How Indian Liberalism Aided The Rise Of The Right – OpEd


India’s Liberal front is floundering in the deep waters of confusion and inaction. The rapid rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has caught it off-guard, creating a political moment characterized by what an editorial of “Krisis” journal has called “the feeling of being caught in a wave, heading somewhere dangerous, yet feeling unable to change its direction.” An important feature of this “image of citizens seized in a right-wing wave” is that it includes “those repulsed by it but unable to find anchors for resistance or to imagine viable alternatives.” What accounts for the failure to construct a strong counter-narrative? In India, the Liberal political class – instead of adapting to the changing realities – has resigned to its tradition of smug righteousness, unwilling to understand the worth of its electoral bromides. 

The volatile shifts of politico-historical tectonic plates in India make it amply clear that the extreme Right emerged from the womb of a defective liberal ideology that slowly became antithetical to the people’s interests. In response to the imperialist depredations of the British empire, a sustained anti-colonial struggle was launched which – to acquire a certain effectiveness – had to foster mass participation and that in its turn required a degree of accommodation of alternative perspectives. Thus, mainstream Indian nationalism developed a relatively unificatory and subaltern stream – though it was kept in check by a Congress leadership of high-caste, middle-class professionals with sizeable properties and business clout. 

Through the dynamic interaction between the overflowing energy of a genuinely grassroots movement and the calibrating control exercised by a conservative domestic elite, modern pathologies of communalism were born. While the oppressed sectors of the independence movement advanced a broadly socialist and secular agenda, the bourgeois nationalist establishment weakened the potency of these programmatic horizons by de-coupling politics from economics. In this way, secularism was emptied of its radical message of the civil equality of denominationally different individuals and communities. 

What was the necessity of this ideological operation? Aijaz Ahmad writes:

“the idea of one kind of equality leads, necessarily and logically, to other ideas of equality: the idea of secularism leads to ideas of political democracy; the idea of political equality leads to the idea of economic equality; the idea of socio-economic equality among men leads to similar ideas about equality between men and women, between individuals of one caste and another, one race or nation and other…ideas of equality in one domain lead necessarily to ideas of equality in other domains; that the logic of such ideas would take us – and should take us – far beyond the conventional confines of democracy or socialism or secularism; that the logic of secularism, the logic of democracy would take us, step by step, to communism itself”. 

After the defanging of secularism, what was left was the half-hearted notion of tolerance – castigated by K. N. Panikkar as a “doubtful” alternative to secularism. In his words: “tolerance is sufferance or endurance and can even turn into tyranny, when exercised by a religious majority. The ‘tolerance’ of Hindutva, for instance, concedes to the non-Hindus a subordinate position, devoid of rights and privileges.” The practical failures of this strategy of tolerance were evident in the bloody partition of the subcontinent that accompanied the transition to independence.

In the immediate post-partition years, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru contained these communal explosions by stitching a social contract dominated by modernist developmentalism. Economic planning and sovereignty, the provision of some basic services for the poor and the illiterate, the principle of affirmative action for Dalits, and subsidies for farming came to be accepted as standard fare. However, actual implementation was lacking. Tanika Sarkar comments: “Most of these policies remained solely on paper, while the poor continued to live their lives without the protection of any safety net whatsoever. Nonetheless, the tenacity of certain principles cleared a space for the contestation of poverty and class exploitation. Rights and equality were given the status of absolute goods, of desirable norms.”

Although the normative consensus around the need for eradicating poverty was politically progressive, the cultural field was not incorporated in this framework. A civilizational discourse of multiculturalism – built on the myth of an enduring Indian nation, from the Vedic times to the modern – inadvertently promoted Hindu religiosity and symbolism. Through his inclusive notion of “unity in diversity”, Nehru constructed the contours of what Anna Guttman has called “nationalist classicism”. It is worth quoting her at length: 

“Nationalist classicism opposes colonial classicizing discourses, however, in that it seeks to conceive of ancient civilizations as alive, rather than dead, in emphasizing the connection between the land’s ancient and contemporary inhabitants…this assertion is double-edged—the proximity of ancient and modern Hinduism might point just as convincingly to the backwardness of the modern form as to the enlightened nature of the ancient. A reliance on classicism can also lead to a distortion of history that privileges certain kinds of identity. In India, the consequences of this are particularly problematic. Though Nehru rejects the British periodization of Indian history and its creation of distinct Hindu and Muslim eras, there can be no doubt that he is especially interested in ancient India. The classical period precludes not only Indian Muslims per se, but Islam itself, and, by extension, their entire way of life. Any insistence on continuity between the Indus Valley civilization and contemporary South Asia inevitably made non-Hindus uneasy.”

Thus, Nehru – in his efforts to highlight the achievements of the colonized people in response to the ideological violence unleashed by the British rulers – adopted a rather static view of Indian history, frequently allowing culture to pervade the entire arena of the country’s history. This was linked to the need he felt for erecting a strong nation. Pritam Singh notes

“Nehru was not a believer…but his almost romantic notion of India’s oneness since time immemorial meant that he equated the religion with the nation. In his much celebrated book “The Discovery of India”, Nehru writes: ‘Hinduism became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion, with all those deep instincts, racial and cultural, which form the basis everywhere of nationalism today’. He held contradictory positions on the Hindu institution of caste, praising it as a great historical institution at one point and considering it outdated at another point but avoiding the subject of untouchability all together. Nehru’s Hindu bias was not religious per se but was closely entwined with his passion for building a strong united India with a highly centralized power structure.”

Though Nehru harbored Hinduist assumptions, these strands of his thought were marginal due to the overwhelming influence exercised by political society. It was only in the Nehruvian era that the Indian state performed an educational and ethical function, trying to spread modern and progressive values, evident in the new textbooks of the period. This ability of the Indian state to transcend the divisions of civil society and propagate the figure of the abstract universal citizen proved to be phenomenal. This was bound to happen because the rugged realities of civil society constitutively shape the texture of the state, which derives its contingent legitimacy from the internal motions of civil society.

Beginning from the 1980s, the Congress party started abandoning the post-colonial ethos of sovereignty and secularism in favor of a more overtly communal politics. Themes of aggressive national unity – arising due to the turmoil in the states of Assam, Kashmir and Punjab – were routinely highlighted and given a religious form by the insistence that unity could only be maintained by Hindus. The 1984 general elections, held after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, were won due to the undertow of Hindu chauvinism cultivated in different regions. When this focus on identitarian specificities combined with the immiserating effects of neoliberalism, the fortunes of liberalism drastically declined. 

Whereas the Right used its network of overlapping fronts and tightly-knit cadre organizations to provide its support base with a sense of political belonging and social coherence, the Liberal camp stuck to its mode of haphazard politicking. Opportunist deployment of religious themes could not compete with the systematic communalism of the Right. Hypocritical adherence to the precepts of democracy appeared argumentatively inferior to the concrete claims of exclusionary glory offered by neo-fascists. In short, the Congress’ incomplete political prioritization of the conservative ideological elements of the anti-colonial struggle was fully carried forward by the Indian Right. Today, we need to honestly acknowledge this dimension of the present-day political crisis so that the battle for democracy and secularism can be rejuvenated. 

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. His articles have been published in many online websites.

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