Originally Published in The Pioneer. Also read on the Pioneer’s website a comment by my good friend Sanjiv Sabhlok expressing his vehement disagreement with my column.
As a political constituency, the Indian liberals perhaps do not add up to a significant voting bloc for even a municipal ward election. Yet these liberals today exercise an influence on opinion within the English language media by a measure that is markedly disproportionate to their actual size as a voting bloc. It is in order that we attempt to give some definition to this label, ‘liberal’, for it is routinely used by a wide variety of individuals in an opportunistic manner. Its use is less about indicating where the individual stands within the political spectrum, but rather more about marking distance from others who the individual believes is ‘illiberal’.
Therein lies the political paradox of the Indian liberal, who is usually quite clear and vocal about what he or she ‘doesn’t want’, while not being able to quite put the finger on what he or she ‘wants’.
There is of course the Left liberal who usually is quite clear what he or she wants, ranging from non-governmental activism to lobbying the Government from inside through the National Advisory Council. The Left liberal is a savvy political animal —unapologetic about his or her political agenda and sharp on his or her political preferences.
The Indian liberal, on the other hand, is a naïve political animal, far too elitist to indulge in the organised political activism of the variety the Left liberal routinely does. The Indian liberal is also far too allergic to the world of Indian politics to meaningfully engage and lobby the Government in any impactful way over policy. Hence much of the Indian liberal’s hand- wringing happens mostly within Op-Ed columns and occasionally in the television studios. Much of the Indian liberal’s hand wringing of late occurs within the social media.
So, how exactly do you know the Indian liberal when you see one? It usually is not very difficult to tell the Indian liberal from the Left liberal. The Indian liberal believes he or she stands for economic freedom in a manner markedly different from the Left liberal. But there is a curious paradox here too. The Indian liberal, as much as he or she may loathe the Left liberal on economics, is usually found seeking the Left liberal’s ‘approval’ on politico-cultural issues.
In fact, it is not uncommon to find the Indian liberal hop on to the Left liberal’s bandwagon to trash talk who they both would like to label the ‘Right-wing’. The Left liberal’s loathing of the so-called Right-wing is sheer politics, for the institutionalised Left brooks no challenge to its monopoly on opinion- making in Delhi. But the Indian liberal’s loathing of the so-called Right-wing is a bit more complex, owing in part to a perceived intellectual superiority and in part to fear of being tainted by association.
Hence, the other paradox of the Indian liberal, who would rather want to be found in the company of the Left liberal than in the company of the ‘Right-wing’, notwithstanding the Indian liberal’s so-called allergy to all politics.
So what is the relevance of this abstract discourse to the current political environment? A curious phenomenon has begun to take shape in the past few weeks within the opinion bubble in which most Indian liberals dwell. A fear has set in among some of the liberal commentators that cosmopolitan urban India is drifting back to the 1990s to nurture sympathies towards the BJP, despite it being politically incorrect and un-cool to do so by liberal intellectual standards. The fear has manifested itself in two kinds of opinion columns making it to print in recent weeks. In the first variety of opinion columns you have commentator after commentator arguing ad nauseam why Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi can never become India’s Prime Minister. Some columnists do so citing a mere six reasons while others seek comfort in 5,000-word long dense prose. Then there is the second variety that is a bit more pragmatic, coming to terms with the reality that the idea of Mr Modi may be inevitable. Both varieties of course never fail to remind us why they loathe both the Congress and the BJP.
This brings us to the third paradox of the Indian liberal that claims to loathe both the Congress and the BJP and the crass politics of the regional parties. The Indian liberal who exercises such disproportionate influence on opinion-making within the English language media oddly has no political representation. Perhaps more politically disadvantaged than even the so-called weaker sections paradoxically, making them a fit case for political affirmative action.
The Indian liberal’s misfortune is such that today he or she has to seek refuge in psychological denial. The denial is most manifest in the Indian liberal’s fond hope for a Nitish Kumar premiership — routinely expressed in Op-Ed columns.
Page 79 in the book titled, A Convenient Action, written by Mr Modi, has a very interesting photograph. The photograph is from a public event in January of 2007, commemorating the ‘Dedication Ceremony of the 1450 Megawatt Sardar Sarovar (Narmada) Hydro-electric project’.
In that photo-op are a number of political personalities including several BJP and NDA Chief Ministers standing shoulder to shoulder. Most prominent and proximate of course are Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Mr Modi.
This photo-op from 2007, a full five years after the 2002 Gujarat violence, says much about the political opportunism that barely masks personal ambition while being passed off as ‘secularism’ to some and ‘liberalism’ to some others.
Only one leader in political office today across India is on the record for expressing a belief in less Government, in private enterprise and in profit. That leader is not Mr Nitish Kumar. This brings us to the final paradox for the Indian liberal in the inability to tell friend from foe, the so-called faith in ‘economic freedom’ notwithstanding.
But yet, the Indian liberal must still be engaged, for he or she continues to exercise disproportionate influence on opinion-making from within that bubble, blissfully unaware of where his or her enlightened self-interest lies.