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Mihir S Sharma: Liberals under Mr Modi

Even under this government, economic policy can be nudged towards creating a more liberal, less majoritarian India

Mihir S Sharma 

Mihir S Sharma

Perhaps the most amusing fallout of the decisive victory of Narendra Modi is that Indian liberals - all three dozen of them - are in confused and sloppy retreat. Mr Modi's triumph is not being seen as merely an election victory; it is, according to some, a repudiation of all liberal principles. Indeed, to complete Mr Modi's victory, and with typical lack of solidarity, those three dozen Indian liberals are all now busy blaming each other for letting the side down.

This is all tripe. The only message from Mr Modi's 282 is that India is not a particularly liberal country. Nor was it in 2009, frankly, when vast increases in per capita income and a general feel-good atmosphere still got the (supposedly liberal) Congress only 206 seats. The thin victories for politically and socially liberal parties in India are won on the back of the numbers game: of alliances, caste arithmetic and candidate choice. They aren't won on the basis of ideology. Mr Modi's 282 seats, on the other hand - that there's the power of an ideology.

It is, thus, unnecessary for liberals to whine that "we" lost because we weren't respectful enough of India's religious sensibilities, for example. This is a suggestion that we be illiberal because we live in an illiberal country. Such suggestions are common among the amoral. They are not useful to the rest of us.

It is also unnecessary for liberals to whine that "we" lost because we were too supportive of the Congress. Anyone who thinks that liberals have stood behind the Congress must have been fast asleep for the past few years, when "we" abandoned it wholesale, helped create the climate that paralysed the Union government for years, and finally welcomed Arvind Damp Squib Kejriwal with open arms as our only possible saviour. The fact is that liberals, everywhere, have to deal with the political formations and possibilities available. If they are uncomfortable with them, they had better work to improve them - not withdraw from the lists altogether. This is common sense, and as such is anathema to most liberals; indeed, the world was gifted George W Bush because many American liberals, disgusted with the Clinton years, failed to grasp this basic fact.

The truth that Indian liberals must accept is that this is not a particularly liberal country. Partly that is because liberals themselves have continually retreated from every fight; because they have not felt the need to speak for progressive, global, universal values at every turn; because they have been overly respectful of tradition, not because they have ignored it.

If Mr Modi's support base is any indicator of his intentions, his government's social interventions are not likely to be particularly progressive. Thus, there is not much chance for Indian liberals - even those who support Mr Modi, speaking loudly and long to cover their confusion at the side they find themselves on - to use the power of the state to charge into the fights they have long avoided.

They should, therefore, concentrate on making India a more liberal country indirectly - through their advocacy of particular economic policies and administrative reforms.

There are four areas in which this can be done: urbanisation, identity, law and order, and equality of opportunity. Each of these is a principle that can be controlled either by authoritarian conservatives or by liberals. Even if the government is run by one of those two alternatives, the policy narrative can still be shaped by the other.

Urbanisation: For most of the past 10 years, this has been a dirty word. The United Progressive Alliance feared urbanisation, the Luddites around Sonia Gandhi insisting that the poor didn't want to stop working the farms. Liberals in the Congress were polite to such farcical claims. This thinking is what got them 44 seats. This is why the urban aspirational, aggressive underclass is Narendra Modi's, heart and soul, at the moment. For liberals to own urbanisation would mean that they recognise that, properly done, it breaks down the barriers of the past, and can build social bonds across caste and class. It allows for entrepreneurship and change of professions; it allows for female independence and the learning of progressive social practices. It is virtuous, and it needs defending. It needs shaping. It needs cities that enhance co-operation and that are inclusive. It needs them to be magnets for the dispossessed; it needs to give these migrants space to be themselves. They will choose, inevitably, to be more liberal than those they have left behind.

Identity: Liberalism everywhere exists in an uneasy cohabitation with identity politics. Ideologically, there's sympathy for the downtrodden or historically disadvantaged groups; practically, those groups asserting their identities usually helps liberal coalitions. In India, Mr Modi has demonstrated the limits of that process. A majority identity that is told it is disadvantaged is a very dangerous thing, especially when it can also delude itself into believing that majority appeasement is not identity politics. Liberals cannot abandon identity politics completely. But they must seek out those policy interventions that empower the individual. They must, for example, see the Aadhaar project as an essential step towards building an India that is mobile and individualistic, one that treats the sarkar as a service provider, not as mai-baap. People who think and benefit as individuals are less likely to be dependent on existing power structures. That could turn them into the building blocks of a more liberal India; right now, when they are offered merely a choice of rigid identities, they are the building blocks of an authoritarian one.

Law and order: In a country beset with private violence, with oppressive hierarchies and casual misogyny, the imposition of law and order is the most liberal of objectives. There is a reason why the party of the Dalits was the only party to work on law and order in Uttar Pradesh. Under Mr Modi, the police might be led to imagine its primary focus will be on detecting saboteurs, on harassing non-governmental organisations and other "anti-development" types. This won't do. Liberals must keep the focus on the state's core objective: rational policing that keeps the peace.

Equality of opportunity: This idea is very close to being associated entirely with the majoritarians. This would be absurd anywhere, but particularly in a country where Dalits and Muslims find it difficult to find housing or employment. The road to righting those wrongs is to talk about equal opportunities. Are schools in Dalit areas as good as those elsewhere? Do government doctors and primary healthcare centres cater more to privileged sections? Is the state - whether as a beat policeman, or as a public sector bank offering interest subvention - offering everyone the same protection and benefits? These crucial policy questions aren't even being asked, let alone quantified. In this climate, a conversation exclusively defending quotas is self-defeating; instead, the focus should be on the many areas where covert discrimination continues to exist and on how that can be remedied. There is no equality of opportunity here - and it must be a liberal project to provide it, not a traditionalist-authoritarian one.

India's liberals need not pack up and go home, or abase themselves before the new majoritarian overlords. They need not turn left; they need not suck up to those they despise; they need merely to make the right arguments. This government is born of majoritarian and illiberal impulses, yes. But it must focus first on the economy - and it has very little intellectual capacity. Argue for rational economic and administrative reform, and you argue for creating a future in which it is the victories for illiberalism that are thin, not overwhelming.

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First Published: Sun, June 08 2014. 21:50 IST