Lessons for our Liberals

Narendra Modi’s thumping victory shows that the traditional forces of liberalism and the Left are facing annihilation. Liberals need to develop a new language of politics to stay relevant

Firstpost print Edition

Eight years after the grim terror of Fascism descended on Italy, the great scholar, journalist and Communist activist Antonio Gramsci wrote these words from the prison cell that would become his grave: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Progressives of various hues and the Left—at least, those of them given to a certain dramatic sensibility—have long seen the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as marking the rise of an authentic Indian Fascism. That hasn’t come about just yet, they would, of course, insist but traditional forces of liberalism and the Left are facing annihilation. The annihilation has been inflicted not by the state, but the treason of the very classes the broad Left claims to represent.

For both the Left and its opponents, it is vital to understand how this has come about, and what is to be done about it. All Republics, whomsoever happens to lead them, rest on classical, liberal values, among them, democracy, equity and the rule of law. Irrespective of the party in power, opposition is essential to ensure these core values are upheld.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian socialism rapidly degenerated into what the scholar and Firstpost columnist Abhijnan Rej has wryly called “Fab-Indian socialism”: a certain kind of aesthetic identification with peasant tradition; noblesse oblige for the poor. For, at least, three post-independence generations, the Nehru-Gandhi family stood at the centre of a kind of a Newtonian universe of entitlement with concentric circles of intimates, poor cousins, retainers and yes-men.

Even a cursory glance at key figures in everything from government, universities, the law, culture to media will show the emergence of a new caste defined by shared educational institutions, access to state resources, and English. It’s hard to think of other democracies where children of top government servants inherit golf club memberships—clubs built on extraordinarily valuable city-centre land.

Modi’s attacks on dynasty are successful not because people hate Rahul Gandhi but because of the rage against this closed dynastic elite, which has proved more durable than the Congress itself.

Liberalisation, slowly forced on India’s ruling élite by the inexorable workings of the global economy, presented the Congress with the challenge it would finally prove unable to mediate. The 1990s saw the emergence of entrepreneurial élite, whose wealth soon led them to seek cultural and political power—power the Congress system simply could not concede.

From the late 1980s, the Congress sought to renew its legitimacy by unleashing the toxic identity politics that was eventually to devour it: recall Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi promised “Ram Rajya” at a rally in Faizabad in 1989 and then dispatched his home minister Buta Singh to perform Hindu rites at the site of the Babri Masjid. India’s new élite, though, had begun a long, slow march away from the Congress system, and soon, larger social blocks would follow.

The anti-Muslim impulse in Indian politics—a sentiment that predates the colonial era, comforting school textbook fantasies notwithstanding—undoubtedly fuelled this rightward turn.

Indian Muslim clerics’ call to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, asserting their religious sentiments, was more important than constitutionally guaranteed free speech; the Congress’ dithering on Islamist terror and the ugly experiences of millions of Indian diasporas in West Asia: all these fuelled the politics of hate. But hate politics doesn’t provide anything like a full understanding of the process, which has transfigured Indian politics.

To understand where we are, we can usefully draw on Gramsci’s notion of an interregnum between the old and the new, where all manner of morbid symptoms appear. Inside of a generation, India has seen an epic reordering of the most fundamental elements of its social order. From authority structures within the family to the status of women, little has escaped the relentless forces unleashed by capitalism.

Fear, as a consequence, has emerged as the defining idea of our times. As Indians negotiate the opportunities that have emerged with the rise of capitalism, they have also become painfully aware that there are new perils to be negotiated. Illness, events in distant markets, too much rain, too little rain: a million dangers can instantly destroy tentative, first-generation prosperity.

Traditional institutions, notably the family, no longer provide a safe harbour. Scholar R Datta Choudhury noted, in 1957, that “the traditional joint family remains, by and large, the most common characteristic of Indian family”. Inside a generation, the joint family only survived “in a nominal or skeleton form”, demographer JP Singh said as the 21 century dawned.

India’s anaemic state has proved unable to address the strains. Author and counterterrorism expert Ajai Sahni has noted that the United States federal government has 889 employees per 100,000 population; India’s Union government has just 295, overwhelmingly non-executive. Local and state government employees in the United States number 6,314 per 100,000; Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472 and even Gujarat, 1,694.

Modi’s core success has been persuading people that he can ensure order in fraught times. This order might be based, as his critics contend, on a kitsch Hinduism, and fantasies about the past that have little or no linkage of reality. Like other politicians of the Right across the world, though, he has successfully invoked tradition as a guide through a world that seems fragmentary, even incomprehensible.

Imperfect as his developmental record might be, the Prime Minister’s developmental initiatives—toilets, gas, electricity—have given a critical mass of Indians something no work-for-food or income-support scheme can: dignity.

To élite Indians, Modi’s garish clothing might appear camp, even déclassé; a Smriti Irani, reviled as the Karva Chauth aunty, might be nothing but mock-worthy. But to millions of Indians, they signal that their anxieties are legitimate,and their aspirations legitimate.

Rahul and his core advisers, exemplars of the caste the Congress built, have failed to speak to the fears and hopes of this new India because they cannot: without exception, they are citizens of a world which no longer exists.

For their sake and that of the country, Liberals need to begin developing a new language of politics.

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