Political debate in India is passionate, vociferous, and high-decibel. Ideas often get lost in the thickets of rhetoric and name-calling. Wild generalisations are par for course, especially when caricaturing the positions of your opponents. The result is toxic partisan fist-fight, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Within this context, the face-off between Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta on one side and Ashutosh Varshney on the other is a rare event. There is a genuine desire to engage, as Varshney notes: "They find my positions on Modi implausible, but worth engaging. I appreciate the invitation to an intellectual exchange." [ You can read them here.]
The point of contention is the importance of minority rights. Where Mantri and Gupta flay 'left-liberals' for supporting identity politics as a form of cultural redistribution of power, i.e. socialism, Varshney touts the US model of hyphenated citizenship -- Indian-American, Chinese-American et al -- that protects its minorities without imposing a unitary national identity.
Setting aside their differences, the debate serves a more important purpose: to underline the false ideological debate that blinkers our political discourse today. It also points to a very real consensus that could possibly emerge if our national conversation was not polarised by a toxic partisan fistfight. If our most heated arguments were over ideas and not Modi v Rahul, UPA v NDA, Congress vs BJP et al.
But such a consensus would first require jettisoning some of our most precious, and laziest assumptions.
One, voting preferences do not equal ideological commitments.
Varshney does a valuable service, for example, by calling out the disingenuous use of the term 'left-liberals.'
Except for a few nostalgic souls in the National Advisory Council, those still marching to CPM tunes, those admiring Arundhati Roy’s travels to Naxal lands and a few more, no one today is against markets… Gupta and Mantri lend the term “left-liberal” considerable imprecision. They see many more economic adversaries than there actually are. Very few oppose markets today. The bone of contention is whether markets alone would lead to mass welfare, or state intervention is also required. Liberals like me find markets necessary, but not sufficient. India needs greater play of market forces, but the government’s welfare, regulatory and public-goods functions remain.
To claim, as Mantri and Gupta do, that "in India, it is rare that those who bat for "secularism" come out in strong support of economic liberalisation" is downright preposterous. An Arundhati Roy is not a Pratap Bhanu Mehta is not a Rahul Gandhi.
To flip that critique on its head, many of those who identify themselves as conservatives or centre-right support -- as Mantri and Gupta do -- "state welfare programmes... targeted to those in economic need." When it comes to those oft-touted tribals and suicidal farmers, one fallout of the anti-corruption movement is the revelation that large majorities oppose the massive land grab underway in the name of development, irrespective of their opinion on BJP or Modi. Conversely, many of the secular upper class who don't like Modi do indeed aspire to a Shanghai-style model of development, but are averse to his long record of Hindutva politicking.
Yet much of this reality gets lost in the heat of partisan rhetoric, where it's easier to caricature the other side: Muslim-hating Modi fanboys vs Naxal-loving communists.
Two, democracy requires individual freedom not group-based rights.
Mantri and Gupta raise the question: "Should certain groups have special rights over and above the individual rights that all citizens enjoy in a free, democratic India?" The answer, of course, is a resounding no. But in course of explaining their response, they claim -- with little evidence -- left--liberals have "long argued for the primacy of group rights over individual rights, and the 'protection' of minority interests" thereby assisted "the state in slowing India's natural evolution from a discrete salad bowl to a composite, dynamic melting pot".
This is especially absurd given that an entire spectrum of liberals mobilised to fiercely oppose Shah Bano as a travesty of gender injustice. And there are many on the left spectrum who strongly support the institution of a Uniform Civil Code, and entirely agree that such "identity rights pander to conservative elements that keep communities backward in the first place."
Varshney rebuts by advocating the American version of hyphenated identities contrasting it with France's more rigid model: "There are no hyphenated identities in France. Muslim-French, Jewish-French, Arab- French are not categories France allows; all have to be French in an undifferentiated way."
But what he doesn't raise [here, at least] is the critical difference between the United States and India. Where in the US cultural rights reside with the individual, here they are awarded to communities. And an American's cultural rights are always secondary to that other bedrock of democracy: Equality. A Muslim student may wear her veil or a Sikh policeman his turban -- unlike France -- but Mormons as a community, for example, do not have the special right to polygamy. There are no separate laws determining inheritance or adoption or alimony based on faith or ethnicity. There is no special penal clause created specifically to shelter a specific caste against offensive speech. Everyone has to play by the same rules, and enjoys the same protections.
Finally, it's not about 'law and order' but the 'rule of law.'
"Liberals of all hues should advocate for strengthening the law-and-order machinery so that no violence — irrespective of its antecedents — goes unpunished," write Mantri and Gupta. And they're exactly right, except I would make that 'Indians of all hues."
There's a tendency on the Hindu right, for instance, to get worked up about rape, crime, or corruption as a symptom of lawlesness, but to give Modi a pass on Gujarat.
Riots are a breakdown in law and order, more so in India where they occur -- irrespective of ethnicity or location -- with the active collusion of the political class. Whether politicians merely look the other way or send in cadres of hired goons, riots represent the grossest violation of the duty of the democratic state, which is bound to protect its citizens irrespective of caste, class or religion. This equally holds true when we tolerate army excesses in Kashmir or minimise the killing of Kashmiri pandits or offer mitigating excuses for Naxal violence. It is the basest example of identity politics when we give greater primacy to the identity of a victim or the accused than the crime.
Moreover, the entire debate over rights becomes moot within a broken judicial system that cannot guarantee equal protection to its citizens. And without a functioning and healthy judicial system, we will never make that transition from a nation of votebanks to a democracy of free citizens. The path to change lies through the judiciary not elections. The movement to decriminalise homosexuality, for example, relies on the fundamental rights of all citizens, and the willingness of the Supreme Court to recognise them -- not the whims of politicians. Similarly, so should the push to eliminate the Muslim Women Act, or the ban on cow slaughter and voluntary conversions.
When Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to political expediency with Shah Bano, he overturned a Supreme Court decision, and sold out the legacy of his very liberal and secular grandfather who fiercely opposed the continuance of faith-based personal laws in post-Independence India. It is our courts that must in the end step in to undo this and other wrongs, and fulfill the democratic spirit of our Constitution.
The very notion of modern democracy is founded on the idea that the individual is the bearer of fundamental rights. That we have not thrown off the yoke of colonial era identity laws is a symptom of our electoral politics not our ideological commitments, right or left. Given our immense diversity and multiplicity of identities, we can never become a melting pot a la France. But to be a true salad bowl we must first become a nation of individual citizens, multi-hyphenated, yes, but also equal in the eyes of the law.