embedded Hinduphobia. Hinduphobia, a term rarely used, is a manifestation of anti-Hindu sentiments and hatred towards Hindu culture. This, a character generally associated with liberals, Islamists and communists in India, is one of the strongest polarising cause for the majority of Indian specifically those ones living in rural India. And in this age of quick information sharing, no ones hatred remains in the dark lights for long and it reaches everyone everywhere. Just few days ago, liberals of India – the supposed defenders of right to religious freedom – were on a overtime turn to demonise the sacred Hindu god Lord Ram by trending #NoToJaiShreeRam on social media (Jai Shree Ram is a Hindu slogan meaning victory to Lord Ram) after the hate crime incident of lynching in the state of Jharkhand. Whenever an unfortunate tragedy occurred instead of standing for human values, secularism and liberalism, liberal class of India took it on a mission mode to hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. Making derogatory remarks about Hindu gods, mocking the Hindus by calling them ‘cow piss drinkers’ (a derogatory remark predominantly used by radical terrorists to mock Hindus) and making fun of almost everything Hindu; has polarised the majority away from liberalism in India.
Future of liberalism in India
Witnessing such a swift fall in the liberalism in India, one would wonder where is the doctrine of liberty heading towards? What lies in the pandora box of time for them? The pattern establishes the answer to such questions. I believe if liberals of India do not adopt and subscribe to the ideals of true liberalism, the time ahead will be more difficult and harsher. The general view about liberals has degraded and it won’t take much time before the general view about liberalism as a Socio-political doctrine depreciates too.
If liberalism is to succeed in India, it has to blend itself with the basic ideals of Indic culture, has to widen itself for the multifarious society of India and needs to promote a sense of responsibility for the betterment of national interests. Liberals need to do away from their hypocrisy, elitism, authoritarianism, chicanery and Hinduphobia and grasp up with the fundamental principles of liberalism. Adversarialism, non-favouritism, secularism and realism must become the prerequisite to becoming a liberal. Liberals in India just need to become truly liberal.
Featured Image: The Economic Times