A moment of reckoning in Indian politics
THE CONCEPT OF liberalism in various mutant forms like ‘left-liberal’ and ‘libtard’ seems to be under attack globally. Originating in America, an idea has taken hold that liberals are effete, elite, hypocritical, unpatriotic, and out of touch with ground-level realities. What is sometimes forgotten in India is that the arguments that led up to independence, the writing of the Constitution and the founding of the modern republic were rooted in liberal political traditions that had by the 1940s become largely indigenous. This is true for many of the intellectual forebears of both the BJP and the Congress, who are claimed (sometimes by both parties) in the pantheon of heroes. The perceived clash between liberals and nationalists, and between liberal values and the history of the Right, is partially illusory. India has had its own forms of liberalism for longer than anyone can remember, and these have the capacity to evolve.
The current world order is being shaken up, and the pieces have not yet fallen into place. We are told we are living in the era of the strongman, and that leaders like Erdo••an in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the United States, Modi in India, Putin in Russia and Xi in China have knocked aside old Western pieties about the role of freedom and democracy in the world order. But is India a plausible part of this jigsaw? I would suggest Indian traditions of government and forms of debate are more powerfully inflected by liberal thought than we realise.
Certainly the world is in flux and nationalism is more fashionable than a generation ago, but this may be less a clash between liberals and nationalists than an inevitable international rebalancing, exemplified by the comparative decline of America and the rise (or return) of Asia, which is accompanied by an assertion of ancestral identity. The mistake of the globalisers and flat-worlders exemplified by Thomas L Friedman was to imagine that older forms of belonging were going to be supplanted by post-identity politics, and that globalisation would lead inexorably to a spread of democracy and internationalism. The hypothesis that the fall of the Berlin Wall would lead to an end to communist rule in China, for instance, was a common mistaken assumption. Ironically, the process of worldwide adjustment now seems to be hitting the United States as hard as any country, and is provoking a profound ideological anxiety.
Donald J Trump has a great talent for articulating unconscious fears; indeed, it may be the key to his electoral success. When he spoke of American carnage and said people were laughing at the land of the free, when he said that assorted Asian powers (first it was Japan, then it was China) were out to destroy the wealth of the United States, when he said Mexican rapists needed to be kept away by a beautiful wall he was going to build, and when he said he would make the bleak, de-industrialised suburbs of middle America hum once more with economic life, he was speaking to the gut. Something had gone wrong, and he had the snake oil salesman’s patter and the outsized populist promise to put it right.
In the US, like many Western countries, the optimism about the future that most people have in India, Vietnam or Cambodia is absent. Remarkably, nearly seven out of ten Republicans say they prefer America as it was in the 1950s, a statement loaded with social and racial freight. In his speech in Warsaw last week, President Trump said: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” But what did Trump mean by ‘the West’, and does anyone doubt it has the will to survive? After the London Bridge attacks in June, when three petty criminals attacked passersby with knives and were shot dead within minutes by police, London continued on its way. The UK had faced terrorism before, and would endure, just as other countries have the resilience to endure such attacks.
THE IDEA OF ‘the West’—meaning a concert of powers that included Russia— was invented in 1815 in the wake of Napoleon and 20 years of devastating revolutionary wars in Europe and beyond. The idea had links to liberalism and nationalist aspiration, and its growth was partly an attempt to make Europe’s political institutions more accountable in order to stave off possible insurrection. Its proponents challenged the arbitrary exercise of state power as damaging to mutual trust between individuals. Programmes of partial representative government spread through Europe in the 19th Century, and to some parts of India at the civic level. Even in autocratic Russia, serfdom was abolished in 1861.
America was the oddity, seeing itself as a colonial extension of Europe, while maintaining a cruder racial politics and the institution of chattel slavery until 1865. Visiting writers were at times disconcerted by the Trumpian folk they encountered across the pond. To quote the imperial historian John Darwin: ‘Europeans were also puzzled and alarmed by American populism— the very wide suffrage (for white men) and the universal tendency towards elective office, even for legal or judicial officials. The English radical Edward Gibbon Wakefield condemned the rootless mobility of American society, its lack of any sense of place, tradition or history.’
