‘Defending Liberal Democracies’: The Curious Case Of Kavita Krishnan – OpEd


I often find the exercise of going into the motives of why someone takes a major decision with regard to a public stand that they’ve held for a period of time, somewhat pointless. It is unethical to attribute motives to individuals, unless you know them in person and spent quality time together. Therefore, I was slightly surprised when a prominent activist Kavita Krsihnan announces in a social media post, “I requested to be relieved of my posts and responsibilities in CPI (ML) since I needed to pursue certain troubling political questions: questions it was not possible to explore and express in my responsibilities as a CPI (ML) leader.” In an interview to Mathrubhumi she summarized her intentions:

“I don’t intend to have a polemic or a debate with the communist movements in India alone. I think that these are things for everybody who is concerned about the state of the world today. I come from a Marxist background. But I think that we need to think of ways where we are not thinking in formulas. We should be able to admit that we may have been wrong at some point on some things that were right, or that we were right about something, which are no longer right today. I don’t have the answers to these. But I think that at least facing the questions, framing the questions, and being more concerned about how to really create more sturdy democracies, should be the concern today. Because, otherwise we will all be washed away.”

This is a clear statement that Kavita Krishnan intends to take an independent, critical view on issues that matter rather than simply “thinking in formulas.” In the end, for her, it is about “defending liberal democracies with all their flaws against rising forms of authoritarian and majoritarian populisms not just in India but around the world.” There is little or no doubt that authoritarianism and majoritarianism have come in the way of the functioning of democracies everywhere. Illiberal attitudes and aggressive behavior are true of both the left and the right. The thing about ideology – any systematic and seemingly coherent set of ideas that is self-explanatory to the subscriber – is that it allows one to lie to oneself about a lot of things because one has an in-built justification for one’s actions. I’ve seen people who claim to be religious, for instance, justify some of the most unimaginable things on earth. Self-deception makes it easy for them to do it. They’re protected by an argument that they have internalized beforehand to ensure that their conscience is not troubled in any manner.

The same happens to be true of communists, anti-communists, casteists, anti-caste activists, hardcore misogynists, radical feminists, intellectuals from marginal backgrounds who think that they’ve a divine right to brutally attack whoever disagrees with them, members of political parties who act like members of a cult and those overtly passionate about their religious convictions. The most harmful ones are usually those who are adherents of a religion or a political ideology that is meant to liberate humankind in a few weeks, months or years. No one understood the psychology of these kinds of characters better than Flaubert; his novel Sentimental Education (1869) is a powerful critique of the Revolution of 1848 which he compares to a young boy’s obsession for an older, married woman. The infatuation never ends and the love is never consummated; that’s how most attempts to bring about social change through a false sense of idealism end up becoming. The line that separates idealism from fanaticism is a very thin one. Most revolutionary idealism like the kind that we see among teachers and students in universities is often infatuation with a transitory idea and not a real desire to change the world. Rarely do you find a “true revolutionary” that is “guided by strong feelings of love,” to quote Che Guevara.

In Sentimental Education, Flaubert gives a powerful description of a so-called nationalist-revolutionary named Sénécal; he is the prototype of every toxic, cheating, lying, sniveling ideologue that you will ever have come across, irrespective of whether they happen to be on the right or the left. These are people for whom toxicity is not just a form of expression but also a way of life. I had the honor of being attacked and subjected to malicious abuse by quite a few of them in my tenure as a professor at The English and Foreign Languages University, especially when I occupied administrative positions. We owe it to Flaubert to describe such ones – full of themselves and ready to spew venom on all and sundry:

