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14 August 2013, Gateway House

Liberalism in the large

Liberalism is a politics of hope, mutuality, compromise and reason. If that has been replaced by a politics of fear, egotism, polarisation and unreason, it is India’s elites that are responsible. How can liberalism be made an object of mass politics in India?


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Liberalism in India has been embattled by two mutually reinforcing tendencies. For its detractors on the Left and Right, “liberal” is a derogatory term. The Left associates it with a defence of property and inequality; the Right associates it with a kind of freedom that is a threat to its narrow conception of culture. But in India more damage has been done to liberalism by its friends, who have reduced its meaning to the “marketization” of all relations, in opposition to the state. They have emphasised its instrumental aspects, wealth and efficiency, at the expense of its complex moral, civic, and psychological claims.

If liberalism is to be credible, and an object of an overlapping consensus, to use American philosopher John Rawls’s phrase, it will have to draw upon a number of elements that mutually reinforce each other.

First, liberalism places the freedom of individuals, their presumptive equality, and claims to be treated with dignity, at the centre of attention. India has made considerable progress in creating space for the de jure recognition of individual rights. But our political culture far too often immobilises the claims of individual freedom in the face of community identity or group coercion, putting at risk assorted values from the freedom of expression to gender equality. We have promulgated the idea that India is a federation of communities and the task of politics is to keep a balance between them.

This idea can have deeply illiberal consequences. It traps individuals in the tyranny of compulsory identities. It readily mobilises state power against individuals in the name of community sentiment. Diversity should be an outcome of individuals freely exercising choices. The Congress cares for diversity, but not freedom. The Right cares for neither diversity nor freedom.

Can this “moral individualism” be convincing? The answer is yes. This is because it draws upon the very idea that communities appeal to in protecting their collective rights. All communities in India have, at one point or the other, invoked the moral claim that they should not be forced to do things they have not freely consented to. All we need to do is extend this courtesy down to individuals.

Second, liberalism has a presumptive faith in citizens. The Indian state has acquired inordinate powers over citizens by setting itself up as a vanguard over society. The state is often needed to secure justice and reform society. But cutting across party lines, there is a more insidious idolisation of the state that is legitimised by a pervasive distrust of citizens. The state knows better than the citizens; citizens cannot be trusted to make choices. And perhaps more damagingly, this distrust of citizens is a license to micromanage them. The state is all virtue, society all vice, so society needs superintendence.

This construction of the citizen as incapable and untrustworthy is deeply entrenched in administrative practice. No liberal society can flourish on the basis of a pervasive distrust of citizens.

Third, liberalism distrusts the concentrations of power, wherever they are found. Nothing has damaged Indian liberalism more than the idea the Left has propagated that Indian liberalism simply replaces the power of the state with the power of large corporations. But temperamentally, a genuine liberalism has been as much suspicious of private monopolies and the inordinate influence of private actors, as it is of state power.

It also believes in what the American political theorist Michael Walzer once called the Art of Separation: the considerations and norms appropriate to one sphere of activity should not contaminate another. Politics has to be shielded from economic power, considerations appropriate to culture have to be shielded from politics, and so on. Not one political party in India believes in this separation, and in the related idea that institutions are not simply instruments of power, but should be governed by public reason.

Fourth, liberals are not radical democrats. They recognise that participation is necessary to secure rights, foster a sense of citizenship, prevent power from becoming remote, and for producing decisions that are legitimate. For this reason they are committed to forms of self-government where possible. For all the talk of decentralisation, none of our political parties think of local government as genuine sites of self-government. They think of them as, at best, instrumental conduits for plans hatched at higher levels of government.

Fifth, the presumption of liberals is towards well-regulated markets. But the state has an important role in protecting the vulnerable and enhancing the capabilities of citizens. The test of such an intervention is whether it enhances the citizen’s ability to participate in the economy, society, and politics, not whether it keeps them tethered to a debilitating dependence.

Unlike the Right, liberals care about equality, because inequality can have corroding civic consequences and militate against fairness. Unlike the Left, they do not believe that a simple measure of equality is all there is to an economic system. But unlike the Left and the Right, liberals, in many matters of economic policy, do not presume to give the same answer to every question even before the question is asked.

Sixth, liberals have a more complex view of the “tradition” question. The Left positioned itself in the vanguard of progressivism by a whole scale de-legitimising of everything past; secularism for the Left was not so much a political ideal as a weapon of cultural assault. The Centre and the Congress were interested in culture only in so far as it was aligned with identity. And the Right was interested in assimilating culture into a stultifying uniformity.

Liberals will defend political secularism and not compromise on basic ideas of individual freedom, equality, dignity. But liberalism has no stake in polarising cultural wars. Like the best moments in the nationalist movement, it believes that tradition can be transcended without making all its animating impulses despicable. Indeed, liberalism cherishes the idea that there are spaces where not everything is reduced to either an instrumental logic of efficiency or a political logic. The human quest for self-knowledge is a complicated one that involves a conversation across generations.

Seventh, liberalism recognises the horrifying social inequalities perpetuated by caste. And it recognises that many of these, particularly in the case of Dalits, will need to be taken into account to build a society that is fair and inclusive. Liberals have been compromised by the fact that while their critique of affirmative action has some validity, their avoidance of the “social” question has left them incapable of addressing the fears of historically marginalised groups.

The fact of the matter is that Indian liberals have reduced their response to the historical legacy of oppression and discrimination to a banal recourse to technocratic language. Education is the answer, we say. Yes, it is. But it is not enough. Where will the ethical imperative of treating people with dignity come from?

Frankly, credibility on this issue comes from behaviour and exemplars, not simple argument. This is liberalism’s biggest historical failure in India. But unlike all political parties, it wants forms of affirmative action that do not trap individuals in their identities, that do not reduce complex questions of discrimination to an indiscriminate formula of power-sharing. Its goal is a conception of citizenship where identities matter less and less to what people get qua citizens.

Finally, liberals have two dispositions as a matter of moral psychology. First, they take on board a complex view of historical causality, where there are more shades of grey, unintended consequences, and strange juxtapositions than the narratives of Left or Right allow. Second, they do not reduce everything to either the question of power, as in the case of the Left, or the identity question, as in the case of the Right. Intellectual argument, questions of culture, or possibilities of self-knowledge and self-realisation cannot be simply reduced to power or identity.

Does this kind of liberalism stand a chance in India?

I believe it does. I also believe that these elements have sustained Indian democracy against the depredations of its self-deluded elites. Liberalism is a politics of hope, mutuality, compromise, and reason. If that has been replaced by a politics of fear, egotism, polarisation, and unreason, it is India’s elites that are responsible. It is its elites that somehow lost the plot, the self-confidence and commitment to higher ideals.

The question in India now is how liberalism can be made an object of mass politics. The question is how to get its leadership to understand what it means. Societies don’t destroy their values and aspirations. Elites do.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is President, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He received the 2011 Infosys Prize for Social Sciences-Political Science. He writes extensively on political theory, constitutional law, society and politics in India, governance, political economy, and international affairs.

This article was written exclusively for Gateway House’s Independence Day special report, ‘India’s Liberal Agenda. You can read more exclusive content from Gateway House here.

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