Savarkar read Spencer and Mill, and was influenced by Mazzini, an Italian national liberationist who rejected classic Enlightenment principles. Golwalkar, a devotee of Bharat Mata who mistrusted foreign influences, was an admirer of Tilak, who supported political freedom and legislative responsibility alongside immediate self-rule
Long before the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, liberal ideas were current in countries that were themselves under European rule in various forms. Nearly 200 years ago, the young romantic poet Henry Derozio could lament that India was ‘chained’, and radical journals in India wrote of ‘separation’ and the ‘drain of wealth’ by the colonial power. Such thinking was circulating globally, aided by the rise of printing, and it was hard in many cases to say where ideas had originated, and to distinguish between those that were of ‘the West’ and those that had emerged from an indigenous political source. India had ancient liberal traditions. As I have written previously in Open, Hinduism has no set of regulations from which a person can apostasise, no clerical hierarchy that can impose sanctions and no historical tradition of killing heretics out of religious duty. What liberals termed ‘toleration’ was an embedded social practice.
When John Stuart Mill wrote, ‘the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind,’ he was approaching Hindu and Buddhist forms of philosophical enquiry. No surprise, then, that Mill was read down the century by Indian thinkers and politicians of all stripes, from Nehru to Savarkar. Reform movements of varying degrees of utopianism were contagious. Everyone was talking. As the late Cambridge historian CA Bayly wrote of the great Bengali reformer: ‘Rammohan Roy himself hosted several celebrations in Calcutta Town Hall for the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American revolutions between 1820 and 1823.’
Liberalism has always been compromised, in the sense that it began as an exclusive project, but that should not blind us to its malleability as an idea. Women, slaves, non- Christians and non-Europeans have all at times been betrayed by its proponents. John Locke, one of its foundational philosophers, was happy for Catholics to face discrimination since they had ‘blind obedience to an infallible pope, who hath the keys of their consciences tied to his girdle’. Adam Smith put an emphasis on economic freedom that was by no means applicable to all. Lord Macaulay promoted progress and liberal freedoms, even while grossly insulting Indian culture.
In the mid 19th century, Mill depended on civilisational exclusions to justify despotism as a reasonable form of government in India, and famously wrote that, ‘Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.’ Yet the principle remained radical, in terms of individual freedom, as a possible mechanism for ordering society. As Mill wrote in On Liberty, ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’
The political scientist Uday Singh Mehta has observed that it was only after the British Empire gained major territorial control of India that liberalism ‘assumes a paternal posture—an odd mix of maturity, familial concern, and an underlying awareness of the capacity to direct, and if need be, coerce’. Chroniclers now spoke of ‘our Indian subjects’ and ‘our Indian empire’, as if they were on some benign social mission. ‘The possessive pronoun simultaneously conveys familiarity and distance, warmth and sternness, responsibility and raw power.’ Claiming a new ethical basis for imperial rule, writers in this tradition distanced themselves from the earlier military excesses of the East India Company and proposed new systems of cooperation and collaboration.
What is remarkable from this distance of time, in this age of binary politics and virtual insults, is how deeply Indian politicians on nearly all sides engaged in these debates.
Rather than feeling awkward that its heroes were tangential to the freedom movement in the 1940s, and for example opposed Quit India, the BJP might seek to understand the political choices of its claimed intellectual ancestors, and acknowledge the right can also be liberal. The past is what it is: we cannot gainsay the moves other moral actors made at a different time and place
To take a few examples, Gandhi absorbed ideas from far and wide, and met with his intellectual opponents whenever he had the chance. Asked about Western civilisation, he famously said it would be “a good idea”. Like many of his associates, his attitude to the values it claimed to represent was ambiguous. Ambedkar was in certain respects both a constitutional liberal and a socialist. Savarkar read Spencer and Mill, and was influenced by Mazzini, an Italian national liberationist who rejected classic Enlightenment principles. Golwalkar, a devotee of Bharat Mata who mistrusted foreign influences, was an admirer of Tilak, who supported political freedom and legislative responsibility alongside immediate self-rule. He was aided by Joseph Baptista, a barrister and liberal who defended Savarkar in court. When Tilak found himself charged with sedition in 1908, he was defended by the rising Bombay lawyer Mohammad Ali Jinnah. People did not feel they had to agree on everything in order to work together. Liberalism was for a long time the only political show in town, which does not mean to say Tilak did not taunt its proponents: “I have seen Liberals in England come out to India to get into conservative ways,” he once said. At great personal cost, these interactive politicians of the early 20th century gained repeated concessions from the guardians of the British Empire.
