How Indian liberalism helped the rise of the right – OpEd – Eurasia Review
The Indian liberal front is wading through the deep waters of confusion and inaction. The rapid rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party caught him off guard, creating a political moment characterized by what an editorial in the “Krisis” newspaper called “the feeling of being caught in a wave, heading to a dangerous place, but feeling unable to change direction. An important feature of this “image of citizens caught in a right-wing wave” is that it includes “those it pushes back but unable to find anchor points for resistance or to imagine viable alternatives. âWhat explains the failure to build a strong counter-narrative? In India, the liberal political class – instead of adapting to changing realities – resigned himself to his tradition of blissful righteousness, unwilling to understand the value of his electoral bromides.
The volatile changes in politico-historical tectonic plates in India make it clear that the far right has emerged from the bosom of a flawed liberal ideology that has slowly become antithetical to the interests of the people. In response to the imperialist depredations of the British Empire, a sustained anti-colonial struggle was launched which – to gain some effectiveness – had to foster mass participation and which in turn required some degree of accommodation of alternative perspectives. Thus, mainstream Indian nationalism developed a relatively unifying and subordinate mainstream – although it was held in check by a congressional leadership made up of high-caste and middle-class professionals with important properties and commercial clout.
From the dynamic interplay between the overflowing energy of a genuinely popular movement and the calibrating control exercised by a conservative domestic elite, modern pathologies of communitarianism are born. As the oppressed sectors of the independence movement pushed forward a largely socialist and secular agenda, the bourgeois nationalist establishment weakened the power of these programmatic horizons by decoupling politics from economics. Secularism was thus emptied of its radical message of civil equality of individuals and faithfully different communities.
What was the need for this ideological operation? Aijaz Ahmad writes:
âThe idea of ââa kind of equality leads, necessarily and logically, to other ideas of equality: the idea of ââsecularism leads to ideas of political democracy; the idea of ââpolitical equality leads to the idea of ââeconomic equality; the idea of ââsocio-economic equality between men leads to similar ideas about equality between men and women, between individuals of one caste and another, of a race or a nation and on the other hand … ideas of equality in one area necessarily lead to ideas of equality in other areas; that the logic of such ideas would take us – and should take us – well beyond the conventional limits of democracy, socialism or secularism; that the logic of secularism, the logic of democracy would lead us, step by step, to communism itself â.
After disobedience to secularism, there remained only the timid notion of tolerance – castigated by KN Panikkar as a âdubiousâ alternative to secularism. In his own words: âTolerance is suffering or endurance and can even turn into tyranny, when exercised by a religious majority. The Hindutva’s “tolerance”, for example, grants 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 years immediately following partition, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru contained these communal explosions by forging a social contract dominated by modernist developmentism. Economic planning and sovereignty, the provision of some basic services to the poor and illiterate, the principle of affirmative action for Dalits and agricultural subsidies were accepted as standard tariffs. However, effective implementation was lacking. Tanika Sarkar comments: âMost of these policies have remained only on paper, while the poor have continued to live their lives without the protection of any safety net. Nonetheless, the tenacity of certain principles has opened a space for the challenge of poverty and class exploitation. Rights and equality have been given the status of absolute goods, desirable standards.
Although the normative consensus around the need to eradicate poverty has been politically progressive, the cultural domain has not been integrated into this framework. A civilizational discourse of multiculturalism – built on the myth of an enduring Indian nation from Vedic times to modern times – inadvertently promoted Hindu religiosity and symbolism. Through her inclusive notion of “unity in diversity”, Nehru constructed the contours of what Anna Guttman called “nationalist classicism”. It is worth quoting it at length:
“Nationalist classicism, however, is opposed to the discourse of colonial classicization, in that it seeks to conceive of ancient civilizations as living rather than dead, by emphasizing the link between the ancient and contemporary inhabitants of the earth … this This claim is double-edged: the proximity of the ancients and the modern Hinduism could show just as convincingly the backwardness of the modern form as the enlightened nature of the ancient. Resorting to classicism can also lead to a distortion of history that favors certain types of identity. In India, the consequences of this situation are particularly problematic. Although Nehru rejects the British periodization of Indian history and its creation of separate Hindu and Muslim eras, there is no doubt that he is particularly interested in ancient India. The classical period excludes not only Indian Muslims per se, but Islam itself and, by extension, their entire way of life. Any insistence on the continuity between the Indus Valley civilization and contemporary South Asia inevitably made non-Hindus uncomfortable. “
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 permeate the entire arena of the country’s history. It had to do with the need he felt to build a strong nation. Pritam Singh notes:
âNehru was not a believerâ¦ but his almost romantic notion of the unity of India from time immemorial meant that he equated religion with nation. In his very famous book âThe Discovery of Indiaâ, Nehru writes: âHinduism has become the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion, with all those deep, racial and cultural instincts which form the basis of nationalism everywhere today â. He has held conflicting positions on the Hindu institution of caste, praising it as a great historical institution at one point and viewing it as outdated at another point, while avoiding the subject of untouchability. Nehru’s Hindu bias was not per se religious, but was closely related to his passion for building a strong and united India with a highly centralized power structure.
Although Nehru harbored Hindu assumptions, these strands of his thinking were marginal due to the overwhelming influence exerted by political society. It was not until Nehruvian’s time that the Indian state exercised an educational and ethical function, trying to disseminate modern and progressive values ââevident in the new textbooks of the time. This ability of the Indian state to transcend the divisions of civil society and propagate the figure of the abstract universal citizen has proven to be phenomenal. This was to happen because the harsh realities of civil society constitutively shape the texture of the state, which derives its contingent legitimacy from internal movements of civil society.
From the 1980s, the Congress Party began to abandon the post-colonial ethic of sovereignty and secularism in favor of a more openly communal politics. Themes of aggressive national unity – resulting from the unrest in the states of Assam, Kashmir and Punjab – were regularly brought out and given religious form by the insistence that unity could not be maintained only by Hindus. The 1984 general elections, held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, were won thanks to the backlash of Hindu chauvinism cultivated in different regions. When this focus on specific identities combined with the impoverishing effects of neoliberalism, the fortunes of liberalism declined drastically.
While the right used its network of overlapping fronts and tight-knit cadre organizations to provide its support base with a sense of political belonging and social cohesion, the liberal camp stuck to its haphazard way of politics. . The opportunist deployment of religious themes could not compete with the systematic communitarianism of the right. The hypocritical adherence to the precepts of democracy seemed argumentatively inferior to the concrete claims of exclusionary glory offered by the neo-fascists. In short, the incomplete political prioritization by Congress of the conservative ideological elements of the anti-colonial struggle has been fully echoed by the Indian right. Today, we must honestly recognize this dimension of the current political crisis so that the battle for democracy and secularism can be rejuvenated.