“Sénécal’s convictions were more disinterested. Every evening, when his work was over, he went home to his attic and searched in his books for a justification of his dreams…He was familiar with Mably, Morelly, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Comte, Cabet, Louis Blanc, the whole cartload of Socialist writers – those who wanted to reduce mankind to the level of the barrack room, send it to the brothel for its amusement, and tie it to the counter or the bench; and out of this mixture he had evolved an ideal of a virtuous democracy, something between a farm and a factory, a sort of American Sparta in which the individual would exist only to serve the State, which would be more omnipotent, more absolute, more infallible, and more divine than any Grand Lama or Nebuchadnezzar. He had no doubt that this idea would soon be realized, and anything which he considered hostile to it he attacked with the logic of a mathematician and the faith of an inquisitor. Titles, decorations, crests, liveries in particular, and even exaggerated fame shocked him; and every day his studies and his sufferings added fuel to his hatred of all distinction or superiority.” (my italics)

“The logic of a mathematician and the faith of an inquisitor” – there cannot be a better description of those who dedicate their lives pursuing their own grievances while masquerading them as public causes. This is the reason why it is no simple matter for someone to seek freedom from party positions in order to be able to think clearly without succumbing to formulas. In the most recent news report, Kavita Krishnan says,

“If someone from the left questions the left, these people become very aggressive and they are afraid of confronting my questions…If they engage with my arguments, they might even agree to a couple of points, to prevent that they call me NATO agent, CIA agent, etc…This is a troll army and their behavior is a mirror image of the Sangh…Most of their attacks are on women, there is a kind of sexist tone to their dialogue, they often indulge in personal attacks and are blind followers.”

This is not surprising because social media is filled with the Sénécal types who are not interested in human beings. The “troll army” is about the Sénécals of the world that Flaubert could visualize in the 19th century and those who are the order of the day in the 20th and 21st centuries. You just need to have the logic of a mathematician and the faith of an inquisitor – the rest is easy; you attack in a mercenary fashion and devour people without any respect for the other person’s individuality or humanity. The corridors of history are littered with “blind followers” committing the worst kinds of atrocities against individuals and groups that they neither know nor understand, without blinking an eye.

I personally think that there is something genuine and sincere in Kavita Krishnan’s transformation, if you can call that one. In her own words, “Actually, I have been thinking about this for several years, about the way we fight for civil liberties and democratic rights in India.” The broader context to the fight for change is that, “we must acknowledge the entitlement to the same democratic rights and civil liberties for all people across the world, including subjects of socialist totalitarian regimes past and present.” Wrong has to be wrong everywhere. We cannot criticize what the US does in the Middle East while at the same time be okay with what Russia is doing in Ukraine or China to the Uyghurs or for that matter the violence that we are a part of in our own countries against helpless civilians. 

When two people are pitted against one person, when an armed person – whether a policeman, soldier or a civilian – can use power without reason against an unarmed person, when public reputations are destroyed because it suits someone’s personal agenda, when ahistorical events and statements are treated as facts, when politics is about power and perpetuation of the status quo, when people are silent because they’re afraid to speak, at that point the entire system becomes violent and unlivable. Nothing is more unproductive to a social order than homogeneity; all creativity comes from a profound appreciation of diversity that is true of both people and nature.

Truth, objectivity and consistency in one’s public positions along with an empathy for victims and an understanding of universal suffering both as a concept and a reality is how we evolve as a species. I don’t think democracy is the ideal form of government; at the same time, given human limitations, a liberal democracy which is committed to the principles of social and economic justice, seems to be the most reasonable form that is able to accommodate the thoughts and feelings of a diverse group of people. As Kavita Krishnan puts it, “we are trying to defend whatever flawed democracy we have. And we are also trying to think of what a better, more democratic India may look like tomorrow.” We have to face the questions. We have to frame the questions. Otherwise it is extremely likely that “we will all be washed away.” 

We don’t have to wait for an asteroid from outer space to destroy the species. To allow individuals to perish at the altar of the state or submit unthinkingly to the vision of a leader who wants to lead ignorant masses to the promised land or uncritically follow an idea that is not tested against reality, is enough to push humanity back to the stone age in a matter of a few generations. 

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar from Hyderabad, India.

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