Crucially, Nehru was a liberal leader of a romantic nationalist bent who preferred Fabian socialism to Soviet communism. He accepted dominion status as a route to a republic, and along with most of his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly in the late 1940s, supported popular democracy and universal adult suffrage at a time when countries such as Switzerland, Greece and the United States did not allow all women to vote. The Constitution itself is, by any historical standard, a liberal constitution. Nehru’s foreign policy was accommodative, and an at times credulous antidote to great power politics. His interest in rural uplift and panchayats was that of a communitarian liberal in the tradition of GK Gokhale. He believed in women’s rights and in human rights, telling India’s chief ministers in a letter in 1948 that they should be careful not to permit detention without trial since, ‘even in the short run, this is bad for the country, for the people, and for the Congress, which is held responsible’. Even a figure like Patel, though more socially conservative than Nehru, remained a champion of individual rights and of liberty, seeing them as essential for national development. One of his strongest objections to the princely rulers was their arbitrary exercise of power.
Many of those who critiqued Nehru’s Government after 1947 were themselves from a similar social or educational background. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh, was the son of a knight and judge of the Calcutta High Court. The Swatantra Party, which proposed liberal economics as an antidote to socialism or statism, was founded by Nehru’s old friend and colleague C Rajagopalachari.
None of these influences and alliances show that a liberal political settlement was inevitable at independence. A different set of leaders or a different set of events could have derailed the creation of a participatory liberal democracy long before it had a chance to become a fundamental part of Indian identity. Another foundational prime minister might have sought to rule by decree. The attraction of pre-War RSS leaders to fascism and to Mussolini’s organisational skills could have been extended rather than sidelined. Marxism—so intellectually powerful in India from the 1960s to the 1980s—could in other circumstances have become a dominant force rather than fading to the margins.
But that is not what happened: instead, liberals of all parties and of none continue to make the political weather in India, consciously or otherwise. The legacy of the republic’s early leaders offers a coherent grounding for a practical political ideology. When Narendra Modi said in 2015: “Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” he was making a statement that would be illegal in illiberal countries where religion controls state power. The alternative to statements such as this being actively enforced is to tacitly cede power to the crowd, and allow them to determine facts on the ground. Vigilantism in India benefits nobody, and leads only to a breakdown of social trust and an unspecified atmosphere of fear. The BJP could reclaim the contribution of liberalism to its founding pantheon, and place their historic allegiances into a comprehensible modern context. Rather than feeling awkward that its heroes like Hedgewar were tangential to the freedom movement in the 1940s, and for example opposed Quit India, the party might seek to understand the political choices of its claimed intellectual ancestors such as Rajaji and Tilak, and acknowledge that the right can also be liberal. The past is what it is: we cannot gainsay the moves that other moral actors made at a different time and place.
FROM THE START of the 1990s to the financial crisis of 2008, proponents of the international order and neoliberal economics (another spinoff from the original word) thought the shape of the world was certain. Rather, the future is clouded. In many countries, the failure of modernity to deliver all that was promised has led to a turning backwards. To return to the subject of Trump, what did he mean by ‘the West’? It is possible he himself does not know, and it was a civilisational impulse rather than a thought. “We write symphonies,” he said in Warsaw. “We pursue innovation.” His allegiance may be to a conceptual White Christian tribe with shared values of inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness, which extended at one time from Europe to countries that are not geographically part of the West, such as Australia.
