It is one of the very intriguing questions that keep pestering the Indian liberal circle. Why and how has the Liberalism failed in India? How has the onslaught of Populism affected Liberalism – one of the three most dominant ideologies of 20th century besides Fascism and Communism?
I believe that answers lie in the above questions only. Except for the economic liberalism to a certain extent, Liberalism, as a whole, never, in fact, got its place in India as it got in the West. It is perhaps because the Western Democracies and The World’s Largest Democracy have sprouted from different seeds and have different roots as their supports. The West as we now see has the legacy of two World Wars, countless loss of lives and genocides, immigration, and Civil Rights Movement in its making, and thus the result of these has formed the minds of its inhabitants. India as a democracy today, has borrowed her ideas from former colonizers and her citizenry has her own experiences like Colonization, Partition, Independence, Poverty, Maoism, Caste-based discrimination and Religious tensions etcetera. These scenarios have contributed significantly in the success and failure of Liberalism.
Having experienced much, the West had to promote diversity and inclusion after the havoc of Second World War and thus they actively promoted the idea of “Liberalism”. Even the Soviet Satellites in Europe which were not real democracies had promoted quite a many elements of Liberalism. Owing to high population, abject poverty and high unemployment, people living in India, unlike those in the West, cannot really afford to fall in Liberals versus Conservatives binary. So, I believe that majority of Indians are mentally beyond this twinning and identify as none. Of course, people have their own preferences and biases, but that isn’t enough to categorise them in either. What then are the reasons that India is seen giving a big space to conservative forces? I believe it’s not the failure of the Liberalism but the Liberals themselves. There are various reasons for that.
Many liberals are self-righteous. The feeling of self-righteousness prevents them from understanding the genuine concerns. Their superiority complex antagonizes the people who they deem morally inferior. These ‘inferiors’ see the liberals as the privileged or too modernized for the society with whom they don’t have much in common with. They are sometimes seen as the people either unaware or ashamed of the past (mythical, which might as well be), and the liberals thus end up being the ‘hated other’.
Liberals are confined in a small circle. Almost all the discussions and ideas that are discussed in the liberal circle keep rotating within. This might have something to do with the language barrier between the Liberals and the common people. Liberals, coming from the affluent backgrounds, tend to use English as their language to communicate and dissent whereas a larger population of India don’t speak English and thus are unable to receive those ideas. There’s also a big financial gap between Liberals and common people particularly poor and the lower middle class. Liberals are mostly economically well-off and are socially very segregated from the common people by which I mean economically backward. They don’t even go to same schools or hospitals or hang-out in the same community centres. This gap furthers the lack of ideas and information about the real grievances of the poor. The Liberal ideas, for instance, freedom of speech, won’t really feed a loaf of bread to a poor concerned although a liberal might be meaning well for the poor.
Politics of resentment among the people cannot be neglected. Globalization, free market and the fast-changing world have not only created the unemployed (people) but also the unemployables. All of the three things are promoted by the Liberal ideals. That’s why in the last general elections, we had seen a large people opposing FDI and later pouring the support to the Schemes like Make in India. There was resentment among distressed farmers who couldn’t see themselves as beneficiaries of the Liberal politics and the ideals. Then there are also those who hate the idea of a welfare state. These tax-paying people often feel cheated because of the government’s undue preferences to the underprivileged that are syphoning off their tax-money. A very good example of that can be seen in the overwhelming support in when a certain party promised to scrap MNREGA which guarantees at least 100 days of labour to the poor. A Welfare State is again a liberal idea.
Liberals in India and outside are often deemed to lack the love and commitment to the country. Many are even said to be anti-nationals. But, the liberals do love the country as much as anyone else, if not more. They might question the government which benefits all but they are shown by the Conservatives as opposing the nation. It is the Liberals’ inability to present them as the people concerned about the good of the nation. It is also the lack of Progressive Patriotism among Liberals that can help them counter the Conservatives.
And the most importantly, it is the lack of narrative. While the Conservatives not only offer better economic vision but also bombard the voters’ conscience with quite a many narratives, Liberals fail to do so. With the lack of narratives come a political vacuum. I had a talk with a lawyer in West Bengal who was concerned about the rise of Right-wing in the state. On asking the reason for this sudden rise, he said that it was due to the political vacuum created by the downfall of the Left. In the same manner, it is sheer lack of narrative and the success of Conservatism that helps the Conservatives win.