In a recent article in TOI, Chetan Bhagat lamented the fact that Indian liberals are a disappearing species. And he points out four reasons for the same: 1) Failure to express themselves in a way India understands 2) Obnoxious, holier-than-thou, one-upmanship 3) The lack of focus on changing the Congress leadership 4) Modi-Shah obsession. These seem to be largely correct but these are symptoms, not a diagnosis.
Being a physician, my approach is: if the right diagnosis is not made, the right treatment plan cannot be followed. So this is my diagnosis: Indian liberals are liberals only in name; they neither have the understanding of liberalism, nor its spirit. In fact, they are some of the most illiberal people I have seen.
For what is liberalism? In ‘The Conscience of a Liberal’, Paul Krugman notes that liberalism focuses on political reform primarily to create equity in society and not the other way round. The watershed event for liberals was the New Deal presented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He focused on the poorest, workers with the lowest wages, and equalized their wages with the help of the National War Labor Board. And I am amused at the obvious confusion that Indian liberals form: Narendra Modi is the most socialistic Prime Minister that India has seen since independence. It is almost as if he has put antyodaya, the raising up of the poorest, on steroids. Almost all his policies, including Jan Dhan, housing schemes, power and water policies, support for farmers and rural women, are ‘political and governmental reform to primarily create equity in society’.
Thus, the visceral hatred of Modi that the liberals feel is based not on their liberalism but due a fundamental lack of understanding of what liberalism truly is. Liberalism is not liberal economic policies; nor is it a free pass to be libertarians as they wish to be since they are the cultural and social elites of the society. Nor is liberalism against social conservatism since they could not care two hoots about what the society really is, so far as they are from any connection with the society, its religious and spiritual milieu, its cultural and social needs, its age-old structures and foundations.
Nor can liberalism be shallowness, best exemplified in our society by personages such as RG or Shashi Tharoor. Without the slightest understanding of what Bharat or Sanatana Dharma is, they rely on what they learnt in management courses in the US, or lectures in Aspen, or panel discussions at literary festivals or twitter feeds.
But the biggest challenge to liberalism today is a fundamental lack of integrity. The unwillingness to take a stand, whether it is against dynasty in politics, or to stand up for inconvenient truths like the exodus of Kashmiri pandits, or the degenerate and pernicious activities in Bollywood, or the inconsistency flagrantly displayed to gain votes by milking Sabarimala. A gratuitous giveaway given to the Nehru-Gandhi family, no matter how atrocious or undemocratic their behavior might be, whether it is matters of National Tribune or Bofors or corruption by Vadra or the disrespect shown by Rahul Gandhi towards the entire cabinet of the country, is a glaring contradiction in terms.
Thus, liberalism has become justification for dynasty and cryonism. And has become an instinctive hatred for Modi, even if he accomplishes something great for the country, such as abolition of 370, or allowing farmers the ability to sell wherever in the country they wish to, contract as they please, and no longer depend on doles by powerful middle-men or their minions.
Nor is liberalism anti-Hinduism at any cost. Since they did not deem it necessary to read about or delve deeply into Sanatana Dharma, anything that does not seem like good western etiquette is anathema to them, unless of course it translates into returns at the hustings. Nor is liberalism a blind adherence to the Left since the Left in India is beholden to the interests of another country and that country is surely not India. Nor whatever is left of the communists today has anything to do with idealism or social and economic equality. For, if it were so, they would be cheering for Modi today, like they did for Indira Gandhi, the bourgeois product of confused Nehruvian non-alignment and socialism.
This is the diagnosis then. The Indian liberals are not liberal. Unless they truly become so, all charades and façades are an illusion and condemned to a slow painful disappearance, as they so fortunately deserve.