Trump either does not know or does not admire many of the liberal ideas that democratically elected leaders often promote, such as accountability, diversity, gender equality, an independent system of criminal justice (he has fired the head of the FBI) and a free press (he wants to pummel the logo to death). Indeed, much of what he says and tweets opposes what are commonly perceived as liberal values. In his Warsaw speech, he used the word ‘strong’ 15 times, the word ‘blood’ in various forms five times, and the word democracy not once, although he managed a reference to “a strong and democratic Europe”. Instead, he asked if the West had the will to survive, placing himself at the centre of a Nietzschean struggle, even if it had to be in splendid isolation. His promise was to go back to the future and ‘Make America Great Again’. In this, he is not unusual. In country after country, the ancestral past appears increasingly attractive.
Political philosophies have always evolved according to circumstance. It would be a mistake for those on the left or the right to dismiss the legacy of liberalism as irrelevant, and hark back to forms of conduct that have little to offer new generations
Many Americans, and particularly those in the coastal media, are suffering from Post-Trump Stress Disorder, shocked that a man who cares so little for their mores, the conventions of democracy and indeed truth itself should be president. But the US is not the first country to have an embarrassing leader. Libyans, Ugandans and North Koreans have had to endure much worse; Belarus has President Lukashenko, who likes to take his pre-teen son to work with him; Bavaria had King Ludwig, whose only interest was in building fairytale castles; and Britain had George III, who according to rumour shook hands with a tree under the impression it was the King of Prussia. India has been fortunate in the regard: no Prime Minister since independence has been demonstrably incompetent.
The real problem Trump faces is his inexperience. At the recent meeting of the G20 in Germany, he was outmanoeuvred by Russia and China and the US was left isolated. Most of his rivals have been in the multi-player game of international politics for decades, and he could not match them. During an earlier meeting with Modi, he jumped at the suggestion that his daughter Ivanka might lead a US delegation to a global entrepreneurship summit in India. As a politician with plenty of experience of dealing with business families, Modi knew which button to press.
All sorts of assumptions about the centrality of America in the international liberal order no longer hold true. It may be that Trump’s successor as US president reverts to the norm, but the change in external conceptions of American soft and hard power will not be reversed. Almost every aspirational country is now seeking bilateral diplomatic arrangements that leave them less dependent on the old concert of powers.
As societies become more varied, and economic and political power shifts away from the West, many people are taking an increasing pride in a real or imagined past. In the 21st century, we are seeing the reappearance of what appeared to be the outmoded or even forgotten rhetoric of self-assertion and exploded theories of historical self-justification. The dead hand of the past has become a live hand. History—or at least revolutionary perceptions of the past—has become an ideological force. Movements built on identity have taken the place of an earlier, largely postcolonial or nationalist impetus. Allegiances optimistically assumed to have been laid to rest by post-World War II modernity, and later by globalisation, have returned with a violence and success that has shaken the political establishment.
Immediate post-independence leaders like Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah and Atatürk believed in social progress, self-reliance and reform of laws and civil codes. ‘The spectacle of what is called religion,’ Nehru wrote in his Autobiography, ‘seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.’ The practice of keeping women secluded, said Hansa Mehta in the Constituent Assembly when debating how India would become a republic, was “an inhuman custom” which should be abolished. “As far as the Hindu religion is concerned,” she said, “it does not enjoin purdah. Islam does. But, I feel that Islam will be better rid of this evil.” Even Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic scourge of imperialists, could say in a public speech that he had tried to reach a deal with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The first thing he asked for,” Nasser told the audience, “was to make wearing a hijab mandatory in Egypt, and demand that every woman walking in the street wear a headscarf.” The audience laughed, and the president played the laughter. “Let him wear a headscarf,” shouts a voice, referring to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. The audience claps. That was half a century ago, and today, no leader would make that speech.
Islamist extremism offers the most threatening version of a revival of an antiquated past, as it seeks to animate the pristine practices of the first three generations of Islam, known as the ‘as-salaf as-saliheen’ or ‘pious ancestors’. Groups like ISIS depend on a recoverable ideal of collective purity before colonialism: with its apocalyptic military ideology, it seeks to eradicate nation states in the name of religious transnationalism. After a military success in 2014, it released a video called ‘The End of Sykes- Picot’, showing a bulldozer mashing up the border between Syria and Iraq. Its magazine Dabiq said it intended to ‘eliminate any remaining traces of the kufri, nationalistic borders from the hearts of the Muslims’.
Abul A’la Maududi, who was born in Aurangabad in 1903, helped to initiate this thinking. Despite knowing little Qur’anic Arabic, and being happiest reading in Urdu, he reinterpreted Islam to fit his notion of a total, revolutionary ideology that could give birth to a new polity. Maududi was reacting to thinkers ranging from Marx to Adam Smith, and was even guided by books like the Guide to Modern Wickedness, written by the English shock jock CEM Joad. Although he was more tolerant of Sufis and Shias than his successors in Al Qaeda and ISIS, he associated popular customs like visiting the graves of Muslim saints with shirk or polytheism, and claimed that nearly everything that had happened since the collapse of Uthman’s caliphate, 25 years after the death of the Prophet, was a disaster. When the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan shot the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012, they quoted Maududi’s thinking in justification, and wrote her a letter: ‘Muslim India was rich in farming, silk, and jute and from textile industry to ship building. No poverty, no crises and no clashes of civilization or religion.’ The writer told her [channelling Macaulay] that the United Nations wanted to ‘produce more and more Asians in blood but English in taste’.
ISLAMISM’S WISH TO recover the values of distant ancestors is not unique; but it is much more violent. In China—assumed by many progressives in the 1970s to have been denuded permanently of all religion—there is a revival of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Qigong and Falun Gong, and the recovery and rebuilding of ancestral and village temples and temple networks. In Turkey, President Erdogan has revived symbols of the Ottoman Empire, and members of his Justice and Development Party like to appear in Ottoman outfits on posters. The reclaiming of the Ottoman past can be seen as a reaction against the modernising legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Turkish TV host Pelin Batu said in 2009 that the glorification of the Ottomans was a response to secularism: “Ottomania is a form of Islamic empowerment for a new Muslim religious bourgeoisie who are reacting against Atatürk’s attempt to relegate religion and Islam to the sidelines.”
In India, members of organisations that congregate around the BJP have expressed a need to learn from neglected ancestral traditions, including alternative science like the supposed use of nuclear devices by the philosopher-sage Kanada in the 2nd century BCE. Computer technology and textual analysis has been used to apparently date events in the Mahabharata, in the style of the Archbishop of Armagh, who deduced that Creation began on October 23rd, 4004 BCE. The national manifesto of the BJP for the General Election of 2009 noted that in ancient times, rice yields in India stood at 20 tonnes per hectare, twice what farmers can produce today using intensive agriculture in the lushest conditions. For some, the desire to recover the past extends to the ‘reconversion’ of those Indians who are not Hindu. In the words of Dr Manmohan Vaidya of the RSS: “Ghar waapsi is a natural urge to connect to our roots.”
In Russia, the former KGB agent President Putin has since the 1990s worn an Orthodox baptismal cross, and been filmed kissing icons, lighting candles and interacting with Russian Orthodox priests. His adviser Alexander Dugin describes “all modernism—the idea of progress, development, the so-called scientific view of the world, democracy and liberalism” as “a Satanic idea that spells a death sentence for humanity.” In a speech last year, Putin stated: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.” This doctrine shows close parallels with Trump’s speeches on the decline of the West, and the thinking of his senior adviser Steve Bannon.
Political philosophies have always evolved according to circumstance. It would be a mistake for those on the left or the right to dismiss the legacy of liberalism as irrelevant, and hark back to forms of conduct that have little to offer new generations. Any society can gain from understanding its ancient traditions of knowledge, religion, custom and culture, and in India these have a connection to everyday life that is probably stronger than anywhere else on earth. In the early days of the freedom movement, political opponents actively connected, communicated and debated. The public conversation did not take place in binaries. Whoever makes a new ideology that takes the best elements of liberalism may find it has deep roots in Indian soil.